TOKYO— — Reeling from a series of scandals, the top official of the Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), this country’s sole public radio and television broadcaster, resigned last week to “take responsibility” and save face for NHK, which is financed by receiver fees paid by each household that owns a TV set.
Japan also has a number of commercial television networks financed by advertising revenue, but NHK is the “official” and most authoritative broadcast outlet.
Its disgraced executive, Katsuji Ebisawa, stepped down as the network was dealt a severe blow by embezzlement scandals involving its employees and suspicions that it caved to pressure from leading politicians over a documentary about brothels of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
Shinzo Abe, acting secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Shoichi Nakagawa had urged NHK to alter the documentary about sex slaves, the mass circulation daily Asahi Shimbun reported.
Last month, Satoru Nagai, an NHK producer, said tearfully that those working on the World War II historical documentary “were ordered to alter the program before it was aired” because of “political pressure.” The program originally included a mock trial, conducted in 2000, that found the late Emperor Hirohito guilty of permitting the sexual enslavement of tens of thousands of Asian women during World War II, Mr. Nagai said. He was ordered to delete that segment as well as testimony from former sex slaves, he said.
NHK and Mr. Abe and Mr. Nakagawa repeatedly have denied the charge.
Yasushi Kawasaki, a former NHK political reporter who teaches journalism at Sugiyama Women’s University in Nagoya, said he believed the claims of political pressure.
He said NHK has many hardworking journalists with a sense of mission, but they can’t speak out under “the regime of terror,” because Mr. Ebisawa still wields considerable influence. Mr. Kawasaki was forced out of a career track at the network after his coverage of the faction of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was pulled off the air because of pressure from the LDP.
Like other leaders of news organizations, Mr. Ebisawa used to cover major LDP factions. Mr. Kawasaki, however, said the disgraced NHK ex-president “was not a political reporter, but a politician boosting his backroom influence.” As in Mr. Ebisawa’s case, Japanese mainstream media long have been criticized as having cozy relations with those in power.
“The worst thing a journalist can do is become a servant of those in power,” said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst and commentator for major networks. “Unfortunately, Japanese journalism today is not really independent.
“I believe one of the basic purposes of journalism is to give hope to the underprivileged. Journalists should pursue their job with love, I would say, humanism. They should also seriously seek truth. That is a fundamental rule.”
If that is a rule, it is not taken seriously in Japan, critics say. Moreover, the major press outlets seem to be erasing lines between journalism and big businesses.
Shuntaro Torigoe, who worked for the daily Mainichi Shimbun and the Sunday Mainichi, a weekly magazine, is an award-winning journalist at TV Asahi and other stations as well as a professor of journalism at Kansai University in Osaka.
But Mr. Torigoe, who discusses ethical issues in journalism in his books, appeared in a TV drama and in commercials selling insurance. Asked about the apparent contradiction between what he says and what he does, the professor complained: “Do I have to answer such things all of the time?”
Mr. Torigoe then said he had no comment; Kansai University also declined to comment.
Seiichi Kanise, who speaks fluent English and worked as an anchor for TV Asahi and Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), appeared in advertisements for Japan Telecom. He also is a professor of journalism at Meiji University in Tokyo.
Before his television jobs, Mr. Kanise worked as a reporter in Tokyo for the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Time magazine.
In an e-mail message for this article, he conceded that his appearance in commercials is “certainly unfavorable by journalism standards. I take criticism on the chin.”
But, he continued: “It is my personal choice in life. I don’t believe I’m doing anything that I’m ashamed of before God.”
The school of arts and letters at Meiji University had no comment.
Some other journalists also appear in ads.
“That is outrageous,” said Kenichi Asano, a professor of journalism at Doshisha University in Kyoto. “I would say it would be impossible in a civilized country that journalists are appearing on commercials.”
Unlike in America, Japanese news organizations are not open to criticism. And, say some critics, many knowledgeable observers are reluctant to criticize news outlets because they have connections to them.
In fact, one prominent journalism professor said he hesitated to comment on the appearances of Mr. Torigoe and Mr. Kanise in commercials, because he is “well-acquainted with them.”
Tomoyo Nonaka, a former anchor for NHK and TV Tokyo, might have the most complex and contradictory professional loyalties. Identifying herself as a “journalist,” she serves as a board member of three major corporations, including Asahi Breweries, and chairs the advisory board of Nikko Financial Intelligence Inc., research arm of a major securities house.
Furthermore, Miss Nonaka, who studied photojournalism as a graduate student at the University of Missouri, also sits on nine government committees and advisory bodies. On her Web site, she lists the many government committees on which she has served.
Miss Nonaka participated in the 1999 U.N. World Press Freedom Day as a representative of Japanese journalists, saying her presence was symbolic of the growing freedom of the press in Japan.
However, she also declined to comment for this article.
More Japanese gradually are becoming aware of the flaws in domestic journalism as they become familiar with Western press through the Internet as well as cable and satellite broadcasting, analysts say.
Moreover, “due to the protracted economic slump in the provinces,” Mr. Morita said, more Japanese depend on local newspapers for information affecting their communities. Local newspapers trying to meet their needs “have become confident. I believe this will bring about a revolutionary change in Japanese journalism.”