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NHK’s Decline into Propaganda

SNA (Tokyo) — When NHK was founded in 1926, it was quite consciously modelled on the BBC of the United Kingdom. In that spirit, visitors to the English-language section of the NHK webpage will find its self-description as follows: “NHK delivers a wide range of impartial, high-quality programs, both at home and abroad.”

The truth, however, is that NHK never developed an international reputation for objectivity and news sense that would make anyone outside of Japan really want to tune in to its programs. NHK World, the English-language arm of the organization, is regarded by no journalist that we know of as a particularly useful source for coverage of Japanese politics and society.

But if we were to look only at the bright side, we could, without reservation, praise NHK for its weather forecasts and its coverage of natural phenomena. If there is any portion of NHK which can be described as truly world class, it would definitely be its weather department. Free of any social controversy or political sensitivity, NHK does a fantastic job relating the latest news about typhoons and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

But once NHK returns from the natural realm back to the human realm, all of its mighty resources fall flat. To foreign eyes, most of its political coverage seems colorless and stale. In other words, it is simply uninteresting most of the time.

NHK has long had a reputation among foreign journalists for shying away from any political or social controversy. Lately, however, NHK’s reputation has been falling sharply even from that level.

The reason is not far in looking: foreign journalists are watching NHK emerge (or reemerge if you count the Tokyo Rose era) as a broadcaster noted more for Japanese nationalist political propaganda than as a source of genuine insight about happenings in this nation.

The most devastating single blow to NHK’s international reputation was the appointment of Katsuto Momii as chairman of the organization, and especially the outrageous comments that he made in his inaugural press conference in January. In particular, his comment that, “When the government is saying, ‘Right,’ we can’t say, ‘Left’” is understood by the rest of the world as a declaration that NHK broadcasts should be viewed merely as Japanese government propaganda, and therefore are not to be taken seriously.

Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any possible remark that Mr. Momii could have made about his intentions that could have been more damaging to international perceptions of NHK. The fact that such a statement did not result in his immediate dismissal is taken by foreign journalists as representing the Abe government’s tacit approval of turning NHK into a propaganda organ for its rightwing ideology, especially in regard to historical revisionism surrounding the Pacific War.

The foreign media is now pursuing the “NHK story,” and a recent episode is a scoop by Richard Lloyd Parry of The Times, the venerable newspaper of London. A copy of an internal NHK document was leaked to Mr. Parry in which reporters and editors at NHK were instructed exactly what terms to use and to avoid when referring to sensitive matters such as Yasukuni Shrine, the Nanjing Massacre, or island disputes with China.

Mr. Parry’s article declares that the overall effect of the leaked document is that it “is seen as a surrender of editorial independence by Japan’s public broadcaster.” It appears to ban any sort of independent thought or opinion by NHK journalists; instead commanding them to parrot the diplomatic and political line of the Abe administration.

NHK is still not viewed quite in the same light as China Central Television, but Prime Minister Abe and Chairman Momii seem determined to move its international reputation quite some way in that direction.

A Japanese-language version of this article appeared in the November 7 issue of Shukan Kinyobi.