Raging against Japan’s media machine
By Daniel Leussink
TOKYO - According to an old Japanese saying, "The nail that sticks up gets
hammered down." This seems the unfortunate fate of Ichiro Ozawa, the only
Japanese leader to stage two political revolutions in as many decades. The
veteran lawmaker from Minshuto - the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) -
faces a mandatory indictment over alleged illegal campaign donations by a
construction company to his political funds body.
The scandal has dominated Japan’s headlines since March 2009, when Ozawa came
under pressure to step down as Minshuto leader after allegations of
misreporting by three secretaries came to light. Ozawa resigned from his post
in May. His secretaries were later indicted. By then Ozawa had already paved
the way for
his party’s greatest moment, a sweeping election victory that brought an end to
Japan's half a century as a virtual one-party state ruled by the Liberal
Democratic Party of Japan. Ozawa recruited 120 fresh candidates for that win.
Critics say that in the lead-up to his indictment next month, the 68-year-old
Ozawa has become the victim of a targeted campaign against him by the news
media aimed at his political integrity. "The news media should lead the public
and warn them when a dangerous thing might take place," said Minshuto lawmaker
Megumu Tsuji during an interview. "But they have not played that role at all."
Tsuji, who holds a Lower House seat in the Diet, Japan's parliament, had not
associated with Ozawa. He became supportive of the former Minshuto leader as he
saw the media excessively casting him in a bad light.
Indeed, since Ozawa was sidelined from government, Japanese across the
political spectrum have become critical of the institutions that raised the
unproven allegations against him - the public prosecutor's office and
"Newspapers are most concerned about whether Minshuto will break up or not [as
a result of Ozawa's upcoming indictment]," Tsuji said. "But that will not
happen so easily, I think."
While mainstream news media in Western democracies face similar allegations of
being too close to the centers of power, the problem is more entrenched in
Japan. Scholars have described the almost daily coverage of the scandal by
influential daily newspapers and television shows as a character assassination.
"The Japanese news media don't act like watchdogs," said Yasuhiko Tajima, who
teaches journalism at Sophia University in Tokyo. "They are part of the
establishment. Their place is in the elite, upper, top echelon of Japanese
society." "They lack an incentive to change the existing power structure in a
fundamental way," said Tajima.
Since stepping down as Minshuto's front man, Ozawa has limited his appearances
in domestic news media. He largely stopped granting personal interviews to
newspapers and television. In December, he unexpectedly agreed to a one-on-one
interview with freelance journalist Yasumi Iwakami. The 70-minute talk was
broadcast live on the Internet and attracted 79,000 viewers.
"If we really reform the old system, the first thing that will happen is that
those with vested interests will revolt ... Aren't those with the most vested
interests the big newspapers and television channels?" said Ozawa. "But maybe
Ichiro Ozawa will put a scalpel in that old system of vested interests. He
might be a really dangerous person because of that."
One pillar of old Japan that Ozawa vowed to reform is the press club system.
His own press conferences have been open for 20 years to everyone who wants to
attend. "I think that is one of the original reasons why they started calling
me a criminal," he said. The press club system is a cartel-like arrangement of
closed clubs attached to government institutions through which a dozen "member"
news organizations regulate coverage of press events. As a rule, most of them
prohibit non-members (including other journalists) from attending press
conferences and asking questions.
One result of this system has been that the public prosecutors could avoid
being quoted by name when commenting to the news organizations about the
allegations against Ozawa. Critics also say the daily newspapers took most
allegations against Ozawa at face value, while they remain unproven.
Tsunehiko Maeda, the 43-year-old top prosecutor who built a case against
Ozawa's chief accountant in 2009, was indicted and fired in October last year
after it came to light he had fabricated evidence. So far the newspapers have
failed to press the public prosecutor's office on whether or not Maeda
committed a similar crime against Ozawa's aide, or for a new investigation.
Last week, Ozawa announced his intention to testify before a parliamentary
panel about the allegations against him. It was the latest chance for the
newspapers to give Ozawa a drilling through reportage, anonymous editorials and
point-of-views representing citizen's voices.
"On the subject of money and politics, former DPJ president Ichiro Ozawa has
apparently made up his mind to appear before the Lower House Deliberative
Council on Political Ethics," wrote the Asahi Shimbun on December 29. "He must
have calculated the pros and cons in reaching a decision, but why did it take
"The wily veteran showed that he still must have a few tricks up his sleeve,"
said another Asahi article from the same day. The Asahi Shimbun could not be
reached for comment by Asia Times Online due to a New Year's holiday.
Ahead of its election victory, Minshuto pledged to end the press club system
and open press conferences to journalists who do not belong to major news
organizations. Even freelance journalists have started attending press
conferences. But the party also pledged an end to cross-ownership of
broadcasters and newspapers and an open auction system to sell broadcast
frequency rights - it has so far failed to make good on this promise.
"The problem is that citizens expected a more drastic political shift after the
change of government [to Minshuto in 2009]," said Akira Uozumi, author of
numerous books on scandals involving politicians, the public prosecutor's
office and the news media. "The biggest reason [for the lack of change] is
perhaps Ozawa's exclusion from the government."
Members of the public have made their sentiments clear, with around 2,500
Japanese from all walks of life recently holding marches in Tokyo against the
news media and the public prosecutor's office. The march was organized through
blogs and Twitter. Similar events against "Ozawa-bashing" were held in Osaka,
Nagoya, Fukuoka and Niigata, but ignored by newspapers and television
"One element of the news media is bringing Japanese society back to a condition
like in the Second World War," said Sadao Hirano, an Ozawa confidant, during an
interview. "The news media suffer from the economic recession, but they have
not reformed their own business models hard enough. They hang on to vested
interests obtained under previous Japanese governments."
Daniel Leussink is a Dutch journalist in Tokyo, Japan. His website is