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Japanese media’s hits and misses of 2017

by Philip Brasor

The term “fake news” was used in so many different situations this year that it no longer describes an agreed upon concept but rather anything you don’t agree with. This is why the U.S. press has had a difficult time making sense of its president’s conflation of cynical policy aims with his own deranged self-esteem.

Aside from players with axes to grind on either side of the ideological divide, outlets such as The Washington Post managed to keep facts in sight and as a result did some of their best work in years.

Matters aren’t as problematic in Japan because the mainstream media here rarely acts in an adversarial capacity. Japan’s masukomi (mass communication) is on the same power continuum that runs through the country’s political and economic worlds, but the fact that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has bet the nation’s well-being on the Manichean delusions of U.S. President Donald Trump should make all Japanese reporters and editors with a conscience worry about the state of their souls.

Topic of the year: North Korea

Case in point. The Kim Jong Un regime provides a villain for all occasions. Its evils and stupidities are easily mocked because Japan has no diplomatic relations with, or economic stake in, the country. There is, of course, the Japanese who were abducted by North Korea, not to mention their families, who believe their loved ones are still alive and languishing on the other side of the Sea of Japan, but generally the Japanese government has controlled the story to its own benefit, and the media goes along because the narrative sells publications and boosts ratings.

Now that Kim has an atomic bomb and missiles that might hit their targets, the story isn’t funny any more. Especially with he and Trump playing chicken. The latter can afford the bluster because he thinks he will wipe out Pyongyang before any retaliatory consequences reach American soil, but before that South Korea and maybe parts of Japan could be reduced to smoking piles. The Japanese media hasn’t come to grips with this possibility (neither has the South Korean media), probably because it’s unthinkable, but they could at least ask the government about it, and why they’ve ceded the matter to Donald Trump.

‘Nonpersons’ of the year No. 1: Yasunori and Junko Kagoike

Two scandals dogged Shinzo Abe. Both were education-related and connected personally to him, but due to the peculiar qualities of political influence in Japan, the press (mostly The Asahi Shimbun) and opposition parties had a hard time proving direct relationships between Abe and the favors granted to the two institutions involved. One institution is a new veterinary department for Okayama University of Science that will be operated by a close friend of the prime minister and the other is a Moritomo Gakuen elementary school that initially had his wife, Akie, as its honorary head and which received a huge discount for land it purchased from the government.

The hapless couple behind the elementary school — Yasunori and Junko Kagoike — staked their fortunes on access to major public figures such as the Abes and former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada through calculatedly shared political principles, and they insist the Abes were involved in the project. They were arrested for fraud five months ago and have remained in jail and under wraps ever since. Consequently, the scandal ran out of steam and reporters have stopped covering it.

‘Nonperson’ of the year No. 2: Shiori Ito

Japan has been slow to join the worldwide anti-sexual harassment movement sparked by The New York Times’ exposure of Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator. Shiori Ito, a young reporter who says she was raped two years ago by a well-known veteran journalist, has become the standard bearer for whatever the movement represents in Japan, but her story was mainly reported by overseas press.

Though sexual harassment is a problem in any work environment, it is significant that Ito’s alleged attack took place in the world of the mainstream media, since it’s exactly the kind of lurid story the Japanese press loves but, in this case, is reluctant to or is under pressure to not cover.

Quote of the year: “Kono hage!”

There’s no direct way to translate former Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mayuko Toyota‘s clandestinely recorded attack on her aide as he was driving her somewhere.

The most honest interpretation would be something like, “You bald-headed idiot!,” though that doesn’t convey the unhinged looniness of her anger, which is funny and scary at the same time and may explain why Toyota was not returned to office in last fall’s Lower House election while other scandal-tainted politicians were. Or was the reason because there’s still some sort of additional stigma attached to women who act out in such a way? Or that there are just a lot more sensitive balding voters than we thought?

Most valuable player No. 1: Isoko Mochizuki

The veteran Tokyo Shimbun reporter caused a sensation last spring when she attended a press conference at the prime minister’s residence — not her normal beat — and hounded Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga about the aforementioned veterinary department scandal, in the process schooling fellow journalists who usually lob softballs at such events.

Predictably, there’s been reports that Mochizuki has been banned from future Cabinet press conferences, but her performance still resonates. Of course, to her there was nothing extraordinary about it. She just did what she’s supposed to do.

Most valuable player No. 2: NHK

The public broadcaster’s regular bulletins are safe and boring, but its in-depth news coverage has become provocative.

The nightly series “Close-up Gendai” has done some impressive work recently, especially on the topic of renewable energy, and the “NHK Special” documentaries about the Japan-U.S. security alliance, in particular revelations about nuclear weapons kept on Okinawa, were thorough and clear. I’d easily forgive them for the poky 9 p.m. news if they made all their documentary archives free on demand. After all, I pay for it.