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The Sankei Shinbun’s Struggle for Relevance

FlagwaverBy Jasper Tolsma

SNA (Tokyo) — The Sankei Shinbun has never been a newspaper that shies away from controversy. In a country that still struggles with its recent history and that is in the midst of allegedly far-reaching reforms, several of the conservative newspaper’s strongly opinionated pieces have given rise to controversy, raising questions about whether or not some of the newspaper’s activities could be called journalism at all–or whether “rightwing activism” would be a better label.

Japan’s wartime conduct regarding Korean comfort women or the Nanjing Massacre in China have often been the subject of the extremely nationalistic articles that the newspaper happily provides a podium for. Both in South Korea and in China the newspaper has sparked outrage on several occasions because of these issues, and government officials from both countries have demanded the retraction of several Sankei articles.

In December 2014, the newspaper came under fire for running an advertisement on their website that promoted book regarded as anti-Semitic. The newspaper was quick to apologize and remove the ad.

However, the stream of controversies hasn’t ended. In response to Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s plans to invite foreign workers to the country to ease up the tight labor market, former Abe government adviser Ayako Sono stated in her regular column that Japan should consider the introduction of racial segregation, even making positive references to South Africa’s former Apartheid system.

According to Koichi Nakano, Professor of Comparative Politics at Sophia University, it is not out of character for the Sankei Shinbun to publish a piece that presents such extreme views: “The Sankei has peddled extreme rightwing views with xenophobic tendencies for decades now… Days after Sono’s outrageous column appeared, it published an article essentially denying that the Nanjing Massacre happened.”

Both Sono, who was a former adviser to Abe’s Education Reform Committee and is even quoted in a textbook about morals, as well as the Sankei Shinbun were roundly denounced in other media outlets and on social media for advocating Apartheid. The South African ambassador herself wrote a letter of protest, calling Apartheid “a crime against humanity.”

The Sankei defended the publishing of the piece by saying that Sono writes a regular column and it was simply her own opinion, not that of the newspaper.

While that argument may have some validity, the newspaper’s own record raises questions about whether it crosses too frequently the lines between professional journalism and the promotion of a certain set of rightwing ideological views.

But the Sankei remains relatively marginal compared to its main competitors, claiming a circulation of about 2 million compared to the Yomiuri Shinbun‘s 10 million and the Asahi Shinbun‘s 7 million (although the real circulation figures for all of these papers are known to be much lower).

It could be that the publication of such outrageous views–and the corresponding attention it is given by its detractors–is precisely what keeps the Sankei Shinbun from fading out of public view.

If that is so, perhaps the response to its provocations that the Sankei would fear the most would be for people to simply ignore it.

Jasper Tolsma is a contributing writer to the Shingetsu News Agency.