Monday, May 07, 2007

Japan: "Okinawa-gate: The Unknown Scandal"? Give Me a Break.

I know it won't help my social life any to admit that I was old enough (in fact, already in college) in 1972 to remember quite well the Nishiyama incident (read this if you understand Japanese). This TIME article employs this incident to demonstrate that Japan did indeed deserve its ranking "in last year's Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index than Ghana or Bosnia account. And I quote:

"Freedom of the press is a constitutionally guaranteed right in Japan — as long as you stick to what the authorities want you to write. How does a developed democratic country manage to rank lower in last year's Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom index than Ghana or Bosnia? Just ask Takichi Nishiyama, whose promising career as a star political journalist at a national daily ended in 1971, when he came across what should have been a career-making scoop — official documents revealing that the Japanese government had gone around a deal approved by Japan's legislature and secretly paid the U.S. $4 million to ends its occupation of Okinawa in 1972…"

Now I do not dispute that TIME did get the facts right, as far as I could discern. Mr. Nishiyama did receive the purported document from his MOFA paramour, and they both (Mr. Nishiyama in particular) were excoriated in the court of public opinion, including the entire mass media except Mr., Nishiyama's employer Mainchi Shinbun, and wound up being convicted of violating the Civil Servants Law. 35 years after the handover, Okinawa does continue to bear the burden of the US presence in Japan. Reporters Without Borders does rank Japan behind Ghana and Bosnia, 51st to be exact, only two places ahead of that bastion of oppression, the United States of America. (My condolences to the oppressed masses at TIME HQ. Aren't you lucky you are based in Tokyo, B.W.?) And I would not be surprised to learn that there had indeed been a secret deal to foot the US bill for the turnover, then some. It was not a done deal, in fact, a feat so unprecedented in human history that Eisaku Sato, the prime minister who engineered the transfer on the Japanese side, received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

But the TIME account omits a fact that was crucial to the unfolding of the incident. Mr. Nishiyama, instead of using the documents to expose the secret deal, decided to hand them over to two opposition Diet members, who used them to attack the government in Diet questioning. MOFA had no choice but to conduct an internal investigation to find the source of the leak, whereupon the paramour, who, according to her own account, had never intended the documents to be made public, fessed up. In other words, Mr. Nishiyama had crossed the line between a professional journalist and a political operator. It is no wonder that the media rightly attacked Mr. Nishiyama's actions, if the sex scandal (she was married at the time) did give it more legs than it perhaps merited. To imply that they did so because they only wanted to print "what the authorities want you to write" is a serious charge. Is TIME willing to back up this claim? Or will it issue an apology to the journalists working for Japanese publications?

Why then, does Japan merit such a low rating? If TIME had bothered to take a look at the Reporters Without Borders website, it would have seen that "[r]ising nationalism and the system of exclusive press clubs (kishas) threatened democratic gains in Japan, which fell 14 places to 51st. The newspaper Nihon Keizai was firebombed and several journalists physically [sic] attacked by far-right activists (uyoku)." Now the kisha clubs (not "kishas", which is the plural of Japanese for "reporter") are basically institution-specific, self-administered media cartels. There's one for each ministry, the stock exchange, Keidanren, and what have you. Membership gets you a desk and a telephone line on the premises and access to regular press briefings. In return, you must respect press embargoes. Any sanctions are imposed and enforced by the kishaclub. I don't know how oppressive they are, but they did open their doors to foreign correspondents in the early nineties. However, other than wire services, they generally find the upkeep too expensive.In any case, kisha clubs have been around for ages, so they cannot be the reason for the 2006 fall. As for the Nikkei firebombing, I'll have to look at the full report to see if it really merited a 14-spot downgrading, but it certainly can't have anything to do with sticking "to what the authorities want you to write".

That the Japanese government continues to deny the existence of a secret deal is no surprise; it's a government, for heaven's sake! And it is the job of the media to go and dig up the facts. We have our own version of the Freedom of Information Act, which has its own version of a national security clause, with which the Japanese government will surely deny disclosure of any documents pertaining to such a deal, particularly since they will have to claim that such document do not exist, since there was no deal in the first place, n'est-ce pas? For such are governments, and that is why we have journalists. Why, then, don't journalists care about this one? A secret deal with the government? Because "[a]dmitting to the secret pacts would be to admit that the U.S.-Japan alliance strategy was built on illegitimate grounds, and call for closer scrutiny of the current relationship"? As silly as it is to get into this conjecture game, I would have to conclude that getting back Okinawa (which the overwhelming majority of the people of Okinawa wanted) was much harder than the public had realized at the time. A secret ransom may be reason for embarrassment, but it certainly would not have rendered better terms for the people of Okinawa had it not been paid. I'm inclined to believe they don't care because it's old, and now irrelevant to current events, so they're happy to let historians take a crack at it.

TIME concludes: "In a recent press conference, the veteran scribe rounded on his colleagues who 'committed journalistic suicide' when they chose to do their muckraking in his bedroom rather than in the corridors of power. 'The defenders of democracy continue to suck up to power instead of fighting it.' Nishiyama would agree with Reporters Without Borders, which insists Japan still has a thing or two to learn from Panama and Montenegro about the free press."

Who knows, maybe Reporters Without Borders is right. But just because Mr. Nishiyama is still sore after all these years, it doesn't mean he has a case here. And TIME is wrong to publish an article that is constructed on insinuations, shoddy fact-checking, and denial of an inconvenient truth. I only hope that it's not in the hard copy version; people pay real money for that.

P.S. And Okinawa-gate? Lame-o. "Unknown Scandal"? On which planet? TIME, you need a copy editor.


MTC said...

Jun -

You know very well that the real issues here are the government's determination to deny reality...and the Press's terrifying willingness to fall into line and accept just-so stories.

No one has ever proven a romantic liaison between the two protagonists. Considering the immense pressures being put upon the Gaimusho employee, her statements have to seen as having been coerced. The government's case against both of the defendants rested in part upon perjured testimony. In Nishiyama's case, how could a journalist violate the Civil Servants Law prior to the existence of a secrecy act?

Since the American copies of the secret agreement are available from the National Archives, the continued denials of the existence of said agreement are deleterious to Japan's reputation as a nation of sane individuals.

You accuse Mr. Walsh of being unfair but...

Jun Okumura said...

MTC: I had a feeling someone would come up with this kind of comment. But towering authorities, cowering media is the point of the original story, and my point is that the story fails to make it because of at best sloppy research.

Feel free to adopt whichever version of the renditions of the facts of the Nishiyama prosecution that fits your image of the Japanese media (which I believe are, as you will understand if you read my other post and previous posts, both manipulative and manipulated, though I reject that singular focus in Western conventional wisdom that they are the running dogs of the Japanese political establishment). But I fail to see how that in any way is a meaningful rebuttal against the thrust of my argument. After all, Nishiyama's more recent civil suit case, including Bunroku Yoshino's testimony, was widely reported and many editorials called on the government to fess up.

What you might want to give some thought to, though, is: why didn't the Japanese public get in a tizzy over the revelations and the Japanese government's continued denial? Then there's the "Nawa wo utte Nawa wo katta" complaint from the Japanese textiles industry...


By the way, Mr. Walsh's byline is nowhere to be seen on this story. Given what I've seen of his work, I think if it had been his to write, he would have talked to more people first.

MTC said...

I'm confused.

If you are not certain the author of this ewpoer ia Walsh, wthen why do you include the "Aren't you lucky you are based in Tokyo, B.W.?" gibe?

One of your points is that governments routinely deny reality. I agree. What beggars the imagination is the government of Japan's continued denial of reality when said a denial is detrimental to its own interests. This is not a question of a judgment call, as in "Are we making progress in Iraq or not?"
This is a question of a denial of the existence of an object, a visible and palpable thing, whose validity and authenticity is vouchsafed by the U.S. government, Japan's main military ally.

Another of your points is that the TIME article is framing the story in a shoddy manner. I agree. But is identifying the female MOFA officer from the outset as a "paramour" any less shoddy? You know well that once somebody whispered "She's his lover" the pair of them were finished in the courts--both of public opinion and of law--especially in that day and age. To casually label the woman Nishiyama's paramour perpetuates an irrelevancy and possibibly a lie.

Sato Eisaku won his Nobel for about 15 different reasons, judging from the presentation speech one finds at the website. Getting the U.S. to (ostensibly) denuclearize Okinawa was only one of those reasons.

I agree that the article overreaches (the points you have sought to quote here sound as though they reach right over the edge of silly). However, the poor quality of the article does not invalidate the broader worry that the press in Japan is peculiarly willing to print scurilous rumors about private citizens and exhonerate the government for its funny business.

Jun Okumura said...

Let's address the specifics first.

I knewBryan Walsh didn't write the article because it carried someone else's byline. So I was making a joke. If you didn't get the point, I can only say: my bad. You may have noticed that I make these personal references from time to time. And no, I only explain other people's jokes, and only when asked.

Denial of reality: I think the more interesting issue here is, since Takichi Nishiyama's law suit and Bunroku Yoshno's statements were fairly widely reported at the time, why did the public basically give the government a pass? I don't think this is a case of Big Brother telling Asahi Shinbun to shut it. In any case, the Japanese media, as is the case with the media in every liberal democracy, are in the business of satisfying its audience.

Paramour. You should do some fact-checking on this. Not even in his most recent statements does Mr. Nishiyama deny that there was a relationship. Indeed, the existence of a relationship seems implicit where he refers to the matter. There is no way you can build a case on his behalf by dismissing the matter with conjectures about the veracity of the personal charges against the two. That is no way to conduct an argument. Having said that, there is an uneasy symbiosis between the police and the media. The authorities routinely leak details of ongoing investigations, which the media dutifully lap up and publish; after all, this is a pretty reliable source. This leaves the media vulnerable to manipulation (I think I've written about this elsewhere, though I can't be sure), and I have very little doubt the authorities handled them perfectly in this case. However, by putting the documents in the hands of the Socialist Party"Bakudan Otoko (Bombshell Guy)" instead of writing it up in a newspaper article (or even other outlets; reporters have them) like a proper journalist, he alienated most of the mainstream media. With the sex scandal as a new angle, lost Mainichi support as well, and he has no one to blame but himself for that. As for the criminal case, I don't think the relationship angle had any bearing, except perhaps in sentencing; we don't exactly practice sharia in Japan.

As for Eisaku Sato's Nobel Peace Prize, I confess I have not yet completely recovered from my astonishment after all these years. Having said that, I don't understand why any of the other stuff matters to anybody, except as resume padding. Take away those home runs from Rafael Palmeiro, and he's not going to make it to Cooperstown. Same thing.

As for your charge that "the press in Japan is peculiarly willing to print scurrilous rumors about private citizens and exonerate the government for its funny business", I'm sure you have examples of the first point. But that's a subject of another discussion. As for the second part, they were certainly distracted, perhaps led astray, from what then became the Socialist claims of the existence of a secret agreement. But if they did "exonerate" the government, my view is that it was much more as an unwitting participant, together with the public, than as a "willing" accomplice.


Now you may ask, why bother? Why should I care if a TIME correspondent messes up royally? More broadly, why do I persist in attacking the English language mainstream media? The problem is, Japan appears infrequently there, and when it does, the focus is usually on the weird, and the lurid, and the strange and inscrutable. In principle, I have no problems with that. Tit for tat, I say. However, I do see many cases of ignorance, incompetence, and possible falsehood, and they almost invariably wind up casting Japan in a negative light, sometimes to a point beyond recognition. Since the EMSM is the only news source about Japan for much of the world out there, I think it's useful to provide corrections where they are warranted.

Kidding. Seriously, it's fun, and not many people seem to be doing it. And I know very little French, and next-to-no Serbo-Croatian.