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The Japan Times Becomes Servant to the Elite

SNA (Honolulu) — On January 28, the Japan Times published an opinion piece titled, “How Japanese is Naomi Osaka?” Author Kunihiko Miyake “felt something odd” about how the multiethnic tennis champ could ever “represent Japan.” Miyake’s article is indicative of how the quality of analysis has slipped under the Japan Times’ new ownership, and suggests how the purposes of the organization have changed.

To start with Miyake and his most recent article, he questions just how “Japanese” Naomi Osaka is: “Yes, she is [the first Japanese to be ranked World No. 1 in tennis]. But not quite so, is she?” He goes on to pick over her Haitian-American-Japanese background, noting that she “calls America home” and plays for Japan because of “more financial support.”

His insinuation is that foreigners such as Osaka are motivated to come to Japan for the money, not because they actually like the place and want to contribute.

Miyake’s column then veers off topic to snipe at “stereotypical comments on Osaka’s victory” made by “expat pundits living in Japan” who “criticize xenophobia and discrimination in Japanese society.” He is suffused with righteous indignation after his own not-entirely-logical detour.

He concludes that discrimination and xenophobia are “quite common everywhere.” He asks: What about discrimination in the Middle East, Europe, and even the United States? The “whataboutism” is indeed strong in this one, as well as the “foreigners can’t criticize Japan” sentiment.

Miyake then declares that “Japan is learning lessons as well,” noting how it is becoming a multiracial and multicultural society—to the point where sometimes “Japanese nationals are minorities.” But he still can’t help adding that tinge of fear of being outnumbered.

Miyake’s heart does seem to be in the right place when he opines that foreigners and biracial Japanese “are not rare anymore” and that Japan will have to learn “how to get along well with foreign newcomers.” But again, he’s implying, even after generations of international marriages and children born here, that Japan’s multiculturality and multiethnicity is a recent development.

The only thing that is new is the fact that one of Japan’s multiethnic citizens has become a world champion. So now it matters.

Miyake returns to Naomi Osaka to graciously pronounce her as “very Japanese,” citing her behavior, such as having the “Japanese characteristics” of “modesty, politeness, honesty, and humility.” (Never mind that her opponent in the champion match, Petra Kvitova, was similarly polite and gracious in defeat. Does it logically follow that Kvitova and anyone else who is polite must be Japanese as well?)

Miyake makes a good point towards the end, where he rightly asserts that, “It’s time for Japan to allow dual citizenship.”

His reasoning, however, is askew. It’s not because dual passports would save Naomi Osaka (and thousands of other multiethnic Japanese children) the emotional pain of sacrificing part of their identity to fit into an artificial binary, but rather because “Japan will lose one of their greatest tennis players.” In other words, it’s for the good of the nation, the kokutai, through which Japanese can feel communal superiority.

The Broader Picture of Japan Times Changes

This half-baked column is indicative of something much larger—a decline in analytical prowess due to the editorial changes at the Japan Times in recent years.

The Japan Times came under new ownership in June 2017 by the media group News2u Holdings, a PR company. In an unexpected editorial shift, last November the Japan Times announced that it would henceforth be rewording the “potentially misleading” (and internationally-recognized) terms “Comfort Women”—which is already a direct translation of the official euphemism of ianfu—as “women who worked in wartime brothels, including those who did so against their will, to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.” Likewise, the term “forced laborers” would now be rendered merely as “wartime laborers,” following the new government policy.

Aside from journalistic concerns about cramming a wordy term into concise articles, it wasn’t hard for media observers to understand this as a response to government pressure, already manifest in Japanese media and world history textbooks, to portray Japan’s past in a more exculpatory light.

Reuters has since reported that the executive editor of the Japan Times, Hiroyasu Mizuno, was recorded at a meeting with staff as saying, “I want to get rid of criticism that Japan Times is anti-Japanese.” Another executive added that this would increase advertising revenues from Japanese companies and institutions.

Reuters added that the Japan Times “had already increased government ad sales and scored an exclusive interview with [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe after dropping a column by Jeff Kingston, director of Asia studies at Temple University Japan, who had been writing weekly on what he saw as the Abe administration’s historical revisionism.”

Symbolizing this shift, Shingetsu News Agency last December drew attention to a photo of News2u Publisher and Chair Minako Kambara Suematsu literally cozying up to Prime Minister Abe at a public event.

Reuters concluded by pointing out a remarkable coincidence: Late last year, the ultraconservative think tank Japan Institute for National Fundamentals zeroed in on the Japan Times, demanding they refer to plaintiffs in a controversial Korean court ruling on the Comfort Women as “wartime Korean workers,” thereby leaving out the nuance of forced labor or sexual slavery. Two weeks later, the Japan Times changed its wording.

The academic venue Asia-Pacific Journal (Japan Focus) has also published a detailed article by David McNeill and Justin McCurry depicting internal tensions within the Japan Times, with petitions for change, staff being yanked from their beat, editorial refusals to cover certain news stories, and connections to far-right groups decrying the “poor quality of Japan’s English-language media, the gateway through which foreign nationals access information about the country.”

Fear and Favor

In sum, the Japan Times is clearly bowing to the years of pressure from the Abe administration, the longest-lasting and furthest-right political administration in Japan’s postwar era. As a media outlet, the Japan Times has long been seen as means of “communicating Japan to the world” (i.e. not a forum for discussion about Japan’s domestic problems), and those in charge want that message to be favorable.

I myself have been a contributing writer for the Japan Times since 2002, writing as the “Just Be Cause” column since 2008. My specialty is human rights issues towards non-Japanese residents. In other words, I cover domestic problems.

Since 2017 and the arrival of the new team, I have felt a palpable editorial chill come over my submissions, and my column went from a monthly to a “pitch-an-idea-for-us-to-approve” status. Now I’m lucky if I get an article published every few months.

In fairness, the Japan Times did recently publish my annual top ten list of human rights issues, where I put the Japan Times editorial issues as the #3 concern of 2018, but clearly my writing used to be published at this newspaper in a much more hard-hitting fashion.

For example, my column of July 6, 2015, noted how the Fujisankei Communications Group acquisition of news outlet Japan Today had shifted the English-language media landscape rightward politically, with articles becoming more assiduous in pointing out non-Japanese misbehavior, yet muted in its criticism of Japan.

This was after the English-language arms of Japan’s major newspapers, including the Daily Yomiuri (eventually relaunched as The Japan News), the Daily Mainichi, and the Asahi Evening News, had relegated their foreign staff away from investigative journalism into mere translation duties.

The chair of NHK, Katsuto Momii, even went so far as to state publicly in 2016 that his network would not report on contentious subjects until the government has “an official stance” on them—meaning that NHK is willfully acting as a government mouthpiece.

Back then, I had concluded that the Japan Times is “the only sustainable venue left” with investigative non-Japanese and independently-thinking Japanese writers who are “bravely critiquing current government policy without fretting about patriotism or positively promoting Japan’s image abroad.” I’m not confident anymore that this remains the case.

So how does one become a regular Japan Times columnist nowadays? Let’s check back in with Kunihiko Miyake.

Since April 16, 2018, Miyake’s musings have been appearing weekly. No doubt his solid pedigree got his foot in the door.  A prominent television pundit, Miyake’s tagline indicates he is “President of the Foreign Policy Institute and Researcher at the Canon Institute for Global Studies.” He is also a former diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Tokyo University Law graduate.

This fulfills the Japan Times’ apparent need at the current juncture to cozy up to Japan’s elites.

The downside is that Miyake’s column is evidence of the blindness of Japan’s brahmins. He is essentially a person trained in international “gaijin handling” trying to make insightful comments on Japan’s current race relations and multiethnic future. Bring back Jeff Kingston!

The Japan Times is clearly trading quality journalistic insight for elite access, privilege, and funding. By hewing to a government-approved line, its quality as a news and analytical source will therefore continue to decline.

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