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In the middle of August, NHK ran a feature on its evening news show about a high school girl as part of its coverage of child poverty. The girl’s name and face were revealed in the report, which described how her educational future was at risk because of her financial situation. In one scene, she was in her room practicing how to use a computer with only a keyboard, which her mother had purchased for her, because she couldn’t afford a real PC.

Almost immediately, people began complaining on Twitter and other social media sites: Was this girl really poor? Behind her viewers could see anime-related products, and she seemed to watch a lot of movies, according to her own Twitter feed. Even politician Satsuki Katayama of the Liberal Democratic Party got into the act, requesting an “explanation” from NHK and saying that the girl could easily buy a used computer if she saved more, which wouldn’t be difficult if she stopped eating expensive lunches.

This “poor-bashing,” as the Asahi Shimbun called it, has become common in Japan, what with greater attention being paid to the widening income gap and more press coverage of people living below the poverty line. Although it’s a phenomenon evident in other countries, Japan seems to have less sympathy for those who reveal themselves as being poor. In a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey conducted in 2007, 38 percent of Japanese respondents said that the government is not responsible for helping people who fell behind financially, the highest portion of any country polled. The United States was second at 28 percent.

Some Japanese people have a stereotyped view of poverty. To them a person isn’t really poor unless they are hungry, wear shabby clothes and live in hovels or on the street. What’s missing from this world view is the idea of relative poverty, which takes into consideration the standard of living in the particular place where a person lives. Absolute poverty is defined by the World Bank as living on less than the equivalent of $1.25 a day. By that standard, 900 million people on the planet fall into the category, almost all in the developing world. However, due to progress being made in those countries, the standard will soon be increased to $1.90 a day.

Except for the homeless, there is almost no one in Japan who qualifies as living in absolute poverty, and the government defines relative poverty as a function of income that takes into consideration wages, taxes, social security payments and living expenses. According to these criteria, 1 in 6 Japanese live below the poverty line, but if you compared these people to the “poor” of 50 years ago, you would see obvious differences in material circumstances.

Invariably, the anti-poor sentiments evinced by the NHK report redound on the media that cover child poverty, in turn affecting how they approach the issue and, last month, the Chunichi Shimbun was forced to investigate some pieces that were found to contain exaggerations and staged situations. The series was about “new poverty,” and the investigation targeted two articles, which were published in the Chunichi Shimbun in May and in affiliated newspapers such as Tokyo Shimbun in June. The series covered such problems as young people who are unable to pay back student loans and seniors who are not receiving pensions for whatever reason.

One of the articles in question centered on a 10-year-old boy whose single mother ran a mobile bread-vending business. The boy went door to door to sell his mother’s wares. After the article appeared in the Chunichi Shimbun (but before it appeared in affiliate papers), the editor in charge of the series learned that the photo accompanying the article had been staged. It showed the boy in front of an apartment door taking money in exchange for bread. Apparently the reporter and the photographer couldn’t get a good enough picture so the reporter himself stood in a doorway and acted the part of a customer, though only his hand is seen in the shot.

Then, in August, the editor discovered that another article in the series — focusing on the school-age daughter of a man who couldn’t work due to illness, which was written by the same reporter — was filled with fabrications regarding bills the family had to pay and how its straitened circumstances interfered with the girl’s education. Eventually the reporter admitted he had made up some things because he thought the story needed a more dramatic portrayal of the girl’s hardships; otherwise the editor might have rejected it. “I used my imagination to make the story stronger,” he said, according to a summary of the investigation published by the Chunichi Shimbun.

Yasuhiko Oishi, a professor of media studies interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun for a related feature, said part of the problem was that all of the subjects in the articles are pseudonymous. Most subjects of stories about poverty don’t want their names publicized because they think it will lead to discrimination, but that makes it difficult to fact-check the stories. It also makes it easier for reporters to stretch the truth.

The Asahi Shimbun also interviewed Chieko Akaishi, who, as head of the nonprofit organization Single Mothers Forum, is frequently sought out for quotes about rising poverty. Although she appreciates the fact that the media is earnestly covering this topic, many of the reporters who contact her want more “tragedy” than what she can give them.

“They are always looking for stories that are immediately understandable,” she said, but the truth is that poverty comes in many ways and forms. Also, TV reporters need visuals, and sometimes what they see doesn’t look “poor” enough, so they manipulate settings and camera shots. Obviously NHK didn’t do that in its report on the girl with the paper keyboard.

The scandal illustrates how a certain image of poverty feeds the prejudice and vice versa, since reporters don’t think they can be convincing on poverty unless they present it in a way that conforms to expectations. By doing so, they only reinforce such expectations.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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