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May 2, 2008

Can NHK Help Japan Speak its Mind to the World?

Broadcaster may offer long-sought medium for letting Japanese be heard, but role as media organization, global objectives must be defined first.

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor, Foreign Press Center Japan, and Lecturer, Waseda University)

Japan is a nation that constantly feels as though it is not being heard enough on the world stage. But once an inward - looking tendency gains momentum - as seems to be taking place now - it sets off a vicious cycle that ushers in an even stronger sense of missing out internationally. This, in turn, weakens people's will to try to make their voices heard.

This leads to a feeling that they are being short-changed in the international community. But at the same time, they are perfectly aware that they have nobody but themselves to blame, simply because they do not try hard enough. Without trying to make themselves heard in the first place, how can they expect others to listen? And so the object of the irritation is, essentially, themselves, rather than the outside world.

Recently, a flurry of controversy erupted when Shigetaka Komori - chairman of the board of governors of public broadcaster Japan Broadcasting Corp., better known as NHK - remarked that its international television programs targeted at audiences outside the country should be more assertive about "Japan's national interest" on issues where the Japanese point of view differs from that of other nations.

Komori is a successful businessman, serving as president and CEO of Fujifilm Holdings Corp. Likewise, the president of NHK itself, Shigeo Fukuchi, is a former corporate executive, having served as CEO of Asahi Breweries Ltd. Fukuchi predictably endorsed Komori's stand on the matter.

On the other hand, the argument for the assertion of national interests in the public broadcaster's international programming drew immediate criticism from media people and academics. The fact that Komori and Fukuchi are from the nation's business establishment tends to breed suspicion that they lack understanding of journalistic integrity.

The criticism is probably justifiable, although it may contain some prejudice against business people. Still, two issues need to be clarified first. One is how to interpret the character and mission of NHK as a media organization. The other is how to define its objective as an international broadcaster.

Often likened to its U.K. counterpart, British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), NHK is not in fact a government-run corporation. But as a public broadcaster, it is under the supervision of the Diet and its key personnel and annual budget are subject to the Diet's approval. Financially, it is on its own thanks to fees collected from owners of television sets. But while it is supposed to be independent from government and political intervention, its distance from the government and politicians has always been a delicate matter.

Without fear or favor
One important thing here is the concept of "public." Public more often than not is taken as synonymous with "government" or "national." But public here should be interpreted as being independent from commercial interests and political intervention, including that from the government.

That is guaranteed by the authority of the legislative branch, and as such it is obvious that NHK cannot be a mouthpiece of the government even though some suspect it is. The judgment of "national interest," either domestically or externally, should be made entirely on its own journalistic standards free from any outside pressure.

The source of the controversy arising from Komori's remark seems to be that what exactly dictates "national interest" as he calls it is not clear at all, and it tends to be identified with the establishment to which he obviously is considered to belong. Making the issue more complicated is that national interest and its perception can change from issue to issue.

Who defines national interest? The media are entrusted with the job of coming up with the fairest possible judgment. It is especially true with a public broadcaster like NHK, even though this admittedly is a very difficult task that requires the most careful consideration. When national security is involved, it becomes even more difficult, often placing the media under pressure that forces them to stop thinking beyond the mandate of national security.

But Komori's argument for the assertion of "Japan's national interest" externally, as opposed to the interests of foreign countries, can be taken as reflecting the general public's irritation about not being heard enough on the international stage.

Getting to know you
Aside from the discussion of what national interests are, the first thing that needs to be done is Japan should try to make its positions known, including the diverse opinions on any given issue that exist within the country itself. That will ultimately serve Japan's national interest.

Japan's English-language media - electronic and print - have always had a kind of marginalized existence. And as globalization progresses, the disadvantage this brings to the country has not gone unnoticed. The problem, however, has always been who can change the situation, since the undertaking would require a huge amount of financial and human resources and may not pay off commercially.

One possibility is to turn to the government to take the initiative, but that is a dangerous and possibly futile idea. NHK may be a good candidate, but only if it is free from pressure to pursue "national interests" imposed by the government or its surrogates. It remains to be seen whether it will pass muster.

At the end of the day, a Japan that is heard internationally depends on whether people and organizations on every level - individuals, businesses, universities, nonprofit organizations and many others, including the media - take the initiative and fulfill their own responsibilities. The role and responsibility of the media are particularly important. The government must do its best, too.

It is high time to form a broad forum that would allow people of common interest and concern to explore the possibilities. This is one important way that Japan can break its persistent complex over not being heard on the world stage.

(Originally appeared in the April 28, 2008 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications