Under the heavy hand of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s media is being forced to toe the government line. Or else.




TOKYO — As the leaders of the G-7 liberal democracies convened in the Japanese shrine town of Ise-Shima this week, host Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used the event to showcase his nation as a regional beacon of democratic values and a counterweight to authoritarian China. However, recent events have raised doubts about his commitment to at least one of those values — freedom of the press.

There have been alarming signs of deteriorating media freedoms in Japan. In March, three of the country’s most outspoken television anchors were removed almost simultaneously by three different networks. While the networks were acting on their own, the dismissals were widely seen as orchestrated by the Abe government: The three were some of the last high-profile media critics of its agenda, which includes restarting Japan’s nuclear power industry and rolling back its postwar pacifism. The sacked anchors joined a growing list of critical media voices that have been muted since Abe took office in December 2012. And their ouster came just weeks after the country’s communications minister, Sanae Takaichi, declared in Japan’s parliament, the Diet, that the government had the legal power to shut down TV broadcasters that it deemed to be politically biased. That announcement capped a difficult year-and-a-half for independent media that saw the largest liberal newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, subdued and other critical commentators removed from the airwaves.

The taming of Japan’s media watchdogs has attracted growing attention from overseas. On April 19, David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, wrapped up a weeklong fact-finding mission to Japan by expressing “deep and genuine concern” about declining media independence in Asia’s richest democracy. The following day, the Paris-based media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders lowered Japan’s place in its annual ranking of world press freedom to 72nd out of 180 nations, between Tanzania and Lesotho — down from 61st the previous year. “The Abe administration’s threats to media independence, the turnover in media personnel in recent months and the increase in self-censorship within leading media outlets are endangering the underpinnings of democracy in Japan,” the group said.

According to one Japanese news source, the Abe government’s efforts to suppress critics may have taken a more ominous turn. In its June edition, Facta, a monthly business magazine noted for its scoops, reported that the administration had used Japan’s spy agency, the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, to keep tabs on a Japanese lawyer who helped Kaye during his visit. (On her blog, the lawyer, Kazuko Ito, proclaimed she would never yield even if the government monitored her.) The allegations of surveillance conjured the same heavy-handed tactics that Reporters Without Borders and other international media watchdogs have warned might follow Japan’s passage in late 2013 of a new state secrecy law. They say the vagueness of the law, and the draconian prison terms of up to 10 years for revealing secrets, will put a damper on journalists, as well as the whistleblowers within government who may try to help them.

Japan’s mainstream media have never been noted for hard-hitting, independent coverage, instead emphasizing cozy relations with power and a brand of access journalism that can seem extreme even by the standards of the Washington press corps. The Japanese press’s symbiotic relationship with the government is institutionalized in the so-called press clubs, monopolistic arrangements that give reporters from the big national newspapers and broadcasters privileged access to officials, whose perspectives they end up sharing.

But press watchers now warn that Japan is losing even that limited press independence. Consider the case of the Asahi Shimbun, the world’s second-largest newspaper with a daily circulation of 6.8 million. The Asahi, the intellectual flagship of Japan’s political left, had been endeavoring to beef up its investigative coverage following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, when it and other Japanese mainstream media lost public trust for dutifully repeating the official line that all were safe — even as reactor buildings exploded. What it lacked in investigative prowess, the liberal Asahi had tried to make up for in editorial spunk, opposing the revisionist right’s efforts to whitewash sordid aspects of Japan’s World War II-era history like the “comfort women” forced to work in military brothels.

But in August 2014, the Asahi pulled back from both its comfort women coverage and its investigations into Fukushima following harsh right-wing attacks, led by Abe himself, on missteps in some of its articles. On Oct. 3, 2014, Abe attacked the Asahi for damaging Japan’s reputation after the newspaper belatedly admitted that more than a dozen stories published a quarter-century ago about comfort women had been based on the sourcing of a discredited Japanese army veteran. “It is a fact that its misreporting has caused numerous people to feel hurt, sorrow, suffering, and outrage,” Abe told the lower house budget committee. “It has caused great damage to Japan’s image.”

Japanese government officials and other journalists have pushed back against the criticism of Japan’s press freedoms, calling the pessimistic assessments unfairly harsh. In an April 27 article on Yahoo Japan, journalist Shoko Egawa said “it didn’t make sense” for Reporters Without Borders to rank Japan below places like Hong Kong and South Korea, where there are much more real pressures on journalists. “While it is okay to take as a reference the evaluation of a foreign NGO, there is no need to get all worked up about the low ranking,” she wrote.

There are also few in Japan who believe Takaichi would ever actually try to close down broadcasters. Takaichi raised alarms on Feb. 8, when she told the Diet that the 1950 Broadcast Law, which regulates the nation’s airwaves, allowed the government to shut down broadcasters that fail to remain “politically neutral” by highlighting “only one aspect of a polarizing political issue.” However, when questioned by legislators a day later, she seemed to back down a bit. “I don’t think I would resort to such measures myself,” she said, “but there is no guarantee that future [communications] ministers won’t.”

Japanese and foreign media observers agree that the pressures visibly placed on journalists in Japan can seem quite tepid by international standards. After all, there have been no arrests of journalists or forced closures of media outlets. Nor has the new secrecy law been used to pursue journalists, as the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have done by subpoenaing investigative reporter James Risen of the New York Times in an attempt to force him to reveal his sources of classified information.

What has been worrying, however, is the willingness of major Japanese media to silence themselves in response to a level of behind-the-scenes chiding by Abe administration officials that most U.S. journalists would probably just laugh off. A dramatic example of this was exposed in March 2015, when one of Japan’s biggest networks, TV Asahi, removed Shigeaki Koga, an ex-Trade Ministry official turned sharp-tongued TV commentator, from its Hodo Station evening news program.

Koga drew the administration’s ire when he protested its ineffective handling of a hostage crisis in Syria on air by holding up a placard in January 2015 that read “I’m not Abe.” Before the Abe era, such antics would not have raised eyebrows on Hodo Station, which was known for its feisty commentary. However, the government’s top media handler, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, told reporters at a background briefing how unhappy he was with the “completely mistaken” comments of an unnamed commentator at an unspecified network, according to an internal memo of the conversation recorded by a TV Asahi reporter who was present.

That internal memo was passed back to network executives. Koga says this was enough to convince TV Asahi to remove both himself and a highly regarded producer on the show, Fumie Matsubara. Their departure was followed a year later by TV Asahi’s decision in March to remove the host of Hodo Station, Ichiro Furutachi, who was one of the three anchors ousted this spring.

Other journalists relay similar stories, saying that TV executives quickly take the hint to avoid an actual confrontation with the administration. “It’s not that the media have cowered in the face of some obvious pressure, but this all takes place out of sight, until you suddenly notice that they have retreated,” Shuntaro Torigoe, a veteran TV newscaster, said at a March 2016 press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where he and four other top TV journalists warned of growing efforts to intimidate the press. “The administration’s will is passed along to the media executives, becoming part of the atmosphere inside the newsroom that leads to self-censorship and restrained coverage.”

According to Torigoe, the result has been a form of self-censorship that Japanese journalists call sontaku, a term with no exact English translation but that refers to a Japanese social strategy of trying to please others, usually superiors, by preemptively acting in accordance with their perceived whims. Journalists say that while conformity has always been prevalent within Japan’s homogeneous society, the feeling has grown more intense recently as anxieties about the rise of neighboring China have increased the pressure to toe the line.

This conformity has been enforced by the verbal attacks and intimidation from the so-called Net Right, a loose-knit community of shrilly nationalistic netizens whom some members of the Abe government have openly embraced. “Recently, I feel a growing pressure for conformity,” Hiroko Kuniya, another of the three TV anchors ousted in late March, wrote in the May edition of the magazine Sekai, a highly regarded liberal opinion magazine. “This is a pressure that says you must conform to the majority without resisting, that such conformity is normal and expected. It seems even the media have become a party in exerting this pressure.”

Besides the Sekai article, Kuniya has said nothing else about her removal after 23 years at the helm of Close-Up Gendai, the prime-time showcase for investigative journalism on national broadcaster NHK. (She has also declined interview requests.) However, other NHK reporters say they have come under blatant pressure to tamp down criticism of the administration from the broadcaster’s president, Katsuto Momii, a conservative businessman whom Abe installed at the helm in December 2013. Momii has made no secret of his desire for NHK to toe the government line. After April’s deadly earthquake in the southern city of Kumamoto, when there were concerns about damage at a nearby nuclear plant, Momii told his journalists that their coverage must be “based on official government announcements,” not independent reporting.

At private broadcasters, where the government cannot just appoint executives, the administration has found other means of pressure, say journalists and media scholars. They say it has done this by skillfully exploiting structural weaknesses in the media. One of the biggest weaknesses is the extreme emphasis on access to inside information via the press clubs. This results in an intense competition for scoops, in which news agencies vie to be the first to report on the future intentions of government officials or agencies. Reporters’ careers can be made or broken based on their ability to curry enough favor with officials to be tipped off ahead of rival journalists.

Toshio Hara, a former reporter with the Japanese wire service Kyodo News who now writes on media issues, says the Abe administration has manipulated this exaggerated version of access journalism by limiting the prime minister’s press conferences and group interactions with the press gaggle in favor of exclusive interviews. These are bestowed upon only cooperative reporters, who are also favored with advanced leaks about future actions by the administration. News organizations deemed critical are excluded and cut off from the flow of scoops given to other journalists. This preferential access can also take the form of private dinners with the prime minister himself: The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported that Abe dined with top political journalists and media executives more than 40 times during his first two years in office alone.

Hara says the administration has made an unprecedented use of access to reward friendly journalists and punish critics. He notes that this has been part of an aggressive push to control media messages — a lesson of Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2007, when he resigned after only 12 months following intense criticism from the press regarding scandals in his administration. “The power relationship between the prime minister’s office press corps and the prime minister has been completely changed,” Hara wrote in the 2015 book How Ready Is Journalism for the Abe Government? “With a few exceptions, the media have become supplicants.”

Selective granting of access has also allowed the administration to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy, in which media organizations try to stay in Abe’s good graces by turning on each other. This is what happened to the Asahi, which lost the will to fight after finding that every other major media outlet had ganged up against it, say journalists in the newspaper. “We found ourselves standing all alone,” said Ryuichi Kitano, a senior Asahi reporter. “The administration didn’t even have to criticize us because the media did it for them.”

Shigetada Kishii, another of the three anchors removed this year, says media infighting prevented them from presenting a united front against the threat by Takaichi. The outspokenly liberal Kishii left the TBS network’s News 23, a highly regarded nightly news program, after crossing the Abe government by criticizing the 2015 passage of new laws to expand the role of Japan’s military. “There is something structural in the Japanese media, when it comes to why they couldn’t object as a group” to Takaichi’s comments, said Kishii, who also spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club press conference in March. “Rivalry between newspapers and TV stations prevents them from even thinking about coordinating.”

Lack of solidarity among news companies was also one of the factors cited by Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur, to explain the Japanese media’s apparent inability to resist political pressure. He linked this to a broader lack of shared professional identity among Japanese journalists, who spend entire careers at the same newspaper or broadcaster, unlike their more peripatetic Western counterparts.

This made them more loyal to company than profession, preventing them from taking a united stand, or forming some sort of effective union or lobby group to defend their interests. Kaye also faulted Tokyo for failing to create a political environment that tolerates the expression of diverse opinions, including dissenting ones. This was all too apparent in his own visit to Japan, which ran into problems created by an administration that appears overly thin-skinned to criticism regardless of its high approval ratings.

Originally scheduled for December, Kaye’s trip to Japan was abruptly canceled just weeks before when Tokyo said it was “unable to arrange meetings.” Even after he managed to make the visit in April, Kaye received a cold shoulder from the Abe government. Despite repeated requests, Takaichi refused to meet him, as did other top officials and media executives — including NHK’s Momii. The highest-ranking member of the administration who agreed to talk with him was a vice minister of communications, who gave him just 15 minutes. Kaye said the vice minister just repeated what Takaichi had said — without elaborating or even trying to explain her comments.

Political experts say that such undiplomatic behavior only further damages Japan’s credibility as a purveyor of democratic values. “Japan’s slide down the global rankings for press freedom and its skewering by the U.N. rapporteur on his recent visit are a black eye for Abe and the nation,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “They undermine Japan’s democratic identity and its constitutional freedoms.” Kingston and others say that Japan needs a vigorous democracy, including robust media freedoms, to compete for influence with a larger and richer China. But with the press either suppressed or in submission, one wonders whether that important warning is even reaching Abe — or likely to appear on the nightly news anytime soon.