Thursday, October 30, 2014


"Let's take back Japan" is code for "Let's trash history to put Japan in the best possible light"


NHK, Japan’s answer to BBC, is apparently mulling a ban on topics of historical contention such as “comfort women” the “Nanking Massacre” and thorny territorial disputes. This is as predictable as it is disappointing. The gist of the gag order is: don't report the news, report the Abe government's take on the news, don't reference history, refer instead to the fairy tale that neo-nationalist Abe Shinzo likes to call "Beautiful Japan."

The thrust of the new policy is to whitewash, if not deny outright, the amply documented bad behavior of Japan during its war of invasion in China. The orders, reported by Richard Lloyd Parry in the Times of London, clearly reflect the thinking of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, who is well-known for wearing strident nationalism on his sleeve. As Abe has suggested in his book “Beautiful Japan” and has said repeatedly as a sop to his revisionist political base, Japan needs to offer its youth a brighter vision of Japan’s past than the truth, as expressed in textbooks and newspapers, currently allows for.

Naturally this won’t play well in China, nor does it jibe with the interests of good journalism anywhere, and that’s where NHK’s policy shift looks interesting. The ever-changing editorial line is sometimes hard on China, sometimes easy on China, but consistently subservient to Japan's ruling party. 

There was a time, not so long ago, when NHK went out of its way not to offend or criticize China, even in the aftermath of the horrific bloodletting in the heart of Beijing on June 4, 1989. As a contract employee at NHK during the post-Tiananmen period on China-related matters, I was constantly wrestling with taboo topics and editorial red lines, written and unwritten, that guided what could and couldn’t be said about China. It was patently clear that the three T’s --Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan- were to be avoided or tip-toed around at all costs. NHK recognized, not incorrectly, that Beijing's recalcitrant leadership regarded these matters as core issues. As for motivation, NHK's remit went beyond journalism and included a vital public relations role; it did not want to ruffle feathers or risk a then-booming bilateral trade. 

While working as a TV producer at NHK in 1991, I used the phrase “ideological drift” to describe the atmosphere in post-Tiananmen China in a script I wrote for China Now, a magazine format TV news show that culled footage from CCTV and NHK to highlight trends on the mainland. After the show aired on satellite TV, the Chinese Foreign Ministry voiced an objection to the notion that a Japanese TV show should criticize China in this way. NHK quickly apologized, blaming the indelicate wording on the “gaijin.” I kept my job, but the screws tightened on what kind of words I could use and what topics could be covered.

Part of this reflects the hybrid institutional culture of Japan's biggest TV station. NHK models itself after BBC’s non-governmental fee-based model, and yet frequently functions as a state-run TV would, taking the government position on controversial political issues and serving as the voice of the nation to the outside world. This quasi-governmental structure, funded by the public, yet guided by the state, on whom it depends for only a tiny but critical fraction of its funding, means that the “voice of Japan” is either going to reflect the prejudices of the incumbent government, or it is going to go to great lengths to preserve its independence by being neutral and politically correct to the point of being neutered.

A more trivial example of how editorial policy served as a guide to censoring content involved the word "Disneyland."  The script in question invoked the name of the American theme park in a descriptive passage about the Qing Dynasty imperial pleasure palace Chengde, which I described as an "ancient Disneyland.” NHK, though deeply in bed with Japanese industry, especially the electronics sector, took exception to the fact that I named an American company. This went against its policy of brandishing brand names, lest it be accused of free advertising or commercial favor.

Curiously enough, NHK did not require me to get a work visa for the first year I worked there, joking that it was unnecessary as I was working for the government anyway, and when I did formalized my visa status a year later, I was personally whisked through immigration by the brother of a prominent LDP minister.

In May 1992, while moonlighting as a rewriter on the graveyard shift for Radio Japan, NHK’s answer to VOA or BBC's World Service, I got a better feel how words mattered, and how a phone call could change a story like night and day. NHK’s coverage of political unrest in Thailand had taken the line that Bangkok street demonstrations were disruptive, part of an anti-government movement. Every time I tried to use the phrase “democracy movement” it got cut. The cruel Bangkok crackdown that came to be known as “Black May” saw the Thai military government step down to be replaced by a civilian government, thanks to timely intervention by King Bhumiphol. As the crisis began to resolve itself, Radio Japan got a late-night phone call from someone in the Foreign Ministry, instructing it to henceforth use the term “democracy movement” and so it did.

The point is, NHK is far more than a news and entertainment TV station. It is also a critical component of Japan’s self-presentation to the world and an intelligence organization, in the best sense of the word. I eventually quit China Now because the program was being used, in part, as cover to move funds and personnel into China at a time when Japan was eager to buy influence there. The credits to the program I worked on as producer/writer included the names of many people I had never met and never would meet. But they were going back and forth from Tokyo to Beijing under NHK and China Now auspices, spending some $10,000 a day according to my supervisor, NHK’s former Beijing bureau chief.

As with BBC, which famously refused to broadcast the voices of Sinn Fein and pro-IRA Irish politicians by fiat from London, and has long played highly cooperative role with British diplomacy, as evidenced by the firing of journalist Andrew Gilligan and in its collusion with the government during the deeply compromised Hutton Inquiry, NHK exudes a governmental tone even as it strives for editorial independence.

NHK’s current chairman, Momii Katsuto is an Abe political ally famous for bullying NHK into toeing the government line on issues such as territorial disputes and reports about  “comfort women.” The station remains mired in a top-down bureaucracy where image counts almost as much as news, and where the goal of a journalist practitioner is not just to inform but to produce a public relations product that casts Japan in the kindest light possible, even if it means ignoring well-established truths.

The author, who won a Nieman Fellowship based on his reporting from China and Japan, was most recently an Abe Journalism Fellow '14. 

PM Abe the "fireman" using juvenile props on a TV show to sell his pro-US, anti-China security pact