NHK president faces calls to resign

nhk_logoIs NHK Television – also know as the Japan Broadcasting Corporation – acting as the government’s public relations agency?

Its role is being scrutinised after its president appeared to say it would give priority to official government sources and offer less airtime to people with other points of view.

The comments by Katsuto Momii followed the recent earthquake in Kumamoto prefecture.

He was reported as saying: “If various assessments by experts were broadcast, it would only end up unnecessarily raising concerns among the public.”

Some newspapers, including the Asahi Shimbum, complained.

In an editorial criticising NHK, the Asahi said that Mr Momii has ignored the basic premise of broadcast journalism, which is to accurately reflect a range of views on controversial subjects and not just the opinion of the government.

The Asahi claimed that a citizens’ group has demanded Mr Momii should resign.

Most Japanese people trust NHK but they are have concerns about its accuracy and independence.

They do not want it to “unnecessarily raise concern” but they also do not want it to hide bad news for the convenience of the government.

That is what happened at the time of the Fukushima disaster and it undermined people’s trust in both the government and the media.

In Japan, the relationship between those two institutions has a troubled legacy.

In the run up to the Second World War, almost all the Japanese media was turned into a propaganda tool for the military government. Dissenting voices were suppressed with intimidation and violence.

So the culture of freedom of speech which has emerged since the War is relatively new. It is also relatively unusual in East Asia, where countries such as China routinely censor media reports.

Japanese journalists who work for the major newspapers and broadcasters tend to have a fairly deferential approach towards the government.

This is in contrast to the more adversarial approach of the press in the UK and America, where journalists see it as their role to point out the shortcomings of their leaders.

This week, a senior figure in the Japanese media told me he thought political journalists in Japan often miss the big stories because they are too pre-occupied with trying to predict who will be the next prime minister.

He compared it to sports reporters trying to predict the winner of a horse race.

However, he said there is still a robust and lively media culture in Japan, even though the influence of newspapers is declining as social media grows more popular. 

Jesus, Japan and the sacred Shinto shrine

n-brozat-a-20151102-870x615Many Christians have tried to persuade Japanese people to follow Jesus. Few have been successful.

Despite concerted attempts by missionaries to convert the Japanese, only about two percent of the population call themselves Christian. They are more or less equally split between members of the Roman Catholic church and the members of other denominations.

Many people have tried to analyse why the Japanese are resistant to conversion. One theory is that Japanese people generally feel that to join the Christian religion would put them in conflict with their society, which is heavily influenced by the Buddhist and Shinto religions.

There seems to be a particular anxiety about abandoning rituals connected with the family and ancestors. A potential convert might feel he would jeopardise his heritage if he follows a “foreign god”.

In Shusaku Endo’s historical novel Samurai one character says: “The Japanese don’t care whether God exists or not.”

The suggestion in the novel is that for the samurai there were more important things than God: namely the system of harmony, or wa, which holds society together.

However, there are places where Christian influence is evident in Japan. Schools, universities and hospitals which were founded by Christians do valuable work. They reflect Christian values through their service to society, rather than through missionary activity. And they employ and serve people of all backgrounds and faiths.

The Japanese Christians I have met generally want to help people live better lives but try not to impose any doctrine on non-believers. If they pushed people to convert, they would find themselves rejected and potentially isolated from their families and society.

Religious education is not part of the school curriculum in Japan. That leaves people to find their own spiritual paths.

Some people never give religion much thought. Often, they follow the traditional rituals of society without considering what they symbolise or how they relate to faith.

Buddhism and Shinto shape many traditions and this week the leaders of the G7 countries who are visiting Japan for a summit will go to the most sacred Shinto shrine – the Great Shrine of Ise, in Mie Prefecture.

Some Shinto followers have questioned whether it is appropriate to invite the foreigners onto such holy ground. But the majority of Japanese people seem pleased the leaders will spend time at the beautiful and holy site.

The Shinto priests at Ise will pray that the leaders are able to share in the concept of harmony or wa – a sacred idea which transcends the boundaries of nation or religion.

Action man Abe gets royal welcome

abequeen “I never worry about action, but only inaction.” Those were the words of a British prime minister quoted by Japan’s prime minister this week.

Shinzo Abe used the words from Winston Churchill when speaking to reporters in London.

“We must take action before the world gets bogged down in a crisis,” he said.

The “crisis” that he fears is linked to a global economic slowdown. In Japan, that slowdown could soon drag the country back down into recession.

I was invited to a meeting with Mr Abe at smart London hotel. It was a good opportunity for me to hear directly from the prime minister about his concerns.

Mr Abe came to London as part of a European tour, arranged during Japan’s Golden Week holiday.

In London, he met the current prime minister, David Cameron, at 10 Downing Street.

In the afternoon, he went to Buckingham Palace for an audience with the Queen. In the evening, he went to the Prime Minister’s official residence, Chequers, where he spent the night. Mr Cameron said the more informal setting would be a good place for the two leaders to have constructive talks about difficult foreign policy issues.

Japan will soon host a summit meeting of the leaders of the G7 countries on the island of Ise-Shima. Japan is the chair of G7 this year and Mr Abe wants to raise its international profile.

So in preparation for the summit, his European tour has taken in Belgium, Italy, France, Germany, the UK and Russia, even though Russia is not a G7 member.

Mr Abe said an Abenomics type approach to economic growth would be good for the world. This would include fiscal and monetary stimulus as well as a programme of structural reform.

These policies are widely advocated in parts of Europe, but Britain’s Conservative government rejects the idea of fiscal stimulus. In the UK, government spending is being reduced as part of an austerity programme.

Many of the questions put to Mr Abe by reporters were about Japan’s relationship with Russia. Mr Abe pointed out that there has not been a proper peace treaty between Russia and Japan since the Second World War – a situation he called “regrettable”.

Russia and Japan dispute the ownership of a group of small islands that lie to the north of the Japanese mainland but Mr Abe said that he hopes his talks with Mr Putin will improve relations.

He was also asked about the rising value of the Japanese yen, to which replied “Any drastic fluctuation on the exchange rate will have a major impact on the trade of Japanese companies, which is not desirable.”

And when questioned about the forthcoming referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union he said: “A vote to leave would make the UK less attractive as a destination for Japanese investment.”