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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Tracy Dahlby

Mr. Abe's War on the Media

Updated: Aug 3, 2019

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump at the United Nations General Assembly, October 2017. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

The Journal of Japanese Studies

Volume 45, Number 1, Winter 2019

Society for Japanese Studies

Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan. Edited by Jeff Kingston. Routledge, London, 2017. xiv, 322 pages. $160.00, cloth; $54.95, paper; $54.95, E-book.

Donald Trump loves to pound away at the press, as he has amply demonstrated by tweet-storming his contempt for the "fake news" media. But when it comes to actually curbing press freedoms, Trump is no match for Abe Shinzō. Neither the U.S. president nor his supporters in Congress have dared, at least to date, to suggest laying a finger on the First Amendment or to stop the mainstream media from lacerating Trump with one unflattering scoop after another. The Japanese prime minister is the real infighter. He has acted, far more pointedly, to cow Japan's press and quash the nuisance it presents to his ambitious political agenda.

Abe's war on the media is the subject of this timely and engrossing book, and the dangers it poses for Japan's democracy animate many of its 21 essays. Authors assert that since taking office for a second time in 2012 (after his first term ended in 2007), Abe and his political allies have been busy: they've proposed constitutional limits on free speech, leveraged the nation's broadcast code to throw TV news units off balance, toughened state secrecy laws to penalize journalists, and helped sideline critical voices. While Abe has worked coercive charm on financially pressed newspaper moguls, simpatico right-wing bloggers have menaced reporters and scholars alike.

Harrying the press, as Jeff Kingston points out, isn't "unprecedented, or indeed unique to Japan" (p. 2). Yet various contributors make the case that Abe has audaciously tightened the screws. And that is precisely why Japan's example is important for the rest of us to consider. With liberal democracies under siege across the planet, and the currency of "alternative facts" on a roll, the erosion of a free press carries risks for all. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder pithily observes in his 2017 book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: "To abandon facts is to abandon freedom."1

The Abe that Kingston and his authors portray fits the zeitgeist to a tee. Scion of a heavyweight political family, Abe finessed his rise on promises of "normalizing" Japan, which means ditching a post–World War II system that critics argue locks Japan into an uneasy dependency on the United States as its geopolitical go-between and protector. It also means seeking a freer hand in military affairs by dumping the antiwar provisions in Article 9 of the constitution U.S. occupiers imposed on Japan in 1946. And under Abe's stewardship, it has meant a stepped-up campaign to whitewash the country's record of wartime atrocities in favor of make-believe versions of history.

It is worth noting, as Kingston and others do, that most Japanese citizens shy away from supporting Abe's play on the constitution and, by extension, his view that it contains Western values incompatible with Japan's traditional identity. Thus, at its core, as a number of authors argue, Abe's media assault is really part of a broader culture war pitting liberal democratic values against an illiberal agenda. To win out, Senshu University professor of media law and journalism Kenta Yamada contends, "Abe's government is trying to prioritize the national interest over individual freedom and rights, a revanchist agenda out of synch with twenty-first century democratic values and norms in Japan. Suppressing and intimidating the press is a means to stifle the necessary debate and scrutiny [Abe's] agenda deserves" (p. 130).

Right-tilting news media have been only too happy to oblige. In 1990s Japan, such players "started to escalate the rhetoric … in attacking what they saw as biased, left-leaning media," writes Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano (p. 34). Their campaign, says Nakano, rallied conservative intellectuals, pundits, and rising neonationalist politicians, including Abe Shinzō, to protest purported liberal bias and an anti-Japanese, self-hating take on modern history. Riding such ideas to his second term two decades later, Abe zeroed in on Asahi shinbun, the nation's liberal flagship newspaper.

If the story were a movie script, it would be an alternate-universe All the President's Men. In the spirit of the Washington Post's investigative deep dive into Watergate, Asahi assiduously probed the mishandling of Japan's "triple disaster," the earthquake and tidal wave that laid waste to eastern Honshu on March 11, 2011, and led to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. One bombshell report, in May 2014, alleged that hundreds of workers, the great majority, had bolted from the collapsing facility in defiance of direct orders or protocol (ambiguity still clouds the point). That put the lie to an official narrative that had gained ground under Abe's immediate predecessors, featuring heroic bitter-enders fighting to protect community and country. Under fire from the Abe camp for questioning the integrity of the plant's corporate managers and the sacrifice of their workers, and from other major newspapers eager to stay on Abe's good side, Asahi's top brass ordered a retraction and punished the paper's investigative unit for its award-winning work.

Yet it was clearly Abe's flair for cultural warfare that had set the stage for Asahi's public humiliation and dealt the most serious blow to the newspaper's efforts to jump-start big-league investigative reporting in Japan. In the 1990s, the paper published numerous articles limning the plight of the "comfort women"—the periphrastic name for the women and girls the Japanese imperial army forcibly recruited in Korea, China, and elsewhere in Asia to serve as sex slaves in military-run "comfort stations" or brothels. In 1993, Japan publicly acknowledged "state responsibility" for the abuses, and revisionists dug in for a long churlish struggle. (Asahi didn't help its case by failing to admit it had long since been duped by a discredited source.) In 2014, shortly before the triple-disaster retraction, a badly bruised Asahi finally retracted its older coverage, as well. "The taming of Asahi reverberated across Japan's media landscape," writes Martin Fackler, a Tokyo-based research fellow and former Tokyo bureau chief for the New York Times, "setting off a domino-like series of similar capitulations by other major news organizations" (p. 40).

Another major domino Abe made wobble was NHK, Japan's ubiquitous public broadcasting service. Like Asahi, NHK had run afoul of the revisionists for its handling of historical content, but the Abe administration brought the hammer down in unparalleled style, appointing political cronies to the board, mandating self-censorship, and helping to engineer the removal of critical journalists. The upshot, writes Philip Seaton, a professor of media and communication at Hokkaido University, was "NHK's slide from public broadcaster towards being a compliant (perhaps even 'quasi-state') broadcaster," which "speaks not only about changes in NHK's internal affairs. It is also a barometer of the overall state of democracy in Japan" (p. 184).

The Abe government moved to undermine commercial broadcasters as well, using a self-serving interpretation of Japan's Broadcast Act to bring TV journalists to heel for "unfair" coverage, meaning stories it didn't like. (More recently, Abe stunned mainstream broadcasters again by threatening regulatory changes that could swamp them with competition from Internet outlets and lead to new extremes in political programming.2) Meanwhile, Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party passed into law the 2014 Specially Designated Secrets Act, which strengthens government powers to go after the leaking of official information and journalists who report it.

The Abe government "has tipped the balance to the right, partly by delegitimizing counterarguments and co-opting and marginalizing critics," observes David McNeill, a Japan-based journalist and academic. "Perhaps its greatest innovation has been to realize it has to win the culture war before it can remake Japan along neo-nationalist lines" (p. 169).

Yet the Japanese press, it must be said, is often its own worst enemy. In Japan's "press club" system, mainstream news outlets assign reporters to cover government offices, where officials can entice or strong-arm the media to trade accountability journalism for access. The U.S. press, for example, can knuckle under to the powers that be, as well. (Witness its adherence to Bush White House narratives after the 9/11 attacks.)

But America's Fourth Estate also has a bedrock tradition of monitoring power and holding it to account. In Japan's more conciliatory milieu, the "media all too often kowtows," Kingston quotes Columbia University political scientist Gerald Curtis as saying. Pervasive self-censorship imposed by careerist management types feeds a "craven abdication of … responsibility" to stand up for gutsy reporters and editors, says Curtis, "and to protect freedom of speech" (p. 5).

Meanwhile, it may also be true that the Abe administration "is a new species," as McNeill quotes political critic Koga Shigeaki, one "playing chicken with the media, and winning" (p. 166). Abe's capacity to control his message and bash media dissenters, writes Aurelia George Mulgan, a professor specializing in Japan at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, stems from an executive, "even authoritarian," style of governance that contrasts with his more consensus-minded predecessors (p. 23). In short, authors suggest, Abe is prone to ignore established rules and bully those who go against him.

There has certainly been more strenuous targeting of Japan's expatriate critics. Foreign correspondents who covered the country in the 1970s and 1980s, as I did, can tell stories about occasionally crossing swords with the government's conservative gatekeepers. Today, Press Freedom authors suggest, the press-minding bureaucracy has grown sharper teeth. Kingston quotes Anna Fifield, former Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post, as saying, "the Japanese government is trying to silence anyone who doesn't toe the government line." Bullying foreign journalists is not as easy as hounding homegrown ones, yet as with "many other foreign journalists," says Fifield, "I've been on the receiving end of unwelcome emails trying to influence my coverage on the history issue" (p. 299).

In perhaps the ugliest twist, the right now blatantly attacks foreign scholars. When Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, and her colleagues published a letter to the editor in a small-circulation scholarly magazine to protest Abe's censorship of history textbooks on the issue of the Japanese imperial army's sexual slavery regime,3 the document went viral online and Japan-based "hate bloggers" swarmed. Dudden says she received "countless 'black mails' to my public email and physical address … including threats of violence and even murder … The most common theme was 'How dare you #@&*# [insert expletive] foreigner blame Japan??!!" (p. 153). It isn't easy to know whether or how the government colludes with the Internet's lunatic fringe. But in Dudden's view, gagging critics is central to a "state-sponsored effort to will away and deny … evidence of the history of a state-sponsored crime against humanity" (p. 152).

All in all, this thought-provoking book makes a comprehensively persuasive case that Abe's war against the media is a stalking horse for larger designs. It did leave me wanting to know more. For instance, Abe, a purported Internet buff, has used social media to sidestep the mainstream press and go directly to the Japanese people. How might we more closely judge such efforts? To say it another way: to what extent has Abe's message ridden socioeconomic fault lines, as Donald Trump's has in the United States, making some citizens more susceptible to government disinformation and demagoguery and others perhaps more critical of it? And what's up, by the way, with Japan's liberals? Are they offering a concerted defense of freedom of speech and, if so, what impact has it had on public opinion or political action?

In its broadest frame, Press Freedom encourages us to think about what the world starts to look like when we give up on the truth. We know it's possible, today, to bruise or even break democratic values without resorting to strong-arm tactics. Politicians and their surrogates can use the trick mirrors of social media and savvy public relations strategies to drown out, intimidate, and confuse. "[T]here is a case to be made," Kingston writes, "that insidious methods are more effective because they are harder to trace, bamboozling the credulous while providing cover for apologists and thus impeding accountability" (p. 2). But the fundamentals don't change: the point of the exercise is to get power and hold it. In a 1973 interview, the philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt observed, "The moment the press is no longer free … then anything can happen." When people are uninformed and flooded with lies, they "are deprived not only of their capacity to act, but also of their capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please."4

Japan has its share of smart, committed journalists, to be sure, but in Abe's war on the media they appear to have been supremely outmaneuvered and outgunned, and where that struggle goes from here could have consequences well beyond Japan.

Tracy Dahlby

University of Texas at Austin

TRACY DAHLBY is the Frank A. Bennack, Jr. Chair in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He is author of Into the Field: A Foreign Correspondent's Notebook (Texas, 2014) and is currently collaborating on the production of a documentary film entitled The Symphony of Frank.

1. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century(New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017), p. 65.

2. Osaki Tomohiro, "In Trump-esque Fashion, Abe on Offensive Against Japan's Established Media," Japan Times, May 3, 2018, (accessed May 3, 2018).

3. Alexis Dudden, "Standing with Historians of Japan, Letters to the Editor," Perspectives on History, March 2015: (accessed May 30, 2018).

4. Hannah Arendt, Thinking without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953–1975, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2018), pp. 491–92.

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