- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2001

TOKYO — The day before the start of the official campaign for Sunday's Upper House elections, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi faced 100 women in a live television show. His appearance was fiercely criticized as unfair by three major opposition parties, and some say that reflects how biased mainstream media coverage is in Japan.
The parties — the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Liberal Party — issued statements the next day, criticizing the talk show of July 11, a program of the Nippon Television network (NTV), which they said might have violated the country's election and broadcasting laws.
In the show, the women, selected from the network's viewers, asked the 59-year-old unmarried premier questions on topics ranging from his reform plans to fashion, favorite food and love life.
"We could not help thinking that they intended to boost their ratings and Mr. Koizumi's popularity among middle-aged women," said Shigefumi Matsuzawa, general secretary of the election committee of the DPJ, the main opposition party. "It seems they wanted to create some celebrity status."
The opposition said the program could be in violation of the laws, which call for fairness in covering electoral activities, since Mr. Koizumi, a leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), appeared on the show the day before candidates signed up for the elections, the premier's first nationwide electoral test since taking office in late April.
Keisuke Yanaga, deputy chief of public relations at NTV whose parent company is the mass-circulated newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, responded to the criticism, saying the program was produced to question Mr. Koizumi's policies, character and qualifications for a leader.
"We didn't intend to favor one specific party," he said. "We continue to carefully consider political fairness."
Some critics and members of the opposition camp, however, said the media's unfair coverage is nothing new, calling the media a "public relations department of the LDP and bureaucrats."
"We have nothing. None," said Sumiko Shimizu, an SDP member. "Even when we oppose the LDP's plan, the media seldom come to ask us why."
The media coverage of Mr. Koizumi, some critics and opposition members said, has been excessive — especially since he entered the LDP presidential race in April, and it has helped boost his popularity and that of his troubled party.
As the LDP race was an intraparty election, the public could not vote. Four candidates including Mr. Koizumi, however, went onto the streets during a 12-day campaign to deliver their message to the audience, and the media scrambled to cover them.
Furthermore, they appeared on more than 20 talk shows, in which they seemed to have faced few tough questions.
"I was startled to see the massive coverage of the LDP race, in which the public couldn't participate," said Etsutko Kawada, an independent Lower House member elected in October. "That coverage was an anomaly. It seems that television programs [during the LDP race in April] were created to make Mr. Koizumi a leader."
During the race, Mr. Koizumi denounced the factional mentality and politics that have governed the life of the LDP since the 1950s. Although Mr. Koizumi was a boss of the faction of the gaffe-prone Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, he seldom faced tough questions on the matter, she added.
Most of the mainstream media were also silent regarding pre-election remarks by Taro Aso, who was economics minister and another candidate for the LDP leadership, a position tantamount to a job of prime minister.
Mr. Aso said in a news conference during the LDP race in April, "Maybe I'm saying this from my dogmatic prejudice, but the way I see it, the best country in the world would be a country where the richest Jewish people would want to live. Or it could be Armenians, or overseas Chinese, or any group around the world criticized for being rich."
Among five major newspapers, only the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, a major economic daily, reported his remarks, but the tiny article was buried inside.
But after Mr. Aso drew severe criticism from the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, he apologized the next day in an interview with some Western media.
Virtually no major Japanese media reported the group's criticism and his apology.
Meanwhile, opposition members said they have become invisible as if there were no opposition parties in Japan, while the mainstream media were frantically following the LDP race.
In fact, when some 500 opposition members gathered in the Diet and rallied, criticizing the ruling party and declaring they were going to win in the upcoming election, the major media either treated the event as a footnote or didn't cover it at all.
Not surprisingly, at the end of the LDP race, Eita Yashiro, adviser to the LDP's public relations department, expressed his gratitude on national television for the media coverage of his party's race.
That cooperation has continued even after the race as the media have helped boost the premier's popularity, critics have said.
The media, especially television, create a "soap opera" of Mr. Koizumi and Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka every day, said Karel van Wolferen, director of the Institute for Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at the University of Amsterdam and an author of "The Enigma of Japanese Power."
For the first week of July, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said, the major network's coverage of Mr. Koizumi's first visit to the United States and Europe — which totaled eight hours and 40 minutes — topped the ranking, while the coverage of the reported rape of a Japanese woman by a U.S. serviceman in Okinawa received just one hour and 41 minutes.
Despite such massive coverage of Mr. Koizumi and Mrs. Tanaka, "there is no real serious discussion about what should be reformed and how they should do it. There is nothing like that. I feel sorry for the Japanese public," said Mr. van Wolferen, who calls the Japanese media "the biggest obstacle to political reform."
Some say, however, all the problems don't fall to the media as opposition leaders are less capable of managing the media than Mr. Koizumi, who seems to be a master of effective sound bites.
Ellis Krauss, professor of Japanese politics and policy-making at the University of California, San Diego, said the DPJ has been in favor of structural economic reforms long before Mr. Koizumi took office and "yet could never translate that into an effective majority. [DPJ leader Yukio] Hatoyama and [Secretary General Naoto] Kan and the party itself have presented confusing image to the public.
"Politicians like Mr. Koizumi who can use the media to present appealing personal image and push for the ideas of reform are going to be a much more effective leader now," he said, adding that many LDP politicians in the past who could raise money and balance factions became leaders.
Mr. Krauss, the author of "Broadcasting Politics in Japan: NHK and Television News," said the approval ratings of Japanese Cabinets (since the mid-1980s) indicate that "the personal popularity of prime ministers has become a more important, and volatile factor in people's perception of politics. This is probably due to the influence of TV and the media."
"We are going to see much greater ups and downs in a prime minister's popularity, much more sudden shift," he said.
Some analysts predict that even if the LDP wins Sunday's Upper House elections, the deteriorating economy will push down the premier's popularity.
"Mr. Koizumi is especially vulnerable because of the weakness of his position within the party, not being head of a strong faction. Should his popularity plummet for any reason, he can easily find himself out," Mr. Krauss said. "On the other hand, if he can maintain his popularity, it is his best weapon and hope for staying in power. The sword cuts both ways."

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