Robert D. Eldridge, Ph.D.
Over the course of several essays, I wish to discuss the unnatural state of the Okinawa media and political situation in Japan’s 47th prefecture, as well as touch on the recent “Hyakuta Incident,” which not only highlighted but also symbolized the problem with the media there.
Before this, I want to ask the question, what makes the Okinawa media so extreme and so disliked by some around Japan to the extent that many, including which the well-known novelist and commentator Hyakuta Naoki to state, whether in jest or in truth, the need to destroy the two local newspapers?
The short answer is the failure over the years of the two newspapers to honor the codes of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association and I would add, loyalty to its readership who are paying subscriptions to purchase news that is impartial, fair, and neutral.
Recently, the editors of the Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times held joint press conferences in Tokyo, and at the Japan Press Club on July 2, 2015, Mr. Shiohira Yoshikazu argued that they enjoy the support of the readers and if they didn’t, they would have already been “run out of town.”
This statement is misleading in a couple of ways. First, he failed to mention that readership is actually down despite the consistently rising population of Okinawa (to the extent that there are strong rumors preceding the Hyakuta Incident that the Shimpo is in debt, which suggests the company might be using this incident to reinvigorate itself). For example, currently the Shimpo reportedly has approximately 202,000 readers versus the 207,000 of the Okinawa Times, but was previously higher. Of course, we can find that same trend nationally and internationally as well, where readers of print media are declining due to other sources of information, but I know many examples here in Okinawa where the decision to no longer read the local newspapers was made out of a conscientious statement of distrust in the reporting, essentially boycotting their purchase.
The second misleading statement by Mr. Shiohira is the fact that the two local newspapers, a situation he did not raise. Together the two newspapers currently hold 99% of the local market share. For a variety of reasons, the five national newspapers, as well as the Yaeyama Nippō, a center-right newspaper from Ishigaki City, together make up only the remaining one percent. This creates a highly worrisome situation, in which information is controlled by the two local newspapers.
In most places where two local newspapers exist, there is a tendency for one to be center-right and the other center left in its editorial policy. One example is Washington, D.C., where the Washington Post is considered to the left, and the Washington Times, is considered on the right. Readers of one political persuasion or another, or those who like a certain writing style or layout, etc., will tend to choose one of the newspapers. It is therefore highly unusual for two newspapers in a small market to be of identical stance and composition. Explaining this abnormal—and I would argue, too, unhealthy—situation is the purpose of this commentary.
The reasons for their near-complete control over the market include the distance separating Okinawa from mainland Japan preventing the timely delivery mainland newspapers, their higher cost, and the lack of “hometown” news about Okinawa in the mainland newspapers, all of which cause potential readers in Okinawa (whose annual income is lower, only 74% of national average) not to buy mainland newspapers. Other reasons, especially strong in Okinawa with its senior population, is the previous lack of familiarity with the Internet (only 59% of the homes have broadband access, compared to 75% nationwide) due to its not having been readily available) and continued reliance on the print media. In addition, Okinawa is ranked last in the country for satellite television subscriptions.
The importance of the printed newspaper is seen in the daily observation of the obituary page for information about the passing of friends, relatives, teachers, and others to whom the reader is indebted. In a small island like Okinawa, social obligations, such as attending viewings and funerals, are very taken very seriously. The newspapers still tend to be the place to go for reading this information, as well as placing it if the death was in your family. The local newspapers, as such, charge a high price for the placement of these ads, which is a significant source of revenue for them.
Disturbingly, the editorial stances of these two newspapers, namely anti-base, anti-military, anti-mainland, anti-central government, etc., are also identical, as discussed above, which means there is a lack of choice and information for the readers and hence, the citizens of Okinawa as a whole.
Moreover, in addition to serving as the basis for the commentaries or editorials, these stances are sadly also strongly reflected in the actual reporting in the newspaper if not serving as the driver of the story itself, thus being against to the ethical guidelines adopted on June 21, 2000 by the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association known as the Canon of Journalism, which stressed among many other standards that “Reporting must be accurate and fair, and should never be swayed by the reporter’s personal conviction or bias.” .
In other localities, this might not be as serious a problem because there is access to additional information, such as the Internet and Social Media, but within Okinawa, due to its relatively low Internet use, it has been a hindrance to the population expanding its horizons and thus retaining its ignorances, prejudices, and biases. Moreover, Okinawans tend to travel and/or relocate less than their mainland compatriots, and will often spend much of their life in or near their hometown (this includes not only in reference to trips to the Japanese mainland, but within Okinawa itself). Furthermore, there is a greater myriad and complexity of social relations in Okinawa, which, combined with proximity, causes a tendency toward group think.
The group think and above issues of ignorance, prejudice, and/or bias, has led to a series of narratives about Okinawan history developed by academics, activists, and like-minded politicians, to suggest that Okinawa has been (and continues to be) discriminated against and/or victimized, etc.
It is particularly the Okinawa media that promotes this narrative and agenda, and constantly looks for examples, stories, or angles to events to prove their viewpoint, thus creating a never-ending cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy. Challenging this narrative or standing up to the media become more and more difficult for those politicians, government officials, business leaders, scholars, or reporters who believe or know differently.
In contrast, the Okinawa media will argue that it is “representing” public opinion, but it actually tries to “lead” the people through commission and omission. The Okinawa media will publish information, which may not always be correct, that is negative and/or potentially embarrassing about the central government or U.S. military, while simultaneously withholding stories that might be seen as positive and lying about their actions to cover up the story. In turn, the national media and the international media pick up on these stories and republish these allegations, often without checking the facts.
These actions, which are repeated numerous times daily, are part of the local media’s anti-base agenda, as with the pressure exerted on politicians and others to “toe” the line. The result is a dangerous mindset in Okinawa that one conservative commentator has called “totalitarianism.”
Democracy can only exist with the freedom of expression and an informed public. When the media is biased and has an agenda, rather than being objective and a healthy, it not only fails to serve as an important and healthy fourth pillar (or “estate”) in society, but it becomes a destructive force. The Okinawan media is out of control, which is not only bad for Japan and the U.S.-Japan relationship, as well as for the U.S. military presence and security for the entire region, but also for democracy itself.