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Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011

MEDIA MIX

Fabricated public opinion is the norm


The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's energy agency recently contracted with an outside advertising company to monitor "inaccurate" online information regarding nuclear energy. In response, the media cried "censorship," but as pointed out in last week's issue of Aera, the agency has employed the Japan Productivity Center since 2008 to monitor the same sort of reports in newspapers. When the center finds something amiss in a news report, it doesn't call that particular publication and ask for a correction. Instead, according to a representative, it "endeavors to make a situation so that such reports don't happen again."

News photo
Making it up: Gov. Yasushi Furukawa was at the center of a scandal after being implicated in a perceived manipulation of public opinion on nuclear energy. KYODO PHOTO

Not only is this work not censorship, it's not really work. The JPA is yet another semipublic organ (it was set up in the 1950s to study labor relations) whose purposes are vague. What the media views as insidious intent may merely be the age-old practice of bureaucrats justifying their existence.

The charges are particularly sensitive in the midst of the current controversy surrounding the "manipulation of public opinion" by authorities related to nuclear energy. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Administration (NISA) has in the past mobilized employees to attend public symposiums about energy policies to support the pronuclear position.

A week ago the governor of Saga Prefecture, Yasushi Furukawa, had to finally admit to a secret meeting he had with executives of the Kyushu Electric Power Company prior to a government-sponsored TV program in June where the reopening of the Genkai nuclear power plant was discussed. Almost immediately after the program aired, Kyushu Electric was accused of trying to generate public support for the reopening by getting employees and affiliates to send favorable comments to the program. Now it appears the governor may have originally "triggered" the scheme.

Aera, in fact, is credited with uncovering this scoop. Following Kyushu Electric's admission of rigging the TV show, the utility's president, Toshio Manabe, formed a third-party panel to investigate the matter. The panel discovered a memo written by Kyushu Electric's Saga branch manager that suggested the mobilization was Furukawa's idea. The governor angrily denied that he was behind the mobilization.

Aera then received "information" about a Kyushu Electric email that mentioned a meeting between three of the company's executives and Furukawa at the governor's residence. The ostensible reason for the meeting was for the governor to say goodbye to a retiring executive. Usually, such formalities are carried out in the prefectural office. Apparently, the executives wanted the governor's endorsement for the mobilization, thinking if they could use his name it would be easier to get employees to send comments to the program.

The Aera reporter tried to get a comment from the governor, but his press office stonewalled him. Then, just as the article appeared, Furukawa admitted to reporters in front of his residence that there had been a secret meeting and that "emails and the Internet" were discussed, but he insisted he didn't tell Kyushu Electric what to do. Manabe responded with his own press conference saying that his executives had "misinterpreted" what the governor told them when they sent out the emails soliciting favorable comments.

The splitting of hairs is significant. Kyushu Electric needs the governor's approval to reopen Genkai, and if that means taking the fall in order to protect him, then that's what it will do. But despite the whiff of coverup and the media's heated coverage, there wasn't much to reveal. Furukawa's ties to Kyushu Electric are well known. In addition to receiving donations to his political organization from individual executives, Furukawa grew up in a company dormitory. His father was an employee.

The Saga scandal was business as usual, not some aberration requiring Watergate-like newsgathering skills. As explained in a recent issue of Tokyo Shimbun, min'i giso (fabricated public opinion) is built into the corporate-bureaucratic relationship, perfected over decades at stockholders' meetings and product launches employing sakura ("average" folks paid to show up).

The methodologies were mainstreamed after passage of the Administrative Procedure Act, which calls for "public comments" on policies that affect the people. Bureaucrats who formulate these policies, whether they be about nuclear energy, the lay-judge system or educational reform, understand that the only people who show up voluntarily at town meetings and other public symposiums are those who are against the policies being discussed. So they feel they have to "balance" those opinions by mobilizing sympathetic forces. As Meiji Gakuin University political psychology professor Kazuhisa Kawakami tells Tokyo Shimbun, "In Japan, no one makes his opinion public unless he has a stake in the matter." An example would be the now notorious English-subtitled YouTube video showing residents of the irradiated areas of Fukushima savagely berating a government official for neglecting them. Even this document is suspected by some of being staged, or at least selectively edited; but in any case its power lies in how exceptional it is.

What's disturbing about the recent rash of nuke-related yarase (fakery) is not the authorities' cynicism, which is part of the job description, but the general public's presumed apathy. "Most people think (the nuclear issue) has nothing to do with them," Kawakami says. Thus, you can't claim, as the media does, that public opinion is manipulated. It's manufactured. That's NISA's job, and always has been. So it hardly matters if the energy agency is censoring the news. Media monitoring is just busywork, a game between the authorities and the press. The citizens might be entertained, but until they're encouraged to participate as free-thinking individuals, they won't be engaged.



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