Features | Society | East Asia

Is Japan Immune From China’s Media Influence Operations?

Efforts to boost pro-China narratives in Japan haven’t received much attention – but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

By Maiko Ichihara for
Is Japan Immune From China’s Media Influence Operations?

Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, left, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrive to a joint press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

China’s efforts to shape political debates and thinking in other countries are multiplying rapidly. Efforts to build what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) calls “discourse power” have spurred media influence operations across the Asia-Pacific region. Through these campaigns, the CCP aims to cultivate pro-China sentiment and manipulate domestic political landscapes to its advantage. From China’s National Radio and Television Administration deepening ties with government-run media outlets in the Philippines to CCP affiliates buying up Chinese-language media in Australia, such influence operations are expanding in both scope and sophistication. Yet one critical Asian country seems to have skated by unscathed thus far: Japan.

However, given Japan’s crucial geostrategic position in Asia, the seemingly low level of Chinese influence on Japanese media and public discourse is intriguing. Is it in fact the case that China’s influence has been limited in Japan? Or is it rather that the question has not, until now, been adequately studied? A careful review of major Japanese-language news sites that deal with China issues points to the latter conclusion. My recent study, Influence Activities of Domestic Actors on the Internet: Disinformation and Information Manipulation in Japan,” analyzes influence activities of political actors, trolls, and China-related news sites in Japan. As this research makes clear, sophisticated Chinese media influence operations in Japan are already underway.

Japan’s Pro-China News Sites

The key to finding China’s growing influence efforts in Japan is to know where to look. Unlike citizens of many other countries, most Japanese do not use social media as a news source. Instead, the vast majority of Japanese get their news primarily from internet sites and television. The most common form of accessing online news is through news aggregator sites like Yahoo! News, which curate content from multiple sources on one central platform.

Chinese actors have taken note of these consumption trends and have structured their influence operations accordingly. Using camouflaged China-linked Japanese news sites, they leverage multiple aggregators to disseminate pro-China news content to a wide audience. While reputable aggregators screen content contributors for reliability and professionalism, such quality control efforts can vary widely. Exploiting these weaknesses, stories from pro-China outlets are often able to pass through these loose screens and turn up on many of Japan’s leading news aggregator sites.

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One such example is SearChina, a Japanese-language news site focused on China issues. Founded in 1999, SearChina is owned by SBI Holdings, a Japanese company. SearChina is best known for its financial reporting, but it distributes sociocultural news as well. Though these topics might seem politically innocuous, my research has shown how they can still be used to support pro-China narratives; using quantitative text analysis, my study found an unusually high correlation between China-related news and the use of positive terms like “safe,” “superior,” and “beautiful.” While not explicitly pushing CCP propaganda, SearChina reports CCP party line content: SearChina’s articles primarily cite content from Toutiao, a Chinese outlet operated by tech giant ByteDance. Though not directly linked to the CCP, Toutiao is known for its strict self-censorship to match CCP narratives, skewing reporting in a pro-China way. This pro-China content is distributed through a number of aggregator sites, such as BIGLOBE, excite news, MSN News, and Niconico News, reaching a very wide readership.

A more malign example is the Tokyo-based online news site Record China. Established by Chinese filmmaker Shujian Ren in 2005, Record China originally specialized in picture sales but commenced news coverage in 2006. The bulk of Record China’s content focuses on social and cultural topics. Alongside those seemingly innocuous topics, though, its stories often include explicit political messaging, which is amplified through prominent Japanese aggregators. In contrast to SearChina’s subtly pro-China bent in its socio-cultural reporting, Record China directly weighs in on key diplomatic and political topics. The political content pushed through these channels has invariably parroted the Chinese government’s stance. The issue of Uyghur internment is one example. Despite a broad consensus in Japanese media accounts that it is a serious human rights concern, Record China has pushed CCP party line content that depicts Uyghurs as terrorists. Of the 24 Record China articles published in 2019 that dealt with Xinjiang, none mentioned human rights issues while 11 paraphrase the Chinese government’s official position.

Quantitative text analysis of data across 5,114 Record China pieces published in 2019 suggests that this pattern is not limited to hot-button topics. Record China relies almost exclusively on Chinese sources in China-related stories. Among them, 55.5 percent of its articles cite Chinese state media. The rest cite pro-CCP private media.

Moreover, Record China has frequently promoted content aimed at furthering key Chinese geopolitical objectives, especially driving a wedge between Japan and South Korea. Expanding beyond its ostensible Chinese focus, Record China frequently covers topics related to South Korea – my research shows that South Korea is covered as frequently as China and Japan. While RC promotes a positive view of the Japan-China relationship by featuring warm sociocultural content, it promotes a starkly negative view of relations between Japan and South Korea by covering thorny historical and diplomatic issues. In 2019, RC’s most-covered South Korea-related topics included divisive issues like Korean boycotts of Japanese products, the historical legacies of comfort women, export disputes between Japan and South Korea, and the possibility of discarding their bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement. In contrast, despite major disputes between Japan and China over territorial and cybersecurity issues that year, RC reported virtually all positive content on Sino-Japanese relations. The most popular topics were sports, celebrities, tourism, and trade between the two countries. On the whole, coverage of the relations between Japan and South Korea was markedly more political and hostile than that relating to Japan and China.

Registration data makes clear that Record China’s convergence with CCP objectives is no coincidence. Though Record China is incorporated in Japan, registration data show it is indirectly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party through two intermediate corporations. Through a search of Chinese records in partnership with the Doublethink Lab in Taiwan, we found that Record China has an internet domain in China, which is sponsored by the Shangzhong Online Technology Corporation. Shanghzong’s majority shareholder is Panasia Info&Tech, a firm controlled by CCP official Yan Jianou. Yan is both a deputy to the Wuxi Municipal People’s Congress and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference — an extension of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party. The United Front Work Department is in charge of intelligence and influence activities abroad.

Time to Act

The CCP’s attempts to influence Japanese political thinking through camouflaged media pose a serious challenge to the integrity of the Japanese media landscape, which has traditionally retained a high degree of societal trust. A few existing studies have argued that entities such as diaspora organizations, Japan-China exchange programs, and Confucius institutes in Japan are under the influence of the CCP, but the influence of these organizations on Japanese citizens has been limited. On the other hand, my research revealed that Record China has been spreading the CCP’s party line widely through news aggregators, and pro-China discourse is promoted by SearChina as well. Exploiting the vulnerabilities of news aggregators could prove to be an especially powerful mechanism for amplifying Chinese narratives. Because these pro-China stories emanate from nominally Japanese outlets, they are able to obtain a veneer of legitimacy and avoid scrutiny that they might otherwise face.

This is especially dangerous with regard to anti-Korea content, which resonates with right-wing actors who play up historical tensions between the two countries. As Japan’s far right capitalizes on these sociohistorical fissures, it is likely to further polarize Japanese society. In a broader sense, such divisive narratives also threaten to divide Japan and South Korea, the region’s most important quasi-allies. This divide could exacerbate mutual distrust and weaken security cooperation integral to tackling the threat of China’s rising military assertiveness and North Korea’s adventurism.

Japanese citizens must recognize that Japan is not immune to externally-generated manipulation and in fact is already being targeted in such operations. These malign efforts need to be countered head-on. News aggregators must become more vigilant in reviewing the content they promote and should terminate news distribution contracts with the sites that push CCP-generated content. In order to determine the extent of information manipulation in Japan, further research on China’s media campaigns is needed. Moreover, Japanese civil society has to prepare a stronger foundation for fact-checking as well. Although organizations such as FactCheck Initiative Japan have been working to expand the network of fact checkers, no entity has built sufficient factchecking capacity. Finally, Japanese NGOs, government, and internet platforms should partner to publicly call out Chinese media influence operations when they are uncovered. If they do not, the bonds of trust that bind traditional media and the Japanese public will invariably fray, weakening social cohesion and exacerbating polarization.

Maiko Ichihara is associate professor in the Graduate School of Law at Hitotsubashi University, Japan, and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is a steering committee member of the World Movement for Democracy, East Asia Democracy Forum, and Partnership for Democratic Governance (Japan), and is a co-chair of Democracy for the Future project at the Japan Center for International Exchange.