Media, Propaganda and Politics in 20th Century Japan

Anthony S. Rausch, Hirosaki University [About | Email]

Volume 16, Issue 2 (Book review 1 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 28 August 2016.

Media, Propaganda and Politics in 20th Century Japan
The Asahi Shimbun Company (Translated by Barak Kushner)
SOAS Studies in Modern and Contemporary Japan, Bloomsbury, 2015
Original 朝日新聞「検証・昭和報道」取材班者『新聞と「昭和」』

Here is a book that provides the reader with both a detailed view of Japan’s 20th century history as well as a critique of how a major newspaper covered that history. From the back cover, “(T)his book investigates the role played by the Asahi Newspaper, one of Japan’s largest daily newspapers, as a mediator of information and power during the twentieth century. Members of the staff at the paper… examine the paper’s role in Japanese history, showing how news agencies assisted in the creation and maintenance of the nation’s goals, dreams and delusions. The book draws on internal documents, committee meetings notes, and interviews with staff at the company as a means to narrate what newspaper editors chose to publish during Japan’s journey through the twentieth century.” To which James Huffman adds, “(L)ively, engaging and frank, this is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the complex forces that produced Japan’s tumultuous twentieth century.”

The content of the book, an English version of an original written in Japanese, takes the reader from “the beginning of the Showa Era” of the late 1920s in Chapter 2 to “the bubble economy” of the 1990s in Chapter 27. Along the way, there are chapters that take up coverage of the Manchurian Incident (1928), the countdown to the war’s end (1945), the Korean War (early 1950s), the 1960 Peace Treaty, economic growth and the Tokyo Olympics (1956-1964, the Lockheed Incident (1970s), and the Oil Shock (early 1970s). We are also provided insight into newspaper coverage of the buildup to the war, the fate of newspapers under the occupation, Japan as a polluted archipelago over the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the youth revolts of the late 1960s and the path of Okinawa and the US military bases from 1955 to 1972. In each case, the respective chapter presents in detail the process of deciding on the timing and level of coverage, revealing the always nuanced and sometimes contentious debates that determined Asahi reportage of these impacting events. As above, the documents, notes and voices of reporters provide detailed insight into how the Asahi came to report on these events and the tensions inherent in them.

This internal review of the paper’s own approach also exposes the range of sentiment that was felt toward the Asahi newspaper at tumultuous times. The newspaper was accused of being a “traitor to the nation” in its coverage of the assassination of politician Yamamoto Senji in 1929 (p. 58) and “cowardly” in its cautious approach to reporting on the constitutional questions that gripped the nation the 1930s (p. 62). The content also turns a critical, and self-critical, eye toward the practice of journalism. A chapter outlining the long journey of reporting on the Minamata disease allows that “the narrow acknowledgement of the sufferers” reveals how newspaper framing can create, or deflate, momentum accompanying contentious issues (p. 200). Another example of the importance of editorial decisions by newspapers was the debate over whether the campus unrest that rocked Tokyo University in the late 1960s was a “struggle” on the part of students or a “conflict” between law-breaking youth and order-enforcing police (p. 214). Such problematic admissions aside, the book also lauds the Asahi in its pursuit for truth. The Lockheed Incident of the 1970s is presented as “the birth of investigative journalism” in Japan, as “the reporters covering the incident had a feeling they were beating the criminal investigators to the punch” (p. 242). The chapter on the Oil Shock of the same period reports on efforts by reporters to “be careful not to let ourselves be manipulated by information obtained from bureaucrats” (p. 256).

While the book is, as advertised, a work that reveals in detail the political and social forces that shaped Japan’s Showa Era, the translator offers a broader view of the importance of the book. Through the detailed and critical examination of the Asahi newspaper’s role in reporting on important issues of the times in its 27 chapters, the book shows how the newspaper at time took “an active role in shaping the paths Japan journeyed,” while at other points shirked its journalistic duty and “seemed cowed by the government, authority and military” (p. 277). The book shows how “(M)edia shape perceptions, set the agenda, create a lexicon that the population then uses to calibrate or give voice to events as they happen and later as they become fuel for historical memory” (p. 277). Most notably, Kushner, as translator, admonishes us to “position ourselves to not only observe how media companies perform their roles… but also keep in mind that we have the duty and ability as citizens to demand change not only politically but also as consumers of this media” (p. 278).

About the Author

Anthony S. Rausch has a PhD from Monash University. His research interests are rural Japanese society. He is editor of Japanese Journalism and the Japanese Newspaper: A Supplemental Reader (Teneo Press, 2014), and has published A Year with the Local Newspaper: Understanding the Times in Aomori, Japan; Japan’s Local Newspapers: Chihoshi and Revitalisation Journalism (Routledge Contemporary Japan Series, 2012); and more recently, Cultural Commodities in Japanese Rural Revitalisation: Tsugaru Nuri Lacquerware and Tsugaru Shamisen (Brill).

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