By Tessa Morris-Suzuki
At the start of each week, the commuter trains and subways of Japan are adorned with a mass of multi-colored advertisements, enticing the passengers to buy the latest of issue of the country’s many weekly magazines. The advertisements are an art form in themselves. All follow a similar format. A tightly packed mass of text, some of it almost too small to be readable, sets out the fare on offer. Amongst these smaller titles, a few select words, picked out in giant black or red characters, proclaim the catch-cries of this week’s news. Crime, death, sex and scandal figure prominently in the advertisements’ lexicons. Mixed in with the text are small photographs of the main protagonists in the magazine’s stories, photographs (of course) carefully chosen to complement the accompanying text — radiant smiling images of this week’s heroes; blurry, scowling shots of the current villains of the political or entertainment world.
The same process is repeated once a month when the leading monthly magazines hit the newsstands. Though the monthlies offer longer and more analytical articles, they commonly pick up themes first aired in the weeklies, and some, like the market leader Bungei Shunju (commonly abbreviated to Bunshun) echo the heated rhetoric of their weekly counterparts.
In the last week of January and the first weeks of February 2005, the words which leapt out at commuters’ eyes from the advertisements were “lies,” “witch hunt,” “political pressure” and everywhere, the names of two of Japan’s largest and most influential media institutions: the national broadcasting company NHK and the daily newspaper Asahi. The two organizations were embroiled in an intense battle over problem of media ethics and freedom, and their rival media organizations were observing the struggle with considerable glee.
Unlike the entertainment world scandals that often fill the headlines of the weekly magazines, this struggle has profound political and social significance. Despite the image of a vibrant free press conveyed by the magazine advertisements, deep and disturbing questions have emerged about the capacity of the Japanese media to maintain their political independence and provide a forum for unfettered political debate.  The NHK controversy also touches on long-standing but still unresolved problems of historical responsibility: problems which have a powerful bearing on the future of Japan’s relations with its East Asian neighbors.