Asian Journal of Journalism and Media Studies
Online ISSN : 2189-8286
NHK, Abe and the World:
Japan’s Pressing Needs in the Path to 2020
Nancy Snow
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2019 年 2 巻 p. 15-27


Japan’s hosting of the 2020 Summer Olympics and Summer Paralympics is bringing the attention of global media and the world more than the country has experienced since the economic bubble years of the last century. NHK, Japan’s quasi-official broadcaster, is ratcheting up its world service in advance of this international spotlight, which is consequently bringing more attention to the country’s low press freedom ranking, last among the Group of Seven industrialized nations, and 67 among 180 nations and regions, according to Reporters Without Borders. This ranking places Japan above Lesotho and below El Salvador. The Shinzo Abe administration and other government officials are often at odds with press coverage that is critical of the government, reinforced by no public debate on the 2013 state secrets protection law and a unilateral cabinet decision in 2014 to change the pacifist nature of the Constitution of Japan. This chapter will explore the press and politics environment of modern Japan, specifically NHK’s role as an enabler network to the needs and whims of the government. Finally, it will underscore the challenges faced by the Abe administration’s global nation branding efforts against the backdrop of international attention and criticism of Japan’s press-government relations.

1. NHK and The Man on Fire

On June 29, 2014, a Japanese man set himself on fire at Shinjuku train station, Tokyo’s most crowded commuter station that connects five railroads from around the country and on this Sunday teeming with a throng of tourists and daytrippers going about their sightseeing and shopping. Stunned onlookers captured his self-immolation, which followed an hourlong political protest against the Abe administration’s proposed constitutional changes to military and security matters that were expected to be issued on July 01, 2014. The world’s major media, including the BBC and CCTV, and news agencies Xinhua, AFP, and AP, widely reported on this extremely rare and shocking incident in a country that consistently holds an image of a peace-loving or peaceful nation since the end of World War II in surveys conducted through the years by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.2 This act of violence against oneself personified the image of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963. Of that incident, President John F. Kennedy once said, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”3

Japan’s man on fire badly injured himself but survived. Before setting himself on fire, he spoke out against the Japanese government’s attempt to lift the ban on collective defense, which would override Japan’s image of a peaceful nation with a pacifist constitution that legally allows it only to defend itself and forbids it to use its military power to defend its allies. CCTV News carried video footage of the man perched atop the station with a microphone and a loudspeaker along with a still image of the man up in flames.4 Shinjuku passersby with their smart phones captured the event and very soon after, social media networks like Twitter carried the incident for the entire world to see. The global press and these non-traditional citizen journalists became the primary carriers of what’s new and what’s news in Japan. But where was NHK? Japan’s leading broadcaster in Japan and about Japan to the world ignored this domestic story with global ramifications. It wasn’t carried on either its flagship or bilingual news slots that day or days to follow, despite the buzz the story was creating online and among the foreign press (Ryan 2014).

NHK’s in-house manual on ethical standards applies strict rules to covering suicides. Suicides, successful or not, are not reported. Exceptions may be made on a public figure or celebrity (Thorsen 2006). Nevertheless, the story of the burning man in Shinjuku was not a news story about an attempted suicide. It was a news story about a suicide attempt that followed a political statement by a citizen against the Abe cabinet administration’s security legislation decision to allow Japan to respond with force against an armed attack against a foreign country in a close relationship with Japan.5 The man was reported to have recited an anti-war poem by Yosano Akiko at a time when a majority of Japanese were not in favor of lifting Japan’s anti-war clause (Kingston and Asano 2014). This incident had political implications that made it globally newsworthy in the context of Japanese politics and the Japanese Constitution. The incident was followed two days later by thousands of Japanese protesting outside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s residence on July 1, 2014, the sixtieth anniversary of Japan’s Strategic Defense Forces (SDF) and the day that the original interpretation of Article 9 was officially challenged (Liff 2014). Though the man survived, his suicide attempt appeared to take precedence in deciding NHK reporting conditions over the political or personal reasons he was making the attempt. NHK was not alone in downplaying the event in Japan. Domestic news media like the Kyodo news agency had limited or late coverage while CNN, Reuters, and social media ran with the story, as noted by Jeffrey Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, who was interviewed by NHK the day of the incident and shared the self-immolation story with his NHK correspondent who knew nothing about it.

2. Background on NHK

This paper explores the role of international public broadcaster NHK as a public diplomacy storyteller to the world, with special attention paid to the Abe administration’s nation brand in the face of growing international criticism of Japan’s journalism standards (Snow 2016a; Yamamoto 2013). The newly rebranded NHK World-Japan (from NHK World),6 dubbed “Japan to the world,” is the international broadcasting service of NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai - Japan Broadcasting Corporation). Its target audience is global, operating much like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in financing and intent since its founding in the 1920s. It employs 10,300 in 54 domestic stations and 30 overseas offices with an operating budget of 716.8 billion Yen, 98 percent of which comes from receiver fees.

In its 2018-2019 corporate profile, NHK highlights six core public values that reinforce NHK’s role as Japan’s public diplomacy broadcaster to its domestic and global audience: (1) Provide accurate, fair, impartial information; (2) Promote safety and security; (3) Create high-quality cultural experiences; (4) Contribute to local communities; (5) Strengthen Japan’s global connections; and (6) Contribute to education and public welfare.7 This profile stands in contrast to critical observers who see NHK’s immersion in politics of the state. Ellis Krauss (2017) observes: “NHK and the state are less two creatures eyeing each other warily, occasionally coming into conflict – as the ‘watchdog’ metaphor of the democratic press would have it – than two octopi, constantly locked in a multi-tentacle embrace jockeying with each other, but in which the state/LDP is the larger and more powerful of the two and usually prevails.” Jeff Kingston, a bilingual expert commentator on NHK, said this about his experience with the NHK correspondent who knew nothing about the self-immolation of the protesting citizen at Shinjuku station: “My takeaway from the NHK encounter is that legitimate worries about state censorship—the special secrets passed last December—and the management of news by the kisha clubs (press clubs), should not distract us from the very real problem of ignorance, apathy and complacency among Japanese journalists. An NHK reporter may not be a fair example because its employees are more like bureaucrats and functionaries and are not trained or encouraged to develop as investigative journalists. But because the public views NHK as a more reliable source of news than its commercial competitors, it merits scrutiny” (Kingston and Asano 2014: 11). Hiroko Kuniya, who quite NHK after twenty years of moderating NHK’s flagship investigative program “Close-up Gendai,” said she felt journalistic unease around how to report the July 1, 2014 government decision to the public. The interview that was said to lead to her resignation was with government spokesman Yoshihide Suga on July 3, 2014 when she went off script and asked about Japan becoming enmeshed in other country’s wars. “There remains an atmosphere that regards it a matter of courtesy not to pursue insistently what the interviewees do not want to talk about,” she said. “And it is a fact that we receive a strong backlash from the audience after broadcasting such tough interviews with popular figures. This fūatsu (pressure) is unique to Japan’s society. Even now, isn’t the media complicit in the pressure?” (McNeill and McCurry 2016).

3. NHK Television News Dominance

NHK has been the primary television source in Japan since the end of World War II, but it is also a dominant global source for news about Japan and the Asian region. With the exception of China’s new state media conglomerate, Voice of China, (Jiang 2018) NHK is unmatched by any other international broadcaster in the region. It represents one of the five major components of government-led public diplomacy actions, as outlined by Cull (2009: 18-22): active listening; advocacy; cultural diplomacy; educational and cultural exchange; and international broadcasting. Despite this component link between public service media and public diplomacy, NHK’s public diplomacy mission is not a major topic in NHK studies specifically or Japanese press studies generally (Yamamoto 2013: 7; Snow 2016).

NHK began international television broadcasting into the United States and Europe in 1995. On January 1, 1996, NHK renamed its overseas radio and television services NHK WORLD. On February 21, 2018, NHK announced that NHK WORLD would be known as NHK WORLD-JAPAN as of April. Its biggest push for international broadcasting services overseas came in 1998 when NHK launched its World TV Service into two tiers: (1) NHK World TV for hard news/information; and (2) NHK World Premium for soft programs such as soap operas, dramas and entertainment.8 NHK World Television (“From Japan to the World”) is NHK’s only 24-hour English-language broadcast service to global viewers. NHK WORLD TV is available in 250 million households in approximately 140 countries. NHK TV has sponsored NHK Newsline, an English language version of its Japanese programming since 2000, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the format was extended to a thirty-minute primetime news and information program that airs in English-speaking countries, including on some public broadcasting outlets in the United States. Newsline is a top-rated English language news program in the Asia Pacific region, providing current news about Japan, Asia, and the world, along with regional reports from NHK correspondents in Beijing, Seoul and Bangkok.

NHK World-Japan’s intent is to “enhance the mutual contact and goodwill among countries, regions and people” and “to promote greater understanding of Japan and to provide informative, educational and entertaining programs to Japanese living or traveling abroad.” Its secondary goal is to reach 700,000 Japanese ex-patriots and over 18 million Japanese traveling overseas, numbers gauged by JTB Tourism Research & Consulting Co. James D. White refers to the rationale for NHK WORLD as “vague in the extreme” (2010: 110), with the latter category of Japanese diaspora and global traveling Japanese appearing to be NHK World-Japan’s priority. However general NHK World-Japan’s rationale is, it is explaining itself in smaller numbers. Its staff size has declined by 38% over the last three decades. In the mid-1980s, NHK employed 16,000, but by the late 1990s that figure had dropped to 13,000. Today it barely makes the five-figure mark in personnel with a staff of 10,300. Despite the downsizing, NHK remains one of the two largest international broadcast media groups, along with the BBC, on which it is modeled and to which it is often compared. This makes NHK one of the pillars of Japan’s public diplomacy.

4. NHK’s Beyond-Broadcasting Reach

NHK’s relationship to politics, policy, and consequently public diplomacy, begins with the “disproportionate attention” paid to the national bureaucracy (Strauss 2000: 241). In other words, national politics and the bureaucratic players involved are unique to Japan among its major industrial democracy competitors given the long history of the press clubs that, in turn, focus on the national bureaucracy and rely on national sources. In senior management, NHK has a twelve-member Board of Governors appointed to three-year terms by the Prime Minister with approval of both houses of the national Diet “on behalf of the people of Japan.” These governors are by reputation well-informed and experienced professionals from culture, education, science and industry. None comes directly from government or political parties. The Board of Governors is the decision-making body for NHK’s management policy and operations, including the annual budget, the corporation’s operational plan and basic programming policy. A separate Executive Board is comprised of a president, vice-president and nine managing directors. An Audit Committee, which is supposed to audit all work of the Board of Governors and Executive Board, is appointed by and reports to the Board of Governors.

The President of NHK represents the management face of NHK domestically and the brand face of NHK to the rest of the world. A recent president, Katsuto Momii, was installed on January 25, 2014, at which time he held a news conference that generated national controversy and global media reaction. Momii’s remarks displayed lack of understanding of not only public diplomacy objectives of Japan’s nation brand, but also an indifference to the clear demarcation between public service broadcasting and public funding: “When the government is saying ‘Right’ we can’t say ‘Left.’ International broadcasting has such a (propagandist) nuance” (Kingston 2015). He said that NHK international broadcasting would not challenge the government’s position on the disputed islands in the region. He also maintained that Japan’s so-called “comfort women” program of World War II, what international scholars and human rights groups have relabeled more correctly as a sexual slavery program, was being done by “every country,” implying that Japan was being singled out for a common wartime brothel program. Two days after his inauspicious appointment, Momii released “Message from new president of NHK-NHK World-English.” He greeted the NHK World English-speaking audience with an independent journalism promise: “I will do my very best to provide you with fair, impartial, and accurate news reporting . . . and high-quality programming of all kinds.”9 Despite his questionable leadership in fairness and impartiality, he remained in place for four years until the latest president, Ryoichi Ueda, replaced him in 2017.

The Japan Times reported the fallout from Momii’s mixed messages that promised a yielding to government positions while maintaining journalistic integrity values: “For millions of Japanese, and even Japan-watchers abroad, NHK is a trusted source of information: gray in tone perhaps, but neither black nor white on the issues. This assumption has been put to the test by new NHK Chairman Katsuto Momii, whose recent remarks have led many to wonder whether the public broadcaster is more government mouthpiece and muzzler of dissension than independent informer.”10 On July 18, 2014, 172 former NHK staffers submitted a petition to the 12-member Board of Governors calling on Momii’s resignation or demotion, citing a loss of morale at the public broadcaster among current staff.11 This follows the April 2014 resignation of governing board member Keiichi Kubota, who stated at the time that “efforts to maintain pride in undertaking public broadcasting are now on the verge of collapse.”

5. NHK’s Global Image

Despite its high media profile in Japan and regional recognition in Asia, Japan’s only public broadcaster has neither the global visibility nor global credibility of the BBC on which NHK is modeled. It is known predominantly for its aseptic newscasts bereft of interpretive- or opinion-driven commentary, but which provide information. Bland is its news brand. In that respect, NHK news style has been somewhat positively presented as “hard tofu – a bland, but healthy part of a broad information diet” (Collet and Kato 2014: 46). This style is conducive to a broadcast organization that is, at worst, under the control of its government overseers, to at best, constant scrutiny from one conservative party that has ruled Japan, with few exceptions, since 1955. In contrast, the model on which NHK is based, BBC, is ranked by Boston-based Reputation Institute among the Top 50 global brands with the best reputation in the world and the top for news. BBC “continues to be seen as the most trusted and objective international news provider”12 and leads the world in global breaking news. The BBC is the world’s most popular news source on Twitter.13 Domestically, NHK, as part of the media establishment, maintains a declining trusted reputation among the Japanese people, despite its being at one time the most trusted institution in Japanese society.14 As pointed out by Edelman Japan’s CEO Ross Rowbury (2018), the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that in Japan only one out of three Japanese in the general public has trust in media (32 percent), with just a slight tilt in trust in government (37 percent).

6. NHK and Japan’s Pressing News Toward 2020

The declining trust overall in social institutions like media and government do not preclude the high-profile efforts by NHK World-Japan, along with the Abe administration, to be the face and nation brand image of Japan in the world, specifically the 2020 Summer Olympics and Summer Paralympics. NHK, along with the prime minister, are bringing the attention of the eyes of global publics and global media more than Japan has experienced since the economic bubble years of the last century. This media spotlight and public attention on Japan is carrying with it questions about the country’s declining press freedom ranking, whose rank of 67, with a five-rank improvement from 2017, still places Japan last among the Group of Seven industrialized nations. A chorus of international observers is weighing in critically on the reputation of journalism and the press in the Japan and how free the press is from government intrusion; these include Reporters Without Borders, think tanks like the German Bertelsmann Stiftung (Pascha et al 2018), and a recent report by United Nations Special Rapporteur David Kaye on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Japan (Kaye 2017). The Bertelsmann Japan Report (Pascha et al 2018: 24-25) notes that Japan’s media structure is oligopolistic, consisting of five conglomerates (Asahi, Fuji Sankei, Mainichi, Yomiuri, Nihon Keizai Group) that control the leading national newspapers and the major TV networks. The sole public broadcaster NHK “rarely criticizes the status quo to any significant degree,” and Japan’s media system “does not capture the pluralism of opinions in Japan.”

The Shinzo Abe administration and other government officials are often at odds with any press outlet that is too critical or prying of the government, illustrated by no public debate or education on the 2014 Specially Designated Secrets Law, and no punishment or serious consequence to senior officials, including the prime minister, from recent scandals involving political graft (Nakano 2018). As Abe administration critic and political scientist Koichi Nakano warns about Japan: “Key democratic principles like transparency and accountability…no longer seem to be the lingua franca of public discussion. In this respect, the Abe administration is not unlike the Trump presidency: In Japan, too, what was once outrageous has become the new normal.”

Japan is an advanced industrialized parliamentary democracy that maintains respect for the principles of media pluralism, but its decline in several global media freedom indices are cause for concern. The role that mass communications media play in democratic societies like Japan cannot be taken for granted. Further, the role that Japan plays in the world as a growing leader on the world public stage, places Japan’s reputation in information and communication at stake. Despite NHK’s founding in 1926, it wasn’t until 2000 that UC-San Diego professor emeritus Ellis Krauss published the first book in English about NHK, and to this day, he remains one of a few who writes about NHK in the English language.15 In his book, Broadcasting Politics in Japan: NHK and Television News, Krauss states that the “two most powerful institutions affecting the lives of citizens in advanced industrialized democracies today may well be the state and the mass communications media.” To be sure, newspapers and magazines play significant roles in Japan’s media politics but print media like prominent newspapers Asahi, Mainichi, or Yomiuri do not have global name recognition and do not tout themselves as global newspapers. NHK stands alone as the nicknamed “BBC of Japan,” and to that end, it is this international mass communications medium that garners the most attention in this paper. Ever more important to state-media relations, NHK exists under the Broadcast Act, which regulates both public and private broadcasters under the guise of broadcast media independence from government interference. Internationally, in free societies, broadcast regulation is generally handled by an independent third party. In Japan, the regulatory oversight comes from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the Minister in place can suspend the operations of any broadcaster that violates the Broadcast Act. Article 4 covers professional norms, which is where the Abe government and his ministers can weigh in. Herein broadcasters “cannot harm public safety or good morals,” must be “politically fair,” “not distort the facts,” and “clarify the points at issue from as many angles as possible,” all of which sound like reasonable media ethics in principle, but in practice, the Government should not be in the position of judging what is fair or good morals, only the Japanese people and their public broadcaster, NHK. As Kaye notes in his report: “In short, media regulation in Japan is not legally independent of government, in particular not from the political party in power at any given moment. It is in the interests of the Government, the parties, and most importantly the people of Japan that this system be remedied, and independent regulation replace the current system.” (Kaye 2017: 6). The Government of Japan response to the Kaye report (Addendum 3) emphasizes that “Freedom of expression is guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of Japan. It constitutes the political foundation of a democratic nation and is one of the most important fundamental human rights for the people in Japan. It cannot be restricted unjustifiably even by laws. In Japan, freedom of expression is fully guaranteed.”

7. NHK Press-Government Structure

NHK is the country of Japan’s public broadcaster funded by the citizens of Japan through television reception fees that are legally obliged to be paid for by every household with a television set.16 NHK’s Board of Governors and president are appointed by Prime Minister Abe with the consent of The Diet. NHK’s annual budget, submitted by the Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications, is also approved by the Diet. NHK’s government independence is not sacrosanct, but NHK’s influence is unparalleled: “More postwar Japanese citizens may have learned about what their government does and how it does it from their public broadcaster, NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai), the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, than from any other mass media source” (Krauss 2000: 2). Eighteen years later, most Japanese are still learning about what their government is doing and how it does it from their main public broadcaster, NHK, that operates without a critical or investigative eye. It is, as Seaton states (2017: 173) more “watched dog” than watch dog.

8. Media Censorship vs. Media Control

The reality of the Japanese press is that it operates in a media close(d) circuit environment between the state and media; in other words, if a media outlet like NHK, dependent as it is on the watchful eyes of The Diet and LDP, wants to continue to maintain its visibility and profit, it must not rock the boat too much against the rightist policies of an administration that relies on continuity over transparency. This does not translate into overt media censorship from government per se--the state does not have to control the media because the media control themselves, with some notable exceptions. Abe shared with the Asahi Shimbun in 2005 about his successful action to circumvent critical commentary that was part of a 2001 NHK documentary about enforced slaves of Imperial Japan known euphemistically as “comfort women” (Laurence 2005). NHK World-Japan’s style today still favors “playing it safe” with shows like “Dining with the Chef,” “Bizstream,” “Grand Sumo Highlights” “Travel Japan,” and “Bento Expo,” about the world of the single-portion take-out or home-made Japanese cuisine meal.

The media in Japan are designated free by New York’s Freedom House and operate in a society which is ruled by one dominant conservative party with the misleading name of Liberal Democratic Party. Of particular importance to the LDP and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to tout its strategic communications, which includes challenging fake global news (Diplomatic Bluebook 2018): “When the media publish reports that include factual errors, the diplomatic missions overseas, especially ambassadors and consuls general, or Press Secretary, explain by sending rebuttal pieces based on objective facts.” The second term of the Shinzo Abe administration has placed a heavy emphasis on controlling its image and reputation in a more controlled manner vis-à-vis the press. As noted in a white paper about the public diplomacy efforts of the Abe administration (Snow 2016a), a Cool Japan culture-central approach is favored by the Abe administration over the “warts and all” style of U.S public diplomacy during Edward R. Murrow’s tenure as public diplomacy chief in the Kennedy years. Abe’s pressing concern to update the pacifist clause Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution has received no public debate in The Diet or in broadcast media and minimal discussion in the print media, and yet Japan’s peace brand is arguably one of the foundational appeals of Japan’s image and reputation in the world.

9. Japan’s Public Diplomacy

Public diplomacy is a realm of international communication, referring generally to strategic communication with foreign publics in order to inform, engage, and influence (Snow 2016b). There is no one definition of public diplomacy in the literature, and it seems easier to describe in practice. Educational and cultural exchanges have been a public diplomacy mainstay, as is an international broadcasting operation that targets a global population. In Japan, public diplomacy discussion and programming is centralized in Tokyo and focused primarily on Japan’s unique culture and history.

Japan is the world’s third largest economy after China and the United States. Its post-WWII history and economic growth has made Japan a soft power superpower to the world that stems from attraction to its entertainment and popular culture. Collectively known as “Cool Japan” or Kūru Japan (McCray, 2002; Christensen, 2011; Hayden, 2012, Watanabe and McConnell 2008), the industries involved include Japanese fashion (e.g. Harajuku, Lolita), J-Pop girl groups like AKB48, as well as manga (comic books), anime (animation), and cosplay (costume play based on animation characters). Targeted primarily at a younger demographic overseas, the last three industries identified are receiving the most focused press attention in the Cool Japan campaign of recent years (Christensen: 77). It is understood that Japan has both a traditional and modern culture that attracts global interest, but Cool Japan has a 21st century edge to its promotion with a dominant emphasis on global youth culture appeal through Japan origin entertainment (Lam 2007).

The Japanese government started to formally adopt a pop culture approach to its diplomacy to global publics when it first used the term “public diplomacy” in its Diplomatic Bluebook 2004 (Nakamura 2013). To be sure, Japan’s culture power status began decades earlier. Post-World War II Japan could not exercise hard power options, so it relied on soft power agendas (e.g., foreign aid, cultural diplomacy, person-to-person exchanges), primarily to the United States and ASEAN member countries. The Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer (JOCV) program began in 1965 and was modeled on the U.S. Peace Corps. Another cornerstone of Japan’s cultural diplomacy is the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. The Japan Foundation was founded in 1972 to coordinate the country’s cultural diplomacy and exchange activities. In the mid-1970s, after anti-Japanese riots in Bangkok, Thailand and Jakarta, Indonesia took place against then Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei, Japan launched a nation image campaign that resulted in the Fukuda Doctrine pledge to reestablish “heart to heart relations” with Southeast Asia. The Japan Foundation has 25 offices in 24 countries (including Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila) and continues to pursue a strong cultural diplomacy agenda that began with the Fukuda Doctrine.

By the mid-2000s, Japan relied on cultural products (Cool Japan) and cultural diplomacy (Japan Foundation) for the bulk of its public diplomacy. Despite a slowing of the domestic economy that began in the 1990s (known as “Lost Japan” or “Lost Decades”), Japan’s popular culture still held a superpower status (Watanabe and McConnell 2008) that was marked by an increase in demand for modern cultural products. A 2002 Foreign Policy article by Douglas McCray (“Japan’s Gross National Cool”) helped to inspire the culture-first approach while Japan was reeling in its first decade of economic decline. The Japanese government was not the catalyst for the global youth market embrace of Japanese soft power products like manga, anime, J-Pop, or J-Fashion, but the state chose to tag government-led public diplomacy goals to them against the rise of China origin Confucius Institutes and regional economic competition. Hard power may have been a Japanese obsession from the Meiji era through the end of World War II, but Japan today seems comfortable with its soft power superpower status because “cultural diplomacy is agreeable to most Japanese across the political spectrum: to the left, a non-militaristic approach to international relations is desirable; to the right, it is great for the world to appreciate various aspects of the Japanese culture.” (Lam 2007: 355).

As with every nation that emphasizes soft power, there are limits. Japan may have appealing comic books, cartoons, pop groups and animation films to some, but there is no direct causal correlation between enjoying such products as a consumer and a change in one’s attitudes toward a nation as a whole. Not everyone is a fan of such products. Some global publics would prefer a Japanese public diplomacy approach that emphasizes denouncing its imperial past for instance, correcting rhetorical setbacks (e.g. “comfort women”) or forging ahead with better diplomatic relations in the region. In the case of manga and anime, story themes that are anti-Korean or anti-Chinese specifically or utilize sexual and violent content in general have a negative blowback effect on the country of origin’s image, particularly in a region where neighboring countries have deeply held religious values not exhibited in Japan. But there are other hurdles for Japan to overcome that include the criticism that Japan has no global or diverse “voices of Japan” as measured in its homogeneous society (e.g. media, culture) and is less attractive to students seeking institutions of higher learning in the global marketplace of ideas. A loss of trust between citizen publics and the power elite (Mills, 1956) in government and media may very well drive this new phase. When the post-3/11 era moved on from a disaster relief narrative to a global media news narrative centered on domestic and international image management of Fukushima and TEPCO, collectively known as the “nuclear village,” the consequential role and function of international broadcasting efforts to state interests and goals necessitated an examination of the connection between NHK World and Japan’s public diplomacy.

10. NHK’s Public Diplomacy/Nation Brand Mission

NHK has a recognized brand in the world. It may not be BBC, but it is modeled on the most credible international broadcaster in the world. Given NHK’s long history in Japan as its leading public broadcaster and now as a leading global satellite operation, there must be a more concerted effort to recognize the public diplomacy and public responsibility role and function of this international broadcasting giant. NHK is well-funded and maintains strong fiscal support from the Japanese people, but NHK seems not to have any institutional understanding of its public diplomacy obligations. It is not known for its public diplomacy impact, namely how it impacts, enhances, expands, or diminishes Japan’s nation brand throughout the world. It is damaging to the NHK broadcasting brand as well as NHK’s public diplomacy mission when too much global media coverage focuses on questioning the leadership skills of NHK’s board of governors that oversees its operations. Further, NHK needs to expand its database of sources for news, especially as it comes under greater scrutiny in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics. Imtihania and Mariko (2012: 940) compared NHK and BBC news coverage of Fukushima: “The news sources that NHK had mostly used were official government sources, such as the prime minister, cabinet secretary, minister of industry, Board of Nuclear Safety, etc. The information gleaned was mostly from press conferences and press releases. In addition to official government sources, NHK also got much information from TEPCO sources, as this company is the owner of the nuclear power plant at Fukushima. For expert sources, NHK invited many professors of nuclear energy from prestigious universities in Japan into the studio. There were rarely independent parties, NGOs or groups with an antinuclear policy.” NHK’s role as both international broadcaster and public diplomacy storyteller points to its straightjacket existence, given the shadow of an administration that is not fond of any public scrutiny, criticism or dissent. Broadcast laws in Japan do not prevent the Abe administration and the LDP from openly intimidating the international broadcaster through political cronyism (e.g. NHK’s recent president Momii) and through ousting dissidents who speak out, despite NHK’s dedication to “dull as dirt evenhandedness.”17 What is most troubling is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has the backing and model of Japan’s closest ally, the United States, and President Donald J. Trump, who pulls no punches in his regular tweeting and open complaining about the fake news media, with fake news understood to be any media and/or reporters who challenge the policies or personality of the president. NHK has a very small window of opportunity to expand its global brand mission domestically in order to get more buy-in from the public. Without this buy-in, NHK will continue to be the wimpier version of the BBC, which has its own challenges in a post-Brexit era. NHK will be the most prominent home field advantage broadcaster for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.

Brand Japan’s image in the world is threatened by a non-threatening bland broadcasting brand in an era where the public seeks out public affairs and political understanding and not just entertainment, sports, or culture news. Today the government of Japan is driving the media agenda more than the media is setting the agenda that includes the government. Mainstream media like NHK are mere messengers of the government and risk becoming the Abe Administration/LDP’s stenographers, unless the public amplifies its voice in the public broadcaster.


1 This article is a comprehensive update and expansion of original research conducted for a 2014 conference paper, “NHK World and Japanese Public Diplomacy: Journalistic Boundaries and State Interests,”completed during the author’s Social Science Research Council Abe Fellowship and Visiting Research Professorship at Keio University from 2013 to 2015. In that capacity, the author participated in RIPE@2014 (Re-Visionary Interpretations of the Public Enterprise) with the theme of Public Service Media Across Boundaries. The conference was co-sponsored by NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai), the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, and hosted by Keio University’s Institute for Media and Communications Research where the author affiliated her Abe Fellowship.

2 See online reports from the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ( that reveal Japan’s peaceful image across countries and regions. Polls range from the high 70% to high 90% in favorability: “2006 Image of Japan Study in the U.S.,” August 2006; “The Image of Japan in European Countries,” 2015; “Opinion Poll: Image of Japan in India,” November 2016; U.S. Image of Japan,” December 2017.

3 Politico Photo Gallery June 11, 1963, (accessed February 13, 2019)

4 (accessed February 13, 2019)

5 Cabinet Decision on Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan's Survival and Protect its People, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, July 1, 2014.

6 NHK World was rebranded NHK World-Japan in April 2018. An NHK press release said that it was “to establish wider global recognition for the service’s Japanese roots in advance of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

7 NHK Corporate Profile, 2018-2019,

8 NHK’s operational plan in 1998 included “expand broadcasting to overseas audiences—Start International TV Broadcasting Services to virtually all of the world” (See “Major Goals for Fiscal 1998,” NHK Factsheet #2)

9 Message from new president of NHK, January 27, 2014,

10 Momii’s rise tests NHK’s reputation, Reiji Yoshida, Ayako Mie, and Eric Johnston, Japan Times, February 2, 2014.

11 Ex-NHK staffers seek Momii’s ouster, Tomohiro Osaki, Japan Times, July 19, 2014.


13 BBC World News best for global branding news, BBC Media Centre,

14 Henry Laurence, “NHK and Abe’s Agenda,” The Diplomat, February 8, 2014.

15 In his NHK chapter for Jeffrey Kingston’s edited volume, Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan (Routledge, 2017), Krauss identifies Henry Laurence of Bowdoin College as another writer and researcher on public broadcasting in Britain and Japan. In 2018, the Consulate-General of Japan in Los Angeles presented 74-year-old Ellis Krauss with the Order of the Rising Sun for contributions “to promoting academic research on Japan and academic exchange between Japan and the United States.”

16 TV owners are legally obliged to pay NHK fee: Japan's Supreme Court, KYODO, DEC 6, 2017.

17 Abe isn’t impressed with media criticism, Philip Brasor, The Japan Times. December 27.

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