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Discussion Paper 1 in 2010
First published in ejcjs on 10 March 2010

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Scandals and Their Mediations

Theorizing the Case of Japan[1]


Igor Prusa

PhD Candidate
Charles University
University of Tokyo

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About the Author



In this paper I explain the role of Japanese media role in investigating, uncovering, and mediating scandals. I mention how scandal mediations in Japan reflect the Japanese mediascape, journalistic norms, and also the overall societal value system. While giving numerous examples of past scandal mediations, I will also emphasize the role of non-elite, semi-mainstream tabloids (shūkanshi), representing the main platform for initiating the process of making (real or imagined) social defects known to the Japanese public. Finally, I will propose a structural model for the scandal mediation process, consisting of transgression leaks to media, scandal processing, transgression leaks to the public, and the climax.


Japanese media and society; scandal theory; scandal mediation; journalistic norms; corruption and media; Japanese weeklies.


The paper was supported by the Research Project Development of the Czech Society in the EU: Challenges and Risks (MSM0021620841).


The media as social institutions generally have mechanisms at their disposal to both support the establishment and to challenge it. The latter is accounted for by media watch-dog theory, where media provide visibility and accountability by turning the dealings of elite power groups into public knowledge (e.g. McQuail, 1992). In reality, media certainly are the key channels in the communication of meanings, often engaged in uncovering political and corporate corruption and other forms of social transgressions. The role of media however does not always reflect the ideal of social guardian, and the logic of scandal mediation is marked by interlocking mechanisms, informal contracts and players holding each other in check positions. According to many observers, media's interest in scandal is generally shaped by 1) received news values, 2) the way of media's self-understanding of their social role and 3) market forces (McQuail, 1992).

In this paper I focus on the process of scandal mediation in Japanese media. I am aiming to offer a window into the interplay of those factors that typically define and shape Japanese scandals. I will analyze the structure of the process based on data collected from Japanese mainstream, non-mainstream and other media sources. First of all, it is necessary to introduce a few definitions and approaches for better understanding and analysis of scandals.

'Scandal' Definitions and Approaches

Researching on scandal is possible from more than one academic perspective (the fields of study worth mentioning in this respect are law, history, social sciences/sociology and most frequently media-communication studies). However, the phenomenon of scandal is often viewed as too frivolous and too fleeting to arouse serious academic attention and there exists not much academic research on scandals. Yet, a few scholars have focused on scandals in various contexts and produced a certain amount of literature. Let me quote a few definitions and explanations of the term. 'Scandal is an event in which the public revelation of an alleged private breach of law or a norm results in significant social disapproval or debate and usually reputational damage' (West, 2006: 6). 'A media scandal occurs when private acts that disgrace or offend the idealized, dominant morality of a social community are made public and narrativized by the media, producing a range of effects' (Lull and Hinerman, 1997: 3). John Thompson (1997) offers 5 stages of scandal: 1.transgression of certain values, norms, moral codes, 2. secrecy, 3. disapproval, 4. public expression of disapproval, 5. reputational damage.

Regarding the initial procedures of scandal, the point of departure is always a transgression of social norms reflecting the dominant morality (Lull and Hinerman, 1997). The next essential element, also included in all mentioned definitions, lies in crossing the ambivalent border between private and public: the action of certain individuals is publicly articulated and circulated by communications media. However, the rules of recognizing certain conduct as violating the public trust (by transgressing the dominant shared norm) are not fixed and often serve only as guidelines for journalists and editors. Besides, in many public scandal cases, the violation of conventional norms was actually permitted within the intimate domain of a community - this phenomenon becomes most visible in cases of cover-up scandals (West, 2006). Moreover, the popularity, personality and public image of the 'wrongdoer' can also shift the boundaries of public tolerance against the transgression. The public therefore - theoretically speaking - has the power either to denounce the transgressor and put a shaming (stigmatizing) label on him/her, or pardon the conduct as a mere accident.

Apart from the media and the public, there are hired professionals (lawyers, PR experts etc.) that can and actually do influence the development of scandals once they break, and moreover, there also exist other 'in between' agents in society that take a hold of scandals before they actually break. In the case of Japan, one of them would be the advertising agency or (in the case of the entertainment world) the celebrity agency office, or jimusho (see below).

At any rate, in order to give shape to scandals, media have to publicize (mediate) the transgression, whereas prosecutors and police can criminalize it. The former leads to public discussion, the latter leads to indictment and arrest. I will now briefly introduce some academic approaches to the scandal phenomenon, along with their characteristic features.

Historical Approach

The etymology of scandal goes back to Greek, Latin and Judeo-Christian history and thought, and was originally used in a religious sense in the Greek version of the Old Testament (Thompson, 1997). The term appeared in English and Romance languages in the 16th century and was used in two meanings: as an art of conduct leading to damage to the religious reputation of a religious person, or as a form of obstacle, hindering religious belief (ibid.). The scandal in its original sense thus already contained its basic motive: namely the transgression of moral codes and damage to the identity of a community.

Structural/Processual Approach

Not all scandals are 'mediated' (gossips and rumors can also initiate scandal), however their mediation and circulation is usually possible only thanks to communications media technology (Lull and Hinerman, 1997) and their main modes of transition: print, audio or audiovisual. Scandal mediation is a matter of publicizing transgressions: media can initiate (fuel, relativize, hold back) scandals. However, once a scandal is on, the public and its awareness is the essential player; scandals can proceed only if they awake (and hold) public attention, disapproval and discussion. According to Thompson (1997), without public responses there is no scandal. Scandals are thus (co-)produced by both the media and the audiences (the term 'scandal' usually points at both the mediation process and the public outcry as a social reaction to it). Scandals are shaped and mediated as an integral part of news with entertaining/'educational' impact and combine more formats in a hybrid way (hard news, soft news and everyday gossip).

Cultural Approach

Scandal is a form of media event. It is shaped and constituted by mediated forms of communication. It is therefore a more or less manufactured event, constructed in and by the media.[2] Scandal mediation is a structured complex process and has always a narrative structure with a beginning (scandal emergence), middle (scandal mediation), and end (scandal climax with damages and apologies). Furthermore, scandal narrative is always an open story (text) with many twists and turns, strong characters, competing interpretations, allegations, 'what-if' speculations; and the story can eventually shift its focus away from the central actor to other individuals ('snowball effect') or it can trigger political or public debate on some originally unrelated 'higher grade' issue (Tomlinson, 1997).[3] Scandal narrative is organized around the amorphous line of pursuing the truth but can die without any actual resolution (e.g. as a result of shifting public attention to a new scandal). Scandals are intertextual (they inform and feed each other) and are perceived individually, depending among others on the public image of the transgressor (Lull and Hinerman, 1997). Once shaped into a narrative form, scandals are converted into marketable commodities consumed by audiences – and they lead to significant profits if they succeed in attracting, informing and entertaining. Emotion-arousing events and human interest stories are therefore sought-after by news media. Generally, scandal mediations have to be concretized, personalized and detailed, usually with some socially significant, negative connotations.

Functionalist/Hegemony Approach

Scandals are 'rituals', whose mediations serve as an articulation and regulation of dominant moral codes and values, where socially influential media (along with the church and the state) come to play a major role in constructing and controlling the moral discourse (Thompson, 1997). Scandals attend to the process of periodic 'moralization' (supporting dominant values, reinforcing norms, reaffirming the status quo and maintaining social order). People inevitably respond to scandals in the form of moral reflection, which eventually may lead to a larger 'moral panic' in a society. The media enforce behavioral rules by imposing feelings of guilt (which derives from individual reflection of wrongdoing) and shame (which is a socially constructed, permanent condition that stigmatizes and makes the shamed person publicly undesirable) (Lull and Hinerman, 1997). Based on the instinct somehow inherent to all human beings, which can activate the pleasure of viewing downfalls of the Other, media for one thing offer a compensation alternative to the public by showing power/culture elites being persecuted, but for the other, they simultaneously produce an amorphous atmosphere of constant fear: the 'atmosfear' that anybody can be shamed and persecuted for defying given conventions, or (as Japanese media often vaguely proclaim) when one's behavior becomes 'antisocial'.

Scandal Mediation and the Case of Japan

The underlying conduct of scandal does not differ much from culture to culture. However, the recognition of certain behavior as being questionable or scandalous is a somewhat culturally-specific issue. Regarding the moral framework and the perception of 'truth', the Japanese cultural value matrix does not define binary oppositions (good-bad, order-chaos, clean-dirty, and also private-public) in the same way that the western world tends to do, and it rather prefers to evaluate transgressions separately and according to given circumstances (Morris-Suzuki, 1998). An important role is in this context also played by the centrality of deeply-rooted values such as loyalty (sometimes being taken to extremes), trust, regret and its demonstration, specific forms of social obligation and so forth. Besides, social group norms in Japan are often claimed to be much more important than the overall legal framework. Avoiding a leak of scandalous information in order to maintain the group can thus be considered public morality. Japanese institutions and corporations often rely on internal rules and 'norms of silence' (West, 2006). If the process of private conflict resolution fails (or if the information simply leaks to the public via whistle-blowers), these norms find themselves in conflict with overall public norms and the scandal is born, causing multiple damage to the community.

Apart from the general social framework, the societal and organizational framework has a decisive impact on scandal mediations in Japan. It is above all:

  • The political and economic environment
  • The structure of media institutions and media ownership patterns[4]
  • The 'information cartel', set up by media organizations and based on the keiretsu business ties model (Freeman, 2000)
  • The institutional relationship between mainstream newspaper media and their sources, administered by the Japanese Newspaper Association (Nihon Shimbun Kyōkai).

In this environment, specific journalistic values and norms are likely to emerge. One of these is the often discussed 'reporter's club' (kisha kurabu) system, which plays a key role in the scandal mediation process. Limited membership, sanctions in case of violating restrictive in-group norms and other aspects have a significant impact on the control of scandalous information flows.[5]

Typology of Scandals Based on Public Involvement

According to Tomlinson (1997), scandals are 'middle-order events', meaning that their subject matter is somewhere between the borders of fairly trivial and extremely serious. Really serious 'high order' issues (global problems like wars, genocide, poverty, etc.) will rarely become 'scandalous' because they cannot be condensed into a behavior of one symbolic individual. On the other hand, 'low order' issues are also not likely to appear on the agenda, since they fail to catch and hold public attention.

In this and other respects, Japanese scandals do not differ significantly from other cultures. In the case of low public involvement scandals (the public feels more like an observer than a participant), the everlasting issue is corporate and political corruption (in Japan most notably: illegal financial transactions, false statements in financial and fundraising reports, shady sources of donations, bribery, and eventually the private lives of political figures). Not only in Japan is political corruption widespread among nationally elected officials and prominent bureaucrats, and this phenomenon might have contributed to low public involvement and a rather indifferent Japanese public.[6]On the other hand, high public attention and public disapproval are usually won by those scandals which directly affect the citizen/consumer (medical malpractice, food poisoning, false food labeling and product defects, environmental pollution, various forms of sexual harassment, personnel/customers info leaks etc.).

Another sensitively perceived scandal type is the cover–up and exposure scandal: big influential companies, but also Ministries try to control information leaks or apply pressure on media. According to Karel van Wolferen (1989), Dentsū has controlled media information flows in order to protect clients (e.g. the Morinaga powdered milk contamination case in 1955, and the Taishō Pharmaceutical cold medicine case in 1964-5). In order to maintain good relations with industries and suppliers, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry obstructed the spread of information on Minamata disease in 1956-68 (Wolferen, 1989). Similarly, The Ministry of Health did not immediately order the withdrawal of dangerous products from the market (pharmaceutical companies using thalidomide in 1962-3 and using unheated AIDS-tainted blood products in 1983-1986) (West, 2006).

An average public involvement rate represents education/academia-related scandals: (most recently the 'sekuhara' [sexual harassment] scandal series involving the Waseda social club [2001], the Kokushikan University soccer club [2004], and the Kyoto University American football club [2006]) (West, 2006). Mainstream media minutely cover these kinds of events because the transgression is often legitimized by the arrest procedure. Low public involvement is typical for minority-related scandals and discriminatory expressions (most notably Tokyo governor Shintarō Ishihara's 2000 'sangokujin' case, 2001 'jinkaku' case, 2000 'babaa' case, or Muneo Suzuki's 2002 'racially homogenous Japan' case). Japanese civil groups and NGO's often protest immediately and exert pressure, eventually resulting in legal defamation suits, but the chance of success, as with the media coverage of such protests, is usually low.[7] There are only few taboo-related scandals to be found, since they represent very low public involvement, not to mention the fact that mainstream Japanese media traditionally tend to avoid sensitive social topics (e.g. burakumin, right-wingers, yakuza, pornography etc.). There exists a certain amount of religious scandal related mainly to new religions, with the Sōka Gakkai sect being the most frequently addressed subject in non-mainstream tabloids.

Conversely, a special category of minimal social relevancy but surprisingly high public involvement (the public feels more like a participant than an observer) is represented by celebrity scandals. They are to be counted as a major component of Japanese popular culture. Japanese celebrities, including active performers (singers, actors, entertainers), fake performers (tarento) and sports stars, are the main actors in scandal mediations. The most typical cases drawing the attention of media and the public are divorces/marriages, sexual affairs/obscene behavior, suicide attempts and drug use. The general information flow however is usually managed by the celebrity agencies (jimusho) they belong to. 'Johnny's', 'Yoshimoto Kgyō', 'Up front' and other showbiz-news gatekeepers protect their clients and themselves from scandals by putting pressure on media networks and threatening tabloids with restrictions on first-hand access to the showbusiness industry (West, 2006). However, once a scandal is born, these agencies turn from protectors to persecutors, publicly imposing an embargo on their celebrities and expelling them from 'the stage' for a period of time.

'Bottom-Up' mediations and the Role of the Shūkanshi

Scandals are primarily kept private by elite mainstream media (Farley, 1996). The initial platform for publicizing them lies in the foreign press, freelance reporting, and most significantly in non-elite, non-mainstream publications. Sports, opinion, and tabloid newspapers, altogether amounting to a circulation of 5 to 6 millions, are the prime movers of scandals in Japan. Apart from weekly tabloids like Sunday Mainichi or Shūkan Asahi, which are owned by one of the big dailies, the most prominent scandal instigators are weeklies, owned by larger publishing houses – most notably the Shūkan Bunshun (publisher Bungei Shunjū) and Shūkan Shinchō (Shinchōsha) or photo-tabloids Friday (Kōdansha) and Flash (Kōbunsha). The general mainstream press in the first instance ignores the tabloids' scandalous revelations but, depending on circumstances, it may eventually start to cover the case (see below).

Let me point out a few examples of scandal mediation in postwar Japan where the above mentioned 'bottom up' mediation has occurred. These cases vary in the amount of media coverage, social importance and context. Some of them even cannot be regarded as scandals in their original sense. The intention here is to point out how certain private matters (transgressions/sensations) have been more or less intentionally kept uncovered and finally went public through other than Japanese mainstream media channels.

Minamata Case (1956-). Chisso Corporation's chemical factory leak of methyl mercury resulted in serious mercury poisonings in Minamata City, Kumamoto Prefecture. The Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry obstructed the investigation. The real attention to the Minamata case was brought by a foreign photojournalist (ex-Life journalist W. E. Smith) in the beginning of the 1970's.

Black Mist Case (1969-71). This was a series of game fixing and bribes scandals in the Japanese professional baseball league. The scandal broke after the investigative activities of the Shūkan Post magazine and was consequently broadcasted on a FUJI TV news program.

Kakuei Tanaka Case(1974). In the mid-1960s Tanaka was involved in (among other practices) making doubtful land deals. His case was investigated by reporters Takashi Tachibana and Takaya Kodama, published in Bungei Shunjū and only then did Japanese mainstream media touch upon the story.

Lockheed Case (1976). Kakuei Tanaka and others accepted bribes from Lockheed Corporation in return for having Japan's All Nippon Airways purchase the Tristar model of passenger plane. The information was released by the American Securities and Exchange Commission and initially published by the Los Angeles Times. Only then did mainstream media publish the whole story.

Miura Case (1981-1984). The wife of Japanese businessman Kazuyoshi Miura was allegedly murdered by street robbers during a trip by the couple to the USA. Three years after the incident Shūkan Bunshun ran articles indicating that Miura had actually been involved in the killing.

'Sugar cane' Case (1987). The governor of Kyōto Prefecture made an inappropriate statement regarding a situation where a typhoon had damaged sugar cane fields in Okinawa. The incident, provided by Kyōdō wire service, was left untouched by mainstream media. However, local newspapers in Okinawa and Hokkaidō did publish the story and only then the governor offered his apologies and media made the case into national news.

Recruit Case (1988-9). Prime minister Noboru Takeshita and other Diet members and business leaders were involved in insider trading and receiving shares from the Recruit Company in return for political favors. Mediation of the transgression was obstructed because many journalists had also taken bribes, including the president of Nihon Keizai Shimbun. The scandal was initiated by the Kawasaki local branch of Asahi Shimbun.

Sōsuke Uno Case (1989). Prime minister Sōsuke Uno had an extramarital affair with a geisha. Later, she contacted Mainichi Shimbun to provide them with a story that was briefly mentioned in Mainichi's sister magazine Sunday Mainichi. Two days later, the Washington Post reprinted the article, which triggered discussion in the Japanese Diet and consequently led to coverage in the Japanese mainstream press. As a result, the treatment of women in Japan became an issue on the political agenda while Uno resigned his post.

'Dogeza Hatsugen' Case (1990). Then LDP secretary general Ichirō Ozawa made an inappropriate statement regarding the postwar relationship with South Korea just ten days before the official visit of the South Korean President to Japan. Japanese media did not print Ozawa's name, however the Korean media did publish details including the politician's name. The Asahi Shimbun also did mention Ozawa as the author of the statement but they immediately came under strong pressure from within the kisha club.

Sagawa Kyūbin Case (1992). The trucking company bribed more than 100 politicians in return for political favors. Details including the list of bribed politicians were known to club reporters but stayed unpublished for many months due to 'norms of silence'. The scandal was initiated by Shūkan Shinchō and mainstream media started publishing the story after the prosecutor's office had issued warrant arrests. Ichirō Ozawa, Noboru Takeshita, Shin Kanemaru and others resigned ('snowball effect'). The incoming prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa also resigned, partly due to his own involvement in the scandal, published later in Bungei Shunjū.

Masako Owada Case I (1993). The story of Princess Masako's engagement to the Crown Prince was kept secret because of the information embargo imposed by the Imperial Household Agency. However, among others Reuters and Associated Press leaked the information to foreign media. Only then did the Agency and Japanese Newspaper Association lift the embargo and send the same information to Japanese media through Japanese wire agencies Kyōdō and Jiji. Foreign media also leaked information concerning the engagement of Emperor Hirohito in 1958.

Toa Ilbo Case (1995). The Tokyo bureau of a leading Korean newspaper received an anonymous document, confirming inappropriate statements regarding the historical relationship with Korea, made by the Management and Coordination Agency's director during a Cabinet Press Club conference. Toa Ilbo contacted Asahi Shimbun, which did not confirm the allegations. The Korean paper then published the story, which was later picked up by Mainichi Shimbun and Tokyo Shimbun. As a consequence, both Japanese papers were barred from all club activities for one month.

Tochigi ijime Case (1999). A teenager in Tochigi Prefecture was bullied to death. Media misinformed the Japanese public about the incident by quoting incorrect police reports. The real background of the incident was investigated and published after 5 months by Shūkan Hōseki, FOCUS and the local branch of Sankei Shimbun.

Masako Owada Case II (2004). The Princess became a topic when she was diagnosed as suffering from a mental disorder. The story was initially picked up by foreign correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry from The Times in London and only then did Japanese mainstream media publish the story while referring to the foreign source, followed by Japanese tabloids like Shūkan Shinchō.

The main issue here is the ambivalent position of tabloids (shūkanshi) in Japanese society. They actually did uncover many corporate, political and other scandals, or re-investigated wrongly elaborated reports, whereby they gained certain credibility and legitimacy among the Japanese public. Their performance can make an impression on print media standing by the public, monitoring wrongdoings of all sorts and therefore fulfilling the ideal role of media serving as social guardian and democracy watchdog. This impression however gets distorted if we examine many cases of 'media injuries' – serious false accusations, resulting in legal categories of insult and defamation (most infamous is the case of Yoshiyuki Kōno, being stigmatized and wrongfully accused by tabloids of serious crime in 1994). In many cases, the weeklies are brought to court and financially penalized (they are as a rule represented by their publishing houses). The resulting damages however are rather small, if any, and under such circumstances it is often worthwhile for shūkanshi to run the risk and publish rumors or half-truths, not to mention the gains being made from beneficial negative publicity (Gamble, Watanabe, 2004).

Scandal Management and the Japanese Mediascape

Finally, I will put the 'bottom-up' pattern into the context of the whole scandal mediation process. While using the theoretical background outlined in the beginning of this paper I will try to highlight the developmental logic and modus operandi of the 'scandal management' process in the Japanese context. At the end of this chapter a diagram is enclosed to illustrate the structure and complexity of the whole process.

Transgression Leak to Media

Every scandal requires some form of an information leak (a revelation with/without real intention) through a variety of channels: insiders, whistle-blowers, often financially motivated anonymous reporter/non-reporter sources, opposition members of political parties or factions.[8] Scandalous information in a 'fixed' form (tapes, photographs, kaibunsho or 'mysterious documents', etc.) is the most 'reliable' source for scandal (Thompson, 1997). Generally the revelation must allege some kind of private breach of norms and must be personalized.

Scandal Processing

In the case of a violation of dominant social/moral norms it is primarily media who get involved; in the case of a violation of law it is the prosecutor's office and the police (West, 2006). Scandals are therefore (often simultaneously) processed on two levels: the symbolic/mediated level, where an occurrence becomes an 'event', and the repressive/legal level, where an occurrence becomes a 'criminal act'. Especially in cases of power-related scandals, Japanese mainstream media are likely to ignore the story, previously released by tabloids, take the 'see no evil' approach and eventually block the information. This is caused on the one hand by the kisha clubs that are obliged to behave in accord with the 'information cartel' logic, and on the other hand because of political pressure, eventually leading to a revoking of the broadcasting license.[9] Mainstream media are also unlikely to carry out any investigation that would uncover corporate secrets (e.g. under pressure from advertising agencies and other 'zaikai' business circles). Non-mainstream media, also depending on internal and external factors, pick a scoop, take the initiative in investigation, and directly or indirectly inform other subjects (foreign media, prosecutors etc). Their risk lies in the reliability of leaked information and tips from informers (e.g. from the police). The information is evaluated in terms of estimated profit and eventual financial damage. In most cases it financially pays to be sued for previously released untruths or half-truths, however according to West (2006) it is not preferable for shūkanshi to be sued by an ordinary person. Prosecutors obtain information from other sources (police, tabloids) and start an investigation. Media thus partly determine (set the agenda) what information reaches prosecutors. According to West (2006), prosecutors can be under pressure from public opinion (e.g. in the case of Sagawa Kyūbin in 1992 they allegedly faced a public backlash after the soft treatment of the corrupt Shin Kanemaru). They can also be under political pressure (in cases where a politician is involved) and as a rule they maintain good relations with the police (West, 2006).

Transgression Leak to Public

Non-mainstream media deepen the investigative reporting, speculate about the 'truth' ('what-if' questions) and gradually update the agenda with new twists and turns. Further framing of events tends to selectively reveal and emphasize negative aspects, critically re-examining transgressors' past, or adding new individuals to the scandal agenda ('snowball effect'). The general mainstream press ignores the tabloids' scandalous revelations but depending on circumstances it eventually starts to cover the case. Such circumstances are often (1) the arrest and indictment of transgressor (prosecutors/police enter the scene), (2) foreign pressure (foreign media enter the scene and reveal the story first, however often based on information from Japanese tabloids), and (3) domestic pressure (the overall public climate and the public's voice can become influential if major agreement in supporting/disapproving the individual in question is achieved).[10] The mainstream media often publish the story while referring to foreign/external sources. In the case of newspapers, scandals are generally handled by the social affairs section (shakaibu) and not by the political section (seijibu) (Farley, 1996), which usually keeps such scoops off of the front page. In the case of a TV broadcast, scandals often become an issue on the agenda during the morning 'wide show', while again referring back to the daily press. Foreign media can publish the story first, based on their own investigations or on information previously released in Japanese tabloids (e.g. the Princess Aiko in-vitro conception story in 2001 was broken by the London Independent but only based on information in Uwasa no Shinsō; the Sōsuke Uno scandal was revealed by The Washington Post only after being contacted by Mainichi staff etc.). Few scandals break from other media such as internet discussion forums (e.g. Channel 2) or from individually posted video clips (e.g. YouTube, Twitter). They are sometimes picked up by the larger media and circulated on a global scale.

Climax: Apology and Damage

Not all stories lead to resolution. Some stories are unreliable, based on bad tips, or fail to give rise to criminal/moral charges. In cases of false indictment, media are sued and brought to court, and are represented by their publishing houses. If a transgression is acknowledged, media uniformly and in detail cover the final part of the scandal including apologies, dismissals and criminal prosecution. The climax usually comes in the form of a mediated press conference. Generally, press conferences are carefully orchestrated, constructed pseudo events, used 1) to improve the actor's image by updating the fan base, 2) to announce sensitive information just before it would otherwise turn to scandal or, in cases where it is too late to manage the situation, 3) to ritually denounce the wrongdoer (West, 2006). Press conferences start up the process which aims to restore the alleged wrongdoer's reputation and make his/her future comeback possible. Celebrities, along with their agencies, politicians and corporate heads demonstrate deep regret, apologize, resign, and (in cases of court trial) pay a fine and get a suspended sentence (they rarely go to jail). Japanese media do not impartially report all these events but they also judge the adequacy of the apology, while focusing on every minutiae of the performance (frequency and length of bows, appearance of tears, physical appearance including clothing, gestures, utterance style, word usage, etc.).

Transgressors are subsequently sent to 'exile' and are not allowed to go immediately back on stage (either political or showbusiness). Showbusiness agencies entirely block all transgressors' activities for a period of time.[11] Similarly, political actors are also ritually exiled from the public sphere (West, 2006) and can conceive their next election campaign as a kind of purification ritual (misogi) (Wolferen, 1989) . The exile period usually differs according to the agency's strategic decision. Apart from this in-group decision and the legal nature of the act, once again the social responses and moods can significantly influence the impact of a scandal and the period of exile. The output of such responses often lies in the tension between the public image of a star and the perception and expectation connected with him/her. Certain roles in evaluating of moral transgressions also have to be ascribed to deeply rooted gender-related expectations in Japanese society.[12]

Summary and Diagram of the Scandal Mediation Process

The diagram below (Figure 1) illustrates the scandal flow from the moment of transgression occurrence until the final leak to the public via mainstream media. During each phase of the process there are dual sets of forces facilitating the flow and/or trying to get an information under their control. First, an informer forwards certain compromising data to media (domestic/foreign) and/or to non-media agents (police/prosecutors). It is then in the first place the power circles (sei-kan-zai), mainstream media (through their kisha club reporters and informal contracts between sources), influential advertising companies linked with power elites (most notably Dentsu) and celebrity agencies (most notably Johnny's), who make significant efforts to block or manage the information flow, depending on the extent of their involvement. At the same time, the information can be leaked to the Japanese public from the outside (foreign media) or from the inside (non-mainstream magazines shūkanshi that are not part of the media/power front line). If the information spread is unmanagable (and/or if the transgression was meanwhile legally acknowledged by the state authorities), the mainstream media, along with the representatives of the power/show business platforms concerned, finally approach the public themselves, usually via a mediated pseudo-event (press conference).

Figure 1: The Scandal Mediation Process (Larger Image) (Diagram produced by the author).

Concluding Remarks

There have been other attempts made to revise and upgrade the 'media watchdog theory' in connection with media's performance during scandals. Unsurprisingly, these upgrades are rather 'downgrades': the role of Japanese media has been perceived as the one of 'guard dog' (Krauss, 1996), 'lapdog' (Wolferen 1989; Krauss, 2000), 'trickster'[13] (Pharr, 1996) or 'co-conspirator' (Freeman, 2000). Very suitable for Japanese mainstream media is the notion of 'muzzled watchdog', introduced by Rodney Tiffen (1999) in the context of Australian media scandal coverage: the mainstream media have vast access to information channels but only very limited possibilities to make certain information public. While maintaining consensus with elite sources, they often do not cover, but rather cover up scandals (Wolferen, 1989) and pursue (mediate) transgressions only if the situation becomes in some respects 'inevitable'. On the other hand, Japanese non-mainstream, non-elite media (most notably the shūkanshi magazines) usually perform the 'trickster' role, focusing primarily on selling copies and therefore seeking and initiating scandals of all sorts.

While considering the output data of this paper, I lean towards a conclusion that significantly overlaps with James Lull and his opinion on Chinese power elites: they cannot control media, manage news and hide scandals, but they try.[14] Apart from media's ever increasing desire to sell as many products as possible without consideration for factors other than commercial gain, this might be one of the main reasons why not only Japanese media often fail to live up to the ideal role of democracy watch-dog.

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[1] An abridged version of this paper was presented at the international Symposium 'Mapping the Spaces of Media Culture in Asia: Information, Communication and Politics' (29-30 October 2009, The University of Tokyo).

[2] Media often pursue human interest stories (many sensational scandals turn previously anonymous civilians into 'famous faces'), they frame stories (they determine how a scandal is to be perceived by selecting and emphasizing some attributes and perspectives of issues), highlight stereotypes and ignore disturbing or negative facts in the narrative.

[3] This was, for example, the case in the 1989 Sōsuke Uno scandal (see below), which in its final part triggered a discussion of women's treatment and position in Japanese society, or the case of the 2009 Noriko Sakai drug possession scandal , which (among other issues) brought to the fore the issue of foreign drug-sellers in central Tokyo.

[4] In Japan, each of the 'big five' dailies (Yomiuri, Asahi, Mainichi, Nikkei and Sankei) at least partially own one commercial TV station, many local TV's, radio stations and other non-media subjects, whereby they build powerful media oligopolies.

[5] Among other norms, there are 'blackboard agreements' (kokuban kyōtei) and 'press agreements' (hōdō kyōtei), that put the timing of each information release under control, restrict the entire newsgathering process and subsequently result in uniform standardized coverage.

[6] Many refer to 'structural corruption' (kōzō oshoku) in order to point out the institutionalized quality of the phenomenon that is somehow accepted as an evil-but-necessary part of the system. There are more explanations available, but worth mentioning is the Japanese legal framework of party financing (including the style of electoral campaigns and politician's local support groups, the kōenkai), certain aspects of Japanese political culture (e.g. amakudari and other practices of connections between politicians, bureaucrats and business elites) and also the overall societal environment in Japan, where some form of corruption is often a fact of daily life, and where costs of many transactions are being increased by bribes.

[7] In Japan, there exists a non-profit, nongovernment Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization (Hōsō Rinri Bangumi Kōjō Kikō or BPO) which examines broadcasting program content while focusing on false and distorted news reports, human rights violations etc., but their only authority lies in making advice to broadcasters in case some form of misconduct was discovered. By the way, the new DPJ government is planning to establish until 2011 another independent body for matters related to broadcasting and communications. However, its role and relation to BPO is unclear.

[8] For example, the weekly tabloid Uwasa no Shinsō (active 1979-2004) claimed that 30 to 40 per cent of published gossip came from kisha kurabu reporters (Gamble and Watanabe, 2004).

[9] The Communications and Internal Affairs Ministry has the power to issue, renew or revoke licenses of broadcasting companies. There are more cases in Japanese history where politicians put pressure on a broadcaster due to sensitive media content (most notably the 1993 Asahi TV anti-LDP pre-election media coverage case, or the 2001 NHK 'comfort women' documentary censorship case).

[10] For example, in the case of the Kakuei Tanaka scandals, the politician's popularity reached its peak in 1972, but the public opinion changed rapidly after the allegations in 1974. Such a decrease of public support initiated according to Cooper-Chen (1997) the mainstream coverage of his shady deals and subsequently ruined his political career.

[11] Once the punitive exile period is nearly over, the actor usually offers another mediated apology to the public, symbolizing his/her comeback. Politicians can offer an apology as a part of their next electoral campaign. Corporate presidents after resignation are often shifted to new positions within the corporation, at insider boards at subsidiaries etc (West, 2006).

[12] For example, Takeshi Kitano attacked the Friday magazine staff in 1986 after Friday had published a photo of his girlfriend – this incident had practically no consequences for Kitano's future activities. Similarly in his 1994 motorcycle accident, Kitano was allegedly intoxicated, but the prosecution was suspended by taking into consideration other factors (his health condition) (West, 2006). On the other hand, the Fuji TV female announcer Yukino Kikuma was in 2005 arrested for drinking alcohol with an underage Johnny's member in public and was exiled for nearly four months.

[13] Pharr (1996) compares the media performance in Japanese society to the performance of a 'trickster' – someone that challenges the world and disobeys conventional behavior by using trickery and deceit. Media tricksters are outsiders within the system; they attack the status quo to defend it again later and they have no fixed moral status. Shūkanshi therefore can be perceived as 'double tricksters': they both protect/attack the public and promote/damage the reputation of power and culture elites.

[14] The interview with James Lull on media scandals from 2007 is accessible from here.

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COOPER-CHEN, A. (1997) Mass communication in Japan. Iowa: Iowa State University Press.

FARLEY, M. (1996) Japan's Press and the Politics of Scandal. In S.J. Pharr & E.S. Krauss (Eds.), Media and Politics in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

FREEMAN, L. A. (2000) Closing the shop: information cartels and Japan's mass media. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

GAMBLE, A., WATANABE, T. (2004) A public betrayed: an inside look at Japanese media atrocities and their warnings to the West. Washington: Regnery.

KRAUSS, E. S. (1996) Portraying the State: NHK Television News and Politics. In S.J. Pharr & E.S. Krauss (Eds.), Media and Politics in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

KRAUSS, E. S. (2000) Broadcasting politics in Japan: NHK and Television News. New York: Cornell University Press.

LULL, J., HINERMAN, S. (Eds.) (1997) Media Scandals: Morality and Desire in the Popular Culture Marketplace, Oxford: Polity Press.

McQUAIL, D. (1992) Media Performance. Mass Communication and the Public Interest. London, Newbury Park: Sage.

MORRIS-SUZUKI, T. (1998) Re-inventing Japan. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

PHARR, S. J. (1996) Media as Trickster in Japan: A Comparative Perspective. In S.J. Pharr & E.S. Krauss (Eds.), Media and Politics in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

THOMPSON, J.B. (1997) Scandal and social theory. In J. Lull & S. Hinerman (Eds.), Media Scandals: Morality and desire in the polular culture marketplace. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

TIFFEN, R. (1999) Scandals: Media, Politics & Corruption in Contemporary Australia. Sydney: UNSW Press.

TOMLINSON, J. (1997) 'And Besides, the Wench is Dead': Media Scandals and the Globalization of Communication. In J. Lull & S. Hinerman (Eds.), Media Scandals: Morality and desire in the polular culture marketplace. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

WOLFEREN, K. V. (1989) The Enigma of Japanese Power. London: Macmillan.

WEST, M. D. (2006) Secret, sex, and spectacle: the rules of scandal in Japan and the United States. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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About the author

Igor Prusa is currently pursuing a doctorate in media studies at Charles University in Prague (Institute of communication studies and journalism). His interest lies in Japanese media and the role of various mediation processes within the Japanese society. Simultaneously he is undergoing another research at The University of Tokyo under supervision of Professor Shunya Yoshimi (IT ASIA Course). Igor Prusa is a graduate of Palacky University in the Czech Republic (Japanese and German Philology).

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Copyright: Igor Prusa.
This page was first created on 10 March 2010.

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