Shinzo Abe’s ‘Glass Jaw’ and Media Muzzling in Japan
Image Credit: U.S. Embassy Tokyo

Shinzo Abe’s ‘Glass Jaw’ and Media Muzzling in Japan


If there is anything that Japan’s current Abe-led administration and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) dislike intensely, it is media criticism of its actions and policies. This might explain the crackdown on freedom of the media in both electronic and paper formats in recent months. This is a worrying development that has even been picked up by the international press and by international organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, which has moved Japan down two notches to 61st place in its global freedom of press rankings.

The list is long of media-muzzling behaviors to which the prime minister and his office (Kantei) and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are increasingly prone. A short list includes: interpreting media criticism as “unfair” coverage; calling for “fair and neutral [namely uncritical] reporting” (e.g. on Abenomics and the 2014 election); labeling criticism of the government and its policies as media “bias”; grilling media executives by subjecting them to “questioning” over aired programs and complaining directly to them about their coverage; objecting to curb-side interviews and refusing to grant media interviews or to appear on TV programs until broadcasters apologize; threatening media organizations with action under the Broadcasting Law; and making references to the government’s authority to stop commercial TV stations from broadcasting. These behaviors are not unique to the Abe administration in Japan nor internationally, but are now setting the tone of government-media relations in Japan, which is new.

The government and LDP have reserved their strongest attacks for the left-wing media, particularly the Asahi newspaper and TV Asahi, especially its news-reporting “Hodo Station.” When the Director-General of LDP’s Information Bureau sent a letter to TV Asahi complaining about news coverage of Abenomics (the government’s economic program) after it had called for neutrality in reporting during the run-up to the 2014 Lower House election, Hosei University’s Professor of Media Studies, Hiroaki Mizushima, observed that it was “unprecedented to have the ruling party submit specific complaints toward a particular program. It can be considered a sort of threat.” More recently the administration has been dealing with accusations that it pressured TV Asahi to drop outspoken guest commentator, Shigeaki Koga, from Hodo Station.

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The attacks have increasingly extended to the foreign media in a way that is pointed and personal, and puts the Foreign Ministry in the position of chief instrument of the Abe administration’s “denial diplomacy” on war history issues. A journalist from the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) who left Japan in April described “the suffocating atmosphere for reporters under the Abe administration” after coming under attack from the Foreign Ministry for having published a story about the Abe administration’s “revisionist view of history.”

Nor is the government above attacking Japanese academics who provide commentary to foreign correspondents, particularly if it includes criticism of the prime minister and his government .

Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has taken on the primary role of both applying and denying pressure on the media.

Given these developments, it is difficult not to conclude that the Abe administration and LDP are trying to cow the domestic and foreign media into submission. The result has been counterproductive internationally, but self-censorship by domestic media critics is becoming more apparent amongst those now inclined to “play it safe” by confining news to bland reporting and avoiding anything that could be construed as criticism of the Abe administration. The national broadcaster, NHK, particularly under its Abe-appointed chairman, Katsuto Momii, sees itself these days as more of a PR organ for the government. Although it is scrupulous in obtaining cross-party commentary on key political issues and policies, it has been known to omit from the news items that might be considered embarrassing to the Abe government.

Ironically, in its attempts to stifle media freedom, it is the government itself that is at risk of violating the Broadcast Law, which guarantees independence for broadcasters in order to ensure freedom of expression. It may even be at risk of violating the constitutional provision that provides for “freedom of expression.”

The Abe administration finds media criticism extremely galling because it faces so little from within the ruling party itself or from the opposition parties in the Diet, which are overwhelmingly weak. Abe’s “glass jaw” is particularly evident in the face of embarrassing questions in the Diet from opposition party members, when he has retaliated with heckling.

Within his own party, the prime minister is in a very strong position after leading it to victory in three elections, which have delivered the ruling coalition two thirds of the seats in the Lower House and a majority in the Upper House. The anti-mainstream faction within the LDP has virtually disappeared, so there is no anti-Abe faction or any force that is critical of Abe in the party. The anti-mainstream faction traditionally guaranteed a diversity of views on major issues and “prevented the party from getting out of control.” The lack of any such faction these days means that there are no “relentlessly critical eyes” in the party that would counter the mainstream group on issues such as Abenomics and the exercise of the right of collective defense, and so there is no heated internal party debate on these issues. The strongest internal party rebellion gets is requests from backbenchers for the Kantei to advance reform with caution.

Abe’s unassailable position in the party and strong policy momentum is giving rise to a top-down system of “Kantei rule” where the prime minister’s office has seized the policy initiative and has become the sole body with strength in the policymaking process. In fact Japan’s very much more powerful executive under Abe is bordering on a presidential style of prime ministership.

The Kantei’s dominance over the ruling party is matched by its dominance over the bureaucracy. The Yomiuri reports that the new Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs established in May 2014 is “one of the marquee features of the Abe administration’s drive to promote ‘initiative by the Prime Minister’s Office.’ It oversees the personnel affairs of roughly 600 vice ministers, bureau chiefs, deputy bureau chiefs, and other senior staff at central government ministries and agencies.” Power of appointment is designed above all to ensure a more compliant bureaucracy.

Added to this is the fact that Abe has very strong policy views, is articulate and skillful at marketing them, and brooks no opposition to them from any quarter. If anything, he and the Kantei are impatient with the political process and prone to punishing those who stand up to him. Yōichi Tashiro, professor of Ōtsuma Women’s University remarked that one of Abe’s four faces is that of “a bully who ignores customary rules and different opinions to pursue his own passion and interests and tenaciously and insidiously bullies and retaliates on those who defy him.”

As for the party structure, it is a case of “one strong; many weak” (ikkyou tajyaku), without a single, strong, credible major opposition party, a role once filled by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Diet management is not a problem given the ruling coalition’s two-thirds majority in the Lower House and majority in the Upper House, while within the ruling coalition itself, the Komeito is a moderating but uncritical force.

Aurelia George Mulgan is professor of Japanese Politics, University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, Australia. Author of six books on Japanese politics (the latest “Ozawa Ichiro and Japanese Politics: Old Versus New,” Nissan/Routledge 2014).

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