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    How to read Japanese newspapers

    I got an interesting question from a reader and occasional commenter the other day, asking me to give him the low-down on the political slants of the major Japanese newspapers. What follows is a longer version of the answer I sent him.

    Bear in mind that this is my answer based on day-to-day experience, as a non-specialist who’s interested in being informed and who talks politics with Japanese friends and hears how they read the same stories I do. I realize that there is more specialized and systematic commentary available on how the Japanese news media function. (The Japan Media Review is typical.) The problem, if you’re a general reader, is that they rarely indicate how you can work around the problems.

    So this is my workaround. If anyone else with Japan experience thinks I’m full of baloney, I’d be interested to hear.

    *******

    The straightforward, by-the-book answer to my reader’s question is relatively easy. The Nikkei, being concerned with economics/business practicalities, is most politically neutral. The Asahi is leftist (which is handily made easy to remember by the color scheme of its on-line edition). The Sankei is controlled by LDP supporters and tends to parrot the government–one of the interesting backstories behind the controversy over Livedoor’s attempt to get a foothold in Fuji Television, which is part of the same conglomerate. The Yomiuri and Mainichi are populist.

    I don’t think that Japanese journalists are any less able, inquisitive, and intelligent than Western journalists. Most of them probably get into their jobs because they want to tell the public important things and help keep large organizations honest. There are plenty of jobs available in this country for born yes-men; choosing a job that means hiking all over the place and tracking interview subjects down genuinely indicates, I think, a desire to serve the public.

    But, of course, politicians and businessmen recognize that the media filter their public image, and they are naturally going to exert all the pressure they can to make sure that image is as sympathetic as it can be. Also, one of the highest values in Japanese culture generally is the avoidance of open conflict; it would be unrealistic to expect journalism to find a magical way of operating outside that.

    Put those factors together, and you get cartel-like press clubs and chummy glad-handing with the people whose actions reporters are supposed to be portraying objectively. Young reporters quickly discover that the only thing you make for yourself by being openly skeptical and exposing scandals is trouble. Does this mean that reporters for prestige publications never, ever, ever report the real dirt? Not exactly. What it does mean is this:

    The articles in all the major dailies will say almost exactly the same things in their coverage of a political or business controversy. Often, the articles will be so similar as to seem practically interchangeable, because they consist largely of talking points the reporters have been spoon-fed.

    You still need to read articles in more than one of the dailies to get a sense of what’s going on. Why would that be, if they say the same things? Because they only say almost the same things, and the tiny differences are often the most instructive parts of the articles.

    Here’s where you need a good eye. They’ll agree on the 5 w‘s + 1 h, and they’ll present the same approved line about motivations and goals.

    But now look closely. Is there an item that’s mentioned, in passing but without development, in only one or two of the articles? That could imply that one particular reporter has managed to ferret out something interesting that’s not part of the PR spin. Alternatively, is there an item mentioned in all the articles but, again, in passing and without development? If so, pay attention.

    An item that’s mentioned glancingly without elaboration may be important later. Japanese news departments don’t waste column inches any more than American news departments do. If an item is included without being fleshed out, that usually means that (1) it was important enough to include and (2) the reporter didn’t feel free to flesh it out. It will generally be something suggestive–a hint that the MP supporting the new bill has past ties to business interests that would benefit from it, or the barest intimation that someone somewhere is looking into the safety record of the company whose product just caused an accident. Sometimes, it’s hardly more than a modifying phrase, but it will be something that makes the skeptical newshound in you say, “Ooh, I wish they’d told me more about that.”

    You will, in fact, hear more about it. The reporter knows his audience; they read like Japanese people, in full knowledge that surface content is often not to be trusted to express deep truth. For that matter, there may be a veiled message to the figure who’s about to be exposed, too: “Be warned that more unsavory types than I are looking into these connections, pal–have the face-saving story ready for your inevitable press conference.”

    But the major dailies have to retain their prestige, so they almost never feel free to actually break scandals. They have to wait until one of the tabloid weeklies does it, after which talking about the story is no longer taboo, though lots of bet-hedging phrases such as “allegedly” and “it has been speculated” will still be tossed around.

    I wish I had a good example of what I’m talking about here–all this is very abstract, and once you get used to it, you don’t even realize you’re doing it: filing away little clauses that don’t fit the tenor of the rest of an article because, in the back of your mind, you know that they could be the stuff of next month’s headlines. But the thing is, unless you know more reporters more intimately than most of us do, your only choice is to get what you can from the available, on-the-record media. And, in my experience, this is the way it works.

    4 Responses to “How to read Japanese newspapers”

    1. yago says:

      hell, I don’t think I’ll be able to read that well, heh.

      No blogs around nor openly partisan sources? I mean how leftist is the Asahi. NYTimes-like?

      And what do you mean by populist?

      sorry for all the questions, but I just thought it would take such a long time if I had to find out by myself, or asking my japanese friends who aren’t quite into politics.

    2. I disagree with the analysis. The Yomiuri is more pro-LDP and conservative whereas the Sankei is outlandishly populist-conservative, occasionally with vicious attacks on America, China, immigrants, North Korea, the Zainichi, etc etc. Check out their nutty news on North Korea:

      http://www.sankei.co.jp/databox/n_korea/index.html

      Good stories, but they report the most obscure rumors as facts. The Sankei is like the Washington Times of Tokyo.

    3. Sean Kinsell says:

      Wow. Disagreement–I almost never get that. How exciting! I mean, what do I wear to such an occasion? : )

      I don’t think you’re wrong, but to clarify a thing or two first: when I said that the Sankei supports “the government,” I wasn’t necessarily talking about the Koizumi administration. It’s more the old-guard of the LDP and the bureaucrats. Shintaro Ishihara likes publishing his op-eds in the Sankei, right?

      Also, I was mostly talking about domestic issues, because those are the ones that we’re pretty much at the mercy of the Japanese press to find out about–and what you’re describing seems to me to be more “nationalist” than “populist.”

      Then, too, my own use of “populist” was kind of vague and misleading. I wasn’t talking about rabble-rousing or storm-the-battlements rhetoric–heaven forfend! One of the ways the Yomiuri retains its largest-in-the-world circulation is, I believe, its blandly cheery tone toward the masses. (There are also its aggressive salespeople, apparently, though I’ve never met them. I think we’re basically a Nikkei building.) That’s the kind of thing I meant.

      The Yomiuri has been more supportive of the LDP in the sense of the Koizumi administration, I think. I like its reporting on Article 9, the SDF deployment to Iraq, and Japan Post privatization more than I do that of the others.

      When you were talking about disagreeing, something I was thinking you might say was about my Nikkei comment–specifically, that of course a free-market libertarian such as me is going to regard it as “neutral.” But the thing is, what I was reproducing in that paragraph was the lowdown as I’ve tended to have been given it by Japanese friends. That’s not to say that I don’t like the Nikkei because of its practicality. It’s the only one whose dead-tree edition I subscribe to.

    4. Simon World says:

      Daily linklets

      The Mrs and I are heading for a week long, kid free holiday in deepest Indochina. The guest blogging duties will be taken up by the same excellent crew as last time. But before I go, a final few links for the week… A case study in media ethics. Phil looks at Hong Kong’s next big concrete elephant. Given the 40,000 seat stadium in Causeway Bay is full for exactly 3 days a year, it’s hard to see why Hong Kong needs a 70,000 seat stadium at Kai Tak. Drug addicts: register with the cops or you’ll be forced to register. Superheroes and their skimpy outfits. How to read Japanese newspapers. One kid’s reaction to the first McDonald’s drive through in China. Only half of China can speak Mandarin. Hong Kong kids get a taste of conscription to make them more patriotic. They could learn from their South Korean…

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