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Politics

For the Japanese Media, What is ‘Common Sense in Japan is Not so in the Rest of the World’

Japan is the only major country in which top elected leaders regularly give press conferences twice a day. It’s time for the media to focus on the quality of questions, not how long you can ask them.

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The English expression “media frenzy” is used to refer to unrestrained or out of control media coverage. A classic example of the phenomenon is recent domestic news coverage by the Japanese media. 

Japanese news outlets have fretted over every little twist and turn in the election of a new leader for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the personnel selections for the new administration. 

At the same time, there has been relatively little reporting on developments concerning the opposition parties. 

Leaders of all political parties at the October 18 debate preceding the national election.

In the meantime, the number of new COVID-19 cases recorded in Tokyo has plummeted and the vaccination rate has surpassed that in the United States. 

What exactly was the “frenzy” all about that prevailed for a month in Japan’s newsrooms from September 3, when then- Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that he would not be running for another term as LDP president, until the new Cabinet led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was launched on October 4?

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo. (Nicolas Datiche/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki, chief economist at the Sojitz Research Institute, contends that the Suga Administration achieved a “tremendous amount of work over the past year.” He names the following specific accomplishments: 

  1. putting in place a vaccination framework, 
  2. hosting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 
  3. announcing that Japan intends to become carbon neutral by 2050, 
  4. establishing the Digital Agency, 
  5. scoring a series of diplomatic successes, 
  6. handling the Fukushima Daiichi wastewater treatment issue, 
  7. reducing cell phone charges, 
  8. increasing the minimum wage, 
  9. extending insurance coverage to infertility treatment, and
  10. pushing through backed-up legislation related to the National Referendum Act, the Plant Variety Protection and Seed Act, the Act on the Review and Regulation of Real Estate Usage in Monitored Areas and so on. 

I think generally speaking that is a fair assessment. But then why did these accomplishments receive so little coverage in the Japanese media? 

The same holds true for the Kishida administration. Even before the new Cabinet was launched, the media viewed it with a jaundiced eye. 

Among other things, they labeled it as “short on persuasiveness.” But what exactly do they mean by “persuasiveness”? Do they mean that government leaders should make all their statements easy to understand and pleasant to the ear? 

I really don’t get their point.

If politics is a means for achieving the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, it is bound to get complicated. Even if it is simplified and conveyed in clear-cut language, that probably still will not make it truly persuasive. 

The late Kenichi Takemura, who was a well-known political commentator, famously remarked that “what is common sense in Japan is not common sense in the world.” 

Unfortunately, this memorable saying of his fits the world of Japanese journalism to a tee. That was certainly evidenced by the requests recently made by the press club covering the Cabinet concerning the ground rules for press conferences with the prime minister.

According to media sources, the requests made by the press club were something like the following: 

  • elimination of the one-question limit for each news organization, and allow follow-up questions; 
  • an increase in the number of organizations allowed to participate and,
  • allowing the press club organizers rather than a Cabinet press officer to moderate the proceedings. 

Furthermore, some press club members apparently also wanted time limits on questioning to be eliminated, and questions not cut short. 

If this is “common sense” in Japanese journalism circles, then I find that disturbing. 

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to press

To my knowledge, Japan is the only major country in which top elected leaders give regularly scheduled press conferences twice a day, as is the case with the press conferences given by the chief cabinet secretary. 

According to one survey I have read, press conferences involving leaders of G7 countries are usually brief. For example, in the United Kingdom, they average around only five minutes. 

They are no more than 30 minutes in France, Germany, Italy, Canada and the EU. In fact, quite a few nations do not allow informal, off-the-cuff interviews. In the United States, there have been differences in how things are done by the Biden Administration versus the Trump Administration. 

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference. (John Sibley/Pool via AP)

However, I think it is fair to say that there is no country besides Japan in which reporters are able to question top public officials for so long. Not only do press conferences by the prime minister often run around one hour, but doorstop interviews with the press are also rife. 

Moreover, the back and forth exchange at press conferences in Western countries is very different from what is considered “common sense” in Japan. Reading the transcripts of various overseas press conferences shows that the government side retains the “right not to comment.” 

There are also few instances in which a question already asked by a reporter is monotonously asked over and over again.

Of course, the public in a democracy has the “right to know.” But that does not mean that reporters at a press conference have the right to continue asking questions as long as they like. 

Furthermore, the right of elected officials to say “no comment” has been recognized in other open democracies. No doubt, that is what “common sense” really means for press conferences in democratic countries. 

In short, in international terms the Japanese media already enjoy unrivaled opportunities to ask questions at press conferences. Instead of being concerned so much with the quantity of the questions they ask, they should pay more attention to their quality.

(Read the Sankei Shimbun column in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Kunihiko Miyake

Mr. Miyake is Research Director for the Canon Institute for Global Studies and President of the Foreign Policy Institute

Kunihiko Miyake is the research director of The Canon Institute of Global Studies. He is also a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University and president of the Foreign Policy Institute. He was an executive assistant to Mrs. Akie Abe during the first Abe Cabinet, from 2006 to 2007. From 1978 to 2005 he was in the diplomatic service as a member of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, serving in posts such as director of the Japan-US Security Treaty Division, minister at the Embassy of Japan in China, and deputy director-general of the Middle East Bureau. Born in 1953, Miyake is a graduate of the University of Tokyo Faculty of Law.