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  • Christina Theodorakis

The Japanese Propaganda Machine

We're all familiar with propaganda; it exists in every country to an extent.

The news media is filled with biases based on government agendas and information the government has released to the public on various issues and policies. We're human, after all — we're flawed because we hold prejudices.

That doesn't mean that the media should blast propaganda through their airwaves, but unfortunately, in Japan, that has especially been the case when it comes to the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

To begin, take a look at the 2021 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit and non-governmental organization. The top countries on the ranking include several Central American, western European, and most of the northern European countries, with Norway topping the list.

Disinformation and the shutting down of dissent in the press have been rampant all over the world, especially during the (ongoing) coronavirus pandemic. I'm sure we all know what role certain people in the United States had in that, putting it in 44th place on the list of 180 countries. In the same category as the U.S. (incidentally, the second-best group on the list) are most western European and southern African countries, as well as Australia (25th), the United Kingdom (33rd), and South Korea (42nd), with some others sprinkled here and there in West Africa and South America.

Japan falls in the group below these in the third group from the top, which is also the third group from the bottom — so right in the "meh" zone. Japan is in 67th place, surrounded by countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Mongolia, Bhutan, Argentina, and Timor-Leste. Like I mentioned in my blog recently about Japan's failure to reckon with its gender inequality — that it continues to shove under the rug, under the tatami mat, under the wooden floor — it should be an embarrassment that the third-largest economy in the world falls so far behind the rest of the industrialized countries, especially in the G7.

As stated in the World Press Freedom Index report about Japan:

Yoshihide Suga, Shinzo Abe’s former right-hand man and successor as prime minister since September 2020, has done nothing to improve the climate for press freedom. The world’s third biggest economic power, Japan respects the principles of media freedom and pluralism. But journalists find it hard to fully play their role as democracy’s watchdog because of the influence of tradition and business interests. Journalists have been complaining of a climate of mistrust toward them ever since the nationalist right swept to power in the 2012 general election. ... On social networks, nationalist groups harass journalists who are critical of the government or cover “anti-patriotic” subjects such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster or the US military presence in Okinawa. The government continues to refuse any debate about a law protecting “Specially-Designated Secrets,” under which whistleblowers, journalists and bloggers face up to ten years in prison if convicted of publishing information obtained “illegally”.

Now that you've been armed with this insight into Japan's journalism practices, I'd like to tell you about how the Japanese media is being used as the propaganda machine of the government for the sake of promoting the Olympics, which a large majority of the Japanese public is against holding.

The Japanese media has continued to broadcast a false sense of complicity from the people of Japan, who have been surveyed multiple times over the past year as largely saying that they do not want the Games to be held yet and believe they should be postponed further or cancelled altogether. As propaganda goes, the media's role has been to show the public that the Tokyo Olympics are an event that can safely proceed and continue giving a platform to the organizers, who have shown no concern for what the public's opinion has been.

Former Prime Minister of Japan and former head of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee Yoshiro Mori — the man in his 80's who had to resign after receiving backlash from sexist remarks he publicly made — left a parting gift, as he tried to appoint the new head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee: another man in his 80's by the name of Saburo Kawabuchi, a former Olympian at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and founding head of the Japan Professional Football League. After pressure from the public, he was forced to decline the role. Even though Kawabuchi didn't get the job, he's now responsible for heading the Olympic Village for the athletes.

According to this Japanese op-ed article in News Post Seven, Kawabuchi made some bold statements — which were untrue — to use the media to his advantage since the Japanese media never steps out of bounds and criticizes the government or shows dissenting views from outside experts, like we commonly see on the news in many Western countries. Even though 83% of Japanese people surveyed are against holding the Tokyo Olympics this year, Kawabuchi said that while a majority of Japanese people "didn't agree with the Olympics being held," they've come around because they see it as しょうがない (pronounced sho ga nai) — an expression used to mean "Oh well," "It is what it is," or "It can't be helped." Basically, submission.

He also went on, "The Japanese public feels that since we've already come this far, we might as well send out Japan's national power, reliability, and pride for the world to see. I want the mass media to put all their efforts into putting this message out."

Therein lies one of the problems with the Japanese media coverage of the preparations leading up to the Tokyo Olympics: by not raising questions or criticisms of these decisionmakers, they're working as the propaganda machine.

Despite comments being thrown around a few months ago that there is a possibility for the Tokyo Olympics to be cancelled if COVID cases continue rising relentlessly in Tokyo — which they still are — Kawabuchi and other Japanese organizers are still going full steam ahead.

Aside from the government, the biggest proponents of the Olympics in Japan are the five major national news organizations, which are official sponsors of the Tokyo Olympics and conveniently have their own place to stay in the Olympic Village, along with state-run news broadcaster NHK.

All these media networks have been conducting polls to gauge public sentiment towards the Olympics over at least the past year.

A poll done by Sankei and its affiliate Fuji Television Network (and its affiliate news network Fuji News Network [FNN]) — one of two news organizations which tend to portray the news in the way that the Japanese government would approve of — included incredibly biased wording in their answer choices, which led to the answers thus being skewed. The poll ended up showing that 33.1% felt the Olympics should be held with limited spectators, 35.3% said they should be held without spectators, and 30.5% said they should be cancelled. But remember what I mentioned above about how 83% of people in Japan are either for the postponement or cancellation of the Olympics. Due to the poll answers being written in a way to draw out the answer in favor of the Olympics that the poll makers were fishing for, it forced all the people who wanted the Olympics to be postponed to choose one of the "hold the Olympics" answers.

Since none of the answers offered a choice for people to say that they want the Olympics to be postponed, the news ran with the results that now looked like public opinion had done a 180 and it appearing that 68.4% of Japanese people were in favor of the Olympics being held this year.

The same kind of biased survey with the same kind of manipulative answer choices was done by Yomiuri, another news organization that tells the public what the government wants them to say. In their survey, they also didn't give an option for people who want the Olympics to be postponed again, so the manipulated results were: 24% of Japanese people said that they wanted the Olympics to be held with a limited number of spectators at the venues, 26% of Japanese people responded that they wanted the Olympics to be held with no live spectators, and 48% said that they want the Olympics to be cancelled. Yomiuri took creative liberties with these numbers by publishing the convenient headline "Support for the Tokyo Olympics at 50%, 48% want Games cancelled," which is completely false. This kind of tactic is abhorrent in any kind of country, but we might expect it in a country with an authoritarian regime. Japan proclaims to be democratic.

Finally, the guiltiest organization of them all may be state-run NHK, which included no option for people who want the Olympics to be postponed again, forcing the results of their survey to come out like this: 3% were in favor of holding the Olympics as if it were a pre-pandemic year, 32% supported the Olympics being held with a limited number of spectators, 29% wished they would be held without any spectators, and 31% held out that the Olympics should be cancelled. In fact, the question NHK was asking in their survey had nothing to do with what should happen with the Tokyo Olympics — should they be held, postponed, or cancelled — but was set up as "What should we do with the spectators at the Tokyo Olympics?", a question that can only compromise the accuracy of the responses.

Since I started doing research into this topic and writing this blog, the Japanese government has finally made the decision not to allow any local spectators at the Tokyo Olympics, whereas they had initially decided that 10,000 spectators would be allowed into the Olympic venues despite fears of a fifth wave in Tokyo, which is happening right now. While the government has been forced to take a step in the right direction (finally) and ban all spectators from attending the Olympics, there are still thousands of IOC officials and representatives from sponsors who will be there. The Japanese media is commonly playing the role of biased reporting for the benefit of the Japanese government, which is coming dangerously close to authoritarian and communist territory.


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