Shinzo Abe in 2012

The cabinet that Abe unveiled after he was named prime minister saw the return of some familiar faces, most notably Taro Aso, another former prime minister, who was appointed foreign minister. In his evaluation of Aso, George Nishiyama wrote in the Wall Street Journal: Taro Aso, 72. Position: Finance minister. Strength: Experience in high-profile cabinet positions, including a year as prime minister. Weakness: Prone to gaffes. A longtime ally of Mr. Abe, Mr. Aso will play a key role in crafting an emergency economic package expected to total around ¥10 trillion by January. Known as a proponent of fiscal stimulus, he rolled out a record ¥14 trillion ($164 billion) spending plan during his 2008-2009 tenure as prime minister. One of the most colorful figures in Japanese politics, the former prime minister is an avid manga buff, known for stacking up comic books in the back seat of his chauffeured car. He once told the parliament how he had learned a lot about international affairs from one of his favorite comic series about a professional assassin. While his outspoken ways have bought him fans, his off-the-cuff remarks had become such a liability to his Liberal Democratic Party that Mr. Aso had to reduce the number of public appearances during his last weeks in office as prime minister. [Source: George Nishiyama, Japan Real Time, Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2012. Shimomura served in Mr. Abe’s last administration as deputy chief cabinet secretary.]

On other members of the cabinet Nishiyama wrote: Akira Amari, 63. Position: Economy minister. Strength: Knowledge of Japanese industry, from his experience as trade minister and policy chief of his party. Weakness: Image as a strong proponent of nuclear energy. Mr. Amari will be in charge of formulating the new government’s economic policy as the head of two bodies tasked with formulating growth strategies for both the economy as a whole and for specific industries, a role that Prime Minister Abe has described as the “control tower “ for revitalizing the country’s economy. An expert on energy issues, Mr. Amari reached an agreement with China to jointly develop gas fields in the East China Sea in June 2008 as a trade minister. He is also known as a strong proponent of nuclear energy, defending Japan’s reliance on nuclear plants, even after the March 2011 earthquake triggered the nation’s worst nuclear crisis. Before entering politics, Mr. Amari worked for Sony for two and a half years. He then became a secretary to his father, who was a politician, and eventually took over his seat in 1983.

Toshimitsu Motegi, 57. Position: Trade minister. Strength: Expertise in policy issues. Weakness: Limited experience as cabinet minister. Mr. Motegi will face multiple pressing challenges, including crafting a new energy strategy following the 2011 nuclear disaster and a strategy to create new overseas markets for Japanese products through free-trade negotiations. After graduating from the prestigious University of Tokyo, Mr. Motegi earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard. He has held a number of jobs including a position at trading firm Marubeni, working as a political beat reporter for a national daily, and working as a consultant at U.S. firm McKinsey & Co.

Fumio Kishida, 55 Position: Foreign minister Strength: Familiar with the issue of relocation of U.S. bases on the southern island of Okinawa, an area of critical importance for managing Japan’s relationship with the U.S. Weakness: Relatively inexperienced otherwise. A third-generation politician from Hiroshima, Mr. Kishida is a distant relative of former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. Mr. Kishida worked for five years as a banker, then followed his father into politics in 1987, winning his first parliamentary seat in 1993. Mr. Kishida first held a cabinet minister post during the last Abe administration in 2007, serving as the minister in charge of dealing with issues on the southern island of Okinawa. That experience could be key, since the U.S. and Japan are in the midst of drawn-out talks over what to do with American military bases there. Waffling over the relocation of the Futenma base helped bring down Democratic Party of Japan Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in 2010, and has scarred U.S.-Japan relations since.

Abe's cabinet in 2012

Itsunori Onodera, 52. Position: Defense minister. Strengths: Foreign policy expertise. Weaknesses: Lack of experience in high-profile positions. Since graduating from Tokyo University of Fisheries in 1983, Mr. Onodera has spent his career shuffling back and forth between the world of academia and politics. In 2000, just three years after winning his first lower house seat, he abruptly left. Mr. Onodera had inadvertently violated a pesky election law when he distributed sets of incense sticks inscribed with his name to voters. Japan’s election law prohibits candidates from giving donations to voters. He spent his time away from politics studying up on foreign policy, becoming a visiting research fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Mr. Onodera’s political comeback has been centered on his foreign policy expertise, and that background will undoubtedly inform his role as defense minister. A pillar of Mr. Abe’s nationalist agenda has been to reinterpret and rewrite the country’s post-war pacifist constitution to grant the armed forces the right to come to the defense of allies. The newly inaugurated premier has also pledged a more bold approach to asserting Japan’s claims over the territorial islands in separate disputes with China and South Korea.

A native of the chilly northeastern fishing region of Miyagi prefecture, and one of the worst hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Mr. Onodera started his academic track out in marine resources. He later switched gears to politics. In 1990, he enrolled in the elite Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, an institute attended by an increasingly influential band of rising political and business stars. A few years later he collected a degree in law and politics from the prestigious University of Tokyo and won his first seat in the lower house in 1997.

Abe's cabinet in 2012

Women in the Abe Administration

Women were given relatively low-profile cabinet positions. Masako Mori was named State Minister for Consumer Affairs and Measures for Declining Birthrate. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “After working as a lawyer especially for fraud victims, Mori became deputy division director of the Financial Services Agency in charge of revisions to the Money Lending Business Law. She later became a politician. Mori came under the spotlight when she questioned the DPJ-led administration in the Diet about the use of budgets for restoration projects following the Great East Japan Earthquake in unrelated programs. She also raised concerns over the financial and political problems of Yukio Hatoyama when he was prime minister. She has proven adept at balancing her career and family life. However, it remains to be seen whether she can silence voices that question her ability to mobilize a group. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2012]

Tomomi Inada was appointed State Minister for Administrative Reforms and Public Servant System Reforms. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Inada is one of the so-called Koizumi kids, who were first elected to office with the support of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the 2005 House of Representatives election. She was quick to support Koizumi's annual visits to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine during his term as prime minister. Many of her essays on diplomacy and historical issues have been published in magazines and journals. As a lawyer, Inada is familiar with legal issues and played a leading role in opposing a bill to set up a human rights commission, which was supported by the government led by the DPJ.

In addition to this Abe gave two of his top three jobs in the ruling party to female executives. LDP Public Relations Headquarters Chairwoman Sanae Takaichi was appointed chairwoman of the Policy Research Council, and Seiko Noda, former consumer affairs minister, was named chair of the General Council. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “By naming women to two of three top leadership posts, Liberal Democratic Party President Shinzo Abe seems to be trying to move away from the party's stodgy, old-boy image. Abe's appointment of Takaichi and Noda is the first time the LDP has put women in these posts at the same time. Some LDP members said they thought Abe was looking to make a splash with the leadership appointments. Giving women such important posts is believed to be part of the party's strategy for the next upper house election. "I'd like to start drawing up concrete policies to prepare for the next upper house election," Takaichi said at an extraordinary meeting of the General Council.

Right-Wing Slant of the Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet

On the “scarily right-wing “ composition of the Abe cabinet, The Economist reported: “Consider the following. Fourteen in the cabinet belong to the League for Going to Worship Together at Yasukuni, a controversial Tokyo shrine that honours leaders executed for war crimes. Thirteen support Nihon Kaigi, a nationalist think-tank that advocates a return to “traditional values “ and rejects Japan’s “apology diplomacy “ for its wartime misdeeds. Nine belong to a parliamentary association that wants the teaching of history in schools to give a better gloss to Japan’s militarist era. They deny most of Japan’s wartime atrocities. [Source: The Economist , January 5, 2013]

The line-up includes Hakubun Shimomura, the new education minister, who wants to rescind not just the landmark 1995 “Murayama statement “, expressing remorse to Asia for Japan’s atrocities, but even annul the verdicts of the war-crimes trials in Tokyo in 1946-48.

Mr Abe has made no secret of his wish to revise three of the country’s basic modern charters: the American-imposed constitution of 1946, committing Japan to pacifism; the education law, which Mr Abe thinks undervalues patriotism; and the security treaty with the United States, under which Japan plays a junior role. To describe the new government as “conservative “ hardly captures its true character. This is a cabinet of radical nationalists. Mr Abe must hold his nerve on China, but rein in his own nationalist instincts, and keep the ghosts of the past locked safely in the LDP’s cellar. Such restraint would always have been difficult; Mr Abe’s new cabinet makes it almost impossible.

New LDP or Same Old LDP?

LDP Headquarters in Tokyo
After the December 2012 election, The Economist reported: “The general election...witnessed one of the biggest landslides in the history of modern Japan. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), with its New Komeito ally, has swept to power with control of 325 of the 480 seats in the lower house of the Diet. After years of gridlock and drift, during which Japan has stumbled from one recession to the next, a government now suddenly has the chance to lead. [Source: The Economist, December 22, 2012]

That ought to come as a relief. Instead, there are groans, and a sense of foreboding. The LDP that has returned to power is the very same outfit — cynical, chauvinist, in parts corrupt and beholden to special interests — that was deservedly kicked out of office in 2009. It won not because it was wildly popular — indeed, it got only a slightly bigger share of the popular vote than during its thumping defeat of 2009 by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) — but because the DPJ imploded. Its tally of seats in the lower house has dropped from 230 to 57.

In terms of leadership and ideas, the LDP appears to have done little to renew itself. The new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a hawk with distorted views of history, has already led Japan once. His year in office in 2006-07 was a shambles, and ended with him suffering from ulcerative colitis, a stress-induced illness. Questions remain about his health, about which he has not always been frank. Mr Abe’s condition would knock the stuffing out of anyone, let alone a man with a job as stressful as his. Nor does his agenda offer much cause for comfort. During this election campaign, he did little except bash the Bank of Japan for failing to give the economy a monetary boost and promise to spend money on public works. He offered no new or bold ideas for modernising the economy. That is not good enough. If he is not to fail again, Mr Abe needs to set his party and country in a new direction.

Mr Abe knows that few ordinary Japanese share his appetite for a root-and-branch makeover of the nation’s post-war architecture. Though voters have shown themselves nothing if not volatile, solid economic management could win Mr Abe the upper house, too. He would then have the strongest governing mandate in years. [Source: The Economist, December 22, 2012]

Like much of Japan’s governing class, Mr Abe emerged from a political dynasty that shaped his views. His grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, a war racketeer and later prime minister, whose goal was to rewrite the American-imposed constitution forbidding Japan to wage war or keep a fully fledged army. Japan has swung to the right in recent years, as Chinese sea and air incursions challenge its control of a group of islands in the East China Sea; and Mr Abe has threatened to visit the Yasukuni shrine, where the war dead (including war criminals) are honoured. China has long made it clear that such a provocation would be unacceptable.

But Mr Abe’s instincts need not lead him in that direction. His one decent accomplishment in his first term, when he did not visit Yasukuni, was to rebuild bridges with China and South Korea. This time round, he should drop the unconvincing claim that Japan has no territorial dispute with China, build trade ties with its neighbours, and foster student exchanges. That would underscore how much the countries of a prickly region have in common. Politicians rarely get a second chance. Mr Abe should not waste his.

Abe Governing Style

Abe with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines

Three months after Abe took office, Tetsuya Ennyu and Hiroyuki Ishida wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Abe has adopted a "control tower" approach to government, letting Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga handle important issues with relevant ministers after presenting a basic plan of action. In a speech Suga said, "We'll make progress one issue at a time while making good on our promises, such as the appointment of a new Bank of Japan governor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, and an application for land reclamation in the Henoko district” of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture,” a reference to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station. "We're not going to 'play it safe' until the next House of Councillors election. We're going to do what we need to do," Suga said. [Source: Tetsuya Ennyu and Hiroyuki Ishida, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 25, 2013 ^^]

“Each of the issues mentioned by Suga are tasks that previous administrations have struggled to resolve. For instance, with the Futenma Air Station issue, even though most local government leaders in Okinawa Prefecture are opposed to relocating the base within the prefecture, Abe insisted on a quick submission of the application while his administration took pains to carefully ease antipathy toward the move in Okinawa Prefecture. When compiling the fiscal 2013 government budget, Suga bulldozed opposition from the Finance Ministry to allocate the full 300.1 billion yen requested by Okinawa Prefecture for development projects. He also ordered that the construction period for a second runway at Naha Airport be shortened to meet Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima's demands. ^^

“Suga's current role as a control tower within the Prime Minister's Office began in the wake of the Algerian hostage crisis in January. At the time, Suga was given sole responsibility for information gathering and issuing statements at press conferences. According to a senior Defense Ministry official, the dispatch of a government plane to transport hostage victims home from Algeria was "given on Mr. Suga's order." Similarly, Suga conducted behind-the-scenes opinion coordination with relevant Cabinet members regarding Japan's entry into TPP negotiations after consulting with Abe. ^^

“Political observers noted that Suga, who has been Abe's close aide since his first administration, is more effective as an aide than as a leader. When Suga calls together meetings of Cabinet ministers, he does not in principle allow bureaucrats to attend. Instead, Cabinet members convey instructions afterward. The approach is similar to the "leadership by politicians" style adopted by previous Democratic Party of Japan-led administrations. However, a government source said: "Under DPJ-led administrations, Cabinet members were indecisive or said different things at press conferences. This hasn't happened since Abe's inauguration." ^^

“During Abe's first turn as prime minister, Cabinet ministers and advisers insisted on sticking to their guns, causing disarray. For example, in his first term, Abe's plan to create a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council--a goal that has been revived in his second term as prime minister--withered before it could be realized. This was because at the time, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki and Yuriko Koike, who served as an adviser to the prime minister, had locked horns over the initiative.However, this time around, Suga has effectively acted as a coordinator for the issue. Along the same lines, the prime minister and members of the Prime Minister's Office hold secret meetings "several times a week," according to an Abe aide. To prevent conflicts within the ruling parties, Abe's aides often contact party members to convey information. Just after the Japan-U.S. summit meeting, deputy chief cabinet secretaries Ka-tsunobu Kato and Hiroshige Seko quickly utilized e-mail and other means to inform senior ruling party members of the details of the joint statement on the TPP before the official announcement. ^^

LDP-led Government Overhauls DPJ's Policies

A few days after Abe was officially named prime minister. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Abe has begun reviewing the policies promoted under the Democratic Party of Japan-led government, in efforts to make changes that support his priority of boosting the economy. In terms of budget allocations and decision-making procedures, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito are altering or abolishing the policies pursued by the former DPJ government, clearly distinguishing themselves as a new ruling order. [Source: Junya Hashimoto and Katsumi Takahashi, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 29, 2012]

The government is moving full speed ahead in its efforts to shore up the economy through various measures, including advancing orders for public works projects. Abe also ordered in the meeting that funds be allocated to disaster response measures and growth fields. Abe singled out the following three fields as targets for funding: reconstruction from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and disaster management measures, creation of wealth through economic growth, and securing people's livelihoods and revitalization of local economies.

Funding for initiatives in these areas will be secured by "reviewing the existing budget and issuing government bonds," Abe said. As for the fiscal 2013 budget, the prime minister instructed ministries and agencies to review their budgetary requests submitted to the DPJ-led government. One day after the launch of the Abe administration, the LDP dove into the task of budget compilation, which will continue nonstop over the year-end and New Year's holidays.

At a vice ministerial meeting at the Prime Minister's Office Abe criticized the DPJ's handling of government. "Over the last three years or so, confusion caused by the flawed politician-led policy system has spawned a critical situation," Abe said. "We'd like to build a new nation with real political leadership based on mutual trust. I want you to nurture an appropriate relationship of trust with bureaucrats and ensure their efficiency." At an unofficial meeting of Cabinet members the prime minister presented a document titled "The role of politicians and government officials." The document stated that politicians will still be responsible for policy decisions but bureaucrats should back them by providing basic supporting data and multiple options. The ousted DPJ administration was anti-bureaucracy.

The LDP administration also plans to reinstate a meeting of top ministry and agency officials. "To move things forward, it's better [for government offices] to coordinate," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at a press conference Thursday. To promote communication with its coalition partner Komeito, the LDP will adopt the same framework that governed the previous LDP-Komeito ruling coalition, which worked well. "Unless we agree on a decision-making process between the government and ruling parties as well as between the LDP and Komeito in advance, things will get confusing later," Komeito Diet Policy Committee Chairman Yoshio Urushibara said.

Nuclear power plants in Japan

LDP U-Turn on Nuclear Policy

Michiyo Nakamoto wrote in the Financial Times: “Japan’s plan for a nuclear-free society, which gathered momentum after the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima nearly two years ago, looks set to be shortlived. Since its electoral landslide in December, the Liberal Democratic party has wasted no time in setting the stage for a return to Japan’s former policy of promoting nuclear power as a major source of energy generation. Shinzo Abe has given a clear indication that the government is looking to build new nuclear power plants, despite widespread public reservations in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima accident. [Source: Michiyo Nakamoto, Financial Times, January 3, 2013]

“The new nuclear power plants we will build will be completely different from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant which caused the accident, and those that were built 40 years ago,” Mr Abe said. “We are likely to build new nuclear power plants on winning the public’s understanding,” he said. Mr Abe’s comments came after Toshimitsu Motegi, his economy, trade and industry minister, said he would re-evaluate the previous administration’s ban on building new nuclear reactors. The LDP’s pro-nuclear stance is a reversal of the previous administration’s commitment to phase out Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy by 2040, made in response to public fears about the safety of nuclear power.

A survey conducted by the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, just before the December 2012 elections last month, showed that more than 60 per cent wanted to phase out nuclear energy completely. In response to public concerns, the previous government halted all but two of the country’s 50 nuclear reactors and ordered them to undergo stringent safety inspections before being restarted.

During December’s lower-house elections, the LDP, which was the architect of Japan’s nuclear policy, appeared to signal a reassessment of its previous pro-nuclear stance. In its statement outlining its election pledges, the LDP conceded that its pro-nuclear energy policy had been flawed and apologised for causing the Fukushima nuclear accident. The LDP, which had talked in the past about raising Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy from nearly 30 per cent to as much as 50 per cent, pledged during the elections “to establish a social and economic structure that does not need to depend on nuclear power”. By promising to pour resources into promoting alternative energy development and to develop an optimal energy mix over the next decade “the LDP kept their position on nuclear energy ambiguous before the elections”, says Norimichi Hattori of the Tokyo-based Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes.

But “since the Abe administration was formed, their rhetoric on nuclear power has changed quite rapidly”, says Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “It now looks like the LDP feels it is their duty to promote nuclear energy,” Mr Nakano says. In the short term, Japan’s new government may want to avoid taking concrete steps, such as restarting more reactors, which could prove controversial in the run-up to upper-house elections this July.

A key test of the government’s determination to revive nuclear energy use will come this spring when the NRA is scheduled to announce its verdict on whether or not the Oi nuclear power plant in northwestern Japan is sitting on an active faultline. The Oi power plant houses the only two reactors currently operating in Japan. While the NRA has said it will recommend that Oi be shut down if it determines that it is on an active faultline, the final decision will be a political one. If the government allows nuclear plants to remain switched off, it would be admitting that nuclear power is not critical to economic recovery, says Mr Nakano, who believes there is a chance the Abe administration will give Oi the go-ahead regardless of the NRA’s decision. Given the LDP’s close ties to the nuclear industry and its history of promoting nuclear power, the Abe administration cannot afford to have the public realise that Japan can get along just fine without nuclear power, Mr Nakano says. “I think that is what they are most afraid of,” he adds.

New Education Reform Body

In early January 2012, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The government plans to establish an organization tentatively called the "headquarters for implementing the revitalization of education" directly under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as early as mid-January, it has been learned. The envisioned body is intended as a reinstatement of the Education Rebuilding Council that was launched in October 2006 under the first Abe Cabinet, which lasted from September 2006 to August 2007, according to government sources. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

As revamping the nation's education system is one of Abe's priority policies, the headquarters will discuss such matters as a review of the existing 6-3-3-4 schooling system from the primary to university education stages, they said. The body will comprise the prime minister; Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga; Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Hakubun Shimomura and about a dozen academics and professionals, including university professors and business leaders, the sources said.

The new headquarters will devise a set of proposals, including those involving legal revisions, concerning items the Liberal Democratic Party included in its campaign platform for the latest House of Representatives election, they said.

According to the sources, some of the proposals will be: 1) A review of the local boards of education system; 2) A review of the university entrance exam system; 3) Strengthening steps to combat bullying in schools. Based on its recommendations calling for a review of the "pressure-free education" policy, the first Abe government revised three education-related laws in June 2007. These included requiring teachers to renew their licenses and a provision mandating publicly operated schools have vice principals.

Abe’s Pressure on the Japanese Media

In early 2016, it would seem that much of news coming out of the Japan would negative. Abenomics wasn’t working. Growth rates were negative. China and North Korea were strirring up trouble nearby. Japanese were worried and Abe’s approval ratings were falling. [Source: Editorial Board, Washington Post, March 5, 2016 ]

An editorial in the Washington Post read: “Surrounded by bad news, many leaders resort to blaming the bearers of it; alas, Mr. Abe may be no exception. In fact, formal and informal pressure on Japan’s media, by the government and its allies, has been a sore point almost since Mr. Abe took office. To many, his disposition to rein in critical coverage was behind the rise of a loyalist to run NHK, Japan’s publicly supported television network, in January 2014. The new boss promptly gave a press conference observing that the World War II-era Japanese army’s forcing of women into its sexual service “could be found in any nation that was at war.” Since then, officials of both NHK and a rival, Asahi, have been dressed down by a commission of Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, and a member of Mr. Abe’s parliamentary bloc has threatened two Okinawan papers’ advertising revenue. Mr. Abe apologized for that.

“Recent weeks have seen the resignation of three television journalists, all known to be out of favor with the government, in circumstances suggestive of pressure from Mr. Abe’s friends in network management. The resignations coincided with a flap over comments Feb. 8 by Japan’s minister of internal affairs, to the effect that broadcasters who fail to show “fairness” in political coverage could lose their licenses, under previously little-used laws requiring neutrality in the news. The Japan Federation of Commercial Broadcast Workers condemned that as “intimidation.” Japan’s media remain powerful and robust, yet in 2015, Japan fell to 61st place among 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom rankings, down from 11th in 2010,” and ranking lower than Tanzania.

“Mr. Abe’s upset with the media seems to revolve mainly around their coverage — tepid by U.S. standards — of his national security policy, such as his plans to permit Japan’s military more latitude abroad. Japan does face challenges both economically and in the security realm. Mr. Abe is trying to modernize his nation to meet them, an inevitably controversial project. Nevertheless, the proudest of Japan’s post-World War II achievements was not its economic “miracle” but the establishment of free institutions, including independent media. None of Mr. Abe’s goals for Japan, however worthy, can, or should, be pursued at their expense.”

Abe’s Silencing of Japan’s Free Press

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has employed various heavy handed tactics to force Japan’s media to toe the government line. New York Times reporter Martin Fackler wrote in Foreign Policy magazine: “ There have been alarming signs of deteriorating media freedoms in Japan. In March [2016], three of the country’s most outspoken television anchors were removed almost simultaneously by three different networks. While the networks were acting on their own, the dismissals were widely seen as orchestrated by the Abe government: The three were some of the last high-profile media critics of its agenda, which includes restarting Japan’s nuclear power industry and rolling back its postwar pacifism. The sacked anchors joined a growing list of critical media voices that have been muted since Abe took office in December 2012. And their ouster came just weeks after the country’s communications minister, Sanae Takaichi, declared in Japan’s parliament, the Diet, that the government had the legal power to shut down TV broadcasters that it deemed to be politically biased. That announcement capped a difficult year-and-a-half for independent media that saw the largest liberal newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, subdued and other critical commentators removed from the airwaves. [Source: Martin Fackler, Foreign Policy, May 27, 2016 /=/]

“The taming of Japan’s media watchdogs has attracted growing attention from overseas. On April 19, David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, wrapped up a weeklong fact-finding mission to Japan by expressing “deep and genuine concern” about declining media independence in Asia’s richest democracy. The following day, the Paris-based media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders lowered Japan’s place in its annual ranking of world press freedom to 72nd out of 180 nations, between Tanzania and Lesotho — down from 61st the previous year. “The Abe administration’s threats to media independence, the turnover in media personnel in recent months and the increase in self-censorship within leading media outlets are endangering the underpinnings of democracy in Japan,” the group said. /=/

“According to one Japanese news source, the Abe government’s efforts to suppress critics may have taken a more ominous turn. In its June edition, Facta, a monthly business magazine noted for its scoops, reported that the administration had used Japan’s spy agency, the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, to keep tabs on a Japanese lawyer who helped Kaye during his visit. (On her blog, the lawyer, Kazuko Ito, proclaimed she would never yield even if the government monitored her.) The allegations of surveillance conjured the same heavy-handed tactics that Reporters Without Borders and other international media watchdogs have warned might follow Japan’s passage in late 2013 of a new state secrecy law. They say the vagueness of the law, and the draconian prison terms of up to 10 years for revealing secrets, will put a damper on journalists, as well as the whistleblowers within government who may try to help them. /=/

“Japan’s mainstream media have never been noted for hard-hitting, independent coverage, instead emphasizing cozy relations with power and a brand of access journalism that can seem extreme even by the standards of the Washington press corps. The Japanese press’s symbiotic relationship with the government is institutionalized in the so-called press clubs, monopolistic arrangements that give reporters from the big national newspapers and broadcasters privileged access to officials, whose perspectives they end up sharing. /=/

Abe Attacks the Asahi Shimbun and Popular TV Commentator

Martin Fackler wrote in Foreign Policy: “But press watchers now warn that Japan is losing even that limited press independence. Consider the case of the Asahi Shimbun, the world’s second-largest newspaper with a daily circulation of 6.8 million. The Asahi, the intellectual flagship of Japan’s political left, had been endeavoring to beef up its investigative coverage following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, when it and other Japanese mainstream media lost public trust for dutifully repeating the official line that all were safe — even as reactor buildings exploded. What it lacked in investigative prowess, the liberal Asahi had tried to make up for in editorial spunk, opposing the revisionist right’s efforts to whitewash sordid aspects of Japan’s World War II-era history like the “comfort women” forced to work in military brothels. [Source: Martin Fackler, Foreign Policy, May 27, 2016 /=/]

“But in August 2014, the Asahi pulled back from both its comfort women coverage and its investigations into Fukushima following harsh right-wing attacks, led by Abe himself, on missteps in some of its articles. On Oct. 3, 2014, Abe attacked the Asahi for damaging Japan’s reputation after the newspaper belatedly admitted that more than a dozen stories published a quarter-century ago about comfort women had been based on the sourcing of a discredited Japanese army veteran. “It is a fact that its misreporting has caused numerous people to feel hurt, sorrow, suffering, and outrage,” Abe told the lower house budget committee. “It has caused great damage to Japan’s image.” /=/

What has also been worrying “is the willingness of major Japanese media to silence themselves in response to a level of behind-the-scenes chiding by Abe administration officials that most U.S. journalists would probably just laugh off. A dramatic example of this was exposed in March 2015, when one of Japan’s biggest networks, TV Asahi, removed Shigeaki Koga, an ex-Trade Ministry official turned sharp-tongued TV commentator, from its Hodo Station evening news program. /=/

“Koga drew the administration’s ire when he protested its ineffective handling of a hostage crisis in Syria on air by holding up a placard in January 2015 that read “I’m not Abe.” Before the Abe era, such antics would not have raised eyebrows on Hodo Station, which was known for its feisty commentary. However, the government’s top media handler, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, told reporters at a background briefing how unhappy he was with the “completely mistaken” comments of an unnamed commentator at an unspecified network, according to an internal memo of the conversation recorded by a TV Asahi reporter who was present. /=/

“That internal memo was passed back to network executives. Koga says this was enough to convince TV Asahi to remove both himself and a highly regarded producer on the show, Fumie Matsubara. Their departure was followed a year later by TV Asahi’s decision in March to remove the host of Hodo Station, Ichiro Furutachi, who was one of the three anchors ousted this spring.” /=/

Abe Government Defends It Policy Towards the Media

Martin Fackler wrote in Foreign Policy: “Japanese government officials and other journalists have pushed back against the criticism of Japan’s press freedoms, calling the pessimistic assessments unfairly harsh. In an April 27 article on Yahoo Japan, journalist Shoko Egawa said “it didn’t make sense” for Reporters Without Borders to rank Japan below places like Hong Kong and South Korea, where there are much more real pressures on journalists. “While it is okay to take as a reference the evaluation of a foreign NGO, there is no need to get all worked up about the low ranking,” she wrote. /=/

“There are also few in Japan who believe Takaichi would ever actually try to close down broadcasters. Takaichi raised alarms on Feb. 8, when she told the Diet that the 1950 Broadcast Law, which regulates the nation’s airwaves, allowed the government to shut down broadcasters that fail to remain “politically neutral” by highlighting “only one aspect of a polarizing political issue.” However, when questioned by legislators a day later, she seemed to back down a bit. “I don’t think I would resort to such measures myself,” she said, “but there is no guarantee that future [communications] ministers won’t.” /=/

“Japanese and foreign media observers agree that the pressures visibly placed on journalists in Japan can seem quite tepid by international standards. After all, there have been no arrests of journalists or forced closures of media outlets. Nor has the new secrecy law been used to pursue journalists, as the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have done by subpoenaing investigative reporter James Risen of the New York Times in an attempt to force him to reveal his sources of classified information. [Source: Martin Fackler, Foreign Policy, May 27, 2016 /=/]

Censorship Through Reigning in Media Management

Martin Fackler wrote in Foreign Policy: “Other journalists relay similar stories, saying that TV executives quickly take the hint to avoid an actual confrontation with the administration. “It’s not that the media have cowered in the face of some obvious pressure, but this all takes place out of sight, until you suddenly notice that they have retreated,” Shuntaro Torigoe, a veteran TV newscaster, said at a March 2016 press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where he and four other top TV journalists warned of growing efforts to intimidate the press. “The administration’s will is passed along to the media executives, becoming part of the atmosphere inside the newsroom that leads to self-censorship and restrained coverage.” /=/

“According to Torigoe, the result has been a form of self-censorship that Japanese journalists call sontaku, a term with no exact English translation but that refers to a Japanese social strategy of trying to please others, usually superiors, by preemptively acting in accordance with their perceived whims. Journalists say that while conformity has always been prevalent within Japan’s homogeneous society, the feeling has grown more intense recently as anxieties about the rise of neighboring China have increased the pressure to toe the line. /=/ “This conformity has been enforced by the verbal attacks and intimidation from the so-called Net Right, a loose-knit community of shrilly nationalistic netizens whom some members of the Abe government have openly embraced. “Recently, I feel a growing pressure for conformity,” Hiroko Kuniya, another of the three TV anchors ousted in late March, wrote in the May edition of the magazine Sekai, a highly regarded liberal opinion magazine. “This is a pressure that says you must conform to the majority without resisting, that such conformity is normal and expected. It seems even the media have become a party in exerting this pressure.” /=/

“Besides the Sekai article, Kuniya has said nothing else about her removal after 23 years at the helm of Close-Up Gendai, the prime-time showcase for investigative journalism on national broadcaster NHK. (She has also declined interview requests.) However, other NHK reporters say they have come under blatant pressure to tamp down criticism of the administration from the broadcaster’s president, Katsuto Momii, a conservative businessman whom Abe installed at the helm in December 2013. Momii has made no secret of his desire for NHK to toe the government line. After April’s deadly earthquake in the southern city of Kumamoto, when there were concerns about damage at a nearby nuclear plant, Momii told his journalists that their coverage must be “based on official government announcements,” not independent reporting. /=/

“At private broadcasters, where the government cannot just appoint executives, the administration has found other means of pressure, say journalists and media scholars. They say it has done this by skillfully exploiting structural weaknesses in the media. One of the biggest weaknesses is the extreme emphasis on access to inside information via the press clubs. This results in an intense competition for scoops, in which news agencies vie to be the first to report on the future intentions of government officials or agencies. Reporters’ careers can be made or broken based on their ability to curry enough favor with officials to be tipped off ahead of rival journalists. [Source: Martin Fackler, Foreign Policy, May 27, 2016 /=/]

“Toshio Hara, a former reporter with the Japanese wire service Kyodo News who now writes on media issues, says the Abe administration has manipulated this exaggerated version of access journalism by limiting the prime minister’s press conferences and group interactions with the press gaggle in favor of exclusive interviews. These are bestowed upon only cooperative reporters, who are also favored with advanced leaks about future actions by the administration. News organizations deemed critical are excluded and cut off from the flow of scoops given to other journalists. This preferential access can also take the form of private dinners with the prime minister himself: The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported that Abe dined with top political journalists and media executives more than 40 times during his first two years in office alone. /=/

Use of Access to Reward Friendly Journalists and Punish Critics

Martin Fackler wrote in Foreign Policy: “Hara says the administration has made an unprecedented use of access to reward friendly journalists and punish critics. He notes that this has been part of an aggressive push to control media messages — a lesson of Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2007, when he resigned after only 12 months following intense criticism from the press regarding scandals in his administration. “The power relationship between the prime minister’s office press corps and the prime minister has been completely changed,” Hara wrote in the 2015 book How Ready Is Journalism for the Abe Government? “With a few exceptions, the media have become supplicants.” [Source: Martin Fackler, Foreign Policy, May 27, 2016 /=/]

“Selective granting of access has also allowed the administration to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy, in which media organizations try to stay in Abe’s good graces by turning on each other. This is what happened to the Asahi, which lost the will to fight after finding that every other major media outlet had ganged up against it, say journalists in the newspaper. “We found ourselves standing all alone,” said Ryuichi Kitano, a senior Asahi reporter. “The administration didn’t even have to criticize us because the media did it for them.” /=/

“Shigetada Kishii, another of the three anchors removed this year, says media infighting prevented them from presenting a united front against the threat by Takaichi. The outspokenly liberal Kishii left the TBS network’s News 23, a highly regarded nightly news program, after crossing the Abe government by criticizing the 2015 passage of new laws to expand the role of Japan’s military. “There is something structural in the Japanese media, when it comes to why they couldn’t object as a group” to Takaichi’s comments, said Kishii, who also spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club press conference in March. “Rivalry between newspapers and TV stations prevents them from even thinking about coordinating.” /=/

“Lack of solidarity among news companies was also one of the factors cited by Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur, to explain the Japanese media’s apparent inability to resist political pressure. He linked this to a broader lack of shared professional identity among Japanese journalists, who spend entire careers at the same newspaper or broadcaster, unlike their more peripatetic Western counterparts. /=/

“This made them more loyal to company than profession, preventing them from taking a united stand, or forming some sort of effective union or lobby group to defend their interests. Kaye also faulted Tokyo for failing to create a political environment that tolerates the expression of diverse opinions, including dissenting ones. This was all too apparent in his own visit to Japan, which ran into problems created by an administration that appears overly thin-skinned to criticism regardless of its high approval ratings. /=/

“Originally scheduled for December, Kaye’s trip to Japan was abruptly canceled just weeks before when Tokyo said it was “unable to arrange meetings.” Even after he managed to make the visit in April, Kaye received a cold shoulder from the Abe government. Despite repeated requests, Takaichi refused to meet him, as did other top officials and media executives — including NHK’s Momii. The highest-ranking member of the administration who agreed to talk with him was a vice minister of communications, who gave him just 15 minutes. Kaye said the vice minister just repeated what Takaichi had said — without elaborating or even trying to explain her comments. /=/

“Political experts say that such undiplomatic behavior only further damages Japan’s credibility as a purveyor of democratic values. “Japan’s slide down the global rankings for press freedom and its skewering by the U.N. rapporteur on his recent visit are a black eye for Abe and the nation,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “They undermine Japan’s democratic identity and its constitutional freedoms.” Kingston and others say that Japan needs a vigorous democracy, including robust media freedoms, to compete for influence with a larger and richer China. But with the press either suppressed or in submission, one wonders whether that important warning is even reaching Abe — or likely to appear on the nightly news anytime soon.” /=/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.