Commentary / Japan

Why Japan's poor media grade matters

by William Pesek

As Abenomics approaches the five-year mark, expect the government to toss out loads of sunny figures and declare victory. But the two most important numbers — 0.7 and 72 — tell a gloomier story.

Japan’s potential growth rate 1,631 days into Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tenure is an unmuscular 0.7 percent and inflation is essentially flat. The “three arrows” of his economic policy — monetary easing, fiscal loosening and deregulation — flew wide of the target even though Abe is armed with rare majorities in both houses of the Diet and reasonably buoyant approval numbers. Good luck spinning that as victory.

Abe’s second number, 72, is Tokyo’s press-freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders. When Abe took office in December 2012, he inherited a ranking of 22, ahead of the United Kingdom and Australia. Today, Japan stands 50 spots lower, neighbored by Malawi and Croatia, and only barely besting Hong Kong, where China is forging shackles to hobble media autonomy. A coincidence? Try spinning this one, too.

It’s important to recognize how connected these two numbers really are.

Japan’s press-freedom shortcomings have been very much in the news thanks to reports from United Nations staffers. David Kaye, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on press matters, discerns “significant worrying signals” that “require attention lest they undermine Japan’s democratic foundations.” Another U.N. staffer, Joseph Cannataci, worries about “undue restrictions on the right to privacy and freedom of expression.”

Now, Tokyo could just roll its eyes at non-binding remarks from officials living 11,000 km away and move on. Instead, Abe’s team threw an epic hissy fit, the fury of which smacked of a guilty conscience. Such defensiveness doesn’t alter the fact the U.N.’s concerns jibe with those of Reporters Without Borders.

Abe’s administration has taken two very public steps to muzzle reporters. His state secrets act — a draconian 2014 law that could put journalists and whistleblowers in jail for 10 years — sent Japan’s press-freedom grade plunging. The next blow is a chillingly broad “conspiracy” law. I use quotation marks because very few understand this ambiguously-worded effort to penalize plots even if they’re not carried out — aspirations U.S. President Donald Trump shares. Not surprisingly, copies of George Orwell’s book “Nineteen Eighty-Four” are flying off the shelves in Japan.

Rather than pushing back at critics, Abe’s Cabinet should indulge in a moment of self-awareness. It’s not that overseas rapporteurs and reporters don’t get Japan or are trafficking in “fake news.” Japan really does have a media problem, and it’s holding back the economy and undermining Abe’s goal of raising Tokyo’s status among global leaders.

Even before Abe’s state secrets act, Japan’s media cared more about access, institutional loyalty, social harmony and coddling advertisers than policing the government or companies. Its “kisha” clubs are more about keeping the press in line than holding the powerful accountable, morphing all too many reporters into repeaters of the party line. A prime example: the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, when local journalists deferred to government talking points and foreign reporters didn’t.

This policy direction risk making a media system already predisposed to self-censorship downright subservient. In late 2013, Reports Without Borders admitted what Japanese scribes generally won’t: Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party “is making investigative journalism illegal, and is trampling on the fundamental principles of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and public interest.” New legal risks make major news organizations less inclined to report on true radiation risks in Fukushima. It discourages exposes on 2020 Olympic spending and graft. It encourages reporters to pull punches while writing about alleged scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen. It tamed scrutiny of efforts to revise the pacifist postwar Constitution that most Japanese revere.

The chill in the media air undermines Abenomics. For starters, policy priorities since 2012 have media outlets turning their tendency for self-censorship up to 11. One of the key planks of Abe’s upgrades, at least in theory, is strengthening corporate governance to boost competitiveness and wages. Yet most of the most aggressive reporting on Takata’s deadly air bags, Toshiba’s accounting shenanigans, Mitsubishi Motors’ fuel-economy scandal, Sharp’s opacity, the Bank of Japan cornering the stock market and the dark sides of devaluating the yen came from foreign media outfits.

If we’re serious about taking on the bureaucracy, identifying wasteful spending, attacking public corruption or shaming wayward executives, a free and aggressive media is an ally. How can antiquated and clubby corporate and political systems change if they’re immune to scrutiny?

Japan doesn’t have a monopoly on press-freedom concerns, but it’s a glaring outlier among Group of Seven nations. Reporters Without Borders ranks all six of Japan’s G-7 peers well within the top 50 countries. Observing the amazingly dogged journalism afoot in the U.S., where New York Times and Washington Post reporters take Trump to task daily with scoop after scoop, it’s hard not to lament the state of media affairs here — and how it holds Japan back.

If Abe’s team had put one-tenth as much energy into modernizing taxes, encouraging entrepreneurship and empowering women as muzzling the press, the economy might be making global headlines. Sadly, Japan’s global edge is eroding on both scores. Bad news, indeed.

William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist.