Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2015.02.12

An Anti-Japanese Article in the New York Times?

JBpress on February 06, 2015

There was a very good news article from Tokyo entitled "Departing From Japan's Pacifism, Shinzo Abe Vows Revenge for Killings" published in the New York Times on February 1. I say "very good" not because I am quoted in the article but simply because it represents the professional journalism of the New York Times' reporters, and not its often biased editorials.

The article, however, was not well received in Tokyo. The use of the word "revenge" in the headline, for example, was strongly criticized for implying militarism. Other critics say that the article, written by the anti-Japanese reporter of the anti-Japanese New York Times, is therefore strongly anti-Japanese. Really? Is that true?

Let me examine the main analytical points in the article.

- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reacted with outrage, promising "to make the terrorists pay the price." Such vows of retribution may be common in the West when leaders face extremist violence, but they have been unheard of in confrontation-averse Japan -- until now.

At the press conference Abe in fact spoke to the extent that, "I will work with the international community to hold them responsible for their deplorable acts," but I have no problems with the above translation of the writer who is fluent in Japanese.

The writer just says that Shinzo Abe reacted in the same manner as the other Western political leaders would, implying that this may be a new standard of reaction to such brutal acts of terror for Japan and its leaders. The article continues.

- As the 12-day hostage crisis came to a grim conclusion with the killing of Mr. Goto, the world has suddenly begun to look like a much more dangerous place to a peaceful and prosperous nation that had long seen itself as immune to the sorts of violence faced by the United States and its Western allies.

This is exactly what the silent majority of Japanese seem to feel these days and the article reflects the national mood of a country which lost two of its citizens to Islamic State within a week.

- "This is 9/11 for Japan," said Kunihiko Miyake, a former high-ranking Japanese diplomat who has advised Mr. Abe on foreign affairs. "It is time for Japan to stop daydreaming that its good will and noble intentions would be enough to shield it from the dangerous world out there. Americans have faced this harsh reality, the French have faced it, and now we are, too."

This is an accurate quote of what I said in a telephone interview with the writer on the previous day.

- The crisis also comes at a crucial moment in Japan's modern history. Since taking office two years ago, Mr. Abe, a strong-willed conservative, has tried to push his nation into shedding the passive brand of pacifism that it repentantly embraced after defeat in World War II, and playing a more active role in world events.

The article's reference to Abe as a strong-willed conservative is right and fair. Abe is, in fact, very realistic and pragmatic and by no means a right-winger nationalist.

- For now at least, such anger appears to have given Japan the resolve to reject the Islamic State's threats, and to support Mr. Abe's efforts to raise Japan's profile in the Middle East. .... many Japanese also appeared ready to adapt to this new reality by discussing ways to reduce their nation's vulnerability.

The above is also a fair analysis of the political reality in Tokyo and I have no objection to the general assessment.

- Critics on the left are already starting to fault Mr. Abe for provoking the Islamic State two weeks ago when he offered $200 million in nonlethal aid to countries that were confronting the group. ...But there have also been strong popular shows of support for Mr. Abe and his efforts to make Japan a more global partner of the United States, on whom it still relies for its defense.

Introducing pros and cons about the issue is always a minimum requirement for professional journalism and the article passes the test of neutrality as well. The writer's view is neither naïve nor one-sided.

In a nutshell, I see no serious problems with these. Nonetheless, many in Japan still didn't like the article. What is more important is why they didn't like it. Simply put, the ordinary Japanese do not understand the difference, and more precisely the gap, between reporters and the editorial board, simply because in Japan the two are almost identical.

Therefore, in Japan, while the right dislike the article, the left praise it. In the world of professional journalism that I have known for decades, however, the reporters on the front line write articles independently and do not always reflect the views of the editorials, which are also intellectual products of another group of independent journalists. This isn't often the case in Tokyo.