In the aftermath of the recent U.S. presidential election, much attention has been given to the biases and misconceptions of the U.S. news media, not least the New York Times. The paper, like many others, failed to identify depth of American voters’ concerns while also reporting from what many would consider a liberal perspective.
But for Japan observers, this type of bias is sadly predictable. Highly respected American media such as (but not exclusively) the New York Times have frequently and casually employed labels as “right wing” and “nationalist” when referring to the current government of Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, without giving readers proper context or background to understand whether and how such labels apply.
To better understand the meaning of these epithets and their impact on Japan, I recently interviewed American scholar Earl Kinmonth, who has analyzed the American and European media’s reporting on Japan for many years. Professor Kinmonth is a historian who earned a PhD in Japanese history from the University of Wisconsin and has taught at Sheffield University in the United Kingdom and is now a professor at Taisho University in Japan. He is a veteran scholar of media reporting whose research findings are available in a monograph titled, “Japan’s Image in the Foreign Mass-Media,” and other works.
Professor Kinmonth disagrees with the New York Times’s labeling of Prime Minister Abe, saying, “Judged by American standards, Prime Minister Abe does not fit within the category of ‘right-wing’. He has no religious inclinations and his domestic policies show a penchant for big-government liberalism. Nevertheless, the New York Times as well as many left-leaning Americans doing research in Japan intentionally use the term ‘right-wing’ to convey their disdain. The term is inaccurate and reveals their bias.”
Professor Kinmonth also argues that the use of the term “nationalist” to describe Mr. Abe in U.S. reporting betrays media bias. The term “nationalist” is typically used to describe a person who loves his or her own ethnic group or country above all others, but the term often carries a negative connotation to describe someone with a narrow-minded, ethnocentric outlook.
“If one uses the word ‘nationalist’ according to its ordinary meaning,” he said, “there are no leaders of any nation, including the United States, who are not ‘nationalists.’ Yet, the American media never use this term to describe President Obama because of its negative connotation, while Prime Minister Abe is regularly described as ‘nationalistic’ or a ‘nationalist’. The only conclusion one can reach is that American media are biased against Mr. Abe.”
He also disputes allegations that Mr. Abe is a “revisionist” and a “history denier.” He referred to a March, 2, 2007, New York Times story titled, “Abe rejects Japan’s Files on War Sex,” by reporter Norimitsu Onishi, which offers a striking example of such allegations. Although the Prime Minister denied only the forced recruitment of comfort women by the Japanese military, the New York Times report suggests that Mr. Abe denied the entire existence of comfort women and any Japanese military involvement in the issue, misrepresenting his actual opinion.
Such fabrications and mistakes in reporting by the American media are not limited to the New York Times’ coverage of Prime Minister Abe. The proliferation of distorted reporting continues unabated, with articles claiming based more on inference than on any factual basis, that the Japanese government suppresses freedom of speech, that the movement to reform Japan’s constitution constitutes a revival of Japan’s militarism, and that Prime Minister Abe’s goal is to take Japan back to the 1930’s, just to name a few.
Professor Kinmonth is particularly critical of those American pundits who argue that Japan will “return to militarism” if Article 9 of the Japanese constitution is revised. In his view, this argument is even tantamount to racism. Article 9 of Japan’s constitution is unprecedented in the world in that it places constraints even upon Japan’s own self-defense. Professor Kinmonth argues that the implication that the Japanese people will compulsively launch wars of aggression if Article 9 is not preserved is equivalent to arguing that the Japanese are genetically disposed to exceptionally militant behavior. He finds it exceedingly strange that this assertion is heard even among some Japanese.
Kinmonth goes on to provide an insightful analysis of why these theories and arguments about Japan persist in the American discourse: “Many American scholars and reporters are leftist by American standards and often make anti-establishment assertions. Yet, these specialists are frustrated because they are unable to effect change in the United States,” he said. “I believe they take out their frustrations on Japan, which is an attractive alternative because it doesn’t fight back.”
Yoshihisa Komori is an associate Washington correspondent for the Sankei Shimbun