Coverage of the Anti-Security Bills Demonstrations

Setsuko Kamiya 神谷説子

In the summer that marked the 70th year since the end of World War II, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government and the ruling parties bulldozed through the Diet a series of legislations that could let the Self Defense Forces fight abroad for the first time in the country’s post war history. The security bills that could allow Japan to join in collective self-defense with its allies were based on a resolution by the Abe Cabinet in 2014 reinterpreting the Constitution. But a great number of academics and legal professionals including former Supreme Court justices have claimed the bills are unconstitutional. And thousands of ordinary citizens, from college students to women with children who are against changing the interpretation of the country’s pacifist Constitution, have raised their voices with anti-government protests being held in front of the Diet as well as many other parts of the country as the lawmakers deliberated on the controversial bills.

Holding and participating in protests are fundamental constitutional rights in a democracy, but rallies attracting citizens by the thousands had been scarce for a long time in this society where people tend to shy away from discussing politics publicly. This changed after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 as thousands of citizens, of their own will, took to the streets to protest against reactivating nuclear power plants, with the most prominent actions observed weekly in front of the Prime Minister’s Office. Such a change in attitude is itself worthy of news, but protestors at the time criticized the mass media for not covering the demonstrations. While this wasn’t true, it may be fair to say that it took some time before Japanese media outlets faced the anti-nuclear demonstrations seriously and increased their coverage.

This time around, the anti-security bills movement became the center of attention by the press, especially because of the leadership voluntarily taken by college students. But the treatment of the events was clearly divided between the conservative and liberal media. The most prominent difference was observed in the coverage of the August 30 protest, which was the largest among the string of rallies against the controversial pieces of legislation. More than 300 rallies took place across the country that day, with the largest gathering in front of the Diet building attracting 120,000 people, according to organizers. Police announced that the turnout was about 32,000. The actual number aside, liberal media including Tokyo Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun and many local newspapers featured the demonstrations on their front page and even used several more to introduce the voices of the participants. Meanwhile, conservatives who are supportive of Abe’s policies such as Sankei Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun and business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun treated the demonstration as just another news item on their society news page. On August 31, I spotted several posts on social media with pictures of the front pages of major newspapers going viral. One glance at the pictures was enough to know who took the demonstration seriously and who didn’t.

Similar differences were also observed among TV networks. According to an article compiled by the Mainichi, while national broadcaster NHK and five commercial networks did cover the demonstrations, left-leaning TV Asahi and TBS were the top two stations that had the most coverage, followed by NHK, Nihon News Network, Fuji Television and TV Tokyo. Abe, who said he will make more of an effort to explain to the public about his security policy, has in fact been very selective about which TV stations to appear on, and so far has been avoiding TV Asahi and TBS who are critical of his policies.

Considering that the Japanese press was once criticized as being too identical from each other in tone, the polarization observed here isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The demonstrations, in which social media played a major role, also showed that the mass media needs to play the role of a good analyzer of ongoing events in order to survive in this age of the Internet. For any media organizations, the most important thing is to have reporters on the ground to witness the events and talk to participants, but when the demonstrators and observers are constantly communicating online, it’s increasingly challenging to grasp the entire picture. To do so, the press will have to have a good bird’s eye view and provide good analysis, and it makes sense for them to have their own take on the issue. Meanwhile, the public will be watching for who’s holding a critical eye towards the authorities and catering to their right to know.