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Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2000

Television as a pillar of the state

Staff writer
BROADCASTING POLITICS IN JAPAN: NHK and Television News, by Ellis Krauss. Cornell University Press, 2000, 278 pp., $35 (cloth).

Many of us know NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai) for its film documentaries, its cultural programs -- stunning or plodding, depending on your perspective -- or its Sunday morning singalongs. It is a reliable standby, serving up solid, if not particularly interesting, viewing during most people's waking hours.

In his new book, "Broadcasting Politics in Japan: NHK and Television News," Ellis Krauss argues that NHK played a critical role in legitimizing the Japanese state in the 1960s. Following the AMPO demonstrations of 1960, it was clear to many that democracy had not put down deep roots in Japan. Krauss, a longtime Japan hand who teaches political science at the University of California at San Diego, believes that NHK's news programs, the most widely watched news programs at the time, played a key role in embedding democratic institutions in the Japanese consciousness.

"The dominance of NHK's television news from the 1960s to the 1980s helps to explain how Japan's democratic state became legitimized and thus stabilized following the instability and polarized political conflict immediately after the war," he writes.

NHK's reach is impressive. More than 35 million households in Japan have contracts with NHK to pay receiver's fees. In 1955, less than 1 percent of Japanese households had a television set; by 1963, three-quarters had one. In other words, from 1958 to 1963, nearly all Japanese acquired a television. By Krauss' reckoning, 1960, the year of the most violent demonstrations in Japan's postwar history, was a dividing line: It marked the beginning of the television age in Japan.

The instrument of NHK's influence was news programming. Even though the Japanese read more newspapers per capita than almost any other Western nation, opinion data show that they are as dependent and in some cases even more reliant on television for information. It is the preferred media source for timely information and is the most frequent source of news.

News is NHK's forte. According to Krauss, "in the early 1980s about one-third of its entire programming (40 hours) fell into this category, with NHK broadcasting two and a half times as much news on a weekly basis on its general over-the-air television channel as the commercial stations. By the early 1990s, nearly half (47 percent) of all its general channel time was spent on news and information. NHK broadcasts, in terms of number of programs and total minutes per day, provide more television news than any other major (non-"all news") news organization in the West or in democratic Asia and Oceania."

Krauss argues that NHK's news programming has been instrumental in stabilizing the Japanese state. The choices that NHK has made -- the way it has chosen to portray reality -- have been a critical factor in the construction of contemporary Japan.

Every news organization aspires to neutrality in its coverage; state-funded media organizations even more so, given the political oversight and the challenges by parties who see coverage as less than even-handed. And every news program has to make decisions about who it covers, what it features, the priority it gives stories.

NHK devotes a high percentage of its coverage -- about 50 percent -- to the state. Even stories about such subjects as the economy, society, foreign and defense affairs are connected to Japanese government and politics. Says Krauss, "the state is very salient in NHK's news . . . [and has] a formidable presence in reporting about nonpolitical news events."

The data reveal that the national bureaucracy gets extensive coverage. It is, says Krauss, "the most salient political subject covered on NHK television news." (In contrast, the bureaucracy only made up 2 percent of U.S. news stories; most attention is given to the president and his Cabinet. The key variable, explains Krauss, is where the core of executive action lies. In the U.S., it is the chief executive; in Japan, it is the national bureaucracy. )

Other studies of Japanese broadcasting and comparative analysis of other nations' programs confirm Krauss' conclusions. They also show that U.S. programs give greater attention to conflict within the government, against the government and in society, and that many NHK stories feature basic state activities, such as government decisions, proposals and ceremonies -- at least three times the U.S. coverage.

Just as important is the way NHK portrays the state. "Coverage emphasizes the public rituals involved in the process of making goals and rules for society," Krauss writes. "The bureaucratic state is portrayed as guardian of the public's interests, taking care of problems, considering new policy or changing old policy, or pursuing the culprits of scandal or criminal activity. . . . The state is almost inevitably portrayed as moving to solve or manage some conflict. . . .

"In NHK's news coverage of political affairs, both in the 1980s and 1990s, government administrative agencies as active agents of the public represents the most dominant theme and the highest priority story, and these stories are treated in an extremely factual, neutral and impersonal way."

NHK's portrait of the state has been critical. Krauss' data show the Japanese state depicted first as "omnipresent . . . involved in most aspects of social and economic life." Second, it is primarily an administrative state that is a ritualized rule- and decision-maker and conflict manager: Some state actor is always trying to fix or control a situation and create unity, consensus or order. The state is also shown as "a paternal and active guardian of the public's interests." Finally, it is portrayed as impersonal and collective, which reinforces the idea that it is neutral and objective.

There are structural reasons for NHK's distinctive presentation of the news, some of which are not media-specific. Take the phenomenon of the "kisha kurubu," or reporters club. Merely by existing, the press clubs skew stories toward the bureaucracy: Reporters work the clubs, therefore they report the "news" they create. Their advanced warning system lends itself to staged news events, such as speeches or meetings, which reinforces the images of the state that NHK prefers.

NHK's status as a publicly funded institution has also been important. While the Broadcast Law that established NHK declares that "broadcast programs shall never be interfered with or regulated by any person, except in a case where he does so upon the powers provided for by law," the truth is that NHK must go to the Diet to get its budget and therefore exposes itself to political oversight and interference.

"Broadcasting Politics in Japan" devotes ample space to the struggle for control of NHK. As expected, the Liberal Democratic Party's dominance in Japanese politics throughout the postwar era meant that it had considerable influence over the broadcasting entity. But Krauss explains that NHK often accommodated the powers that be in such a way that explicit intervention was not needed. "NHK executives always know that however much the law proscribes interference in program content, they'll have to justify and perhaps answer for their news treatment of the LDP at budget time and that an alienated LDP can make it difficult to move NHK budgets through the Diet. . . . With no alternation in power, being seen as critical of government meant alienating the LDP, which, in turn, meant long-range as well as short-term consequences."

There is far more in "Broadcasting Politics in Japan" than theoretical musings and lots of statistics. There are intrigues, political power plays and scandals. There are technological gambles, such as the attempt to develop high-definition television, and the move toward new media strategies.

Krauss also looks at the competition and the ways that broadcasting the news in Japan has changed. He argues that NHK's emphasis on technology meant that it might have neglected "the more important factor in audience marketing -- programming."

New programs such as "News Center" at 9 p.m. provided a new model for the news. Asahi TV's News Station would take those innovations yet further, to provide a program that would give audiences news from a whole new perspective: that of the audience. News Station was designed to make the news "interesting to people who might otherwise not be interested in it and to communicate that understanding in interesting ways."

The program, hosted by Hiroshi Kume, is brash and opinionated. It is also extremely successful. It is now the second most popular news program in Japan, and while NHK is still top, the willingness of Japanese viewers to turn to a commercial station for coverage of important news events is a crucial shift in public behavior.

Krauss concludes that NHK and the LDP have achieved a working relationship. The broadcaster prefers to maintain its independence, while the political party prefers to be seen as indulging that independence. The result is covert intervention on the one hand and self-censorship on the other. That does not mean that the broadcaster is toothless or a tool of the political elite. If NHK is not a watchdog for democracy, a guard dog pursuing stories of wrongdoing, it is nonetheless a guide dog that provide citizens with the information they need to make political judgments and decisions needed to participate in society, as well as a lap dog that mobilizes support for political authority, institutions and policies.

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