Four years ago, Japan’s tabloids and weeklies reported on the contest between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election with unrestrained gusto.
By this writer’s count, the volume of U.S. election coverage in Japan’s weeklies and tabloids over the past few months has been perhaps one-fifth that of 2016. That’s a startling contrast, especially considering the passions being generated at this point among American voters.
The heaviest coverage in the print media was 48 pages in the weekly business magazine Toyo Keizai (Sept. 19), whose cover story was headlined “The new wisdom about America: What will change with a Biden victory?” The issue began with an article titled “Monster Trump on the brink: If he disputes his loss, chaos might ensue.”
Meanwhile, Sunday Mainichi (Sept. 13) observed how a number of prominent Republicans — including retired Gen. Colin Powell and former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake — have thrown their support behind 2020 Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Not missing a beat, Masayuki Takayama published a contribution in Shukan Shincho (Sept. 17) that denounced the United States for abandoning its support of Taiwan in the United Nations in the 1970s. “Fortunately,” he writes, “Trump has exposed China’s outrageous behavior and has begun to redress America’s past mistreatment of Taiwan.”
In his weekly column in Flash (Oct. 13), TV journalist Jiro Shinbo analyzes Trump’s diplomatic efforts into recent events in the Middle East, where Israel and two gulf states, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have announced the establishment of diplomatic ties.
“Among Trump’s supporters, many feel sympathy toward Israel,” Shinbo writes, “so they welcome this development as it will stabilize Israel’s existence and bring peace to the Middle East.”
Somewhat remarkably, it seems America’s QAnon movement has managed to attract followers in Japan as well. Friday (Oct. 9) has published three photos: one of about 20 members in front of the National Diet building; another of the same group marching past government buildings in the neighborhood of Kasumigaseki; and a final image of three men posing in QAnon T-shirts.
“In this year’s presidential election, QAnon followers support Trump, who has been using the group to go after people who are critical of him,” says Toshiro Yamada, a journalist who covers international issues. “They attack those perceived as Trump’s enemies and have been increasing their numbers by attracting other Trump supporters.”
The November issues of three conservative opinion magazines devoted almost entirely to political matters — Seiron, Will and Hanada — went on the newsstands at the start of October. Seiron featured a short piece by academic Yoichi Shimada that mainly focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and recent history of race relations in the United States. Shimada also ran an essay in Will titled “Trump and the Nobel Peace Prize.”
The longest piece in Will was in the form of a two-way dialog between former NHK News announcer Taro Kimura and veteran Sankei Shimbun journalist Yoshihisa Komori titled “The ‘Minnesota uprising’ that portends Trump’s landslide victory.” Komori followed that up with a piece that asked, “Why are The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN biased in favor of the Democrats?”
Hanada only contained one item, an essay by Japanese Conservative Union Chairman Hiroaki Aeba titled “Trump’s re-election: The road to victory.”
Martin Fackler, former Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times, asks why the coverage of the U.S. campaign in Japan’s print media has been relatively scant.
“The silence is certainly not due to lack of interest,” Fackler says. “Suga’s biggest challenge will be maintaining Japan’s balance as tensions between Beijing and Washington heat up. The stakes for Japan are huge in what the U.S. does next.
“When it comes to the overall tone of foreign coverage, the big media here take their cue from officialdom, which these days means the Prime Minister’s Office. With the current U.S. election, you have a new prime minister who is once again proving his ability to keep the media watchdogs on a very short leash. My guess is that Suga doesn’t want to antagonize Trump or alienate Biden (who has his own complicated history with the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe). So he’s taking a wait-and-see approach — the less said, the better at this point. He has probably signaled to the media heads that this is in Japan’s interest, so everyone is waiting to see what happens.”
Fackler suggests the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly its effects on travel, has also had a material impact on reporting.
“The counterbalance to the government-driven narrative would be the reporters on the ground, of whom there are very few this time,” Fackler says. “The best coverage of the election that I have seen in Japanese media is from their U.S.-based reporters, but there are much fewer correspondents based permanently overseas than 10 or even five years ago. With COVID-19, media companies aren’t sending extra reporters and crews to do intense blanket coverage, as they did in the past.”
A veteran freelance writer for weekly magazines agrees that election coverage has markedly declined.
“In 2016, I was asked by a major weekly news magazine to write about the U.S. presidential election (including about Trump’s background), but, this year, nothing,” he says. “I think the COVID-19 pandemic is a more urgent and important story for the weeklies and tabloid newspapers. And, as a reader, I am fed up with reports about how crazy President Trump is.”
Certainly Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, his hospitalization and the possible impact on the presidential campaign will be harder for the magazines to ignore. Halfway into the second week of October, short items have so far appeared in several magazines. Aera (Oct. 12) reviews the first presidential debate in an article titled “Two fears that remain from the 90-minute Trump-Biden verbal slugfest.” Meanwhile, Shukan Asahi (Oct 16) speculates that the infection of America’s president and first lady will boost Joe Biden’s chances for winning the upcoming election. And Sunday Mainichi (Oct 18) examines the implications of Trump’s nomination of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, Spa (Oct. 13) professes to reveal Trump’s last-ditch secret plan to eke out a come-from-behind victory.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.