The media is busy assessing the Heisei Era as it comes to a close. Although not as dramatic as the Showa Era, it’s been a bumpy ride. Japan still hasn’t gotten the hang of this democracy thing, and an engaged, objective press is essential to a functioning democracy. As the following rundown illustrates, however, the jury is still out as to whether Japan’s press meets those criteria.

Media person of the year: Takanohana

It’s appropriate that one of the defining personalities of the Heisei Era would bow out during its last full calendar year. The heirs to perhaps the greatest legacy in sumo history, Takanohana and his older brother, Wakanohana, grew up in the media spotlight and remained there through their wrestling careers and afterward, but only Takanohana decided to stick with the sport as a stablemaster and organization elder. After years of putting up with his eccentricities and stand-offish manner, the media eventually turned on him — although his being forced out of sumo this year was a crisis of his own making.

The particulars of that crisis are perhaps too arcane for many lay people to grasp, but having been told back in the ’90s that Takanohana was the generational lynchpin in the ideal Japanese family and then to see that family disintegrate over time to the tune of hackneyed gossip, anyone would be wary of the media’s pronouncements. The November news that Takanohana and his wife had divorced was simply the straw that broke the back of his respectability. Takanohana was already estranged from his mother, brother and son, all of whom have their own rows to hoe as celebrities. What made Takanohana interesting is that his religious regard for sumo really did outweigh any desire for fame and material well-being. Some will say that’s noble, but there was probably no calculation involved. Takanohana was always an odd one and that’s probably how he’ll be remembered.

Salaryman of the year: Kei Komuro

When Princess Mako, older daughter of second-in-line-to-the-throne Prince Akishino, announced her intention to marry salaryman Kei Komuro in September 2017, the press played up the romance. The two had met in university and were going steady. There were no go-betweens or royal fixers involved in their union. They loved each other and that was that.

However, the tabloid press, being what it is, couldn’t stay that way. Over the past year, reports of debts that Komuro’s mother owed a former boyfriend circulated, causing so much concern that Prince Akishino himself supposedly questioned the match. Then, when Komuro was accepted at Fordham University in New York to study for a law degree, the rumor was that the Imperial Household Agency, which oversees royal matters, had somehow rigged the outcome in order to get Komuro away from Mako in the hopes their passions would cool and the two would quietly break up. In any event, the wedding has been indefinitely postponed.

As royal intrigues go, it’s hardly Shakespeare, and by most objective measures Komuro is a catch, a nice guy who supports his widowed mother and works hard at his job in a law office. Regardless of how he got into Fordham, if he passes the New York State bar exam, he will have a valuable credential that should guarantee him a lucrative and fulfilling career. That the tabloids and weeklies call all of this into question is predictable and depressing, regardless of your feelings about the Imperial family. Next year, of course, Japan will get a new emperor and Komuro’s travails may fade from the media’s collective consciousness. Kei, we hardly knew ye.

Issue of the year: Henoko

The contrasting relationship between Okinawa and the rest of Japan has always been characterized by cultural and historical signifiers that were presented by the latter as mostly anecdotal. Okinawans — not all, but a good portion — would say that the differences run deeper, as do the attendant emotions, which were fully apparent this year due to ongoing protests against the construction of an airfield for U.S. forces stationed at Camp Schwab on the coast of Henoko. Until recently, press coverage mirrored the cultural dynamic. The mainland media looked at it as a matter of solving the problem of Futenma air base, which is situated dangerously in the middle of the city of Ginowan, while local media insisted it was all about Okinawan sovereignty: The central government, in thrall to the American military, continued to sacrifice its southernmost prefecture to the alliance so as not to risk provoking any of the other 46 prefectures by transferring Futenma’s functions out of Okinawa.

As construction began, the mainstream media could no longer avoid the local media’s point, and many of the former have been pursuing the idea that Henoko is not only undemocratic, but unsuited to its purpose. Recently revealed surveys show that the seabed where the runway is being built may not be able to support it geologically. In terms of future PR, the government has its work cut out for it, as does the mainstream media.

Most valuable player: Jumpei Yasuda

Freelance reporters don’t get much love in Japan. By choosing to be freelancers they imply they aren’t team players, but since most mainstream media outlets are indistinguishable in terms of content, freelancers have an advantage in terms of individual style and outlook, as long as they can find somewhere to publish or broadcast their stories.

Jumpei Yasuda distinguished himself quite starkly this year. He had been held captive by militants since entering Syria in 2015, and, based on what has happened to other international reporters in similar situations, it was feared he wouldn’t make it out alive, but he did, only to return to a country that didn’t trust him, since he violated government directives against journalists venturing into conflict areas.

He apologized for his incaution and took responsibility for his plight, but also insisted the stories he pursued meant something. In other words, he felt bad if he made people worry, but didn’t think he did anything wrong. It’s still too soon to say if his matter-of-fact attitude and lack of self-reflection will affect his job prospects. Some pundits resented his recklessness, but an equal number believe he has nothing to feel sorry about.

The fact that those people thought they should say so publicly may be good news for Japanese journalism in general.

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