Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Japan's Mass Media – Pawn of Prime Propaganda
KITAMURA Fumio  / Journalist

December 20, 2005
In Japan and in any other country, governments are the largest and most important news source for the mass media. The reason is simple; from foreign affairs, military matters and law enforcement to social security, education and taxation, governments hold the power to change our lives.

Unlike the times of absolute monarchy based on the divine right of kings, the great powers wielded by today's governments are not god-given. Political power is based on a mandate from the people gained through democratic elections. And for this reason the public, as the true sovereign, must keep government and parliament under constant surveillance to ensure their actions live up to that mandate. However, as government institutions become convoluted and actual administration of policy more complex, it has become next to impossible for each individual citizen to monitor the government.

This monitoring function constitutes one of the main responsibilities entrusted to the mass media. In other words, while depending on the government and ruling party as the major source of news, members of the media must uphold the professional ethics of not taking information provided by those in power for granted. This is known as the rivalry between government and media. Thus media manipulation is an essential element for those who wish to win over the public to the government side.

Media manipulation in its extreme form can be found under dictatorships that place total control over the media and deny the "freedom of press." However, in advanced countries where freedom of press and speech are guaranteed as a system, governments resort to a more sophisticated ploy - propaganda. The Oxford Reference Encyclopedia defines propaganda as "the attempt to shape or manipulate people's beliefs or actions by means of information (true or false), arguments or symbols."

As evidenced by the political reality of many countries, symbols are a particularly effective means of propaganda. Typical examples are "weapons of mass destruction" and "the Hussein government's support for international terrorism," which were frequently used by the U.S. administration under President George Bush upon attacking Iraq. While these two symbols served as the basis of strong public support for President Bush, they have since been disproved, and public support for the administration has rapidly declined along with the revelation.

Regardless of whether they contain false statements, symbols are short and easy to comprehend, and are effective in intentionally masking pending issues that require multidimensional discussion. The lower house elections that took place in Japan this September offer a paramount example. General elections are held with the purpose of electing individuals who will be responsible for national policy over a maximum period of four years --a single term of Japan's House of Representatives being four years -- and are thus the most important opportunity for the people to exercise their right to participate in policymaking.

Opinion polls conducted over the course of the election showed that the majority of the Japanese people sought reforms in the social insurance system. For an aging society, security issues such as pensions, nursing care and welfare were clearly the priority issues of the election. However, Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichiro did nothing but brandish the symbol of "privatizing the postal system" and adopted a strategy of branding his opponents and critics as "anti-reformist." The election instantly took on the guise of a melodramatic rivalry, leaving behind the primary issue of reforming the social security system along with tax system reforms and the timing of the Self Defense Forces' withdrawal from Iraq.

The overwhelming victory of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) may have demonstrated the political acumen of Prime Minister Koizumi who masterminded the theatrical election, but at the same time confirmed the dangers of depending excessively on symbols. Worse, by constantly reporting on the soap opera-like fracas surrounding the new candidates – many of them women and nicknamed "assassins" by the media - sent in by the Prime Minister to defeat LDP members opposed to privatizing the postal system, TV variety shows and magazine features lent their hand in the LDP' manipulation of symbols.

The media's function of monitoring government was completely compromised. One could say it was an election that revealed the impotence of mass media. To regain the public's trust, members of the media must above all remain sharply vigilant towards manipulation of information attempted by power wielders. To do so requires maintaining a strong sense of skepticism against symbols created by those with power. The 2005 election will be remembered not only as a landslide victory by the LDP, but also as an event that damaged the credibility of Japan's mass media.

The writer is a former Professor of Shukutoku University and former Senior Editor and London Bureau Chief of the Yomiuri Shimbun.
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2005年 12月 20日









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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Japan's Mass Media – Pawn of Prime Propaganda