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Friday, Dec. 23, 2005

Media reports on China, South Korea hit

Sensationalism, lack of historical context said to be exacerbating tensions

Staff writer

OSAKA -- As 2005 draws to a close, Japan's relations with China and South Korea remain strained over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, textbooks that critics say whitewash Japanese history and a host of other historical and territorial issues.

News photo
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (center) turns toward South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao looks away after a group photo at the East Asia Summit on Dec. 14.

And some scholars say part of the blame for the bad blood must be laid at the feet of the Japanese media.

"At mainstream newspapers, with the occasional exception of the Tokyo Shimbun, the editors agree with, or will not aggressively challenge, Japan's conservative and rightwing politicians," said Kenichi Asano, a journalist and media studies professor at Doshisha University.

"Since modern history is not taught in schools and the media didn't use the 60th anniversary (of the end of World War II) to look at what Japan really did, many Japanese newspaper readers couldn't understand the anger of China and South Korea toward Japan over Yasukuni and the textbooks," he said.

Ofer Feldman, author of two books on politics and the Japanese media, also criticized coverage of the issue.

"Overall, I'd give the Japanese media a failing grade for their coverage of the political tensions with South Korea earlier this year over the Takeshima Island controversy, and with China over the angry reaction to Japan's revisionist history textbooks and the prime minister's Yasukuni visits," Feldman said.

The failures stem in part from a lack of detailed historical perspective in mainstream newspapers when discussing current problems like the textbook issue or the Yasukuni visits.

Feldman and Asano said there is also an attitude on the part of many Japanese editors and television news producers that complaints from China and South Korea were simply politically motivated attacks, to be viewed with skepticism, instead of legitimate complaints and protests.

Tensions with South Korea over which country should have sovereignty over a small group of rocks in the Sea of Japan, called Takeshima in Japan and Tok-do in Korean, flared up in March when Shimane Prefecture passed a resolution declaring every Feb. 22 "Takeshima Day." The islands are under South Korea's control.

For years, Japan's right wing, through magazines published by Fujisankei Communications Group, called Takeshima a "lost territory."

Freelance writers, academics and others penned essays in which they argued the historical record showed South Korea was illegally occupying the islands.

Such arguments were ignored by other mainstream media until the Shimane resolution raised the profile of the dispute.

While the more moderate and liberal elements of the media attempted to explain the historical controversies, some resorted to sensationalist tactics.

On March 17, the day after the Shimane resolution, a Fujisankei TV crew, at a media preview for the Aichi World Expo, noticed a map at the South Korean pavilion that had Takeshima marked as its territory.

They duly broadcast the news, and South Korean officials spent the next few days answering questions from Japanese news organizations as to why they had included the islands on the map.

"The Japanese media, led by Fuji, seemed to want to use our map to cause trouble between Japan and South Korea," said one of the South Korean officials present at the pavilion.

The following month, China erupted in anger over Japanese textbooks that critics say whitewash Japan's war atrocities.

At first, Japanese TV and newspapers reported without comment on the various demonstrations that took place in China. But, as the protests continued, a number of analysts on television and in weekly magazines began reckoning that at least some of the demonstrations were staged.

Such reports are often dismissed by government officials as sensationalist and not really representative of either official positions or the opinions of the majority of Japanese.

But Chinese experts warn that if perceptions in Japan that Chinese anger and demonstrations are largely staged or controlled by the Chinese government, the problems will only worsen.

"Japan's media must understand that there really is genuine anger among many ordinary Chinese over the textbook issue as well as, of course, the Yasukuni visits," said Jian Yang, a professor at the University of Auckland and a specialist in Chinese politics and Asian security issues.

The shrine visits by Koizumi have created the biggest tensions over the past few months with South Korea, and China, and led to Beijing's refusal to meet with Koizumi at the recent East Asian Summit in Malaysia.

Feldman also criticized the way Japanese newspapers are structured. Reporters of foreign news write only for foreign news pages, while political reporters cover only domestic issues.

The lack of communication between different sections makes it difficult for reporters to explore the connection between Asian anger over Yasukuni and Japanese domestic politics.

"This past year, the Japanese media usually treated Chinese and South Korean protests over Yasukuni as strictly international news, while political news meant issues like postal reform. The impact of the international protests (over) Yasukuni on Japanese domestic politics was not something we read much about," Feldman said.

Over the past year, many Chinese and South Koreans also expressed anger at Japan through the Internet, attacking the Web sites of the Foreign Ministry and Yasukuni Shrine, among others.

Bloggers in South Korea and China followed not only mainstream Japanese media reports about the Yasukuni and textbook issues, but also anti-Chinese and anti-Korean "manga" (comic books), or books that defend or deny Japan's historical record.

The bloggers have also been closely monitoring Japanese Web sites like the Sakura Channel, which not only posts anonymous messages spouting anti-Chinese or anti-Korean sentiment, but also features comments from leading politicians, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe.

While such Web sites can whip up emotions on all sides rather quickly, their impact on the Japanese media and most politicians is believed to be minimal.

But as Asano notes, they are most influential among impressionable young people.

"In my classes, I often have to deal with students who get their 'news' from these rightwing Web sites, or through rightwing manga written by people like Yoshinori Kobayashi," he said.

"In the not-too-distant future, these people are going to go out into the world and perhaps become journalists who cover Japan's relations with Asia. That's a frightening thought."

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