Japanese TV journalism gets a celebrity makeover

When Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi abruptly canceled a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and left Japan late last month, many people viewed it as another sign of the deepening rift between Asia's two big powers.

Like other news programs, Tokyo's "Evening Five" included the controversy in its broadcast. However, anchorman Akio Ishii, a well-known comedian, took the discussion into non-news territory when he wondered aloud why China's 60-something female vice premier is still single.

Mr. Ishii is not trying to play Jon Stewart, Tokyo style. His two-hour nightly mix of celebrity gossip and hard news is the latest example of a news show hiring entertainers to raise ratings.

The competition is fierce. Last year, another station, TV Asahi, chose Ichiro Furutachi, a popular talk show host, to anchor its flagship nightly news program. So far, the appointment of Ishii on "Evening Five" has not brought a ratings increase for Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS).

The emergence of celebrity anchors like Ishii and Mr. Furutachi aggravates a longstanding problem in Japanese journalism, say experts. The mainstream media have long been criticized for their symbiotic relationship with authority figures through the press-club system.

At the same time Japanese broadcasters are moving in the direction of entertainment, Japan's relationship with China is the worst in years, according to analysts. Major TV networks "have promoted a climate of not thinking seriously about Japan's relationship with other Asian countries," says Minoru Morita, a commentator on Japanese politics and media.

Japan does not have a deeply rooted journalism tradition like that of the United States. By hiring celebrities, the media "more often fail to raise issues ... which means they are easily manipulated by those in power," says Kenichi Asano, who teaches journalism at Doshisha University in Kyoto. Viewers also tend to tolerate comments that Americans would find frivolous, trivial, or even sexist. In an "Evening Five" segment speculating on a possible face-off between first lady Laura Bush and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 US presidential election, Ishii added, "They are very beautiful, aren't they?"

The emergence of celebrity anchors is worrisome to critics. "It may be the beginning of a trend to make news almost completely into entertainment," says Ellis Krauss, a professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Viewers don't seem to mind. Ishii is not bad at all, says Masahiko Yoshida. "He asks a guest questions we would want to." Mr. Yoshida adds that he does not like newscasters such as Tetsuya Chikushi, a well-known journalist and anchor for "News 23." "He has an elitist attitude."

A woman who would only give her name as Satoko says that Ishii's interviews are easy to understand, and he seems friendly and has a sense of humor. She and other women say they don't pay much attention to nightly news because they are too busy with household chores.

Another criticism of Japan's broadcast news stations is that they do not discouraged celebrity anchors from endorsing products. Ishii, for example, has done commercials for a large US insurance company that have run during his show. This would be considered a conflict of interest in the US, but TBS says its news division retains editorial control.

Still, critics like Mr. Morita are not mollified. "One of their social roles is to educate the public, but they have totally abandoned that role," he says.

The major media "don't consider their profession seriously," despite the formidable influence they exert in society, says Professor Asano. "Journalism has become almost nonexistent."

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