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Expect to Be Lied to in Japan

Yuriko Nakao/Reuters
Oe Kenzaburo speaking at an anti-nuclear gathering, Tokyo, September 2011

Not all the press in Japan is mainstream, of course. And there are mavericks, naysayers, and whistleblowers in Japan too. Unlike in China, they don’t disappear into the maw of a political gulag, but are marginalized in other ways. In their book, McNeill and Birmingham point out various instances of how this works. During the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, NHK never included a critic of nuclear energy in its exhaustive daily broadcasts. Even the commercial television channel Fuji TV no longer invited an expert back after he let slip, quite accurately, that there was danger of a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.

This expert, named Fujita Yuko, had committed the cardinal sin of bucking the official consensus that the public should be reassured that everything would be fine. Already long before the 2011 disaster, academic critics of the nuclear consensus were demoted or otherwise pushed aside. Between 2002 and 2006 severe safety risks had actually been reported at the Fukushima plant by several people, including company employees. These whistleblowers, in Birmingham and McNeill’s words, “bypassed both TEPCO and Japan’s Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency (NISA), the main regulatory body, because they feared being fired. The information was ignored.” According to the former governor of Fukushima prefecture, the informants were treated like “state enemies.”

Again, none of this is unknown in other countries. It is just harder in an insular, well-ordered society, where everyone should know their place, and the comforts and perks of conformity are considerable, to crack the façade of official truth.


John Dower quite rightly stresses the brilliance of Japanese wartime propaganda. Everyone, from popular cartoonists to kimono designers, from the best filmmakers to the most respected university professors, was mobilized behind the war effort. When Frank Capra, to prepare for his own propaganda films in Hollywood, was shown Japanese movies made in the 1930s during the war in China, he said: “We can’t beat this kind of thing…. We make a film like that maybe once in a decade.” The official truth behind the Japanese war was not aggressively racist, as in Nazi Germany, or even imbued with the fascist love of violence. What Japan was supposedly fighting for was the liberation of Asia from Western imperialism and capitalism. Japan represented a new Asian modernity, based on justice and equality. Even many leftwing Japanese intellectuals were able to subscribe to this.

There were dissidents, even in those days. Many of them were Communists, who spent the war in jail. And some writers with well-established reputations could afford to retreat into “inner emigration.” But on the whole, writers, journalists, academics, and artists conformed. This was sometimes enforced, not least by the sinister “Thought Police” who were always ready to pounce on domestic critics. But oppression in wartime Japan was not as heavy-handed and violent as it was in Germany. It didn’t have to be. Exile, unlike in Germany, was not really an option for most Japanese; few had either the contacts or the language ability. The thought of being excluded, or driven to the margins of society, was threatening enough for most people to rally around the national cause. The intricate social web of press clubs, advisory committees, state-sponsored arts and academic institutions, and mutually helpful bureaucrats, soldiers, businessmen, and politicians was flexible and inviting enough to co-opt even many of those who were privately skeptical about the Japanese war.

A typical case was that of Mori Shogo, a respected member of the editorial board at the Mainichi newspaper during the war. The Mainichi is still one of the three major news organizations. (The others are the liberal-leaning Asahi and the more conservative Yomiuri.) Mori was not a dissident, but a patriot who was devastated by the Japanese wartime defeat. During the war, he conformed to the official truth: Japan was liberating Asia, military defeats were really victories, and so on. What is fascinating about the diary he kept in the immediate aftermath of the war is the sudden spark of independent thinking.3

Mori complains about the hypocrisy of American press censorship during the occupation: “We newspaper men had a difficult time during the war, when we were fettered by the militarists and the bureaucrats. Now, under the occupation of the US army, we can expect another period of hardship.” But the problems were not just those imposed by General MacArthur’s “Department of Civil Information” (a misnomer, if there ever was one). Mori describes a meeting, in the fall of 1945, of senior Mainichi editors to discuss the “press club system.” Should this comfortable cartel of the major media, mutually agreeing on what news to report, be continued, or should the papers begin to compete in a free market of news and ideas? Mori favored the latter option. But he was in a minority. The old system continued.

And so it was that in the spring of 2011, after the worst natural calamity to hit Japan since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, or, to go along with Oe Kenzaburo, the worst man-made disaster since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese mainstream press decided to stick together and pass on the official truth, given out by government officials and TEPCO executives, that there was no danger of a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Not only that, but reporters from the major newspapers and broadcasters retreated together, like a disciplined army, from the worst stricken areas after the first hydrogen explosion in Fukushima Daiichi on March 12. The official reason was that their companies would not allow them to take risks. David McNeill, who was there, mentions Japanese who had other explanations.

An emeritus professor from Kobe College, Uchida Tatsuru, gave the Asahi newspaper his take on the journalistic retreat. There had been no attempt to investigate the disaster zone, because the main papers were afraid to compete, to do anything different from the others. He claimed that this reminded some readers of the war, when the media consistently published complete fabrications about Japan’s disastrous military operations.

One of the heroes in the Fukushima story is Sakurai Katsunobu, mayor of Minamisoma, a town fifteen miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. He complained to Japanese journalists that “the foreign media and freelancers came in droves to report what happened. What about you?” Cut off from information and essential food and medical supplies, he felt that his town was being abandoned. Out of desperation he turned to something that would not have been possible in previous crises. On March 24, Mayor Sakurai put a camcorded message on YouTube, with English subtitles, begging for help: “We’re not getting enough information from the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co.” He asked journalists and helpers to come to his town, where people were faced with starvation.

The video “went viral.” Sakurai became an international celebrity. Aid poured in from all over the world. And foreign as well as freelance Japanese reporters did come.

Birmingham and McNeill mention one Japanese freelancer, named Teddy Jimbo, founder of an Internet broadcaster called Video News Network. His television images from the earthquake zone were seen by almost a million people on YouTube. Meanwhile, NHK was still sending out reassuring messages on national TV, backed by a nuclear expert from Tokyo University named Sekimura Naoto, who told viewers that a major radioactive disaster was “unlikely” just before an explosion at one of the reactors caused a serious nuclear spill.

Sekimura is also an energy consultant to the Japanese government. Later, much too late, NHK and other broadcasters finally bought some of Jimbo’s footage. In his words, quoted by Birmingham and McNeill:

For freelance journalists, it’s not hard to beat the big companies because you quickly learn where their line is…. As a journalist I needed to go in and find out what was happening. Any real journalist would want to do that.

No less than in China or Iran, the Internet has proved to be a vital forum for dissident voices in Japan. Another, older source of critical views is the varied world of the weekly magazines, some serious, and some sensational entertainment. The weeklies came into their own after World War II as an alternative to the major media, even though some of them are actually published by the big newspapers. And they do not mince their words. One journal, the Shukan Shincho, called the TEPCO executives “war criminals.”4 But even the magazines can quickly run into the limits of what is permissible. AERA, a weekly magazine published by the Asahi, had a masked nuclear worker on the cover of its issue dated March 19, 2011, with the headline “Radiation Is Coming to Tokyo.” Even though, as Birmingham and McNeill point out, this was not untrue, the magazine was deemed to have gone too far. An apology was published and one of the columnists fired.

So there are gaps in the official truth of Japan. One of the unintended consequences of the 3/11 catastrophe has been the widening of these gaps. Fewer people believe what they are told. Cynicism toward officially sponsored experts has grown. Some see this as a problem. In March, Bungei Shunju, a prominent political journal, published an anniversary issue of the earthquake. One hundred well-known writers were asked to comment on 3/11. One of them, the novelist Murakami Ryu, lamented the lack of trust that resulted from the disaster, trust in government and the energy industry. It would take years, he said, to regain the trust of the Japanese people. Murakami is sixty, and enjoys a reputation for being cool, even a bit of a bad boy.

Nosaka Akiyuki, one of the best postwar Japanese novelists, was born in 1930, a survivor of the bombing raids in World War II.5 He had a rather different view of the question of trust. Reflecting on the official penchant for hortatory slogans (“Japan, do your best!” “United we stand!”), he advised the younger generation to think for itself: “Don’t get carried away by fine words. Be skeptical about everything, and then carry on.”6

And yes, I did see the islands of Matsushima the second time around. The skies were clear. I listened to the guide explaining the splendid sights. The tourists around me didn’t seem to be paying much attention to what she said. Well, well, I thought, Japan has changed. Then I realized they were all Chinese.

  1. 3

    Mori Shogo: Aru Janaristo no Haisen Nikki (The Postwar Diary of a Journalist) (Tokyo: Yumani Shobo, 1965). 

  2. 4

    Quoted by David McNeill in a forthcoming academic paper, “Them Versus Us: Japanese and International Reporting of the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis.” 

  3. 5

    His masterpiece, The Pornographers, translated by Michael Gallagher (Knopf, 1968), deserves another attempt at English translation. 

  4. 6

    Bungei Shunju, March 2012. 

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