Japan’s Media: Facing Public Indifference More than Distrust


The term “fake news” has gained global currency, and distrust in both the conventional media and online news sources is on the rise. But in Japan, unlike elsewhere, media organs generally avoid controversy and partisanship, making the major concern not public distrust but public indifference.

Recent years have seen the growing diffusion of “fake news” via Facebook and other online channels. This disinformation is interfering with citizens’ ability to acquire accurate knowledge about politics that is essential for the functioning of democracy. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has taken to using “fake news” as a label to pin on media stories that provoke his displeasure. This term has caught on, and trust in the information delivered through the media has been shaken. Distrust of the media seems to be on the rise around the globe.

In Japan as well, we often hear talk of distrust in the media. But the situation here seems somewhat different from that in Western countries. In this article I will consider the Japanese brand of media distrust—how it differs from the distrust seen in other countries and whether it displays some similar tendencies. Some of the content is based on my 2017 book Media fushin: Nani ga towarete iru no ka (Media Distrust: What Is in Question?)

Reading the Winds of Public Sentiment

In its Digital News Report 2017, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, analyzes media distrust as arising from deep domestic political polarization and the resulting perceptions of bias in mainstream media. The increased level of distrust in the media accompanies the increasingly ideological bent and the intensification of political debate.

In Japan’s case, most conventional media organs adopt a reporting style that is restrained and aims for impartiality; they rarely court controversy. This has made them the target of foreign criticism: Western media representatives have criticized them for being mouthpieces for government announcements and not delivering clear messages of their own. The Western assessment is that that they are bland.

Japan has no shortage of controversial topics. Examples include the buraku issue (prejudice based on low-caste ancestry), discrimination against ethnic Koreans, use of nuclear power, interpretations of history, the role of the imperial family, and the continued application of the death penalty. But the press tends to shy away from such matters rather than entering the fray of debate.

Sontaku—“acting on the unspoken wishes of others”—tied for first place in Japan’s 2017 Words of the Year ranking. The formerly obscure term came into the limelight last year with the emergence of a pair of political scandals that centered on suspicions that bureaucrats had shown favoritism to figures with special connections to the prime minister—not because he had explicitly directed them to do so but because they believed that he wished them to. The word sontaku is actually a perfect expression of the way Japan’s severely hierarchical political and administrative apparatus operates, with underlings diligently seeking to implement what they believe to be their superiors’ will. And this sort of behavior can also be seen in the Japanese media, where there is a strong culture of reading the winds of public sentiment and avoiding unnecessary confrontation. By adopting this compliant posture, media organs effectively become representatives of the majority and promoters of national unity.

Perhaps as a result of this media avoidance of controversy, Japan does not exhibit the polarization of political opinion widely seen elsewhere, and so we do not seem to have the type of media distrust that the RISJ Digital Media Report 2017 identifies. Newspaper circulation figures are much higher in this country than anywhere else in the world; the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association reports over 40 million newspapers are published here every day. And according to a survey by NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), people watch television for almost four hours a day. In other words, traditional media outlets still enjoy large followings. This alone, however, does not prove that the public trusts the media.

Competing for Market Share Within a Narrow Framework

Japanese newspaper publishers and TV broadcasters have designed the content of their pages and programs to appeal to relatively docile readers and viewers; this is how they have sought to keep their circulation figures and viewership levels from declining. They play it safe by providing straight coverage of officially released information from government and business sources. When they look behind the news to offer analysis, they try to make it entertaining, and they aim to present content at a level that junior high school students can understand. Here we do not find the lively exchanges of conflicting opinions from experts seen in the op-ed section of the New York Times or the long and weighty research reports printed in full by Europe’s highbrow newspapers. By the same token, the major Japanese dailies are extremely unlikely to publish the sort of sleazy, sensationalistic, and dubiously sourced stories seen in British mass-market dailies.

Article 4 of the Broadcasting Act requires programming to be “politically fair.” In February 2016, then Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Takaichi Sanae caused a stir when she suggested that broadcasters that repeatedly carried programming lacking political fairness might have their access to the airwaves suspended. In recent years a number of popular and distinctive newscasters and commentators have been pulled from their regular spots on TV news and information programs, and news announcers have become notably more circumspect in their presentations. As these developments indicate, what Japanese broadcasters fear most is to be labeled “biased.”

Japan is a liberal, capitalist country where freedom of expression is guaranteed. But for many decades there has been little change in the lineup of major newspaper publishers and TV broadcasters. The same group of mainstream media outlets has been producing stories and programs within the same narrow frameworks, reading the winds of public sentiment and striving to maintain their people-friendly corporate images. Japan’s media organs have been competing fiercely for market share by seeking to differentiate themselves from their rivals—but only within the accepted parameters of the newspaper and broadcasting establishments.

Indifference Rather than Distrust

The survey findings presented in the RISJ Digital Media Report 2017 show that the level of public trust in Japan’s media is actually not that high in comparison with other countries. When asked if they believe “You can trust most of the news most of the time,” 43% of the Japanese respondents gave affirmative responses. By this measure Japan was in seventeenth place out of the 36 markets surveyed, ranking just behind Britain (also at 43%). Germany placed seventh at 50%, while the United States was twenty-eighth at 38%.

An even more interesting finding concerns people’s trust in the media that they themselves follow. Asked if they think “I can trust most of the news I consume most of the time,” 44% of the Japanese responded in the affirmative. This was almost the same as the 43% who said they trusted the news overall, but Japan’s international ranking by this measure was considerably lower—twenty-eighth out of 36. This contrasted with the results for the other three countries cited above, where trust rankings for “the news I consume” were markedly higher than for the news overall: Britain ranked nineteenth with 51%, Germany sixth with 58%, and the United States thirteenth with 53%.

Why are the figures for Japanese people’s trust in the media overall and their trust in the media that they consume so close? This, we can surmise, is because they see virtually no difference among the various media organs. Given this perception, they do not bother to seek out media with views matching their own. And they show little interest in media trends.

In the light of this data, the biggest concern in Japan’s case is not that people distrust the media but they are indifferent to them. And by extension, they are liable to be indifferent to their society.

The media response to the Me Too movement against sexual harassment that came to the fore last year has been tepid in comparison to the lively activity this women’s movement generated in Japan’s social media. This is an example of the way the Japanese media tend to be bland even in their coverage of major topics of global debate. Media organs have seemed to be hesitant to take up sexual harassment as a newly prominent social issue. Japan may not have the sort of severe media distrust and social polarization seen in many other countries, but the media here show little initiative in going after serious issues affecting our democratic society and attentively addressing them together with the public.

The Growing Distance Between the Media and the Public

An RISJ survey provides data confirming the distance between Japan’s news media and society. Asked whether they had talked with friends and colleagues about a news story during the past week, just 19% of the respondents in Japan said yes; this is much lower than the figures of 40% for the United States and 37% for Britain. A similar difference is seen in the percentages of those who say they shared or discussed news online: just 5% in Japan against 20% in the United States and 12% in Britain. And when it comes to regularly sharing or commenting on news online, Japan placed last among the 36 markets surveyed with a figure of 13%.

In its Digital News Report 2016, which covered 26 markets, the RISJ included the results of a comparison of interest in “hard” and “soft” news, the former referring to topics like politics and the economy and the latter to topics like entertainment. The share of Japanese declaring that they were more interested in hard news than soft was 49%, the lowest figure among all the surveyed markets. In countries where there is a strong social expectation that people should show interest in political and economic news, the share of those replying that they are more interested in hard news than soft is likely to be higher regardless of their actual inclinations. But in Japan this sort of social norm—the idea that it is citizens’ duty to keep informed about hard news topics—lacks force, and the level of interest in hard news is in fact low. It seems reasonable to surmise that people are also not that interested in the issue of how the media should handle their coverage of the news.

In comparison to other countries, Japan continues to have a high level of newspaper circulation, and TV viewership has not been declining as fast here as elsewhere. This may reflect the success of the media’s longstanding strategy of avoiding controversial content. But these phenomena suggest that there is a gap between the actual state of Japanese society and the image of society that the media project. In Japan we do not find the polarization within the media that is prominent elsewhere, but the distance between the media and society is steadily increasing.

The Emergence of Partisan Media in Japan

I should note, however, that recently Japan has also seen the emergence of media organs that do not shy away from controversy. Unlike most of their major counterparts, which continue to maintain a cautious posture, reporting both sides of the debate on controversial issues while holding themselves apart from the fray, some newspapers are now displaying clear partisanship, appealing to readers’ personal opinions with content that presents the case for or against the government and specific political parties. Prime examples are the Sankei Shimbun and Tokyo Shimbun. The former has adopted a conservative, right-leaning stance, presenting revisionist views of history and voicing support for Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s administration, while the latter has veered toward the left, opposing the use of nuclear power and criticizing the Abe administration.

The rightward turn of the Sankei’s commentary is clear, with xenophobic opinions prominent on its pages. The paper seems to be using this slant as a form of branding. It has focused largely on issues relating to Japan’s wartime behavior, notably the practice of using “comfort women” from Korea and elsewhere as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers. The Sankei has directed its criticism especially at what it calls biased reporting by another daily, the Asahi Shimbun, featuring articles accusing it of giving global currency to misinformation about this practice—and has even published a collection of these criticisms in the form of a book.

The Sankei has also been directing barbs at the opponents of the Abe administration. It delivered a fierce attack on two local dailies in Okinawa Prefecture, the Ryūkyū Shimbun and Okinawa Times, for mistaken reporting on a recent incident involving the US Marines stationed there and for their failure to report good news about the Marines. Subsequently, however, the Sankei’s own coverage turned out to be inaccurate, and the paper retracted its story and issued an apology on February 8, 2018.

So Japan now also has commentary fanning media distrust on the basis of misinformation and prejudiced judgment, with some media organs accusing their opponents of partisanship and bias. The question is how this new sort of focused distrust will react with the overall distrust of the media in Japan and what effect it will have in the future.

The Sankei ranks last in circulation among Japan’s five national dailies, and it is said to be struggling financially. Over the past 30 years or so, out of a sense of crisis regarding its ongoing viability, it has been seeking to connect to readers by adopting an editorial posture different from that of the other national papers. Today the Sankei does not target docile readers who lack serious interest in the media; instead it actively seeks support for its own positions from its readers and urges them to distrust its liberal rivals.

It is not yet clear that this sort of partisanship will become prevalent in Japan’s media world, but change is definitely underway. And we will need to examine future developments in this area, coming up with indicators and other tools to measure this change.

In a story released on March 15, the Kyodo News agency reported that Prime Minister Abe is considering revision of the Broadcasting Act to eliminate the provision requiring radio and TV programming to be “politically fair” with the idea of allowing greater freedom in broadcasting. This deregulation would supposedly promote the participation of new entrants in the industry. But it will be far from easy for newcomers to challenge the long-established dominance of the five main commercial broadcasters based in Tokyo. And there is a danger that such deregulation will lead to increased partisanship within the oligopolistic broadcasting industry as well.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 26, 2018. Banner photo: Distributing newspaper extras reporting a North Korean missile launch. Note: The photo, taken in Minato, Tokyo, on May 29, 2017, has no direct connection to the content of this article. © Jiji.)

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