Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.02.06

Japan's myopic coverage of the Kishida-Biden summit

The foreign press provide more comprehensive reporting compared to the nation's own media outlets

the Japan Times on January 19th, 2023

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A.

Just about a week has passed since Fumio Kishida’s first visit to Washington as prime minister. The White House praised the Japan-U.S. talks and the U.S. media mostly welcomed the results.

Despite the summit’s success, however, the Japanese media is split into two camps, with many missing the essence of Kishida’s visit.

With the regular parliament session beginning next week, the opposition and liberal media will likely resume criticizing the Kishida administration as if nothing happened in Washington. Still, some in Tokyo wonder why the Japanese and U.S. media’s reporting on the outcome of the Kishida visit is so different.

Reactions from U.S. journalists were generally positive. A quick look at the U.S. newspapers shows that many articles were favorable to Kishida’s summit with U.S. President Joe Biden. Although some reported that both Kishida and Biden have their own domestic political problems, there were no articles I could find connecting the summit meeting with the U.S. president’s approval rating.

Typical headlines read: “Biden and Kishida vow to bolster U.S.-Japan alliance as China’s power grows” and “Japan is reacting to Russia and China rationally. It is only the beginning.” The best article covering the meeting in my judgment was a Washington Post column titled “Japan PM Kishida and Biden summit talks mark a turning point.”

This Post column compares Japan with Germany, saying, “Some analysts contend that the zeitenwende (turning point) is about more than just Germany — indeed more than just Europe — and that the world forged in the wake of the explosion of the war in Ukraine reflects an end to idealism in the international system and a return to a more hard power-based realpolitik.”

Such profound and objective observations from a global perspective do not always appear in the Japanese media. Rather, editorials of major Japanese newspapers were split. Here are some examples:

  • Transformation of the Japan-U.S. security treaty is concerning — The Tokyo Shimbun
  • Japan-U.S. summit meeting: Explanation to the public postponed — The Asahi Shimbun
  • Japan-U.S. summit: Security strategy needed to control tension — The Mainichi Shimbun
  • Deepening the Japan-U.S. alliance contributes to global stability — The Nikkei Shimbun
  • A strong alliance is the cornerstone of the international order — The Yomiuri Shimbun
  • Japan-U.S. summit shows solidarity for world peace — The Sankei Shimbun

The Tokyo Shimbun’s editorial contended that “We are concerned that the accelerated integration of the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military and the rapid increase in Japanese defense spending will spur a regional arms race and undermine regional stability.” The tone is old-fashioned and symbolic of “an end to idealism in the international system,” as the Post’s columnist rightly pointed out.

Why is this happening? It is because all international politics is still local in Japan. Many articles about visits abroad by prime ministers are written by reporters who specialize in national affairs and who are stationed at the press club of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The news coverage generally follows the narrative that prime ministers often visit the U.S. to boost their approval ratings and so on. There is no justification for this narrative.

National reporters often fail when it comes to maintaining a cosmopolitan perspective and they tend to report on diplomacy by tying what is happening to domestic politics rather than to current international affairs. Foreign policy reporters also often get very few chances to write major stories about a prime minister’s visit abroad.

International affairs are not static. Every diplomatic issue has a dynamic history. Diplomacy and international affairs are like a movie rather than a single photo snapshot. The Japanese media tend to report stories based on their own still images, which often only cover one aspect of what should be a full-length motion picture.

If we try to look at diplomacy in the context of domestic politics, we end up talking about Japan’s “victory or defeat” on an ad hoc basis, such as in what Kishida may have gained or lost at the Japan-U.S. summit meeting. The reality, however, is that this episode is only one part in a long and drawn out process in regard to relations between the two nations.

In foreign affairs, what is being done now will surely come into play months or years later. Either that, or the results of what has been done in the past several years previously may finally come to fruition now. Therefore, it is important to look at such matters as an accumulative process. It is unfortunate that some Japanese reporters are only interested in a prime minister’s approval ratings.

What was most disturbing, however, was an idea that appeared in some of the editorials: If the Self-Defense Forces shoulder part of the burden of striking enemies, Japan’s exclusively defensive posture based on Article 9 of the Constitution will become a mere shell and a hollowing out of the Japan-U.S. security treaty.

Also of particular concern is that those papers still referred to the division of roles between the American “spear” and Japan’s “shield” in the defense of this nation. The spear and shield analogy is old hat because there is no way that such a division of roles can be completely defined and implemented in modern warfare.

Prime Minister Kishida’s international tour this month that took him to France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States was a historic “turning point” for Japan as well as the rest of the world. The National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Defense Buildup Program, which were recently compiled in Japan, are, as a friend in Washington called, “extraordinary documents for extraordinary times.”

It is unfortunate to see that many reporters in the Japanese media do not see the significance of these events and are more focused on the domestic political landscape. Yes, all politics is local, but all international politics is not. I humbly suggest the executives at Japanese media outlets should allow more international reporters to provide coverage when prime ministers take a trips abroad.