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Will Japan’s News Giant Bend the Knee Before Abe?

Will Japan’s News Giant Bend the Knee Before Abe?

The new head of Japan’s public broadcasting company, NHK, has some unusual ideas. Since assuming his position in January, Katsuto Momii has defended Japan’s wartime practice of sexual slavery by arguing that all nations have done it during times of conflict. He’s argued that media coverage of Japan’s territorial disputes should conform to the government line. And he believes that NHK, in spite of being one of the most trusted and influential news sources in the country, should not "say ‘left,’ when the government says ‘right.’"

His comments are unprecedented among former NHK chairmen, who have uniformly striven to maintain a semblance of journalistic neutrality, especially when it comes to politics. "No NHK chairman has done such a thing in history. It’s too controversial, too dangerous," Reiji Yoshida, a senior reporter at the Japan Times, told Foreign Policy. Politics have always played a subtle role at NHK, but Momii’s outspokenness has brought the issue out into the open. The consequences are real: A high ranking official from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party told the Japanese paper Asahi Shimbun that Momii’s comments "could lead to his dismissal," while more than 3,000 NHK viewers called for his resignation.

Momii responded to the uproar with a mixture of indifference and incredulity — retracting his statement but telling reporters that he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. In turn, many are questioning the broadcaster’s credibility and, in particular, its chairman’s willingness to let the network act as a mouthpiece for an increasingly right-wing, revisionist government.

Momii’s views closely mirror the positions of many conservative Japanese politicians — in particular, those of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The controversial politician has repeatedly roused the ire of his Asian neighbors by visiting a shrine honoring Japan’s war dead — including several war criminals. He’s also denied that the Japanese military recruited sexual slaves during World War II, and pushed a heavy-handed state secrets law that stiffened criminal penalties for journalists who solicit "secret" information from government sources, even in cases where they expose wrongdoing. Momii’s support for Abe’s moves has many worried about the future of the network.

Despite its reputation as an impartial and widely trusted news source (it is modeled after the BBC), the NHK’s vulnerability to political influence is in fact one of its defining characteristics. Though the network’s budget is funded by viewers, it must be approved by Japan’s parliament, the Diet — meaning that legislators always maintain a measure of leverage over NHK executives. But in decades past, such political maneuvering has occurred largely in the shadows; under Momii, it seems to be playing out in plain view of the nation.

Ellis Krauss, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of Broadcasting Politics in Japan: NHK and Television News, argues that NHK’s news coverage is characterized by the management’s fear of political reprisal. Rather than risk offending the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has dominated Japanese politics since 1955, NHK coverage is objective to a fault, Krauss told FP.

Reporters rarely provide analysis of news events and are conspicuously uncritical of government policy and practice. Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, for example, NHK was widely criticized for going along with the government’s efforts to mask the extent of radioactive pollution caused by the nuclear meltdown.

"The NHK was very, very careful not to alienate the LDP," Krauss said. "The editors made sure nothing was broadcast that gave the impression that they were particular to the opposition." The network’s cautious approach to news, according to Krauss, rests on the perceived inevitability of LDP rule. "They knew the LDP would stay in power," he said.

Henry Laurence, a professor at Bowdoin College, told FP that the network has "always been deferential to political authority" and "has a culture of self-censorship. Laurence, who recently completed a comparative study of public broadcasting networks in Japan, Britain, and the United States, argues that while NHK has a similar funding structure to the BBC (both broadcasters are funded by individual viewers, while their budgets are administered and approved by parliament), the Japanese broadcaster does not have the same longstanding institutional commitment to journalistic independence.

The BBC’s moment of truth, Laurence explains, came during Britain’s 1926 General Strike, when the broadcaster’s first director, John Reith, appealed for editorial independence from parliament and tried to distance himself from Winston Churchill, who wanted the BBC to broadcast government propaganda. But Reith determined that doing so would be "worse for the BBC and for the country."

NHK, by contrast, has no such historical precedent and has long struggled with maintaining independence from political leaders. During World War II, NHK was owned and operated by the imperial government, and acted as its propaganda arm — broadcasting the now infamous Tokyo Rose radio programs aimed at demoralizing Allied troops stationed in the Pacific. After the war, the American Occupation Forces reorganized the network, rendering it a publicly supported organization, while new media laws ensured reporters’ freedom of expression.

Today, Japan’s Broadcast Law prohibits politicians from compromising the editorial integrity of news organizations. But Krauss’s research revealed that, for decades, politicians have found ways to indirectly and covertly influence NHK coverage behind the scenes, largely by maintaining personal relationships with certain NHK political reporters and executives and applying pressure on them when the network’s annual budget was up for approval. The most notable recent example involved Abe himself. In 2001, while serving as deputy chief cabinet secretary, Abe and another LDP member, Shoichi Nakagawa, pushed NHK executives to edit or kill a four-part series about comfort women — a euphemism for wartime sexual slaves from South Korea, China and the Philippines. One NHK executive told the Asahi Shimbun that because NHK’s budget was being discussed at the Diet at the time the program was in production, he felt pressured to submit to Abe’s demands. Producers eventually cut down the program and omitted a powerful interview with a former comfort woman.

The comfort women issue is hugely contentious in Asia, in large part because Japan has never adequately atoned for its wartime atrocities. Further enflaming tensions, Abe’s administration recently announced that it would revisit a 1993 statement formally acknowledging  the military’s use of sex slaves.

Abe appears to have few qualms about using his political clout to influence NHK coverage — particularly when it comes to bolstering his own revisionist views of Japan’s wartime history. Two of the four new members he’s appointed to NHK’s board of governors have come under fire in recent months for trumpeting their own controversial views on Japanese history.

In February, Naoki Hyakuta — whom Abe handpicked for NHK’s 12-member board in 2013 — denied that the 1937 Nanking massacre (during which Imperial soldiers murdered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians) ever happened, and argued that the United States had faked the Tokyo war crimes trial to cover up its own atrocities. He made the comments while campaigning for a right-wing gubernatorial candidate also known for whitewashing Japanese wartime history. Another Abe appointee, Michiko Hasegawa, has penned several controversial essays, including one valorizing the ritual suicide of a right-wing extremist and another arguing that popular sovereignty — the notion that government should be subject to the will of the people — is "completely irrelevant," and "unsuited to and unnecessary for Japan."

The board of governors, which appointed Momii as president, oversees NHK’s programming policies and budget, the latter of which must be approved by the Diet. The willingness of some of these members to broadcast their political views signals to executives and producers which topics are, and are not, fit to cover. Further stoking worries about his intentions at the network, Momii asked several NHK executives to write letters of resignation upon his appointment — allowing him to dismiss them at any time.

Three days after Momii made his comments about comfort women, a 20-year veteran radio commentator at NHK, Toru Nakakita, resigned after alleging that NHK had censored a story critical of nuclear policy. Nakakita told the Japan Times that an NHK director nixed the story over fears that it would affect how voters cast their ballots in the upcoming gubernatorial election.

In February, several NHK insiders told the Japan Times that, since Momii has taken over, managers have been instructing staff to avoid using the word "sex slaves" when referring to comfort women, the word "dispute" when referring to Japan’s diplomatic row with China over the Senkaku islands (called "Diaoyu" by the Chinese), and the word "controversial" when referring to the Yasukuni Shrine, a monument commemorating Japan’s war dead, including several class-A war criminals.

According to Laurence, "the culture at NHK comes and goes depending on how assertive and aggressive politicians are in pushing it around." And while politics has always found a way into NHK’s boardroom, virtually all the wheeling and dealing that used to happen behind the scenes now plays out in plain sight. Because of the public nature of these recent political maneuvers, Laurence says, "there is a limit to how much dramatically worse it can get, because NHK ultimately relies on viewers to pay their fees." If viewers abandon the network, the thinking goes, the revenue that makes up the core of its budget will go, too.

That’s not to say that damage won’t be done in the meantime. "NHK’s ability to set the broad national agenda is quite important," Laurence said. "They’re not going to adopt an agenda like Fox News, but what they are going to do is stay away from what’s controversial, and the definition of what’s controversial will shift in the direction of the LDP."

Yoshida says he hasn’t noticed any broad shifts in coverage yet, and notes that any political influence on NHK will be subtle. Rather than overtly parroting the views of Abe and others, the network will more likely omit coverage of sensitive topics, such as nuclear policy, and focus instead on safe issues, like Abenomics. "Self-censorship is the main problem now," he said. "Momii has clear nationalist views, so maybe someone like him may change the system… In some cases he could kill some programs, like a program about history, about nuclear policy, for example."

The impact of that shift could be significant, given NHK’s reach. "The fear is quite legitimate," Yoshida said.