Commentary / Japan

Japan's media needs to act as a watchdog, not a lapdog

by William Pesek


To destroy a people, obliterate their understanding of history. Either Japanese media executives haven’t read “1984,” or they’ve failed to get George Orwell’s point.

The Yomiuri, Japan’s biggest-circulation daily newspaper, last week formally apologized for describing as “sex slaves” the many thousands of Asian women trafficked to Japanese military brothels before and during World War II. The move came after liberal rival Asahi withdrew a series of articles on the forcible rounding-up of Korean “comfort women.”

Turned out, the account offered by a source for some stories back in the 1980s and 1990s couldn’t be verified.

The Yomiuri has long been in the pocket of the most conservative wing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. While there’s no evidence that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government pressed for the paper’s apology, members of the LDP have seized on the earlier Asahi retraction to dispute accusations that the Imperial Army was involved in widespread sex trafficking. Indeed, Abe’s government even asked the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to revise a 1996 report on the comfort women program.

Wisely, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the report’s author, balked. Her findings, she said, weren’t based on Asahi’s reporting, but on the testimonies of women and on official documents.

What’s worrying is not just the Abe administration’s efforts to downplay or discredit what is by this point widely accepted as historical fact. The anti-Asahi campaign fits into a wider pattern of bullying an already docile Japanese media.

Most recently, the LDP sent a chilling letter to Japan’s five main television operations angling for favorable coverage ahead of Dec. 14 elections. LDP officials claim they’re merely seeking balanced stories on Abe’s efforts to revive the economy, dubbed Abenomics. In fact, they seem to be issuing a clear warning to go easy on the prime minister.

Last year, Abe packed the board of public broadcaster NHK with like-minded conservatives, some of whom claim that the Nanking massacre never happened and that the testimonies of comfort women are more myth than reality.

Abe also passed a frightening state-secrets law whose provisions could put journalists and whistleblowers in jail. If I learned that Fukushima’s nuclear leak was worse than previously known and wrote about it, both my source and I could go to prison for five to 10 years.

Since the Asahi’s retractions, Abe has also called for reviews of news coverage of Japan’s wartime record. In Abe’s narrative, comfort women — as many as 200,000 of them, historians say — were willing prostitutes who are now maligning Japan’s reputation.

This is abject nonsense. Even former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, no liberal stooge, wrote decades ago about his own role in the Imperial Army’s extensive infrastructure to round up Koreans, Chinese and Filipinos to work in brothels.

What Abe seems not to understand is that his attacks on the media run counter to his broader efforts to reform Japan. The country’s mainstream media is docile in the best of times, putting societal harmony and steady access to politicians and executives over the public’s right to know. Press organizations, or kisha clubs, are stealth censorship devices. Publications that rock the boat find themselves on the outside and at risk of scaring off advertisers.

Those cozy relationships have helped to enable much of the cronyism, irresponsible behavior and policy drift that Abe is supposedly trying to eradicate. Recent years have offered myriad examples of local media going easy on huge stories: Tokyo Electric Power’s negligence surrounding Japan’s nuclear crisis; the $1.7 billion fraud at Olympus; Takata’s deadly airbags and several others.

Among the key pillars of Abenomics is taking on vested interests and government bureaucracy, nudging companies to tighten governance and making Japan a world-class competitor. Few things would empower his so-called third arrow reforms more than a feisty and open media establishment.

“I think if the media were tougher it would at least to some extent make the big boys more accountable,” says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

As Beijing proves with each assault on the mainland’s traditional and social media, it doesn’t matter how reform-minded any individual leader might be if those who are supposed to expose corruption and cronyism can’t do their jobs. For his reforms to work, Abe doesn’t need a lapdog media — he needs a true watchdog.

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo who writes on Asian economics, markets and politics.