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Japan's 'Culture of Amnesia'
[Analysis] History remains elusive for country's media
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
  Published 2006-05-29 11:10 (KST)   
If the media is responsible for the first draft of history, then in Japan it has yet to be written. It's no surprise that the nation's collective narrative -- spelled out in its history textbooks -- is as fragmented, incomplete and misleading as it is. The Japanese media has failed its people -- it has fostered a "culture of amnesia" that not only keeps the country from obtaining its much coveted seat on the U.N. Security Council; it has set Japan on a collision course with China that will have consequences the world has yet to fathom.

Japan may be an economic giant, but for many in the international community, it appears out of touch, drifting beyond its neighbors like some distant satellite. In much of Asia, this aloofness is viewed with sinister suspicion. Despite the much vaunted Article 9 of its so-called "peace" constitution, Japan ranks fourth (PDF) in its annual military expenditures, behind the U.S., U.K. and France. Japan may have the world's second largest economy, but its willingness to flout its own rule of law suggests moral bankruptcy.

While historical neglect is not a problem unique to Japan, it is more difficult to explain in the context of a free press. Few Japanese, for example, realize that their military killed more Asians, especially in China, than the Nazis killed human beings in Europe, according to Japanese media expert Ellis Krauss; or that the CIA provided millions of dollars to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its members during the Cold War to guarantee obedience to its foreign policy agenda; or that Japan as recently as the 1940's abducted hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians into forced labor and sexual slavery. This final point is especially ironic in light of the moral outrage that typically accompanies discussion about North Korea's hostage history.

Indeed, this neglect is not confined to foreign issues. Writing about the failure of the media's reporting during last year's national elections, former senior London editor of the Asahi Shimbun Fumio Kitamura states, "The media's function of monitoring government was completely compromised. One could say it was an election that revealed the impotence of mass media."

Robust Media Culture

Despite appearances to the contrary, the Japanese support one of the world's most robust media cultures. The circulation for the country's largest newspaper -- Yomiuri Shimbun -- is the highest in the world at 10 million readers for its morning edition alone. That is approximately the same combined circulation for the top 10 dailies in the U.S. Its rival -- Asahi Shimbun -- has a circulation of 8.3 million and Japan's five national dailies are among the 20 largest in the world.

Driving this consumption is the avid Japanese news consumer. According to the Japanese Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association (NSK), the average household in Japan subscribes to 1.1 newspapers each day. In 2001, 72 percent of those surveyed said newspapers are an indispensable source of information.

Japan ranks third in the world behind the U.S. and China in Internet usage with 86.3 million users. As in other countries, the Internet is posing challenges for traditional power structures and government regulation remains a looming possibility. Toru Maegawa, an Internet analyst at the Fujitsu Research Institute, also notes "Most of the Japanese media haven't seen the Internet as a chance to expand their business. It seems to me that they see the Internet as competition instead."

These numbers reveal a population hungry for knowledge that its media has so far failed to deliver. The reasons have much to do with political interference and elitist media practices.

Political Interference

In 1993, TV Asahi head Tsubaki Sadayoshi came under enormous pressure from the LDP and was forced to resign for a perceived bias in the station's reporting of a general election in which the party lost. Within the year, however, an internal investigation concluded there had been no bias. Nevertheless, the company's license was renewed only for one year, rather than the standard five years.

Public broadcast station NHK is also susceptible to political pressure. The Diet (Japanese parliament), controlled by the LDP, is responsible for passing the station's annual budget and electing its president. Rather than challenge this authority, the media too often opts to tread cautiously.

Japanese law demands that broadcast programs be "politically impartial," but this is often interpreted as "politically neutral" or "non-controversial." Accordingly, NHK television news avoids controversial topics and concentrates on official bureaucratic news. As a result, the station is not much of a forum for pluralistic debate.

Critical reports and the discussion of opposing opinions are mostly left up to the private stations whose budgets are not controlled by the government. However, doubts remain about whether Japan's private stations, with their dependence on viewer ratings and industry support, are capable of fulfilling this role.

A Cartel of Kishas

Along with government interference, Japan's media climate has long been controlled by the "kisha kurabu," or kisha club system. Practicing journalism in Japan is very difficult and is based on special relationships or connections from these groups.

More lapdog than watchdog, the first kisha clubs were set up in the 1880's by journalists covering parliament. They were soon encouraged by governments who found that control over the press was more easily exercised through these organized channels.

According to Laurie Freeman, author of "Closing the Shop: Information Cartels and Japan's Mass Media," the kisha system thrives on interconnectedness where all involved have vested interests that need protection. It is a system that breeds familiarity and encourages loyalty. As a result, the "iron triangle" of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen has become an "iron box" with the media providing the fourth corner.

Ken Takeuchi, former mayor of Kamakura who also worked as an Asahi Shimbun reporter for 27 years, told last year's OhmyNews Citizen Reporter's Forum, "My experience over those years taught me that the press club system was the problem, and spoiled journalism in Japan." Takeuchi is now the head of JanJan, a Japanese citizen journalism Web site inspired by OhmyNews.

The Guardian's Jonathan Watts, former vice-president of Japan's foreign correspondent's club, writes, "On paper, Japan has some of the most liberal press laws in the world, but in practice, the kisha club system rewards self-censorship, fosters uniformity and stifles competition."

In October 2002, the European Union formally asked Japan (PDF) to abolish the system, saying that it is an unfair barrier to the free flow of information. The Japanese government replied that they don't control the kisha clubs -- the NSK does.

The NSK rejected the EU's criticism in December 2003, stating, "The EU's proposals are based on a misunderstanding and on biased and partial information."

The EU fired back saying it would take the matter to the World Trade Organization where it could be judged as a trade barrier.

The NSK soon climbed down agreeing in February 2004 "to improve its press club system to provide better access for foreign media to government information."

There are some journalists who are not interested in breaking in. "Most good journalism doesn't get done in kisha clubs. They're inimical to everything that good journalism is," says Howard French, who covered Japan for The New York Times for four years. "They allow the source to set the agenda and control the details of what gets released."

Magazines Targeted

In May 2003, the Diet passed a very controversial protection of privacy law. It targeted magazines such as Friday, Shukan Jitsuwa and Shukan Taisho that have exposed the sex scandals of political figures that the mainstream media ignored. It was widely seen as an act of revenge by members in the Diet on these magazines.

Ryokichi Yama from the Japan Magazine Publisher's Association said, "The government controls TV stations thanks to the broadcasting law. The kisha club system controls print media journalists. Now the government has drafted this bill to control magazines."

Masahiko Ishizuka from the Foreign Press Center of Japan said, "The government is unhappy with media criticism. They are always tempted to control the media."

Slow Change

The media culture in Japan, like the rest of its society, responds slowly to external pressure. Faced with politicians willing to exert influence to silence critics and a kisha club system that relies on those same politicians for their very survival, the ultimate loser has been the public.

The climate could be changing, however. More politicians are choosing to bypass the kisha clubs and there are signs that people are becoming increasingly impatient with the dull and predictable mainstream reports. The Internet appears to be gaining prominence as an alternative news source as the Japanese edition of OhmyNews, scheduled to begin this August, enters the market. Whether the public will harness its potential to begin writing the first draft of their country's history remains to be seen.

- Japan's 'Culture of Amnesia' by David Kootnikoff 

Thumbnail credit: Heidi Marasigan

The author's Web site is Alldaybliss.com.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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