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“If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

— Attributed to Benjamin Franklin

At a recent Kyoto symposium, the issue of sontaku journalism was cited as a major problem affecting public trust in the media.

Raising the issue were Isoko Mochizuki, a Tokyo Shimbun reporter, and Sanae Fujita, of the University of Essex School of Law/Human Rights Center. Mochizuki became famous last year after irritating Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration with persistent questions related to preferential government treatment for Kake Gakuen, a school operator with close ties to Abe that runs an Ehime Prefecture veterinary school. Fujita writes about freedom of expression issues related to Japan and has worked with the United Nations on this subject.

Both were clear about the dangers of sontaku journalism in Japan today. “Sontaku” doesn’t readily translate into English. In the context of Fujita and Mochizuki’s presentations, it can be taken to mean journalism deeply entangled with those in power. Much debate on the issue of sontaku journalism references Tokyo-based reporting by national media. Yet, Mochizuki and Fujita, perhaps inadvertently, raised questions that also have local media implications.

Anyone familiar with Japan’s local newspapers knows they can, when they put their minds to it, become aggressive and pursue stories in a way their national media cousins do not. For example, prior to the Kake Gakuen scandal, we had the saga of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal in Osaka.

The Osaka media were in a frenzy over the story, which involved the Prime Minister’s wife Akie. Yet from Osaka’s standpoint, the Tokyo-based mainstream media initially dragged its feet, not agreeing about the national significance until forced, thanks to the political and local media pressure, to treat it as a huge story.

Other issues are pursued by local journalists less worried about upsetting Tokyo types and more concerned about angering local readers and viewers for merely repeating superficial national media views on a given subject with huge local implications. The Hokkaido Shimbun’s huge volume of reports on the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement and agriculture was often more thorough and common sense-oriented than national media stories that repeated pro-TPP talking points.

Elsewhere, the Fukui Shimbun and the Kyoto Shimbun ran, and continue to run, articles on nuclear power that are more critical and comprehensive than national media reports. And, love them or hate them, Okinawa’s newspapers retain a strong local identity and stubborn independence.

Then there is Mochizuki’s paper, the Tokyo Shimbun. It’s a favorite of foreigners who read Japanese and have grown disillusioned with national papers. In 2015, it won the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan’s publication of the year for “excellent coverage of nuclear issues, political scandals and corruption.” Ironically, although based in and covering the nation’s capital, Tokyo Shimbun is owned by the Nagoya-based Chunichi Shimbun.

Nor do local media always follow the national media line in the editorial pages. Tatsuro Hanada, a social science professor at Waseda University, noted last year in a book on Japan’s local media that in 2014, major national newspapers were divided over a collective self-defense bill. But 39 of 42 local newspapers editorialized against it, likely forcing more debate and compromising over the final bill than would have otherwise been the case.

Obviously, sontaku local journalism at the local level is also a problem. Osaka-based media were slower than some Tokyo media to critically analyze Toru Hashimoto and the Osaka-based Nippon Ishin movement.

In varying degrees, sontaku journalism will always be with us. But a stronger, independent local mainstream media along with a strong alternative media that intelligently challenges, well, everybody, can help loosen the grip of sontaku journalism as it’s practiced in Japan. Both are needed now more than ever.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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