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First published in ejcjs on 15 April 2009

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Chinese and Japanese Newspaper Reporting of the Yasukuni Shrine Controversy

A Comparative Analysis of Institutional Media Bias


Joseph Tan

President's Graduate Fellow
National University of Singapore


Ni Zhen

Fudan University

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Studies looking at the dynamics of the state-media relationship usually focus on structural reasons, such as geopolitical or economic, to explain how the media frames the news. However, this paper argues that media organizations also have their own agendas independent of existing socio-political restraints, and that they are therefore important social actors in their own right. A news discourse analysis methodology was used to analyze Chinese and Japanese newspapers' reporting on former Japanese Prime Minister Jun'ichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine to demonstrate empirically the existence of institutional media bias within these newsmaking organizations that is not necessarily consistent with the reconciliatory tone of both countries' state actions. A comparison of the results suggest that while institutional ideology may predict how Japanese newspapers shape their reporting, rhetoric is an important factor in the case of the Chinese press where state control is more stringent.

Key Words: media; newspaper reporting; discourse analysis; China; Japan; Yasukuni Shrine.


Over the past decades, bilateral ties between China and Japan have seen moments of strain due to unsolved historical problems stemming from World War II. Such discord has existed since the 1970s, beginning with the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands dispute, and has burgeoned with the initial textbook controversy in 1982, and former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's official visit to Yasukuni Shrine in 1985. However, increasing nationalism in both countries, as well as a US policy against East Asian regional cooperation, have exacerbated antithetical sentiments since the late 1990s (Yoshimatsu 2003). China's role in this 'war' has been their criticisms of Japan for allowing some school textbooks to skim over or even distort its wartime atrocities. In addition, the yearly visits by former Japanese Prime Minister Jun'ichiro Koizumi (2000-06) to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine resulted in strong protests from the Chinese. From China's perspective, Japan has been perceived as disrespecting histories, justifying wartime aggression, neglecting foreign relations, and even attempting to repeat the same mistake in moving towards militarism (Shinkichi 2005). Japan, on the other hand, has felt increasingly threatened by the rise of China in the political, economic, and military arenas, as well as through their competition for energy resources (Lam 2006).

Ironically, the defensive posturing by both nations has not been for a lack of want by either side to improve relations. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the Chinese government is in fact amenable to reconciliation, but is unable to pursue this proactively because of a vehemently anti-Japanese public sentiment (Katō 2001; Yamazaki 2006). The Chinese state has on many occasions, for example, attempted to play up its perceived common cultural roots with Japan; the Japanese government for its part, has also made efforts to distance itself from more historically conservative domestic elements (Austin and Harris 2001). After all, the official Japanese governmental stand on the textbook and shrine controversies has always been that they are affairs independent of the government, with the former seen as resting within the purview of individual authors and schools (Nozaki 2002), while Koizumi's shrine visits were declared to have been undertaken in an unofficial capacity (Maekawa 2002).

An alternative explanation to the current impasse can instead be attributed to the states' actions being constrained by the need to pander to the negative public opinion that exists in both countries towards each other. For example, in the last major opinion poll on this issue conducted by the China Youth Daily in 1996, it was revealed that many Chinese youth felt a sense of indignation towards Japan's lack of respect for Asian people in spite of their temporal distance from the Pacific War (Xinhua News Agency 1997). Similarly, a Japanese Cabinet Office poll in 2005 showed that friendly feelings towards China was at a record low in the country (Xinhua News Agency 2005). However, if we accept the fact that both governments have largely taken what appears to be a reconciliatory stand on the issue, the question then remains as to why such a viewpoint may not be filtering down to the general public.

The Media as a Social Actor in Propagating News

The role of the media vis-à-vis its relationship to the state has always been a dynamic one, although the elucidation of such a complexity has not always been immediate. Indeed, media studies in the US had begun precisely because of worries that the media would have a 'magic bullet' effect in influencing public opinion towards candidates running for public office (McCombs 1998). However, such studies were more concerned with the social processes that would affect the public's assimilation of media, and therefore already assumed the media to be an organ of the state. In this way, early studies of the media failed to accommodate the newsmaking process as another filter through which the presentation of ideology is changed even as it passes through.

Across to the Asia-Pacific, a different kind of complication towards news transmission was highlighted by an analysis of the socio-geographical environment in which ideology circulates. For example, in looking at the propagation of the emperor system during Meiji Japan, Doak (2007) showed that the absorption and creation of nationalist ideology was really independent of its source material as different interests groups selectively interpreted and broadcast only the points that would further their cause. Additionally, such an ideology would very often only appeal to the converted (Gluck 1985), thereby demonstrating that various social actors would take over agency in framing the news as it travelled top-down.

The same principle has been used to demonstrate the presence of a popular nationalism in China, where the citizenry have used articles and cyberspace to criticize the ruling party before the state has had a chance to co-opt or suppress them (Gries 2004). Shibuichi (2008) has also discussed how, with regards to the ongoing textbook controversy, the mass media in both countries have taken up sides with either existing conservative or progressive elements. Nonetheless, while these studies have looked at the how society can mediate the news into tangents not planned for by the status quo, they have not been particularly concerned with the institutional ideologies inherent within newsmaking organizations, and how these would drive journalists to frame their reports in certain ways. On the contrary, it may even appear that newspapers are simply a medium for opponents of state-derived propaganda, which once again delimits the possibility of agenda-setting by the media.

Such a structural approach to media studies also influenced researchers who did in fact look at newsmaking organizations, but within the scope of how larger social conditions have created or changed institutional norms. In reviewing state-sanctioned Chinese television broadcast organizations, for example, it has been found that even as the propaganda and persuasion model of television remains strong in China, economic reforms of the late 1980s have diversified the scope of programming because quality entertainment is now required to attract the advertising dollar (Chang 2002; Zhao 1998). For Japan, however, it has been the amounts of freedom from the pre-war constraints of the reporters' clubs that have greatly influenced the leeway journalists have in their ability to report the news (Krauss 1996).

As the literature suggests, while the media's relationship with its environment has been discussed in great detail, it is often seen as a corroboratory medium that channels and reinforces political ideologies from other sources without generating any principal discourse of its own (e.g., Herman and Chomsky 1994; van Dijk 1988a). In the case of Sino-Japanese relations, for example, even the often cited work of Whiting (1989) sees the anti-Japan sentiment that the media creates as being the result of a larger policy towards Japan by the state.

With regards to the Yasukuni Shrine controversy, scholars have very often chosen to subjugate the press under the influence of other political or economic actors as well (e.g., Breen 2008). However, we would argue that the media is able to chart its own agenda that is not subservient to existing socio-political discourses. This article therefore takes the position of considering the media as an important social actor in its own right, and will attempt to demonstrate empirically how newsmakers in China and Japan have chosen to shape news reports of an issue that has taken the limelight in both countries, namely, that of former Japanese Prime Minister Jun'ichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

Methodology and Data Set

In order to highlight how the media in China and Japan have framed their reporting of Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni Shrine, we have chosen to conduct a comparison of newspaper articles from both countries. We have done so because past research suggests that in both countries, print media such as national dailies contribute much more significantly to the propagation of news than its broadcast counterparts (Feldman 1993; Gries 2004). This salience is due in part to their massive reach – newspapers in these countries constitute two of the top five largest markets for newspapers in the world (WAN 2006).

The Chinese reports are taken from the state-run wire service Xinhua News Agency (2001: 29; 2006: 16), which is the biggest news centre in the country; in addition to its own journalistic publications, it is also the main provider of news to all the major media outlets in China (Chang 1989). Our second source for news is the People's Daily, which was the highest circulating newspaper in China with an English version in 2005 (WAN 2006). The newspaper inevitably features many items (2001: 11 out of 15; 2006: 6 out of 12) that were sourced from Xinhua. Nonetheless, the unique feature of the newspaper that contributes to its widespread influence and popularity makes its selection crucial – a 'one page must read' forum that prints the comments of its readers on social issues (Chang 1989). Furthermore, that state intervention might contradict our aims of interpreting the Chinese data set as institutionally aligned also contributed to our choice of using print media; greater autonomy exists for newspapers in China amidst rampant commercialization and the state's awareness of its citizen's need for a pressure release valve (Zhao 1998).

For the Japanese articles, the Yomiuri Shimbun (2001: 16; 2006: 17) and Asahi Shimbun (2001: 12; 2006: N.A.) were used. These two newspapers are the most widely circulated newspapers in Japan and the world (WAN 2006), and also provide an interesting contrast in their reporting; the former has always been regarded as being conservative and thus more in line with the similarly inclined ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), while the latter has been regarded since the 1960s as being anti-government (Cooper-Chen 1997). Appendix A lists all the English-language articles from both the Chinese and Japanese newspapers that have been used for analysis in this paper.

The discourse analysis method that this paper adopts was proposed by Teun A. van Dijk in his 1988 monographs News Analysis and News as Discourse. They emphasize a macro-structural analytical approach towards all forms of print news, and will be used to content analyze the articles in the following areas: subjectivity in news production (thematic structure), and language used to generate an affective state (style and rhetoric). The former refers to the schematic organization of a news report, where the most important information as dictated by institutional ideology usually comes first. An analysis of thematic elements, identified by reducing an article to a primary topic from which the content has been organized around (van Djik 1998b:32-33), will thus allow us to examine whether the news organization is supportive of state-driven propaganda. Rhetoric, on the other hand, refers to how a piece of news is being delivered to increase its persuasive power and reader recall. The analysis to this end was carried out using van Dijk's (1998b:84-85) Persuasive Content Features that operationalizes persuasiveness by looking at an article's choice of words, the use of exaggeration and blame attribution, and the biased under-representation of the parties involved in the news event etc. Since such stylistic devices are able to reinforce notions of Self and Other, it serves as an especially relevant frame of reference on issues of nationalism, where the creation of group solidarity plays an important function.

The media analyzed in this paper are relevant news articles extracted from the two Chinese and two Japanese sources of print news, chosen based on circulation rates and availability of English language versions in their respective countries, in the week following the shrine visits in 2001 and 2006; the two different years of data will allow us to ascertain whether there is consistency in the news organizations' ideological inclination. Since all the articles had equal exposure to their readerships as well as to institutional filtering, all forms of reporting, such as editorials and forum submissions were analyzed.

Although the English versions of these news reports were used in the content analysis due to the limitations of the source database, this is mitigated by the fact that they are in-house translations made by the news organizations from articles meant for domestic consumption. Thus, any biases that may come from the institutional constraints inherent in the news making process will be preserved. Furthermore, the comparison of reports in the same language prevents the bias that may come from the authors' own translation of the words from either Chinese or Japanese. For example, while the word owabi is the highest form of an apology in Japanese, most Chinese people the authors have spoken to see it only as a show of 'regret,' expecting the word shazai instead. Nonetheless, we have also provided a reference list of all the corresponding articles in their original language, where available, for other researchers who may be interested in carrying out further linguistic analyses in the future (Appendix B).

Media Analysis

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The first of the Yasukuni Shrine visits by Koizumi as Prime Minister took place on 13th August 2001, with the last coming on 15th August 2006. His visits and the responses it drew from Japan's neighbours were reported the next day in major newspapers worldwide. However, these responses were hardly reported in the Yomiuri, which chose to base its thematic structures mainly on the domestic scene, with the differences in content between the two years relating heavily to situation specifics.

The newspaper concentrated much of its efforts in mitigating the backlash to both of Koizumi's visits from neighbouring countries as well as in appeasing the Japanese public's fear that the constitutional article separating religion and state had been violated. In 2001, the defence of the contentious visit began with the statement that Koizumi had adopted a 'clever political stratagem' by visiting 'Yasukuni Shrine on Monday, two days earlier than the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II … after carefully considering criticism of the visit at home and abroad including China and South Korea' (14th August 2001, Koizumi Visits Yasukuni Shrine). Articles that covered the events behind Koizumi's decision also featured a more narrative structure with named participants, such as LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, which helped to dramatize the fact that the implications of the visit were being treated with utmost circumspection (15th August 2001, Visit's Timing Decided at Last Minute). Furthermore, Koizumi was portrayed as a figure of arbitration since he had 'expressed his intention to seek the understanding of Chinese and South Korean leaders…at the earliest opportunity by exchanging opinions with them' (14th August 2001, Editorial; Koizumi's Decision a Wise One).

In 2006, the exposé of the Tomita memorandum added an extra twist to the tale by turning public opinion against Koizumi's shrine visits. Written in 1988 by the former chief of the Imperial Household Agency Tomohiko Tomita, it suggested that Emperor Hirohito had objected to the enshrinement of the fourteen class-A war criminals as he had stopped visiting Yasukuni since their induction in 1978. The Yomiuri responded to this by dedicating several articles to explaining how Koizumi had to visit the shrine in order to fulfil his 2001 LDP presidency election campaign promise (16th August 2006, Koizumi's Visit Attempt to Fend Off Critics).

For both visits, the newspaper was earnest in citing the many measures that Koizumi had taken so that his visit to the shrine would not violate the secular status of the Japanese government. For example, Koizumi 'bowed only once after entering the sanctuary and did not offer a tamagushi [sprig from the sakaki tree],' (14th August 2001, Koizumi Visits Yasukuni Shrine) which is in opposition to what is required according to Shinto protocols. Additionally, in 2006, since much was made of the fact that Koizumi's entrance into the shrine's main building might have violated the constitution, it was portrayed as an attempt to alleviate security concerns on a day when the shrine compound would be packed with visitors (16th August 2006, Koizumi Visits Yasukuni; 1st PM in 21 Years to Visit Shrine on Date Marking End of WWII). Apart from these, the Yomiuri also attempted to show the Japanese government's overall responsiveness to the situation in 2001 by stating how it was 'planning to build a nonreligious cenotaph in memory of the war dead, which will serve as a monument, not a cemetery' (18th August 2001, Nonreligious Monument Planned For War Dead). This theme carried on in 2006 under the shadow of the upcoming Japanese elections, as the newspaper actively sought the responses from several potential Prime Ministerial candidates.

In spite of the supportive tone taken by the newspaper, it was also explicit in its criticism of Koizumi. It declared that his decision to visit two days earlier would negatively affect the LDP's ability to push through much needed reforms domestically, and tarnish Japan's standing internationally since it would now be seen as a country that bows to external pressure. On the domestic front, the newspaper felt that Koizumi's thinking twice in the face of 'overwhelming resistance' would encourage LDP members to 'cling to vested interests' and to 'dilute radical reforms' (17th August 2001, Shrine Visit Sends Mixed Messages). It also argued that the local opposition generated towards Koizumi's shrine visit had created 'disarray' for 'China and South Korea to take advantage of' (14th August 2001, Conditions for Koizumi Reforms: Revitalizing Japan; Adapt Diplomatic, Security Policies to Changing Times). The 'advantage' here refers to how the shrine visit was being used by China and South Korea as a means to further their criticism of Japan's 'narrow-minded nationalism' stemming from the controversy surrounding a Japanese middle school history textbook.

Nonetheless, the paper argued that there was no need for Japan to 'overreact' (ibid) as China was in no position to criticize Japan since it itself supported a 'strong nationalistic education,' and 'one historic view' which presents an understanding of past events that Japan need not 'always follow' (15th August 2001, Editorial; What It Means to Honour War Dead). Unsurprisingly, Koizumi's decision to make his visit on the 15th in 2006 was heralded by the newspaper, which felt that China had constantly been 'trying to rein him in' on the Yasukuni issue in spite of the Prime Minister's other China-friendly policies (17th August 2006, Defiant Koizumi Unbowed by Memo). In reflecting on China, an editorial from the Yomiuri also stated that China's protests over Yasukuni were 'inconsistent' since they only began with Nakasone's visit in 1985, and were simply being used as 'diplomatic trump cards' (16th August 2006, Editorial: Question of Yasukuni Remains Unresolved) by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to attract public support for its anti-Japanese campaign (16th August 2006, Koizumi's Successor Likely to Face Same Problems).

These are of course over-generalizations and over-simplifications of the issue, which is further exacerbated by the lack of representation from official Chinese sources. The Yomiuri's reporting is therefore hardly representative of the more nuanced stand of the Japanese government, evident not only through Koizumi's placating gestures, but also through its acknowledgment that anti-Japanese sentiment in China was sited more at the grassroots level rather than being representative of any cohesive and unified opposition (16th August 2001, Koizumi Willing to Meet 'Frankly' With Kim, Jiang). In addition, China had only begun its attack on Nakasone because he was the first Prime Minister to publicly state that his visit would be an official one (Shibuichi 2005), and as the analysis of the Chinese reports will show, the CCP's official statements have more often than not been as reconciliatory as they are critical. Thus, while the newspaper was also candid in suggesting that China and North Korea were looking forward to better ties with Japan under the Abe administration (16th August 2006, Koizumi's Visit Attempt to Fend Off Critics), its more pronounced and one-sided attribution of blame probably increased the negativity under which China would be vilified by its readers.

Overall, while the fears of the Chinese and South Koreans that Japan would return to militarism were acknowledged, this was quickly glossed over with the rebuttal that 'All Japanese know [for a fact that] there is no merit in invading neighbouring countries' (ibid). This line of argumentation clearly did nothing to assuage the fears of Japan's neighbours, since it masks the existence of right-wing groups that show little reservations about making their conservative stance explicit (McNeill 2001). This under representation of views from those who were critical of Koizumi's visit is a common rhetorical method used to suppress the reader's ability to formulate an alternative position from that which is being presented (van Dijk 1988b). Furthermore, the newspaper tended to play down how widespread criticisms from 'other neighbouring Asian countries' were by regularly naming China and South Korea as the only antagonists.

The only Yomiuri Shimbun article that did not focus on these three themes was published on 19th August 2001 headlined 'Japan Must Restore Its Humanity,' and wrote that Koizumi's 'visit to Yasukuni encouraged many Japanese to begin considering logically what the war meant for them,' and that it was a catalyst for introspective 'self-examination over whether Japan's decisions and actions in World War II were right or wrong.' Nonetheless, it is possible to see from the dominant thematic structures chosen by the newspaper that its aim was to reinforce the proposition that Koizumi's decision to visit the shrine was justified, and that he had done his part as a leader to consider rationally his actions in light of possible consequences.

The Asahi Shimbun

The Asahi's reports offer a stark contrast to those of the Yomiuri in being much more critical of the visit and of Koizumi himself, while taking a more reconciliatory tone with regards to the protests of China and South Korea. It was also more concerned with how Japan would be perceived in the eyes of others. For example, it appeared to be in favour of the shrine visit's cancellation so that 'peoples of the world' would not doubt Japan's 'determination to contribute to peace' (17th August 2001, How Can Japan Regain Trust after Koizumi's Shrine Visit?). Its central theme was thus focused on highlighting how damaging it thought Koizumi's insular proclivities were. This highly politicized issue was further stoked when Beijing issued a request to LDP Secretary-General Taku Yamasaki, during his visit to China in July 2001, for Koizumi to state that he would not be mourning the fourteen Class A war criminals enshrined in Yasukuni, and to only make his visit after 15th August (15th August 2001, Tense Days in Lead-Up to Visit).

However, while the newspaper acknowledged that 'Koizumi could face political damage at home if he followed Beijing's unofficial request on when to visit Yasukuni' (ibid), it nonetheless also felt that the Prime Minister had not given 'a great deal of thought to the ramifications of such a trip' (14th August 2001, Visit Just Adds to Confusion); it emphatically stated that the 'thoughtless' actions of Koizumi in 'insulting' China and South Korea had created a 'mess,' resulting in feelings of 'outrage' and 'bitterness' from the two countries as unwelcome ramifications. Placing greater emphasis on the need to 'live in harmony with the people of other nations,' the newspaper regarded the dictates of the shrine visit as 'inward-focused geocentricism' (16th August 2001, Koizumi: Ties with Asia Are Vital to Japan). Unlike the Yomiuri, it also covered a clash between 200 members of civic-groups in Japan, who were protesting against Koizumi's visit and right-wingers on the compounds of the shrine (16th August 2001, Activists Face Off on Anniversary). In so doing, the Asahi tried to internationalize the issue, while the Yomiuri concentrated more on painting it as a domestic affair.

The Asahi was also more sensitive to what was happening outside of Japan in response to the shrine visit, stating that they were like a 'recurring nightmare' for those living in countries that had been 'devastated by Japan's military aggression and colonization' (15th August 2001, Koizumi's Thoughtless Visit to Shrine Shatters Trust in Japan). Thus, while it acknowledged that China and South Korea had used 'strong language to blast Koizumi's action,' it still regarded the 'reactions of China and the Republic of Korea…[as] somewhat restrained' (17th August 2001, How Can Japan Regain Trust after Koizumi's Shrine Visit?). It thereby contrasted the 'inward-looking' actions of Koizumi with the more sensible responses of China and South Korea in 'consideration for the diplomatic importance of not making relations with Japan so bad that they cannot be repaired' (ibid).

Interestingly, the Asahi had no translated reports of the Yasukuni visit in 2006. However, an online article at asahi.com by the newspaper's editorial board chairman, Yoshibumi Wakamiya, carried on the same themes by discussing possible solutions regarding the Yasukuni Shrine controversies and the mending of Sino-Japanese relations. In the 18th August article 'Now Is the Time to Consider Alternatives,' Wakamiya also saw a positive outcome from the controversy by noting that, 'inadvertently, perhaps, [Koizumi has] directed people's attention to a war which is fast fading from memory.' Wakamiya's suggestion here is that the controversy raised by the shrine visits would awaken the average Japanese to their history and the mistakes of the past, so as to avoid repeating them in the future. This way, Japan would be 'welcomed' by other nations, and have its diplomatic positioning more readily understood and accepted.

Xinhua and the People's Daily

Although the Xinhua and People's Daily articles for both years resonated with the Asahi's perspective in an attempt to negotiate criticism of the shrine visit with a corresponding importance placed on the mending of ties with Japan, the emphasis appeared to rest on the former. In addition, the articles also sought to present the Chinese view of the visits' symbolisms. Furthermore, while the forum contributions in the People's Daily reiterated all of these themes, it also painted a picture of China as a purely benign participant.

The gist of the Chinese articles was to suggest that there was widespread condemnation towards Koizumi's shrine visits both domestically and internationally (Zhang 2007). To this end, they often placed China as the critical voice of 'neighbouring Asian nations,' including the 'upright and peace-loving [Japanese] citizens,' the 'outcry' from whom Koizumi had neglected and disregarded (14th August 2001, CPPCC Foreign Committee Condemns Koizumi's Visit to Yasukuni Shrine). Doing this creates a dichotomy of right/wrong and us/them that clearly accentuates the faults of Japan since it stands against the rest of Asia in its actions. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese articles comprised mainly of quotes from both Chinese and Japanese government officials, scholars, and laypersons who collectively expressed strong and negative views on Koizumi's Shrine visit. This can be summed up in a 14th August 2001 piece 'Japanese PM's Visit to 'Yasukuni Shrine' Criticized,' which opened with the paragraph 'Historians, war victims and witnesses, veteran soldiers, and massacre survivors gathered Tuesday to condemn Japanese Prime Minister's visit to the war criminal shrine.' It featured statements that ranged from war victims who took the visit as an 'insult,' to scholars who saw the visit as harking back to the days of Japanese militarism.

The use of such reactions and responses from Chinese people of different positions allows for empathy from the majority of the Chinese population across all strata of society (Zhou 2007). This in turn can fan nationalistic sentiment and the attendant breeding of widespread ill feelings towards the Japanese. The implication is that this might rally the Chinese people to support their nation's stand in reproaching the shrine visits, and to create a voice of protest that is too loud to ignore. By tapping into an affective dimension, the affront that the reader feels from the shrine visit is personalized, which triggers a reflexive instinct to partake in 'evasion or protective actions' that is prompted by an 'emotional system of self-defence' (van Dijk 1988b:121). In this case, readers might thus develop ill feelings towards the Japanese, who are seen as the antagonists regarding this issue, so as to strengthen a feeling of unity among themselves and their fellow Chinese vis-à-vis the Japanese.

On the official front, reports on 13th August 2001 outlined the fact that protests had been lodged by the Chinese ambassador to Japan and the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister to the Japanese ambassador to China (Chinese Envoy Lodges Protest over Japanese PM's Yasukuni Visit; Chinese Vice FM Summons Japanese Ambassador on Shrine Visit). These were part of other official censures, which included that from the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) (14th August 2001, CPPCC Foreign Committee Condemns Koizumi's Visit to Yasukuni Shrine), and the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's National People's Congress (NPC) (14th August 2001, NPC Foreign Committee Condemns Koizumi's Visit to Yasukuni Shrine).

The Chinese newspapers were also vigorous in presenting Japan as a country with a 'divided public opinion' on this issue; the fact that the Japanese were lacking consensus in their own positioning might lead Chinese readers to develop an impression that it is indeed the discordant Japanese who should therefore shoulder the majority of the blame. For example, 'a high school teacher surnamed Morimasa' felt that the 'tragedies of history will be repeated' if the Japanese government continues 'to whitewash Japan's history of aggression' (15th August 2001, History Will Repeat Itself If Truth Is Not Told: Japanese Teacher). Another article saw a Japanese university student, whose 'eyes [were] sparkling with tears,' agree with a friend's statement on the suffering that had been inflicted on the Chinese people after a visit to the Chinese People's Anti-Japanese Aggression War Memorial Hall (15th August 2001, Feature: 'I Saw the Chinese People's Sufferings Today'). Other sources of 'indignation' were attributed to the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, the Japan-China Friendship Association, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, as well as political parties within both the opposition and the LDP-coalition.

However, a reconciliatory face was presented together with the criticisms against Koizumi through both mitigating reports and the more explicit offering of an olive branch. For example, it was reported that Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue had acknowledged that Koizumi had 'under domestic and foreign pressure, finally [given] up his former plan to visit the shrine on 15th August 2001, which is a sensitive time, and [had] delivered a statement…reiterating that Japan admits its history of aggression and reiterating its attitude on introspecting its action' (13th August 2001, China Criticizes Japanese PM's Shrine Visit). The statements made by Koizumi to 'never repeat the mistake of going to war' along with the fact that he had changed his visit date so as not to 'bring suspicion to people at home and abroad over Japan's stance of rejecting war and placing importance on peace' (13th August 2001, Japanese PM Visits Yasukuni Shrine despite Opposition) were also reported. In 2006, Koizumi's admission that his visits had 'caused considerable damage and pain to people in many countries, in particular Asian countries' was given coverage as well (15th August 2006, Japan Holds Memorial Service to Mark End of WWII). In addition, the Chinese Foreign Ministry further affirmed that the Chinese government attached 'great importance to the development of Sino-Japanese friendship and cooperation,' and would 'continue to join hands with the Japanese statesmen and people who cherish and engage in the Sino-Japanese friendship' (15th August 2006, China Exclusive: Chinese Foreign Minister Summons Japanese Ambassador, Strongly Protests against Koizumi's Shrine Visit).

In stating their stand on what the shrine visit meant to the Chinese, the Chinese newspapers were adamant in pointing out that Koizumi's visit was made in an 'official' capacity. In addition, because the shrine is seen as honouring the fourteen class-A war criminals, Koizumi's visit was taken as a rejection of the indictments made by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. This was in turn construed as the whitewashing of history by Japan, and a sign of Japan's return to militarism. An article that was cited by Xinhua from the People's Daily forum best sums up the significance of the shrine as 'a tool used to manipulate the feelings of the Japanese people, and to stir up militaristic spirit' (14th August 2001, Article Slams Japanese PM's Shrine Visit) Nonetheless, the forum pages of the People's Daily generally followed the critical/reconciliatory theme. For example, two entries in 2001 that considered the ambivalent attitude that Japan took towards history pointed out that such sentiment belonged only to a small group of right-wingers:

Although they are limited in number, the amount of their energy is great, [the right-wingers] brazenly tamper with history, beautify aggressive war and reverse the verdict on Hideki Tojo and other class-A war criminals, whipping up one muddy wave after another (15th August 2001, Fantastic Talks of Japanese Right-wing Force Refuted).

Although Japan's internal pacifist forces have all along been very strong, its right-wing forces have caused Asian countries to maintain wariness and vigilance over Japan (16th August 2001, Commentary: Why Japan Doesn't Earnestly Introspect History).

In 2006, the opinions presented in the People's Daily continued to promote optimism regarding Sino-Japanese relations by placing the blame squarely on an obstinate and hard-line Koizumi, framing him as a 'stumbling block' who was 'neither a qualified reformer nor a far-sighted politician' (16th August 2006, Koizumi's Shrine Visit Sparks Enraged Voices). Another forum submission cited Chinese President Hu Jintao's statement that 'Responsibility does not rest with China or with the people of Japan,' and that 'the crux of the problematic ties between the two countries is that an individual Japanese leader insists on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine' (16th August 2006, To View the Outlook of History from Yasukuni Shrine Visit). The author also felt that 'In an era of opportunities and challenges, the development of good-neighbourly relations is in the fundamental interests of the two peoples and is also beneficial for peace, stability and prosperity of Asia and the world' (ibid). However, the tone of the piece strongly suggested that China was the only country that was showing 'sincerity in resolving present problems and promoting friendship' and had drawn 'unanimous international acclamations' for holding such an attitude (ibid). This was concurred upon in another entry which noted that:

'Whoever starts the trouble should end it' as the Chinese saying goes. Requirements from the growth of Sino-Japanese ties and contacts between the people of Japan and the international community calls on Japanese statesmen to put an end to a passive situation created by Koizumi (17th August 2006, Koizumi Challenges International Justice Again).


The comparison of the Chinese and Japanese articles reveals that the news media may indeed contribute to the newsmaking process that is beyond the dictates of the normative discourses extant within both socio-cultural and political contexts. This introduces a new dynamic to the usual role of the media as only the passive propagator of ideas from groups designated as left and right-wing, or progressives and conservatives etc. The way this was done, however, differed between the Chinese and Japanese newspapers possibly because the former is more tightly regulated, while the latter belongs to a more liberal environment.

For the Japanese case, news that is supportive of conservative state ideology can be framed as that which gives patronage to Koizumi's shrine visit. As our analysis shows, however, institutional ideology served as a better predictor as to how the newspapers would eventually shape their reporting of the Yasukuni issue. The Yomiuri has a reputation for being more conservative on issues concerning Japan and World War II, and its reporting clearly reflected such an outlook. It extensively used the rhetorical device of necessity to mitigate the actions of Koizumi, deeming them as warranted due to domestic pressures. At the same time, it maintained that the Chinese protests were nothing more than baseless and unjustifiable accusations.

With the lack of Chinese representation to serve in a balancing role, the Yomiuri was thus able to shield its readers from what was in essence a very strong negative response from the Chinese. With the further addition of Koizumi's 'careful considerations' for the rest of Asia as well as the Japanese constitution when making his decisions, the indignation of the Japanese public would most likely be skewed in support of the government regarding the shrine visits. The Asahi as well, while being more international in its outlook and thus critical of Koizumi's insularity, was reporting in accordance with its more liberal positioning. Nonetheless, the rationale for such a reconciliatory posture, which was richly articulated in Wakamiya's editorial write-up, is to create a Japan that is free from the critical eye of global scrutiny, and to emancipate the Japanese people from the burdens of an abject historical legacy.

Comparatively, the Chinese media is under greater state scrutiny, which means that one should expect its content to revolve around greater reconciliation and lesser antagonism with Japan. And in fact, this is exactly what Xinhua and the People's Daily did to a large extent. While this in no way suggests that they condone the actions of Koizumi, their vehement protests are targeted only at the hard-line conservative elements in Japan, with the hand of friendship always remaining open to the majority of the Japanese people. Furthermore, since contrasting institutional ideologies in the Chinese context is somewhat of a misnomer, our analysis suggests that it is rather the rhetoric of the Chinese reporting that might be the cause of popular anti-Japanese sentiment.

For example, the lack of introspection on the part of the Chinese articles creates an implication which justifies widespread Chinese discontent and ill-will towards Japan. Indeed, China itself has often been criticized for its overtly patriotic education that stresses the CCP's wartime hero image and the depravity of the Japanese invaders, who are always portrayed as being despicable, draconian, and egomaniacal. Together with the People's Daily articles that only highlight the goodwill of China in improving Sino-Japanese ties, readers may be drawn to infer that Japan has been more recalcitrant in its diplomacy than it actually is. Moreover, the selection of Japan's own news sources that criticize Koizumi can further reinforce Chinese convictions that Japan is the only party at fault in the present crisis.

This constant 'villainization' of Japan in style rather than content within the Chinese media's coverage of the Yasukuni visits is thus able to rally sympathy towards China as a victim of the worsening Sino-Japanese relations. Such negative sentiment is probably what resulted in the biggest upsurge in recent decades of anti-Japanese unrest by the Chinese in 2005. In fact, the change in tone of the 2006 articles that placed the blame squarely on Koizumi and his outgoing administration suggests that the riots might have awakened the Chinese politburo to the dangers of unrestrained nationalist unrest, which could not only worsen Sino-Japanese relations, but undermine China's unthreatening position as well.


This study has identified and tried to account for the differences in media reporting by the Chinese and Japanese press on the Yasukuni issue. Unfortunately, we are unable to draw definitive conclusions on the direct effects of the articles on the Chinese and Japanese populations involved without a more thorough cross-referencing of the English articles with their original language counterparts. Nonetheless, we hope that the use of the mass media not only as a passive participant in the transmission of state ideology, but as an active and autonomous propagator as well can begin with this work.

Since the complexity of a news event can never be shown in its entirety, choices are made in the news making process based on selection principles that are dictated more by institutional leanings than dominant ideologies. Although the type of reporting may show particular inclinations where the media remains under the strict purview of the state, even in this case however, the outcomes can also be unpredictable. The underlying reason for this is because the evaluation of a news event is a tripartite interaction that involves not only what is being reported, but a person's self-referent opinions as well as other social mechanisms. Therefore, even in a situation where the press is under tighter regulatory scrutiny, the affective states generated from the rhetoric in news reporting can still, regardless of intent, serve as a means to colour the news whilst reporting content that is consistent with direction from other sources. This fact highlights the importance of appreciating the role played by the media as a social actor in the transmission of news that is distinct from that which is propagated by the state.

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Appendix A

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Shibata, G. 2006. Koizumi's Successor Likely to Face Same Problems. The Daily Yomiuri, 16 August, p.4.

*Shibata, Y. 2001. Japan Must Restore Its Humanity. The Daily Yomiuri, 19 August, p.6.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2001. Conditions for Koizumi Reforms: Revitalizing Japan; Adapt Diplomatic, Security Policies to Changing Times. The Daily Yomiuri, 14 August, p.1.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2001. Editorial; Koizumi's Decision a Wise One. The Daily Yomiuri, 14 August, p.6.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2001. Koizumi Visits Yasukuni Shrine. The Daily Yomiuri, 14 August, p.1.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2001. Editorial; What It Means to Honour War Dead. The Daily Yomiuri, 15 August, p.12.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2001. Visit's Timing Decided at Last Minute. The Daily Yomiuri, 15 August, p.3.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2001. Koizumi Willing to Meet 'Frankly' With Kim, Jiang. The Daily Yomiuri, 16 August, p.1.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2001. Nonreligious Monument Planned For War Dead. The Daily Yomiuri, 18 August, p.1.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2006. Editorial: Question of Yasukuni Remains Unresolved. The Daily Yomiuri, 16 August, p.4.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2006. Koizumi Visits Yasukuni; 1st PM in 21 Years to Visit Shrine on Date Marking End of WWII. The Daily Yomiuri, 16 August, p.1.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2006. Koizumi's Visit Attempt to Fend Off Critics. The Daily Yomiuri, 16 August, p.2.

The Daily Yomiuri. 2006. Defiant Koizumi Unbowed by Memo. The Daily Yomiuri, 17 August, p.4.

*Yamaguchi, M. 2001. Shrine Visit Sends Mixed Messages. The Daily Yomiuri, 17 August, p.6.

The Asahi Shimbun

The Asahi Shimbun. 2001. Visit Just Adds to Confusion. The Asahi Shimbun, 14 August.

The Asahi Shimbun. 2001. Koizumi's Thoughtless Visit to Shrine Shatters Trust in Japan. The Asahi Shimbun, 15 August.

The Asahi Shimbun. 2001. Tense Days in Lead-Up to Visit. The Asahi Shimbun, 15 August.

*The Asahi Shimbun. 2001. Activists Face Off on Anniversary. The Asahi Shimbun, 16 August.

The Asahi Shimbun. 2001. Koizumi: Ties with Asia Are Vital to Japan. The Asahi Shimbun, 16 August.

The Asahi Shimbun. 2001. How Can Japan Regain Trust after Koizumi's Shrine Visit? The Asahi Shimbun, 17 August.

Wakamiya, Y. 2006. Now Is the Time to Consider Alternatives. asahi.com (subscription only), 18 August.

Xinhua News Agency

*Xinhua News Agency. 2001. China Criticizes Japanese PM's Shrine Visit. Xinhua News Agency, 13 August.

*Xinhua News Agency. 2001. Chinese Envoy Lodges Protest over Japanese PM's Yasukuni Visit. Xinhua News Agency, 13 August.

*Xinhua News Agency. 2001. Chinese Vice FM Summons Japanese Ambassador on Shrine Visit. Xinhua News Agency, 13 August.

Xinhua News Agency. 2001. Japanese PM Visits Yasukuni Shrine despite Opposition. Xinhua News Agency, 13 August.

Xinhua News Agency. 2001. Article Slams Japanese PM's Shrine Visit. Xinhua News Agency, 14 August.

Xinhua News Agency. 2001. CPPCC Foreign Committee Condemns Koizumi's Visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Xinhua News Agency, 14 August.

Xinhua News Agency. 2001. Japanese PM's Visit to 'Yasukuni Shrine' Criticized. Xinhua News Agency, 14 August.

Xinhua News Agency. 2001. NPC Foreign Committee Condemns Koizumi's Visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Xinhua News Agency, 14 August.

Xinhua News Agency. 2001. Feature: 'I Saw the Chinese People's Sufferings Today'. Xinhua News Agency, 15 August.

Xinhua News Agency. 2001. History Will Repeat Itself If Truth Is Not Told: Japanese Teacher. Xinhua News Agency, 15 August.

Xinhua News Agency. 2006. China Exclusive: Chinese Foreign Minister Summons Japanese Ambassador, Strongly Protests against Koizumi's Shrine Visit. Xinhua News Agency, 15 August.

*Xinhua News Agency. 2006. Japan Holds Memorial Service to Mark End of WWII. Xinhua News Agency, 15 August.

The People's Daily

Guo, J.P. 2006. To View the Outlook of History from Yasukuni Shrine Visit. People's Daily, 16 August.

Pan, W.J. 2001. Fantastic Talks of Japanese Right-wing Force Refuted. People's Daily, 15 August, p.6.

Pang, Z.Y. 2001. Commentary: Why Japan Doesn't Earnestly Introspect History. People's Daily, 16 August, p.3

People's Daily. 2006. Koizumi's Shrine Visit Sparks Enraged Voices. People's Daily, 16 August.

People's Daily. 2006. Koizumi Challenges International Justice Again. People's Daily, 17 August.

*These articles have no corresponding counterparts in the original-language editions of their respective newspapers.

Appendix B

The Yomiuri Shimbun

「小泉首相の靖国参拝 アジア外交、次期政権にツケ(解説)」『読売新聞』(読売新聞社、2006年08月15東京夕刊)

『[小泉改革の条件](5)外交再建 「集団的自衛権」解決を(連載)』『読売新聞』(読売新聞社、2001年08月12東京朝刊)

「[社説]靖国問題 前倒し参拝は適切な政治判断だ」『読売新聞』 (読売新聞社、2001年08月14東京朝刊)

『小泉首相が靖国神社参拝 「15日」避け前倒し 反発考慮、談話発表」』『読売新聞』 (読売新聞社、2001年08月14東京朝刊)

「[社説]終戦の日 戦没者追悼は平和への誓い」『読売新聞』 (読売新聞社、2001年08月15東京朝刊)

『靖国前倒し参拝 盟友説得、折れた小泉首相 「慙愧の念に堪えない」』『読売新聞』 (読売新聞社、2001年08月14東京朝刊)

「小泉首相、中韓と関係改善に意欲 首脳会談を9、10月で調整」』『読売新聞』 (読売新聞社、2001年08月16東京朝刊)

『戦没者追悼の新施設構想、政府が検討 靖国の分祀求めず、「無宗教の記念碑」に」』『読売新聞』 (読売新聞社、2001年08月17東京夕刊)

『[社説]首相靖国参拝 「心の問題」だけではすまない」』『読売新聞』 (読売新聞社、2006年08月16東京朝刊)

『終戦記念日 小泉首相が靖国神社を参拝 公約通りに 「適切な日」強調』『読売新聞』 (読売新聞社、2006年08月15東京夕刊)

「小泉首相の靖国参拝 批判を正面突破 影響限定的と判断 安倍氏へ橋渡しも」『読売新聞』 (読売新聞社、2006年08月15東京夕刊)

『[小泉靖国参拝](上)決断と世論 富田メモ「俺に関係ない」(連載)」』『読売新聞』 (読売新聞社、2006年08月16東京朝刊)

The Asahi Shimbun

「課題置き去り…問い直される追悼の形 小泉首相の靖国参拝<解説>」『朝日新聞』 (朝日新聞社、2001年08月14朝刊)

「これが熟慮の結果か 首相靖国参拝(社説)>」『朝日新聞』 (朝日新聞社、2001年08月14朝刊)

「小泉首相、熟慮の末の2日前参拝 断行回避へ包囲網(時時刻刻)」『朝日新聞』 (朝日新聞社、2001年08月14朝刊)

「平和と友好を新世紀に誓う 小泉首相、加害責任言及 戦没者追悼式」『朝日新聞』 (朝日新聞社、2001年08月15夕刊)

『信頼回復の道はあるか 「靖国」後(社説)』『朝日新聞』 (朝日新聞社、2001年08月16朝刊)

「戦没者追悼のあり方、吟味の時 論説主幹・若宮啓文)」『朝日新聞』 (朝日新聞社、2006年08月16朝刊)

Xinhua News Agency









People's Daily






Note: As Xinhua News Agency is a wire service, and the People's Daily also prints reports from other publications, the source of their original language reports may vary.

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About the Authors

Joseph Tan is a Research Scholar and President's Graduate Fellow at the Communications and New Media Programme, National University of Singapore. His most recent work on the media and Japan involved an analysis of newspaper representations of Islam after 9/11. His current project involves an evaluation of pluralism within the formulation of various online data privacy initiatives within Japan and the rest of Asia.

Ni Zhen is a graduate student majoring in International Relations at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University.

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Copyright: Joseph Tan and Ni Zhen
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