by Kenichi Asano
Kenichi Asano is a Professor of Communication Studies at Doshisha
University, Kyoto, Japan.
from Censored 2004
Most people from this region, as well as other parts of the globe, would be
quite surprised to hear the assertion that Japan is one of the most
underdeveloped states when it comes to the development of democracy and
healthy journalism in the Asia-Pacific region-and that politically, Japan is
not yet a fully independent nation. And why shouldn’t they be surprised?
Most people assume that since Japan is a highly industrialized country with
one of the highest standards of technology in the world, it must therefore
be a democratic state as well.
In fact, this is not the case. I would even go so far as to say that Japan
remains a threat to peace and prosperity in Asia.
MY EXPERIENCE AS A NEWS REPORTER
In examining the media situation and political governance in Japan, let me
first introduce my experience as a correspondent in Southeast Asia. For 22
years, I worked as a news reporter for Kyodo News, Japan’s representative
wire service, including a stint as Kyodo’s Jakarta Bureau Chief from
February 1989 to July 1992. In 1992, I was deported by General Suharto’s
I also covered the Cambodian conflict and democratization process in
Thailand. I have been an independent journalist for eight years, having also
taken a position as professor of mass communications at Doshisha University
in April 1994.
I have a special interest in media ethics, mainly how the news media should
cover crimes and criminal victims, as well as suspects, defendants, and
convicts. I often compare media-accountability systems in various countries.
I also try to monitor the “independence” of journalists from the political
centers of local and national power that they cover.
Let me share with you my experience, in particular, in Indonesia. I was
blacklisted by the Indonesian military and Japanese embassy in Jakarta for
my critical reporting on the Indonesian human rights situation and for
reporting on some shady ties with corrupt Japanese politicians.
WHY JAPAN IS SO UNDEMOCRATIC
Let me now turn to why Japan is one of the most underdeveloped states when
it comes to healthy journalism and democracy in the Asia-Pacific region.
Firstly, according to opinion polls in late September 2002, more than 55
percent of the Japanese public reportedly support Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi’s cabinet, even after he twice worshipped at Yasukuni Shrine near
Tokyo, a Shinto shrine where Class-A war criminals from World War II
(including Japan’s then-prime minister Hideki Tojo) are enshrined as gods.
Yasukuni Shrine was the center of state-sponsored Shintoism during the years
of Japan’s invasion of the Asia-Pacific region since 1895, when Japan
annexed Taiwan by military force. To make a comparison, that would be like
the current German president paying an official visit to Adolf Hitler’s
graveyard on the day that Nazi Germany surrendered to Allied forces.
Moreover, Shintaro Ishihara, the current governor of Tokyo-infamous for
repeatedly denying Japanese atrocities in the Nanjing Massacre in China
during the 1930s-ranks number one in Japanese public opinion polls as the
politician most favored to be the next premier of Japan. It is safe to say
that on the political spectrum, Ishihara is to the far right of Jean Le Pen
Most Japanese citizens, to this day, refuse to admit that Japan ever invaded
any Asia-Pacific countries. They even go so far as to emphasize that
Japanese military occupation in the region has helped these countries to
gain independence from Western imperialism.
Japanese Emperor Hirohito was acquitted of wartime atrocities at the close
of World War II, and since then, most Japanese people have closed the book
on taking any responsibility for their government’s own past crimes against
humanity. From that time up to the present day, Japan’s ruling party, the
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been dominated by ultra-right politicians
Herbert P. Bix’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Hirohito and the
Making of Modern Japan shows in painstaking detail the many ways that the
former Emperor led Japan’s military wartime regime, and how he was later
protected by Occupation forces after the war. The book, which has been out
in English since 2000, was finally translated into Japanese mid-2002, the
language that would expose it to its most important audience. Japanese
publishers had been reluctant to publish Bix’s book in fear that they will
become targets of right-wing violence. Kodansha, leading publishing firm in
Tokyo, published its translation. Most Japanese newspapers criticized the
book in their book reviews. What makes Bix’s book so threatening is the high
quality of his scholarship, revealing the truth of the matter with
indisputable facts. Mr. Minoru Kitamura, one of several Japanese historians
seeking to prove that the Nanjing Massacre in China never happened, has
written a new book called “The Massacre Myth.” Kitamura accused Mr. Harold
Timperley, correspondent to China for the then-Manchester Guardian newspaper
of Britain, of “creating” the story of the massacre.
Kitamura stresses that Timperley, author of the widely read book “The
Japanese Terror in China,” was an agent of the Chinese Kuomintang, the
nationalist party then in government. Mr. John Gittings, a Guardian
correspondent to Shanghai, wrote an article about it titled “Japanese
Rewrite Guardian History: Nanjing Massacre Reports Were False, Revisionists
Claim” on October 4, 2002.
Gittings, by analyzing Guardian archives in London, found out that the
reason for the misquoting of the numbers of massacred people was due to
Timperley’s references to the Yangtze River delta being omitted at the time
by Japanese diplomats in China. I too firmly believe that the number of
victims of the massacre committed by Japan is still not clear, simply
because the Japanese government has burnt or otherwise nullified evidence of
its crimes all over the world.
More recently North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has admitted that his country
kidnapped Japanese citizens-and that at least four were still alive. “It is
regretful and I want to frankly apologize,” Kim said to Japanese Prime
Minister Koizumi, as the two leaders held talks in Pyongyang during their
first face-to-face meeting on September 17.
Eight Japanese nationals, who were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, are
confirmed as being dead. Mr. Kim reportedly said that those responsible for
the kidnappings had been “sternly punished.” Six out of 11 people, whom
Tokyo has long claimed were abducted, were confirmed to have died in North
In a joint statement that followed the meeting between the two nations’
leaders, North Korea said it would abandon compensation from Japan’s 35-year
imperial invasion of the Korean Peninsula. In turn, it demanded Japanese
official development aid and expected private investment from Japan.
Pyongyang has long held complete compensation from Japan’s colonialism as a
pre-condition for talks over normalizing relations between the two
countries. But suddenly, North Korea let Japan’s responsibility for wartime
atrocities just fade away.
In this sense, the Japan-North Korea joint statement is worse than the 1965
so-called “peace treaty” between Japan and the military government of South
Korea. Mr. Kim of North Korea now badly seems to need Japanese economic help
as well as diplomatic support, at a time when he is under intense pressure
from the United States. North Korea can no longer afford to make so many
Revisionists and ultra-rightists in Japan have acquired renewed political
power following North Korea’s admission that it abducted Japanese citizens
several decades ago. The Japanese media, and most Japanese citizens, are
behaving as if they are innocent victims of some brand of devilish “outlaw
state.” It seems to me that they have all conveniently forgotten what their
own Japanese Imperial Army had done to the people of several Asia-Pacific
countries since 1895. Among many other things, Japan had abducted more than
three million Koreans, forcing them to be soldiers, mine workers, and “sex
In this instance with North Korea, as with many other past issues, the major
Japanese newspapers, magazines, and TV networks again showed their bad side:
carrying out their reporting via the phenomenon known as “pack journalism.”
In “pack journalism,” the employees of news organizations throng to a single
news source like a pack of animals, pursue the story almost as one herd, and
report mass amounts of information that end up in stories nearly identical
to one another. This is exactly the term the New York Times once used to
describe Japanese news reporters, when the corrupt president of the Toyoda
Shoji company was stabbed to death by a mobster in 1985, right in front of
Mr. Kim Sok-pom, a Korean writer born in Japan, severely criticized the
Japanese nation and its media recently during an October 26 citizen’s group
meeting on monitoring the media coverage of the North Korea abduction cases.
Kim stated publicly: “The mass media in Japan have been reporting the
abduction cases without mentioning what Japan has done to Koreans. This kind
of reporting by the Japanese mass media, which incites anti-Korean sentiment
among the Japanese public, is a kind of violence against Koreans born in
Japan. Japan has neglected to commemorate the massacre of Koreans born in
Japan during the massive earthquake in the Kanto area [of Japan] on
September 1, 1923, as well as all kinds of atrocities during Japanese
colonial rule. Is there any country like Japan in the world?”
Kim Sok-pom added that “Japan is suffering from amnesia.” He further accused
the Kim Jong-il government of an “act of treachery and shameful diplomatic
policy” when it recently gave up its right of any future claims to Japan’s
cruel occupation of the past.
Japanese revisionists have made great strides in erasing any written
references to ianfu-former “sex slaves” of the Japanese Imperial Army-and
the Nanjing Massacre in China from Japanese school textbooks. Very few
Japanese citizens today know about Japanese modern history in any real
Secondly, Japan is still under the military occupation of the United States
of America. Following Japan’s unconditional surrender to the U.S.-led Allied
forces on August 15, 1945, and the subsequent end of World War II, Japan was
placed under U.S. military control. The American military forces have never
left Japan since then. More than 40,000 U.S. troops remain based in Japan
today, as we speak. This is ostensibly to protect Japan from “enemies” like
North Korea-and yet no U.S. military bases in the area, outside of those in
South Korea, are facing imminent war with North Korea.
The Japanese news media and citizens are now criticizing North Korea’s
nuclear weapons plan. However, the Japanese have also totally forgotten that
there are functioning nuclear reactors all over Japan, not to mention large
numbers of nuclear weapons located on U.S. military bases in Japan.
Yet the Japanese government has confidently claimed that Japan’s nuclear
program will never be used for weapons and that U.S. armed forces are
restricted under the antinuclear policies of the Japanese constitution from
bringing nuclear weapons into Japan.
And this propaganda seems to be working well. One would be hard-pressed to
find any large demonstrations against U.S. bases in Japan by Japanese
students or Japanese workers. One can find an active anti-U.S. base movement
only in the southern island of Okinawa, where most of the beautiful beaches
are essentially occupied by the U.S. military. Extremely weak trade unions
and university student bodies in our country make it very easy for the
ruling class to control people. The Japanese, I would say, have politically
changed very little since 1868, when the shogun-ruled Edo period ended and
the Western-leaning Meiji period began.
Thirdly, the Japanese people have never experienced any real social
revolutions in their history, unlike nations in many other parts of the
world that have fought hard to acquire democracy at the cost of enormous
numbers of their own citizens.
JAPAN’S LAP DOG PRESS
I would like to assert one good reason why Japanese democracy is not yet
matured, despite Japans enjoyment of a high technological standard of
living: the problem known as “lap dog journalism.”
The press in Japan is as free and open as that of any nation in the world,
including the U.S. and European countries. Freedom of the press in Japan is
absolutely and strongly protected by the constitution that Japan adopted
after World War II. Any kind of censorship is strictly forbidden. Yet
self-censorship runs rampant. Those who work in Japanese media circles do
not use their constitutional right to carry out investigative reporting. The
Japanese press, as a whole, lacks any skepticism toward authority.
Lack of diversity and variety is the cause of such weak journalism. There is
only one local newspaper in most of the local prefectures of Japan. Major TV
networks are owned by prominent newspaper companies, which enjoy high
business profits. Japan has the highest number of newspaper readers per
capita of any country in the world.
And still, ironically, journalists and the general public alike in our
country do not realize that Japan’s freedom of expression was a “gift”
bestowed upon us by the Allied forces at the cost of 23 million victims
throughout the Asia-Pacific region during World War II. Major newspapers
throughout Japan since the 1950s have acted as if their highest duty were to
help enforce the continuing rule of the LDP.
A healthy, tense atmosphere between news sources and journalists is
indispensable for solid journalism to flourish.
In Japan, news sources try to curry favor with journalists only so they can
obtain favorable coverage of the organizations they belong to. But this is
not right. Journalists should be independent of any news source if they are
to effectively carry out their duty of working for the citizens’ right to
According to a survey taken in Japan in the late 1980s, 90 percent of news
stories in the Japanese press originate from government officials and Big
Business. This is because the majority of mainstream news reporters get
their “facts” through a system known as the “kisha clubs,” or press club
system imposed on media outlets from above. Under this system, the n – H
media serve merely as mouthpieces for those in power. The number of
commentators and academics who appear daily on major television networks in
Japan are overwhelmingly scholars whose work is patronized by the
A lack of objective, balanced reporting principles is another problem. The
Japanese media as a whole pay little or no attention to clarifying news
sources and attribution of those sources.
You may be surprised to know that very few professional journalists in Japan
have ever studied journalism before entering their profession. Only a few
universities-out of about 400 universities in all of Japan even have a
journalism department. A professional journalist is only regarded to be such
when he or she becomes gainfully employed by any of the news organizations.
Generally speaking, Japan’s concept of democracy is just like one that
Professor Noam Chomsky of the United States defines as “an alternative
conception of democracy.” That is, under this conception, citizens must be
barred from managing their own affairs and the means of information must be
kept narrowly and rigidly controlled.
In closing, I could see with my own eyes how the people of Thailand fought
against the regime of General Sutchinda in May 1992 in seeking democratic
reforms, and how the people and journalists of Indonesia waged a courageous
struggle to oust General Suharto in the 1990s. Likewise, the people of the
Philippines fought against the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and
contributed to the eventual withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from their
Journalists in those Asian nations were always to be found in public
demonstrations, alongside laborers, students and activists of
If Japan is ever to attain the status of a truly democratic state in the
modern world, then it is precisely this type of free and open journalism
that Japanese journalists will need to vigorously practice and defend.