How free is Japan's press?

When it comes to historical truths, Japan does not have the best reputation. School textbooks are notorious for glossing over the nastier of Japan's wartime activities, while the government is periodically caught in verifiable lies worthy of Trump's inauguration numbers. But how does this feed into the daily news coverage in modern day Japan?

I'd like it noted that the fact I hiked across a wet and miserable Tokyo for 90 minutes after work shows some commitment to this question. 

Putin or Abe? It's near impossible to tell.

Putin or Abe? It's near impossible to tell.

The subject was being discussed at Tokyo's Temple University by a panel of five contributing authors to a newly released book, 'Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan'. Each had a different perspective on this topic and one involved comparing the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe with Vladimir Putin riding a horse semi-naked. (And that, ladies and gentleman, is what is known as a 'hook' in journalism.) 

In global indices of press freedom, Japan does not do terribly well. 'Reporters without borders' lists Japan as 72 in the world, rather surprisingly below South Korea (though rather less surprisingly, considerably above North Korea). However, Michael Cucek (Professor of political science at Temple University) claims the methodology for generating such rankings is not credible, since it relies heavily on self-assessment with no control measure. This makes it difficult to quantitively contrast countries where government opinion may play a role in journalism (feasibly Japan) with those where journalists are subjected to violence or imprisonment (most certainly not Japan).

Despite this critic, the panel members presented a picture of a Japanese media significantly influenced by the pervading party view, with the overarching threat of retribution if the government was portrayed unfavourably. This is accompanied by a fractious relationship between the government and the (less controllable) foreign correspondents, compounded by a poor understanding of overseas press. It is a situation that all agreed had deteriorated during Abe's time in power. 

Jeff Kingston (book editor and Director of Asian Studies at Temple) said that Japan had poured money into PR overseas, but squandered their image by fighting any portrayal of historical events that contradicted their whitewashed school books. One particularly strange example was a case brought to the US Supreme Court to remove a memorial to the 'comfort women' used by the Imperial army during the Second World War. The statue stood in Glendale, California; a city on the outskirts of LA with roughly 200,000 people. The memorial was therefore hardly a major landmark on the US map, yet the Japanese government's involvement in the case catapulted the statue into the news, shining a spotlight on the very part of history Japan were so eager to obscure.

The Supreme Court refused to hear the case because... well... d'uh. A point that Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems unable to grasp, stamping Japan's portrayal in the global press into the dirt.  

Back on home soil, the Asahi national newspaper paid the price for not towing the government line on wartime events. Due to publishing articles over two decades ago on comfort women, the newspaper has found itself the target of the current political right government. Abe personally criticised the paper's "mistaken reporting" and --more shockingly-- openly declared his attack on the Asahi in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the then President-elect, Trump. During their first meeting at Trump Tower last November, Abe allegedly remarked, "You have an enemy in the New York Times. I have an enemy in the Asahi Shimbun. I hope you are as successful in bringing down the New York Times as I have been with the Asahi Shimbun."

And after such a display of comradery, President Donald couldn't even get his name right.

And after such a display of comradery, President Donald couldn't even get his name right.

Other events also receive poor domestic press coverage if they portray the government in a bad light. An anti-nuclear demonstration after the accident at the Fukushima plant in 2011 saw nearly 200,000 protestors gather in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park. The spot was spitting distance from Japan's national public broadcasting organisation, NHK, who would only have had to stick their cameras out the office window to record the event. Despite this, news of the protest never appeared on the network. In Japan --Kingston said-- the event "unhappened". "There is a lot of unhappening of the news," he remarked. 

Despite Abe's rash statement to Trump, there is no official censorship of the press in Japan. Rather, the press tends to muzzle itself. NHK has an internal manual known as the "Orange Book" that identifies phrases (such as "sex slaves") that are deemed problematic. The censorship goes further than even expressed government party lines, kicking in whenever a topic is thought to be potentially sensitive. Presumably, this stems from worry over a damaging back-reaction from the government or supporters if a report is ill received.

This unwritten control over the domestic press has led to wariness and outright boycotting of the foreign correspondents based in Japan. Abe's party, the (ironically named for a right-wing group) Liberal Democrats,  broke with tradition by not sending a delegate to speak at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) before the last election.

David McNeill (foreign correspondent in Japan) explained that relations with the government and the FCCJ had deteriorated after a press conference in 2014 with Eriko Yamatani, from the National Public Safety Commission. Yamatani's visit was to discuss North Korea, but instead she found herself grilled on an alleged connection to Japan's ultra-right group, Zaitoku-kai. Rather staggering, Yamatani all but admitted the connection by first claiming that Zaitoku-kai were attempting to heighten awareness of the "special privileges" that Koreans received in Japan. When pushed on what these referred to, Yamatani admitted she had taken that information directly from the Zaitoku-kai's website. 

Larry Repeta (Professor of law at Meiji University) also flagged an unusual feature of the news that was covered in Japan. Despite Japan being one of the safest countries in the world, the daily news was crime-heavy. He attributed this to a special relationship between the press and the police. 

Criminal trials in Japan --Repeta claimed-- essentially take place in secret. An individual can be held up to 23 days, during which time their attorney cannot be present during the interrogation. The only record created during such questioning is by the prosecutors themselves. The details of this are then frequently "leaked" to the press, who in return for a steady supply of good information, do not critise the police system -- for example, by not pointing out the moral dubiousness of not having an attorney present during questioning. 

Erico Yamatani speaking at the FCCJ press conference in 2014. It didn't go well.

Erico Yamatani speaking at the FCCJ press conference in 2014. It didn't go well.

This is not an Abe-related phenomenon, but a long-standing situation in Japan. Records of criminal trials are not available to the public until the litigation is final and all appeals have been exhausted. After that time, the information can be released... but is maintained in the prosecutor's office who are typically unco-operative. 

Tina Burrett (Professor of political science at Sophia University) draws on parallels between Abe and Putin (yes, we're finally getting to the naked horse riding). She does say that a superficial comparison between the two regimes is nonsensical: Russia is one of the top 10 most dangerous places to be a reporter. Japan, not so much. However, both leaders adopt competitive PR strategies that outstrip their actual political achievements. 

Putin has built a cult around his own leadership (with naked horse riding, fighter jets and the odd tiger). While Abe is not so extreme, his own campaign is more self-focussed than is typical in Japan. Posters during the election were emblazoned with large images of the Prime Minister and the term "Abenomics" to describe his particular brand of financial policies again focusses the attention on himself. 

Not that such self-branding is all bad. During questions to the panel, a previous ambassador to Japan described visiting the BBC in London in 1994. He queried the lack of Japan coverage by the national news network and was told that reporting is based on a cast of characters and Japan was "singularly lacking" in this department. Having a prime minister who stands out does bring more global notice to the country.

Questions were also brought up regarding Japan's State Secrecy Law, which was brought into effect in 2013 by the Abe cabinet. Did restricted access to government documents further impinge press freedom? Cucek responded with a dismissive noise. There are 417 categories of special state secrets, consisting of around a quarter of a million administration documents. However, nine of those categories were found to contain no documents at all -- whatever terrible secret surrounded the topic apparently lay only in the mind of the person who had created the category. To handle official state secrets, public servants have to gain security clearance. 97,560 individuals gained this and only one was refused as a potential security threat. "It's comic relief," claimed Cucek. "... and their security is awful!"

Another question was raised about the role of Nippon Kaigi; a Japanese nationalist party which has a substantial fraction of the National Diet (the lower and upper house of parliament) as members. Cucek was once again unimpressed, "The median age is about 70. This is not the revolution."

A Japanese reporter who had been a foreign correspondent in the US stood to address the panel. He pointed out that Japan is hardly alone in dealing poorly with overseas reporters[1]. Foreign journalists in Washington DC do not get the same access opportunities as the domestic press (there was a specific example given, but I confess I blinked at the wrong moment and missed the details). However, the final point was profound:

In order to develop a free press that can act as an independent arbitrator for the country, we can't just criticise one regime. Instead, we need to all learn from one another's mistakes. 

[1] Nor at the moment, domestic ones. It was pointed out that --regarding interactions with the press-- Abe is a mere baby compared to Trump.