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Sunday, Sept. 19, 2004

MEDIA MIX

QUESTIONS ABOUND

9/11 conspiracy theories enthrall Japanese audiences


Only three years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, American mainstream media are providing scant coverage of ceremonies to mark the tragedy, according to Japanese reporter Akihiko Reizei on the Internet news service Japan Mail Media. A resident of New Jersey, Reizei said that unlike the last two anniversaries, this one received little attention from local network news shows, which seemed much more interested in the attitude of Hurricane Ivan.

It's easy to believe and not so surprising. Americans vowed to never forget that day and those who died, but people eventually move beyond the shock and anger and get on with their lives. The media just happen to be distracted sooner.

As that momentous day becomes history, the conspiracy theories that grow like weeds out of such incidents become more noticeable. There are still many unanswered questions about the attacks and what happened before and after, and it is the self-appointed job of conspiracy theorists to explore them thoroughly and provide answers. Often, these people don't openly mention conspiracies, but simply say they want people to think about the information they've uncovered. Human nature being what it is, people make the connections that the theorists intended.

On Sept. 11, the TV Asahi program, "Konna Hazu Dewa . . . (Not What I Expected . . .)," which is hosted by Japan's king of all media, Beat Takeshi, was expanded to two hours as a special about urban legends surrounding the 9/11 attacks. This being a Japanese variety show, and not a news-magazine, the ideas were not called urban legends or conspiracy theories. They were presented as interesting, exciting narratives -- which means their veracity was never questioned.

Some of the theories already have been thoroughly debunked. One segment addressed the Boeing 757 that crashed into the Pentagon. According to some people, the photographic evidence of the crash site does not support the accepted story: The hole in the side of the building is too small for an airliner, the debris doesn't belong to a 757, etc. This legend is one of the most popular surrounding 9/11, and there are a number of Web sites devoted to it. There are also Web sites providing proof that it's all nonsense, but "Konna Hazu" didn't include any of that.

Another segment questioned the belief that a group of heroic passengers attacked the hijackers on the flight that passed over Pennsylvania and forced the plane to crash into an empty field before reaching its intended target in Washington. Conspiracy theorists claim that the plane was shot down by U.S. military jets, but that the government encouraged the assault story for a number of self-serving reasons.

The heart of the conspiracy theory in this case is to disprove the accepted idea that a passenger said, "Let's roll" and then he and other passengers stormed the cockpit, but no one can ever know for certain what happened on the plane before it crashed. The public's belief in heroes may be unsupportable, but that doesn't automatically mean it's a conspiracy.

The U.S. government does enough harm out in the open that theories about insidious plots to undermine democracy seem almost beside the point. The theorists claim, or at least imply, that the government may have planned or allowed the 9/11 attacks to justify its designs for the Middle East. But the war in Afghanistan has been a half-assed effort at best, and the invasion of Iraq was mainly predicated on the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, a genuine conspiratorial subterfuge that's been exposed on the evening news.

Some of these points were also in "Konna Hazu," mainly in the form of clips from Michael Moore's movie "Fahrenheit 9/11," but not to provide balance. The only thing that matters is their entertainment value. The narratives are structured in such a way that the "shocking truth" is delayed until right after the next commercial break, like magic tricks; and the in-studio celebrities have been selected for their gullibility, which makes them receptive not only to conspiracy theories, but also to Beat Takeshi's jokes.

No one expects anything else from prime-time commercial TV, but these theories have also been taken up by more earnest media. In the Sept. 10 issue of Shukan Kinyobi, one of Japan's more serious muckraking journals, peace activist Yumi Sakura writes about a DVD called "In Plane Site" (sic), which was put together by American radio personality Dave vonKleist. The DVD covers some of the same material that "Konna Hazu" did, only more in a spirit of journalistic inquiry. However, most of the information is the same conspiracy stuff that's already been debunked elsewhere, so the claim that its only purpose is to raise questions is disingenuous.

Not to Sakura. She accepts the DVD in the spirit it was intended (as "facts that won't come out in the media"). Since she's an activist, she may be predisposed toward this kind of material, but the Kinyobi editors, by printing the article as it is, call into question their journalistic standards.

Shukan Kinyobi is no friend of the U.S. government, but its tacit acceptance of vonKleist's theories at face value has more to do with a desire to be provocative, making its purposes more akin to those of "Konna Hazu," and in terms of entertainment places it in a continuum where genuine advocacy journalism like "Fahrenheit 9/11" is indistinguishable from the hit U.S. conspiracy-theory TV series "24." It's all good fun.



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