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Friday, Dec. 14, 2007


A tycoon's field of dreams

On Oct. 16 a Japanese media tycoon was awarded the Newspaper Culture Prize by the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association (JNPEA) at its 60th general meeting in Nagano.

Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and editor in chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun, a vernacular daily boasting the largest circulation in the world, won the recognition not only as a renowned political correspondent but also as a shrewd corporate manager responsible for raising the circulation of his daily to 10 million. He had also served as JNPEA chairman.

Less than a month later, however, he was bitterly criticized by the rival Asahi Shimbun. Its Nov. 10 editorial demanded that the Yomiuri reveal all facts related to Watanabe's role in an ill-fated scheme to form a "grand coalition" between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

The Asahi editorial stated: "If it is true that Watanabe did indeed mediate between the prime minister and the head of the DPJ in an attempt to create the "grand coalition, he overstepped his role as the head of a newspaper company. . . . If he acted behind the scenes to realize his own political idea, he overstretched."

The "political idea" was a "grand coalition" mentioned in Yomiuri's Aug. 16 editorial, reportedly written by Watanabe.

Asahi Shimbun was not alone in arguing that while newspapers have every right to propagate what they believe, they should refrain from moving actively to translate their beliefs into reality.

Nobody seems to deny the fact that Watanabe moved behind the scenes to try to create the grand coalition by contacting Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and more than a dozen other influential politicians.

All that has been publicly reported is the "summit" meetings between Fukuda and Ozawa on Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. But much more took place behind the scenes — so much so that it will take time before all the details are made known.

Following the meetings with Fukuda, Ozawa tried to persuade his DPJ lieutenants to accept the idea of creating a grand coalition with the LDP. But he underestimated how much resentment to such a scheme existed in his own party.

In apparent despair, Ozawa offered to step down as DPJ chief, but at the request of party leaders, which need to make use of Ozawa's charisma in the next general election, he rescinded his resignation.

All these events have led many to consider the grand coalition scheme initiated by Watanabe as dead. It is quite conceivable, however, that what has taken place so far represents only the first act of a long play and that key events toward the formation of the alliance have yet to come forth. At any rate, Watanabe appears certain to keep playing a key role in the realignment of Japanese politics because he is the only one with full inside knowledge.

The Asahi Shimbun is right in saying that a journalist's mission is to report facts, not create them. It must be remembered that Watanabe is different from other journalists in that he has the unique ability to create facts.

For good or bad, it must be accepted that Watanabe is more politically minded than most politicians, and is moving politics in Japan with greater vigor than most professional political leaders.

Two years ago, he wrote that being a newspaper reporter was his "divinely given mission." His behavior for the past couple of decades seems to indicate, however, that he is bent not only on writing and running a newspaper company but also on seeing his political beliefs realized. Past 80, he appears more and more like a monster playing multiple roles.

This would not be the first time that the Yomiuri Shimbun had been run by a monster; Matsutaro Shoriki (1885-1969) was instrumental in getting the paper ranked as one of the "Big Three" vernaculars, along with the Asahi and Mainichi.

Shoriki was elected to the Lower House and held Cabinet posts under Prime Ministers Ichiro Hatoyama and Nobusuke Kishi, owned a professional baseball team, and played an important role in introducing television and atomic energy to Japan.

Although Watanabe has devoted himself to the newspaper business and not directly entered the political arena, by controlling politicians from outside, he has exerted more political influence than Shoriki did, and has even become a "sanctuary" for troubled or distressed politicians.

He has used his newspaper to argue for creating a grand coalition but has not relied on the newspaper's organizational structure or reporters for translating his thoughts into action.

In letters sent to friends in late August, he stressed that the formation of the grand coalition was the only way to overcome the political crisis brought about by the divided Diet in which the coalition of the LDP and New Komeito control the Lower House and the DPJ and other opposition groups hold a majority in the Upper House. He argued that the split would bring the functions of the legislative and administrative branches to a halt.

The Asahi was wrong when it called upon Yomiuri to write the whole story about what Watanabe had done behind the scenes. For the relevant information is in the hands of Watanabe himself, not of the newspaper. If the Asahi is so eager to report the whole truth, it should dare interview Watanabe on its own.

Conversely, it is incumbent upon Watanabe to reveal all that has taken place. Unexpected facts may pop up. Assessing the merits and demerits of Watanabe's behavior can wait till then.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine about Japan's political, social and economic landscape.

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