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     Jan 6, 2011

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 mainstream media.

"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 so long?"

"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 broadcasters.

"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 www.danielleussink.com.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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