TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will take world leaders, including President Obama, into the beloved Ise Grand Shrine on Thursday morning at the start of the Group of Seven summit. The pictures will undoubtedly occupy the front pages of Japanese newspapers and the top of the TV news bulletins.
Abe’s government has been hard at work for months, trying to whip up excitement about the summit in the local and foreign media alike, and over the next few days, he will get plenty of good press. That’s exactly what he wants before the election season here.
But many analysts say that Abe’s government, which has been struggling with its main promise to revive the economy, has also found other ways to make sure it gets favorable coverage by creating an environment in which media companies have learned to “read the air,” as the Japanese saying goes, and refrain from critical reporting.
“The pressure isn’t direct — the media is censoring itself,” said Shiro Segawa, a professor of journalism at Waseda University. “The idea that they must obey the rules prevails in all Japanese companies, including media companies, and that leads to a mind-set in which media think they should not be making any trouble.”
There have been several accusations of government interference this year, after high-profile departures from Japan’s airwaves.
Most notably, Hiroko Kuniya, the Ted Koppel of Japan, was ousted as host of “Close-Up Gendai,” a current-affairs program on NHK, after 23 years at the helm. She ran afoul of the government when she had the temerity to ask one of Abe’s top aides an unscripted question on the air in 2014.
NHK has denied her dismissal was politically motivated, and Kuniya herself has been silent about the reasons for her departure. But she has obliquely described the environment in which broadcasters operate.
“In Japan, there remains an atmosphere that it’s not proper for an interviewer to persistently ask about things that your subject doesn’t want to talk about, even against politicians and corporate managers that are accountable,” she wrote in a long piece in this month’s Sekai magazine, without directly mentioning her ouster.
Shigetada Kishii, a senior writer for the Mainichi newspaper who had anchored the “News 23” program on Japan’s TBS, said the station “had a feeling that they needed to get rid of me” when it transferred him to a lesser role last month. He had been highly critical of the government’s move to loosen the post-war restrictions on Japan’s military and had heard that the government was “very displeased” with his analysis.
TBS has publicly denied any political interference and has privately indicated that low ratings were a factor.
Ichiro Furutachi, who presented TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” program and was often tough on the government, finished in March after 12 years at the anchor desk. Last year, the program let go of Shigeaki Koga, a former government official who became an outspoken critic of the Abe administration.
Koga said the decision came after a series of messages and briefings from government officials, offering emails and faxes as evidence, although TV Asahi and the government denied it.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this was linked,” Koga said, accusing the government of trying to muzzle its detractors. “The government has created an environment in which people cannot be critical.”
Abe has made concerted efforts to foster cozy relationships with media executives. A review of the prime minister’s public schedule since May 2015 shows that he has dined with media chiefs on at least 17 occasions, and all of the big names are on his dinner list: NHK, Nippon and Fuji television stations; the Yomiuri, Nikkei, Asahi, Mainichi and Sankei newspapers; and the Kyodo and Jiji wire services.
This is part of a trend — alarming to many analysts inside and outside Japan — that does not involve overt pressure from the government but rather includes media executives’ reining in their staff members.
Indeed, Sanae Takaichi, Japan’s communications minister, said the government could shut down broadcasters if their reports were not “politically neutral,” as stipulated in the broadcasting law, a comment viewed as threatening to government detractors.
David Kaye, the University of California at Irvine professor serving as the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has publicly noted that trends in media independence in Japan “are moving sharply and alarmingly in the wrong direction.”
“Well-known broadcasters and commentators with reputations for tough questions have left long-term positions, allegedly because of an environment hostile to or fearing the consequences of criticism of the government,” he said in a punchy initial report issued in April after a week-long visit to Japan.
The government has strongly pushed back against his report and is now preparing an official response.
“Freedom of expression, notably freedom of speech, is an essential and fundamental human right strictly guaranteed under the Japanese Constitution and also ensures democracy,” said Kenko Sone, a spokesman for Abe, adding that the prime minister “highly respects” freedom of expression.
“There is no truth whatsoever to the claim that the government put pressure on news media or persons connected with the press,” Sone said.
To be sure, when it comes to press freedom, Japan is not North Korea or China.
But Kaye is not the only one to have noticed a trend in the wrong direction. Reporters Without Borders has said that media freedom in Japan has declined since Abe returned as prime minister at the end of 2012, noting “the increase in self-censorship within leading media outlets.” Japan fell 11 places to 72nd in the watchdog’s latest World Press Index, below Mongolia and Senegal, although this was mostly because of a new law that makes it a crime to report classified information.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.