This story isn’t going away, and shouldn’t. It speaks volumes about what ails Japan’s press and its democracy, too.
Last Monday, a meeting organized by the Violence Against Women in War Network Japan to discuss its ongoing lawsuit against NHK was moved at the last minute from a tiny room in the Bunkyo Kumin Center to a large hall at the YMCA. The change was made to accommodate the many reporters who were suddenly interested in VAWW-NET in the wake of the scandal involving Shinzo Abe, the deputy secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Obviously, VAWW-NET hadn’t anticipated much interest in the meeting before the Asahi Shimbun reported on Jan. 12 that Abe and another LDP Diet member, Shoichi Nakagawa, asked NHK executives in Jan. 2001 to alter a documentary about a mock tribunal being sponsored by VAWW-NET. The purpose of the tribunal was to hear testimony from women who had been forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II, and to pass down verdicts on those deemed responsible. The tribunal found the late Emperor Showa, among others, guilty of crimes against humanity.
The YMCA was packed, but there was only one TV camera, and that belonged to the Korean Broadcasting Service. Local broadcast media seemed uninterested in what VAWW-NET had to say about the scandal, which wasn’t surprising. So far, the only things that have interested TV journalists are the accusations flying back-and-forth between the Asahi on one side and NHK and the LDP on the other.
Abe took full advantage of this interest. He made the rounds of the news programs to show his face and thus prove he had nothing to fear. The strategy worked. On TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” host Ichiro Furutachi practically groveled, so impressed was he that Abe had condescended to appear. On Fuji TV’s Sunday-morning talk show, Abe was treated like a martyr by the pundits who interviewed him.
The absence of hard questions allowed Abe to say what he wanted to say, which was that he deserved an apology from both the Asahi and Satoru Nagai, the NHK producer who held a press conference on Jan. 13 to reveal that he believed it was Abe and Nakagawa who put pressure on NHK’s executives to alter the documentary. According to VAWW-NET and persons involved in the program’s production, the executives had references to Emperor Showa’s guilty verdict and testimony from former Japanese soldiers removed, thus rendering the program totally irrelevant.
What Abe managed to do on his trip around the networks was plead innocent to censorship while promoting the ideological agenda that the alleged censorship supported. He wildly misrepresented the tribunal with regards to its organization, claiming, for instance, that it was the idea of one woman, the late activist Yayori Matsui, who happened to be an Asahi Shimbun reporter. In fact, it was an international effort attended by many respected legal professionals and covered by press from all over the world. He said that the organizers decided to hold the tribunal at the Kudan Kaikan because it is located close to the Imperial Palace, when in fact it was the only large public hall in Tokyo that didn’t reject the organizers’ request. He also said that the event was crawling with “spies” from North Korea.
None of the TV journalists challenged him on any of these points, partly because they didn’t care but mainly because Abe is untouchable due to his support for the families of Japanese abducted to North Korea. He even implied that the scandal was cooked up to distract him from that work. Consequently, other LDP rightwingers were encouraged to trumpet their own ignorance of the matter. Former prime minister Yoshiro Mori blasted the tribunal for giving Emperor Showa “the death penalty.” No sentences were passed. It was a mock tribunal whose main purpose was to give the former sex slaves their day in court, even if it was a court without any legal authority.
When the scandal broke, Abe practically admitted to pressuring NHK. Though he hadn’t seen the documentary, he said he already knew it was “biased” and asked NHK to make it fair. Over the next week, he progressively altered this story as he came to understand what it was he was really admitting to. He now claims that he never mentioned anything to NHK about bias.
Nakagawa also wised up, saying that he didn’t meet with NHK executives until after the broadcast. But last Tuesday, the Asahi published a full-page explanation of its news-gathering methods for the story, including a phone transcript of a reporter corroborating facts with Nakagawa that reads like a comedy skit. Nakagawa repeatedly contradicts himself and at one point says the original edit of the program “violated the Broadcast Law” even though he, too, hadn’t seen it. He also boasts about telling other LDP members that they shouldn’t approve the NHK budget, which is exactly the kind of threat NHK was allegedly neutralizing by editing the program.
Regardless of whether or not Abe and Nakagawa did try to influence NHK, the public broadcaster is responsible for the final product. The program they broadcast did not include verdicts or testimony and yet did include comments by a famous rightwing professor that placed doubt on the veracity of the former sex slaves. All one has to do is read reports of the tribunal in any publication that covered it and compare them to the documentary that was aired to realize that NHK abused the public’s trust and violated one of the most basic tenets of journalism: It withheld essential information so as not to offend the powers that be. Call it what you will, it’s still censorship.