Board examines the future direction of news coverage

The Japan Times Media Advisory Board, whose members were appointed last year, met for the first time on Oct. 17 at the newspaper’s office in Tokyo to offer their views on its reporting over the past year and how to improve the paper’s content.

Identity of The Japan Times

The discussion revolved around what only The Japan Times could offer and what it should be providing to readers given that it is now distributed along with The New York Times International Edition.

The advisory board members agreed the articles published in the paper should show a more in-depth look at Japan’s social structure, values or Japan’s presence on the global stage.

Martin Fackler, former Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times, said in an environment where breaking news is easily accessible on the internet, The Japan Times should, through its coverage, convey the message: “‘No one can do it in English like we can.’ In that case, that determines what you put on page one.”

He suggested, however, that the paper should have more consistency in selecting stories for the front page, which would reflect the newspaper’s identity.

“If you’re trying to be the source of information for people interested in Japan, then you don’t need the Brussels terror attacks on page one,” Fackler said, referring to the Brussels airport and subway suicide bombings in March.

The Japan Times extensively covered the terrorist attacks in which two Japanese nationals sustained injuries.

Azby Brown, an author and expert on Japanese architecture, design and the environment, pointed out that some coverage of local news does not necessarily respond to the needs of foreign readers. If articles were accompanied by explanations of why the topic is a hot issue in Japan, it would be more appealing to a foreign readership.

Opinions were split on whether to place stories related to Japan’s show business on the paper’s front page.

Kiyotaka Akasaka, president of the Foreign Press Center Japan, criticized the selection of some front-page stories.

“The front page should have some style,” he said, referring to a story about former baseball star Kazuhiro Kiyohara, who was sentenced for possession and drug use, titled “Famed slugger Kiyohara arrested for possession of stimulant drug.” It was published on the front page in the Feb. 4 issue. (jtim.es/bdkr306mU4K)

“I’m sure we expect The Japan Times to be of high quality, and on the front page, we’d like to have some serious news rather than the news flash” that appears in weekly magazines, he said.

Haruko Satoh, professor at the Center for the Advancement of Research and Education Exchange and Osaka University, disagreed that show business-related coverage should be dismissed, given that such stories are widely followed and read in Asia. But she said it requires contextualization.

Fackler, who now works as a senior researcher at the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, suggested using a “nut graph” to explain the significance of the news in a more global context. That would help convey information as to why the story is newsworthy and draw more attention from overseas.

“You’re doing it essentially for a foreign audience … I think you need to tell somebody in the U.S., the U.K. or Taiwan why they should give a hoot about Kiyohara.”

Fackler also gave another example, referring to an obituary for Japanese synthesizer pioneer Isao Tomita published on May 9 (jtim.es/9F5t306mUeQ) He is important because his album topped Billboard’s classical music chart in 1974, and he was the first Japanese to be nominated for Grammy Awards, Fackler said.

Exclusive coverage

The members also gave examples of outstanding reporting in the past year that differentiates The Japan Times from other English-language newspapers in Japan.

Fackler said he had been impressed by community page stories, including the one about Jerome Chouchan, regional president of the Belgian chocolate company Godiva, as a good example of engaging with the expat community in Japan (jtim.es/mQJm306mUjI).

He also noted “Dancing from Dakar to Tokyo, my brother Baye” (jtim.es/U82h306mUp1)

He suggested The Japan Times should have more profiles of expats with outstanding achievements or Japanese contributing to the international community. It is better if readers would expect these kind of articles thinking, “Who’s JT profiling this month?”

Brown highly evaluated an informative article on Japan’s complex political issues, such as an FYI story on the Japanese Communist Party published on May 10 (jtim.es/V2yV306mUtP)

Brown praised exclusive coverage of extensive contamination on an active U.S. air base in Okinawa by Jon Mitchell, which exposed the consequences of military installations in terms of political and environmental issues (jtim.es/EXIe306mUxa).

“That’s a very good example of The Japan Times being able to play to its strength,” Brown commented. “It’s a kind of story that provides a very important window to important issues.”

He suggested the paper should publish more investigative reporting.

Brown also mentioned coverage by industrial designer Jasper Morrison who provides “very informed commentaries” about Japanese design, as well as articles by Colin Jones and Debito Arudou as informative sources for hot-button issues such as discrimination and useful information for expats living in Japan.

Fackler and Akasaka, meanwhile, praised coverage of social issues such as growing hidden poverty that was highlighted in an article titled “Hidden poverty growing under Abe, particularly among young and single mothers” published on April 27 (jtim.es/Q7hC306mUCB)

Akasaka said it may be better to use more infographics to illustrate the trends in similar stories.

Independent journalism

The advisory board pointed out that The Japan Times should pursue independent, unconstrained journalism rather than follow the lead of other domestic media.

Fackler said that the paper should take an initiative to set agendas on controversial issues such as the thyroid cancer in local children and young people following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster or the progress of constructing an underground ice wall to stop contaminated water from the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant from flowing into the ocean.

“For local media here, the agenda is so often set by bureaucracy,” Fackler said. “(The Japan Times) can tell us something that no one else is telling us. It seems that local media has largely pulled back from Fukushima coverage except for official messages. And that is a real chance” for the paper to take a leading role, he added.

Brown echoed Fackler by saying that the paper should become more critical and discuss controversial issues.

“The Japan Times can probably afford to make enemies in the political and economic establishment, because I think it is less beholden to them from the beginning. So it should be easier to speak truth of power in that regard. I encourage the paper to do that,” he said.

Satoh suggested The Japan Times could serve as a platform for young scholars, researchers or NGO representatives in East Asia to represent their regional voices, given that many countries in Asia are faced with severe press freedom restrictions.

“Regardless of how our press freedom at the moment is in danger, it doesn’t compare to anything like the kind of restrictions they have in South Korea, China or Southeast Asia,” she said. “I really think, within the next couple of decades or so, press freedom will seriously become an issue everywhere. I think The Japan Times could have much more of a global voice.”

Akasaka, meanwhile, said the newspaper could also be used to cast a spotlight on rising stars in academia and other fields such as the fashion industry, whose talent deserves more worldwide recognition.

World news coverage

The advisory board members also evaluated The Japan Times’ coverage of world news.

Asked if there is any noticeable overlap of stories with The New York Times, Brown said he occasionally sees the same articles on the same subject. “But that doesn’t strike me as a big problem,” he added.

However, Brown warned that the paper’s world news coverage should not focus only on U.S.-related matters.

Akasaka said that The Japan Times should strive to keep a good balance of positions when running a story that touches on bilateral relationships, as opposed to the opinion page where the author’s point of view is clearly reflected.

Meanwhile, Satoh said stories on the world news page should reflect Japan’s foreign policy priorities, such as its African development policy, which can be compared to that of other countries, such as China and South Korea.

“You don’t want to take the government position, but at the same time, you do want to run a commentary on what the initiative might be. That’s definitely useful information,” she said.

Olympic coverage

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaching, The Japan Times asked advisors to share their opinions about its coverage of the Rio Olympics and Paralympics in August.

All advisors agreed that Olympic coverage should present original viewpoints that grab international readers’ interest.

“Sports coverage is important, but I wonder, for foreign readers, if Japan winning six medals today (is really significant),” Fackler said. “What would (international readers) want to read in The Japan Times about the Olympics? I’m not saying there is a single answer to that question, but you have to think about it.”

Satoh also said that The Japan Times needs to differentiate itself from other media in Japan, pointing out that reading the paper’s Rio Olympic coverage was “like reading Japanese newspapers.”

Brown echoed the two by saying that The Japan Times should discuss the Olympics from more comprehensive standpoints in connection with political and social issues rather than focusing on the results of the competitions per se.

“There is this habit in the Japanese media, whether it’s a disaster or accident or the Olympics, to focus on Japanese people who are involved … and that I think is a weak point,” Brown said. “Within the Japanese society, of course, we understand why it’s inward looking in that regard. But I don’t think that is an appropriate point of view for the international audience.”

For The Japan Times to stand out from other domestic media, Fackler suggested to increase the number of articles that focus on the backgrounds and life stories of individual athletes, especially when the presence of Japanese nationals with cross-cultural backgrounds has become increasingly prominent.

Meanwhile, Akasaka said he appreciated increased attention for the Rio Paralympic Games, calling it “probably one of the most important developments for Japan.

“Until these games, media attention was very scant; not many people were interested in the Paralympic Games. But this time, television and newspaper coverage of the Paralympic Games was much bigger. And I think this trend will continue” for Tokyo Olympics and beyond, he said.


Martin Fackler

Fackler is journalist in residence and senior researcher at the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a Tokyo-based think tank.

Over the past two decades, he has worked in Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai for the Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, Associated Press and Bloomberg News. Most recently, he has written for The New York Times, which he joined in 2005, serving first as business correspondent and then as Tokyo bureau chief from 2009 to 2015.

In 2012, Fackler was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for his and his colleagues’ investigative stories about the Fukushima nuclear crisis stemming from the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. He is also the author (in Japanese) of the best-seller “Credibility Lost: The Crisis in Japanese Newspaper Journalism after Fukushima.”

Fackler has a master’s in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana and a master’s in East Asian history from the University of California, Berkeley.


Haruko Satoh

Satoh is a professor at the Center for the Advancement of Research and Education Exchange (CAREN), Osaka University, and lecturer at Osaka School of International Public Policy (OSIPP).

At OSIPP she runs the Reinventing Japan Project on Peace and Human Security in Asia sponsored by the education ministry together with six Southeast Asian and four Japanese universities.

She has worked at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and the Gaiko Forum. She has studied at Mount Holyoke College, Johns Hopkins University SAIS-Bologna Center and Cambridge University. Satoh’s research interests are state theory and nationalism in Japan, and Japan-China relations.

One of her recent publications appears in the compendium “The New Power Puzzle in Asia: Japan, China and India” (co-authored by Arpita Mathur) in “Rise of China and India: Implications for the Asia Pacific,” edited by Amitabh Mattoo and Mallika Joseph.


Kiyotaka Akasaka

Since 2012, Akasaka has been serving as the president of the Foreign Press Center Japan, a nonprofit foundation that provides assistance to foreign journalists.

Appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Akasaka, a career diplomat, held the position of U.N. undersecretary-general for Communications and Public Information from 2007 to 2012.

Prior to that, he was the deputy secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development from 2003 to 2007.

Akasaka served as Japan’s ambassador to the U.N. in 2000 and 2001. He was born in Osaka in 1948.

From 1997 to 2000, he served as deputy director general in the Multilateral Cooperation Department of Japan’s Foreign Ministry. He was one of the top negotiators in the Kyoto Conference on Climate Change in December 1997.

Akasaka graduated from Kyoto University and Cambridge University in the U.K.


Azby Brown

Brown is a widely published author and authority on Japanese architecture, design and the environment.

Considered a leading expert on traditional Japanese wooden architecture, he has also done extensive research and publication about the sustainable environmental practices of Japan during the Edo Period. He is also an expert in Japanese compact home design.

As founder and director of the Future Design Institute at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology, he conducts joint research on the neurobiology of the hand and hand-based creativity and communication.

Since 2011, Brown has been a core member of Safecast, a highly successful global volunteer-based organization devoted to developing new technology platforms for crowdsourced environmental monitoring that embraces open-source and open-data methodologies. He is the lead author of the “Safecast Report” on the consequences of the Fukushima disaster.

Brown has lived in Japan since 1985.