Author: Jeff Kingston, Temple University Japan
Imagine that the editorial page of The New York Times suddenly shifted dramatically rightward and columnists critical of US President Donald Trump were ousted and replaced by sycophantic pundits. Then a tape emerges of the editor justifying these changes as intended to counter accusations that the newspaper is anti-American and the sacking of Trump debunkers as designed to boost government ad revenue and snag an interview with Trump. This is essentially what recently happened at The Japan Times.
In June 2017, public relations firm News2u purchased The Japan Times, Japan’s oldest and most circulated English-language newspaper. The new management jettisoned the newspaper’s previous critical editorial stance in favour of lauding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies. The Japan Times now embraces Abe’s revisionist history, which promotes a vindicating and exonerating narrative of Japan’s wartime past.
Based on information from an insider’s tape, on 25 January 2019 Reuters reported that Executive Editor Hiroyasu Mizuno insinuated during a staff meeting that criticising Abe’s policies and revisionist views on history conveyed an anti-Japanese bias. He said, ‘I want to get rid of criticism that Japan Times is anti-Japanese’ — akin to arguing that criticising Trump makes The New York Times anti-American. According to that logic, much of the Japanese population must be anti-Japanese since polls suggest support for Abe’s signature policies hovers between 25–30 per cent.
At the same meeting, a senior manager clearly stated on tape that termination of my own column (which was often critical of the Abe administration) had already produced an upside, boosting revenues from government-sponsored content and scoring an interview with Abe.
Reuters drew attention to Mizuno’s unsuccessful efforts in mid-2018 to convince his editorial team to soften its criticism of Japan’s wartime misconduct, annotating several articles to make his point. According to copies of his notes, he ‘objected to calling comfort women “victims” or mentioning that they included girls; questioned referring to Japan’s occupation of Korea as “brutal”; and criticized the paper’s reporting and stories by wire services, including Reuters, as generally “pro-Korea” and not adequately reflecting Japan’s view’.
The latter is a misleading claim, as there is no monolithic Japanese view of history as it varies across the political spectrum. The Japan Times has shifted from the Asahi newspaper’s left-of-centre stance to the deep right at the Sankei end of the spectrum.
Having failed to sway his team, Mizuno proceeded to ignore their objections, inserting a note at the end of an article on 30 November 2018 about the Seoul–Tokyo fracas over forced labour. The note announced that The Japan Times would no longer use the terms ‘comfort women’ and ‘forced labour’. In doing so, Mizuno overturned the terminology long used at the newspaper and most English-language media, including The New York Times, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.
Mizuno’s brief note explains that the newspaper will now refer to comfort women as ‘women who worked in wartime brothels, including those who did so against their will’. And Korean workers will be referred to simply as ‘wartime labourers’, omitting any reference to coercion.
The note angered many Japan Times reporters and staff, forcing Mizuno to hold a meeting to clear the air (at which the tape featuring his controversial remarks was made). After the meeting on, 6 December 2018, Mizuno acknowledged and expressed his regret that the note ‘damaged the relationship of trust that we have developed with our readers, our writers and our staff’.
Mizuno told Reuters that he is not opposed to ‘appropriate’ criticism. But the editorial shift seems to exclude hard-hitting commentary. New columnists act as cheerleaders for Abe, while an acerbic political reporter who asked awkward questions at press conferences was shifted from the Prime Minister’s beat. Blogosphere reactionaries are triumphant, claiming victory now that The Japan Times has capitulated and is endorsing euphemisms about the comfort women system of sexual slavery and forced labour.
The bombshell Mizuno tape has tarnished The Japan Times’ brand. The tape suggests that the newspaper’s editor lacks integrity and journalistic ethics, having traded both for government ad money and access to Abe. The Japanese media has also picked up the story, amplifying the reputational damage. Transactional journalism of this sort overshadows the excellent reporting and features that make The Japan Times so valuable. Whether or not one agrees with the new terminology on comfort women and forced labour, the revelations are devastating public relations for a venerable newspaper now owned by a PR firm.
Although the newspaper’s physical circulation is just 45,000 copies,The Japan Times plays an outsized role in global perceptions of Japan because of the internet. This is precisely why a cabinet minister reportedly asserted at a late-2016 meeting that something had to be done about The Japan Times’ critical coverage, which was undermining the government’s pro-Abe public diplomacy.
After the ownership change, The Japan Times began fawning over Abenomics and the Prime Minister’s right-wing agenda. The evident willingness to kowtow to power, rather than speak to it, highlights the larger problem of self-censorship in Japan and a beholden media reliant on access journalism.
Japan Times staff have been in damage control mode since the Reuters story broke. It appears unlikely that there will be any reversal of the new editorial direction despite internal discord and the embarrassing revelations. Management is likely hoping to brazen out the scandal and continue milking the government for sponsored content and crumbs of access as it rides the lucrative 2020 Olympic wave.
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, a former columnist of The Japan Times and author of Japan (Polity 2019).