JPRI Critique Vol. XII, No. 3 (April 2005)
Censorship at NHK and PBS
By Henry Laurence

In January 2005, acting LDP secretary-general Abe Shinzo caused a minor sensation when he told the Asahi Shimbun that he had successfully demanded that the public Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nihon Hoso Kyokai, or NHK) censor a 2001 documentary about the "comfort women." The episode seems to confirm the charge that the mainstream Japanese media are too timid. Whether as a result of institutional factors such as the press club system, or cultural tendencies to avoid confrontation and defer to authority, the Japanese press is said to play the role of "lapdog" to those in power, in Ellis Krauss's vivid analogy, rather than tackling hard issues or engaging in fearless investigative journalism. [1] Such critics often seem to have the American Fourth Estate in mind as the global standard for a free, fair and feisty "watchdog." Laurie Freeman, for example, describes Japanese news as "an informationally inferior product where people do not get 'all the news that's fit to print,'" making explicit the contrast to the New York Times and its famous motto. [2]

Is it time to rethink the comparison? Even as details of the NHK affair emerged, the issue of media self-censorship came into sharp focus in America in a case as politically charged in the U.S. as war guilt is in Japan: gay marriage. Viewed together, the events show that while it is still true that Japanese television networks are easily   intimidated by political pressure, the same must also be said of their American counterparts.   Ironically, though, the cases also suggest that public broadcasters, while vulnerable to political threats to cut their funding, are nevertheless more likely to tackle controversial issues than their supposedly more independent commercial rivals.  

The first case involves NHK which is, at the time of writing, at the center of a major row over its coverage of the reparations movement on behalf of the surviving "comfort women" who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army during World War Two. In December 2000, a coalition of women's groups and comfort women supporters from across Asia gathered in Tokyo to hold a "People's Tribunal" to highlight the issue of the wartime government's legal responsibility for the system, and the liability of the present government for reparations.  

In 2001 NHK commissioned an independent production company to make a documentary about the reparations movement, using the Tribunal as a focus.   In its first draft the documentary was to have included taped testimony of Japanese veterans admitting to having raped Chinese women; a   statement by a UN International War Crimes Tribunal judge to the effect that Emperor Hirohito was guilty of crimes against humanity; and an expert   legal opinion that the present Japanese government was liable to pay compensation to survivors.   Such content was bound to be incendiary for those nationalists in Japan for whom any discussion of war crimes is off-limits.   But hours before the scheduled airtime, following an unprecedented special screening for senior management, all these segments were ordered cut.  

They were replaced by, among other items, an interview with Hata Ikuhiko, a nationalist historian who denied that there had ever been a system of sexual slavery, and some gratuitously irrelevant footage of U.S. bombers in action over Vietnam. Even the program's title was watered down from "Japanese Military's Wartime Sexual Violence" ( Dainiji Taisen Nihongun ni yoru seiboryoku ), given in advance TV listings, to "Questioning Wartime Sexual Violence" ( Towareru senji seiboryoku ).   These and other changes such as extensive re-editing of remarks made by studio commentators, had the effect of dramatically changing the documentary's message.   The tone changed from one basically sympathetic to the goals of Tribunal to one that was broadly negative and much closer in line to the government policy on the reparations issue.   

The precise impetus behind the last-minute changes remained unclear until February 2005, when two senior Cabinet ministers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), acting party Secretary-General Abe Shinzo and Nakagawa Shoichi, minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, told the Asahi Shimbun that the revisions had been made at their insistence.   Both men seemed genuinely surprised by the ensuing uproar, and quickly if unconvincingly retracted their admissions. Abe then went on the talk show circuit, denying that he had pressured NHK but also denouncing the Tribunal as biased and full of North Korean spies.   NHK's most senior management, having acquiesced to the revisions in the first place, also publicly maintained that the changes were a non-political matter of editorial discretion. Few Japanese believe them.   In the wake of the story, several NHK producers stated in public what they have long been saying in private: editorial interference from the LDP has been growing noticeably since Ebisawa Katsuji, a close political ally of the LDP in general and of Hashimoto Ryutaro in particular, was appointed Chairman of NHK by Prime Minister Hashimoto in 1997.    Even NHK's Director-General of Broadcasting contradicted the official line, candidly admitting that, "The NHK budget has to be approved by the Diet, so it's necessary to gain the clear understanding of Diet members concerning our business plans and specific programs." [3]

At first glance this episode seems to confirm conventional wisdom about the political leanings of publicly funded television in general, and of NHK in particular.   Opponents of public television expect a broadcaster dependent on government approval for funds to be at worst a mouthpiece for the government, or at best an inoffensive patsy.   Ellis Krauss's wonderful study of NHK provides support for both views, arguing that: "The most important consequence of the combination of formal and informal means of influence by the LDP on NHK has been a particularly effective self-censorship." [4] He also highlights the very powerful legitimating function that NHK has had for the LDP-dominated state.

But at second glance, NHK's role shows up better in the sense that none of Japan's commercial TV networks even tried to cover the Tribunal or the wider movement.   This helps explain why, despite repeated instances of conservative bias, opposition parties have historically been muted in their criticism of NHK.   Japan's commercial TV networks are as susceptible as any to the pressures of "dumbing down," and to the extent that NHK avoids the sensational and the trivial, it is regarded with relative approval by politicians of all ideological persuasions.  

NHK attracts some of the most dedicated and gifted journalists in Japan, and the production quality of news and documentaries is extraordinarily high.   Moreover, the strict quantitative even-handedness, by which all political parties are accorded air time in proportion to their Diet strength, benefits minor parties such as the Japan Communist Party that are often completely ignored by commercial stations.   Thus, despite the criticisms leveled in the Diet at NHK by various opposition party members for this incident, there is little sense that Japan's democracy would be better served by getting rid of the broadcaster entirely. Indeed, Lord Annan, author of a major report on public broadcasting in the UK, once suggested that, "Those responsible for broadcasting policy in Britain should look to Japan and the NHK for their model rather than to America." [5]

Annan's misgivings about the integrity of American broadcasting would have been confirmed by the recent "Bustergate" flap.   "Postcards from Buster" is a children's show produced by Boston WGBH, a local affiliate of the national Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).   In the show, the eponymous cartoon rabbit visits real-life families across America and reports on their lives and customs.   He's visited Mormons, Muslims, fundamentalist Christians, Puerto Ricans, and Hmong without incident.   The offending episode, "Sugartime," features two lesbian couples and their families who produce maple sugar and cheese in rural Vermont.   Civil unions are legal in Vermont, and the focus of the program was on maple-sugar production rather than sexual orientation, but this was still too much for the Bush Administration.   Education Secretary Margaret Spellings wrote to PBS on January 25, shortly before the show was scheduled to air, that "many parents would not want their young children to be exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode."   She went on suggest that PBS "strongly consider" returning all federal money which had been used to make the show.    Since the Department of Education funds approximately two-thirds of the budget for "Postcards from Buster" this seemed like a serious threat.  

Legally,   though, Spellings did not have a leg to stand on.    The terms of the Education Department grant which funded the series includes the requirement that "Diversity will be incorporated into the fabric of the series to help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society.   The series will avoid stereotypical images of all kinds and show modern multi-ethnic/lingual/cultural families and children."    Nonetheless, PBS backed down immediately, and pulled the episode from the national schedule.   WGBH then offered the episode to any of the 349 local PBS stations that dared to air it.   Just thirty-five took up the offer.

The intervention is part of a broader pattern of aggressive media manipulation by the Bush administration. Several   supposedly independent journalists have admitted to accepting payments from government agencies, including the Department of Education to promote administration policies.   In one notorious case, the Department of Education paid $240,000 to a conservative African-American columnist to write favorably about Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.    

In a related strategy, the White House is aggressively feeding TV networks video news reports (VNRs) -- clips which appear to be independent news coverage of policy issues   but are in fact government-produced and scripted.   Stories are "reported" by government employees who act and sign off in the manner of investigative journalists.   Needless to say, the "coverage," while appearing to be objective, is inevitably slanted towards the Administration.     Many local stations, facing growing competition from cable news and limited budgets for news coverage, run VNRs without attributing sources.  

Finally, on the "moral values" front, the Federal Communications Commission has aggressively fined networks for profanity   and such acts of indecency as the exposure of Janet Jackson's breast during the 2004 Superbowl because of an alleged "costume malfunction." Fines for indecency on TV or radio jumped from $444,000 in 2003 to nearly $8 million in 2004.   So intimidated are the networks that many cancelled showings of "Saving Private Ryan," scheduled to commemorate the Anniversary of D-Day, because of the bad language.   The FCC's refusal to comment on the decency or otherwise of programs before they air has only added to the climate of unease in which self-censorship flourishes.

There are some important lessons here for those concerned about the vitality and independence of mainstream television media.   First is that it was the public broadcasters rather than their commercial rivals who dared even to try to tackle the taboo subjects.   This suggests that self-censorship, routinely practiced by commercial stations anxious not to offend sponsors or hurt ratings, is often more powerful in stifling discussion of controversial topics than the more direct censorship of government officials who invoke control over public broadcastings budgets to "suggest" editorial changes.    By sidelining public television, conservatives are sidelining the most active forum for debating the "moral values" of their core constituents.  

The second lesson concerns how differently the public in each country reacted to events. In America, the notion of public broadcasting has never been strong: PBS has a miniscule 3% audience share.   In addition, fierce competition leads the commercial networks to avoid anything controversial, and the success of Fox News has demonstrated that nationalistic news coverage and public loyalty to the Administration can be highly profitable.    The effect has been a climate of growing complacency and even indifference to attacks on the press: a recent survey revealed that more than one third of American high school students believe that their country has too much free speech, and about half believe that newspapers should not be allowed to publish stories that do not have government approval. "Bustergate" became a non-issue here just days after it broke.  

In Japan, by contrast, NHK commands equal viewership to its commercial rivals and the value of public broadcasting is far more widely accepted.   There, nearly 70% of recent pollees believe that it was wrong for NHK to inform politicians of the content of programs before screening, and the scandal was a significant factor in forcing the resignation of Chairman Ebisawa.    This is not to excuse NHK from the charge of capitulation to a crude act of political pressure in the cause of war crimes denial.    The point is, American broadcasters do not appear to be showing very much more of the watchdog spirit as conservatives and nationalists attack socially progressive programming.


1. Ellis Krauss, Broadcasting Politics in Japan: NHK and Television News (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000). [Return to Text]

2. Laurie Freeman, Closing the Shop: Information Cartels and Japan's Mass Media (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). [Return to Text]

3. Asahi Shimbun, "Asahi Refutes NHK official's Claim," January 21, 2005. [Return to Text]

4. Krauss, p. 256. [Return to Text]

5. Lord Annan, "Public Service Broadcasting: the Debate in Britain," Studies in Broadcasting No. 25, March 1989, p.164. [Return to Text]

HENRY LAURENCE is an Associate Professor of Government and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Money Rules: the New Politics of Finance in Britain and Japan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).   His current research is a comparative study of public broadcasting systems in Britain, Japan, and the U.S.   He has a BA from Oxford University, a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University, and has served as a Research Associate at the University of Tokyo. He is also the author of "The Big Bang and the Sokaiya ," JPRI Critique Vol. VI, No. 8 (August 1999). His e-mail is .

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