New leader Noda prepares to weather Japan's media storm

Yoshiko Noda, voted in as the third prime minister in two years this afternoon by the lower house of Japan’s parliament, is already playing down expectations ahead of media criticism.

Koji Sasahara/AP
Yoshihiko Noda, new president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, stands after Japan's lower house elected Noda as the country's new prime minister, at the parliament in Tokyo on Tuesday, Aug. 30.

Call it downfall by "memo-awase." That's the term Japanese use to describe memo sharing, and the practice pretty much ensures unified Japanese media coverage of an event.

It also means that once the journalistic consensus goes negative on a politician, the Japanese public will get one-dimensional coverage hard for any leader to crawl out from under.

Today, soft-spoken Yoshiko Noda becomes the third premier exactly two years to the day after the Democratic Party of Japan's historic electoral victory ousted the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan from office, and Mr. Noda is already playing down expectations ahead of media criticism.

"Running Japan's government is like pushing a giant snowball up a snowy, slippery hill," said Mr. Noda yesterday after winning the leadership contest for the Democratic Party of Japan that effectively made him prime minister.

Hardly the rousing speech of an inspirational new leader, Noda's words instead reflect the daunting prospects for any Japanese prime minister.

Uphill battle for politicians

At a time when Japan faces a mountain of problems – including the reconstruction of the northeast from the devastating March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the ongoing nuclear crisis at Fukushima, and resulting energy shortages, along with a rapidly aging society and straining public finances – political stability would seem to be vital. And yet Japan’s leaders continue to change so quickly that few outside the country can even remember their names.

Japan’s media groups, which own newspapers, television, and radio stations, appear to make the country virtually ungovernable as the coverage turns damaging on each subsequent leader after a few months in office.

While in many countries a left-leaning party such as the DPJ would be able to rely on some support from the liberal wing of the media to at least balance negative reporting, in Japan the way news organizations operate tends to override any ideological loyalties or independent investigation.

How it works

One of the major reasons for this is Japan’s "kisha (journalist) club" culture. These formal groups of reporters that are assigned to cover each major ministry and industry, host the press conferences for the entities they cover, and provide offices for journalists to work out of. After each briefing or speech, the journalists gather to carry out "memo-awase" – comparing notes to make sure they are all going to take the same line in their respective articles.

Once the agreed upon line becomes something damaging – say, a prime minister is not demonstrating leadership – the message also becomes uniform, with very few questions or inquiries to the contrary, if at all.

Because many of the TV stations take their editorial lead from affiliated newspapers, the same judgments tend to be repeated on news bulletins, leaving the damned politician without a dissenting voice.

“In recent years the media has moved toward a more neutral stance with regard to commentary on policy matters,” says Tetsuro Kato, visiting professor of politics at Tokyo’s Waseda University. “This has led to a shift in emphasis from policy to the leadership qualities of prime ministers. The media now have an even bigger role in creating and destroying prime ministers.”

Both the high levels of newspaper readership, and the high trust in what is written in them, make their message even more powerful, worrying some observers.

Polls show that up to 90 percent of the population believe what they read in the major Japanese newspapers; much higher than comparable figures for other countries.

Although Noda is widely-regarded as a political peacemaker, he is also a second-degree black belt in judo. He might need all the fight he can muster.

Noda is expected to announce his new cabinet by the end of the week.

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