The Crisis in North Korea and the Challenge for NHK World (Part One)

Politics Society

A Profile Heightened by the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

The looming crisis in North Korea represents a crucial make-or-break test for NHK World, Japan’s sole English-language news broadcasting system. (*1)

When hydrogen explosions struck reactors at the crippled Nuclear Power Station in aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami last March, news broadcasters around the world had no choice but to use the images distributed by NHK World, given the nature of the incident. It was a rare moment that brought this made-in-Japan news source to international prominence. But this phenomenon will be difficult to repeat when the subject matter is North Korea.

When NHK World was created, the intention was not just to have it serve as a channel for English-language news from and about Japan, but to make it the top news source for the region, providing an indirect boost to Japan’s international profile.

In English there is an expression “punch above your weight.” It is a metaphor based on boxing, meaning that you take on someone in a higher weight class—in other words, that you operate at a level beyond the norm for your size. Japan is notorious for failing to do this, and for many years it was hoped that a Japan-sourced international broadcaster with programming in English might help to bring about some improvement in this respect.

The situation in North Korea is a crucial test. With global attention riveted on developments on the Korean peninsula, NHK World needs to prove that it can provide images and content that other broadcasters will want to buy. Otherwise, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that it has failed to become anything more than a local media organ.

What Was Supposed to Be a Japanese CNN

In April 2008 a new company was founded to broadcast internationally in English. This represented the fulfillment of a plan espoused by several Liberal Democratic Party-led governments and a recommendation by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs Council on the Movement of People Across Borders. To allow it to carry the commercial advertising it would need to make it self-sufficient, the broadcaster was launched as an independent stock company separate from the partially state-run NHK, and accepted equity investments from private-sector enterprises. The initial aim was to create a Japanese media organ along the lines of CNN and BBC World.

Up until then, the only NHK broadcasting content available overseas was programming directed at expatriate Japanese and their families. This meant that if a tense-faced Japanese foreign minister happened to come across NHK on the TV in his hotel room as he put on his necktie before important negotiations overseas, he was liable to be confronted with scenes from a program for preschoolers and their mothers. Exasperated, politicians returned home from this sort of experience to ask, not unreasonably, why Japan could not have a CNN-style broadcaster of its own, similar to China’s CCTV and South Korea’s Arirang TV.

In one sense, diplomatic clout is a question of prominence in the international consciousness. To what extent does a given country leap to mind when a certain issue is mentioned? For Japan this means securing an appropriate “mind share” among foreign leaders. Brand management in the broad sense of the term is a major part of this: Does Japan get invited to participate in initiatives to deal with international issues? One of the main purposes of international broadcasting, then, was to boost Japan’s brand value and lift its international profile.

But a broadcaster providing information only about Japan would be unlikely to attract much demand. If the aim was to create a channel similar to CNN, it needed to grab the first-mover advantage on reporting on Asia. The aim was to achieve the status of a major media outlet with the clout to define the regional news agenda ahead of anybody else.

The broadcaster would be worthless if it became a mere outlet for national propaganda. Full operational independence and freedom from government interference was therefore essential. Another reason for seeking investment from the private sector was to allow the channel to draw on the rich store of assets held by private-sector broadcasters, including music and drama programs, allowing it to offer internationally competitive content.

It was an agreement along these lines that led people to assert that Japan needed a 24/7 English-language broadcasting outlet of its own. Eventually, this led to the establishment of a specialist international broadcasting company. I can speak with some confidence of the background to how this happened, since I happened to be serving in the relevant section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, and was therefore in a position to know the details.

(December 20, 2011. To be continued in Part Two.)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

(*1) ^ NHK World is the international service of NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), Japan’s public broadcasting network. It offers news and other content in English and 17 other languages.—Ed.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station North Korea NHK World English-language international news broadcasts CNN BBC World CCTV News Taniguchi Tomohiko