You know your reputation in North Asia has hit rock bottom when a dictator who recently executed his uncle thinks you’re dangerous. Kim Jong Un’s comparison of Shinzo Abe to Adolf Hitler should prompt a moment of solemn reflection for Japan’s leader.
Yes, the Dear Leader isn’t the most sober political observer. (Some reports claimed he did away with his dear uncle and No. 2, Jang Song Thaek, by feeding him alive to rabid dogs.) But this is only the latest Hitler comparison Abe has attracted recently. Abe’s Dec. 26 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the souls of 14 Class A war criminals from World War II, had Chinese officials slamming him for honoring the “Nazis” of Asia.
South Korea is equally enraged by Abe’s questionable grasp of history. Last September in Seoul, President Park Geun-hye snapped at U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel when he encouraged her to improve ties with Abe’s Japan, a fellow U.S. ally. “If Germany had continued to say things that inflicted pain, while acting as if all was well, would European integration have been possible?” Park asked Hagel. “I think the answer is no.” Park reportedly lectured Hagel about Abe’s “total absence of sincerity.”
Abe keeps trying to tell Asia he’s all about peace, love and understanding. If that is what’s in his heart, something is getting lost in translation. But a new brouhaha involving national broadcaster NHK suggests otherwise.
Late last year, as Abe was rushing a chilling government secrecy bill into law, he was also packing the board of governors of NHK — akin to a Japanese BBC — with like-minded conservatives. The 12-member board is appointed by Parliament, but influenced heavily by the prime minister’s wish list. Among Abe’s picks were novelist Naoki Hyakuta (who sparked a firestorm this week by claiming that the brutal Nanjing Massacre never happened); Michiko Hasegawa, who says women’s place in society is at home raising kids; and Chairman Katsuto Momii, who’s now Japan’s answer to Fox News honcho Roger Ailes.
Although publicly funded like PBS in the U.S., NHK plays a far more dominant role in shaping Japan’s national culture, character and public opinion.
The first time Japanese heard the Emperor’s voice was over NHK: Hirohito used the medium to announce surrender in August 1945. Children grow up with its programing. Families gather in the evenings to watch its widely acclaimed documentaries, samurai dramas and holiday specials. It’s where Japanese will watch their Olympians compete in Sochi, Russia, in the weeks ahead. NHK is also where 126 million traumatized Japan residents turned for information in the darkest days of March 2011, as radiation clouds spewed from Fukushima.
It’s deeply troubling that Abe would champion (and still support) Momii, who has precipitated an international incident by pooh-poohing wartime sexual abuse of women by Japan’s military. He also provoked a domestic furor by admitting that he plans to be Abe’s lapdog as the prime minister pushes his right-wing agenda on a nation Abe thinks lacks sufficient patriotism.
“We cannot say left when the government says right,” Momii told reporters, arguing that it’s “only natural” for the network to follow official government narratives.
Actually, no, it’s not. The media in a democracy exists to police governments, even those largely footing the bill. Instead Abe now has his own Fox News-like propaganda arm to propagate and reinforce his views. And the costs of this mindset are already becoming apparent.
Economist Toru Nakakita says he severed ties with NHK after 20 years of punditry after being told to go easy on the nuclear industry. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party relies on the nexus of power companies and pro-nuclear businesses for support, and it’s loath to upset the gravy train. Abe also views nuclear hardware and technology as Japan’s biggest growth opportunity.
The timing of Nakakita’s muzzling is suspicious for another reason: Sunday’s election for Tokyo governor. Abe is petrified the anti-nuclear Morihiro Hosokawa will win and ruin his plans to reopen reactors. Hosokawa and another former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, want to convince the Japanese that their future lies in new industries for renewable energy, not reactors vulnerable to the next giant earthquake. Ignore these quacks, Abe says — and now with NHK’s blessing.
Anyone who lived through Tokyo’s near-Chernobyl experience in 2011 may recall how poorly NHK performed even then. The network downplayed risks at every turn to avoid panic. Many of us learned about explosions at Fukushima from CNN, BBC and U.S. military news conferences, not Japan’s most trusted news source. Just imagine the next time disaster strikes.
Abe’s secrecy law means journalists and whistle-blowers can go to jail for reporting what the government doesn’t want the public to know. It’s nice to know that during the next crisis, when we’re desperate for news, NHK will be ready to distract us with cheerful PR puff pieces. It’s now official policy.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.