Japan from the inside out

Japan’s media: More fiction than fact?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 20, 2007

RASHOMON, the famous literary montage by Akutagawa Ryunosuke that Kurosawa Akira turned into an even more famous film starring Mifune Toshiro, tells the story of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife from the perspectives of four people. Their accounts differ so greatly the reader or viewer wonders if they are describing the same incident. The Akutagawa story is a classic in world literature, and some rate the Kurosawa film as one the five best non-American movies ever made.

The Japanese media like this concept so much they’ve updated the technique to use for their news reports about Miyazaki Prefecture Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo’s visit to Tokyo on the 14th. Reading the accounts from several media outlets leaves one wondering if they are describing the same event with the same participants.

Higashikokubaru has spent all of two months as governor after winning a special election to replace his predecessor, who was arrested for bid rigging. You can get up to speed on his first career as a comedian in the group associated with Beat Takeshi using the stage name of Sonomanma Higashi, his political science studies at university, and his diligence in dealing with an avian flu epidemic and reforming bidding procedures for government jobs in his early days in the job in our previous post here.

Nothing will prepare you, however, for the sheer incompetence, sloppiness, and lack of integrity in the media’s Rashomon-like approach to the governor’s visit one day last week as he dropped in on two government ministries and several companies with plants in Miyazaki, and gave a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

Here’s look at how several media outlets covered the speech. All but one of the reports were in Japanese.

Kyodo News, Japan’s leading news agency, chose to emphasize the comedic aspects of Higashikokubaru’s speech to the foreign correspondents. When he began his talk, he asked them not to ask difficult or trashy questions like those from a weekly magazine or a “wide show”. The governor spoke briefly in English, joking that some have compared him to Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, but that he would prefer to be compared to Ronald Reagan (who also started out as governor of that state).

Kyodo added that he reminisced about his school days, and he recalled that he told his primary school teacher his ambition in life was to become French.

The report I saw did not mention the serious aspects of his speech, nor did they mention his visits to the ministries or companies.

The Yomiuri Shimbun began by describing Higashikokubaru’s appearance as PR for Miyazaki. They were the only outlet to mention that the governor referred to the legends claiming that his home prefecture was the birthplace of the Japanese people. They also mentioned his English jokes and the crack about Reagan, and noted that his audience laughed loud and long.

Yomiuri reported that he talked about local government in Japan, but thought he got sidetracked with stories about becoming French and the dustup with a publishing company when he stormed their offices with Takeshi and other members of his troupe. They noted his speech went beyond the allotted 20 minutes, but didn’t say how long it went on.

Unlike Kyodo, they brought up the governor’s answers to questions asked by the correspondents. One asked him if he had any advice for Prime Minister Abe, whose poll numbers are down, and Higashikokubaru suggested that Abe’s ratings might rise if his hair thinned out.

He also mentioned his pet theory (no one else called it this) that political parties weren’t needed in local government. “A prefectural citizens’ party” was sufficient. Yomiuri did not elaborate on this statement.

The Miyazaki Shimbun, the governor’s hometown paper, mentioned that he gave a humorous speech that also included the reasons for his wanting to become a politician. Unlike Yomiuri or Kyodo, they quoted Higashikokubaru’s comments on the prime minister’s low poll numbers: “I suspect the cause is that he does not sense the temperature of the people.”

They also mentioned his self-introduction in English, and were the only outlet to report that he talked for about 30 minutes. They were also the only ones to report that the governor spoke about his initial meeting with Beat Takeshi and his reasons for switching from show business to politics.

The Miyazaki Shimbun also scooped the rest by reporting that when asked to compare the two professions, Higashikokubaru answered they both shared the aspect of making people happy. He said that Takeshi taught him to read the audience while doing a comedy routine.

According to the Miyazaki paper, the governor said his most important tasks were to decide what sort of local government to create in Miyazaki and how to turn it into a vibrant region. The previous two media outlets did not think this was worth mentioning. Oddly, however, the hometown paper did not talk about his visits to the ministries or the companies (in this article, at least).

Sankei Sports is one of Japan’s many sports dailies, which cover popular topics in the news as well as sports. Had the governor not been a comedian with a reputation for rough-and-ready behavior, they likely wouldn’t have bothered attending at all.

Sansupo, as they are called, focused exclusively on the audience response. They said the foreign correspondents were in two camps regarding the governor’s appearance. They quoted an unidentified official from the French embassy familiar with Higashikokubaru’s career as a comedian as saying that he had become a good politician because he was not so bureaucratic. Sansupo also noted that others thought his jokes in English were funny, but they didn’t repeat them.

Some correspondents, however, said they thought his speech was too much of a comedy routine and they wanted to hear more about politics. Dennis Normile, the chairman of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, said he would rather have heard more about Miyazaki than about the scandals.

I have to wonder about Normile’s motives, however. The speech was scheduled to last just 20 minutes, and Higashikokubaru has been in office only two months. There’s not a lot of information he can provide about local politics to a foreign audience in that amount of time. The governor probably thought he was giving them what they really wanted.

Janjan describes itself as an alternative media outlet. They provided the largest amount of direct quotes from the speech and focused on its political content. Here is how they quoted Higashikokubaru describing his reasons for becoming governor:

“I gave up my life in Tokyo and returned to Miyazaki to pursue a great dream—to change Miyazaki, where I had grown up, and then change Japan from Miyazaki. It remains a business-as-usual, conservative prefecture, but that approach was the foundation for postwar Japan. Our forebears must be praised for the Miyazaki they created, but now we face the problem of how to change it.

“Don’t you think there was a sense of dissatisfaction and impotence among the citizens after the collapse of the bubble economy? I began to think this (attitude) must be changed about 10 years ago, and this feeling gradually grew stronger. Then I began to believe that I should take action.”

It was at that point that Higashikokubaru mentioned his most important tasks, previously described in the Miyazaki Shimbun section. No other media outlet quoted the governor’s remarks leading up to that statement, however.

Janjan also noted that the reporters asked him questions about his everyday work as a governor, Prime Minister Abe’s statements about the comfort women, and his awareness of the traditional culture of Miyazaki. They didn’t give any of his answers. They also did not mention his ministry and company visits.

The Asahi Shimbun used the governor’s original name, but added his stage name in parentheses. They also mentioned that he had said the people felt a sense of impotence, but chose to omit that he referred to their dissatisfaction.

The Asahi reported that he gave a self-introduction in English, but did not repeat his jokes. They did say these jokes drew a lot of laughs and applause.

They quoted Higashikokubaru about the growing interest in independent politics. He said:

“Now, 60 years after the end of the war, people no longer trust party politics. Local government provides services directly to the residents. They don’t need parties. ‘One’ prefectural citizens’ party is enough. I want to conduct my activities so that this idea takes root.”

Yomiuri was the only other outlet that thought the comment about a single prefectural citizens’ party was worthy of quoting, but they did not provide the full context.

Asahi were the only ones to mention that the Japanese reporters at the event asked him what he thought of the Tokyo governor’s race. He said, “Several people have entered the race and there are a lot of choices. That’s good for maintaining democracy.”

They were one of the few media outlets to report that he also visited companies with plants in his prefecture. They were the only one to provide the details that the sites he visited included Oji Paper and Asahi Kasei, and the Education and Land, Infrastructure, and Transport ministries. They mentioned that the governor brought gifts of locally produced free range chicken to each place he visited (including the Foreign Correspondents’ Club), but Education Minister Ibuki Bunmei turned down the present. The minister said he makes it a rule not to receive anything from local governments. Asahi noted that everyone else accepted the gifts.

Higashikokubaru’s appearance in front of the foreign correspondents was covered on The Wide, an afternoon TV program, the next day. They ran clips of the governor during the funniest parts of his speech, which were notable for his goofy poses. The program did not mention his other visits, nor did they mention his political commentary.

These omissions allowed them to tut-tut and take the governor to task for a lack of gravitas. The commentators on the program were disturbed by what they considered his frivolousness, and remarked that Beat Takeshi thought the governor’s biggest problem as a comedian was matching his behavior to the situation and the place. Their position was that governors should not be telling jokes to entertain an audience.

The Nishinippon Shimbun, a regional Kyushu daily, did not mention at all that Higashikokubaru spoke to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (much less the content of his speech), nor that he visited several companies in Tokyo. They focused solely on his five-minute visit to the Education Ministry. They disposed of Ibuki’s refusal to accept the present of chicken in three paragraphs. They were the only media outlet to mention that the Deputy Minister took the chicken instead, and quoted her as saying, “I love chicken.”

Finally, the Japan Times also filed a report in English.

Their report is eight paragraphs long. It does not mention any part of the governor’s speech whatsoever. The newspaper’s readers would not know that the governor has serious views about local government, or that he perhaps overdid the comedy. They would not know about his reasons for going into government. They would not even know about his gifts of chicken at the ministries or the companies. They would not know about the several questions the correspondents asked him. They would know only one thing:

Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru, a comedian-turned-rookie-politician, waded into a political minefield Wednesday, claiming it was hard to confirm as historical fact that the wartime Japanese military coerced women across Asia into frontline brothels…Asked by reporters for his opinion on Abe’s comments, Higashikokubaru said, “It is very difficult to confirm as a historical fact that the ‘comfort women’ actually existed. My position is that it is hard to make a comment (on the issue) unless the history is verified,” he said. “Both cases of existence and nonexistence (of coercion) should be verified objectively.”

Aside from the question of whether there was coercion to get the sex slaves into the brothels, Higashikokubaru said he believes there was nothing wrong with Japanese engaging in the sex trade in pre-1945 Korea, because under a “bilateral accord” in 1910, the Korean Peninsula became part of Japan, where the sex business had been allowed under certain regulations.

What do they hope to prove with their distorted approach? Why do they consider this issue important, when the rest of Japan manifestly does not, and never will? The other news outlets didn’t think this comment was worth talking about. Why are they asking this particular question of a man who has been in office just two months—a man who is the governor of a rural prefecture ranked 37th of Japan’s 47 prefectures in population, with fewer than two million people, and who has no national responsibilities? Why did they fail to mention anything else that Higashikokubaru did or said that day?

And why did they refer to him in their headline by his stage name of “Gov. Sonomanma” instead of his real name? None of the Japanese papers did that. Granted, his name is 14 letters long and hard to fit in a headline. But Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name is also 14 letters long, and they manage to squeeze that into headlines.

Perhaps the Japan Times thinks they are burnishing their reputation overseas as crusaders for truth and justice. Perhaps they are trying to please their primary audience of cynically ironic Westerners who savor a snide sense of superiority as they eke out a living on the fringes of Japanese society. Perhaps they are trying to please South Korea, where the paper’s publisher has business interests. (They already canned a sports reporter without notice for talking about prostitutes in Seoul during the World Cup. The Koreans claimed that he insulted the womanhood of the nation.)

What they’ve actually done, however, is reinforced their reputation as a publication utterly lacking in journalistic integrity.

Still, the other eight media outlets weren’t much better. A reader would have to put together all eight stories about Governor Higashikokubaru’s Tokyo trip to get one decent account of the day’s events.

And as with Rashomon, we still wouldn’t be sure of what actually happened.

4 Responses to “Japan’s media: More fiction than fact?”

  1. […] Ampontan has blasted the Japan Times’ coverage of Governor Hideo Higashikokubaru’s recent visit to Tokyo: the Times has “reinforced their reputation among people who regularly read them as a publication utterly lacking in journalistic integrity.” [Link] […]

  2. jost said

    Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” is based — confusingly — on Akutagawa’s “Yabu no Naka.” 🙂

  3. Aki said

    A blogger, Suika Dorobo, has posted articles describing how comfort women issue were raised by Japanese media in 1980’s.

    The background of the comfort women issue: I. Chronicle

    The background of the comfort women issue: II. A man called “a professional liar”

    The background of the comfort women issue: III. Asahi Shimbun—an alchemist of “inconvenient truths”

    Japanese aged over 40 years old saw these events in real time. So, most of them know that the issue related to Korean comfort women was just a hoax conducted by Japanese media and a person who was eager to sell his book. However, foreign people would not be immune to the hoax related to Korean comfort women.

  4. madne0 said

    Well, i know nothing about his politics, but Takeshi’s Castle ruled. So he’d get my vote 😉

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