Kimura Tadakazu CBE
Kimura Tadakazu CBE, a veteran journalist who for over forty years covered Japanese politics and international affairs, recently completed his six-month stay at the Institute as a Senior Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow. Mr Kimura is former President and CEO of the leading Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun. Mizutori Mami, the Executive Director, took the opportunity mid-way through his fellowship to ask Mr Kimura of his views on the role of the media in society.
In the second instalment of the two-part interview, Kimura shares his frank thoughts on the global role of media, and commonalities and differences in this regard amongst the UK, US and Japan. He also talks about the impact of culture and his impressions of Norwich.
Mizutor Mami: In the last interview, we discussed the role of media in Japan. I would like to take the discussion further and more broadly to consider the role of media in defining a nation. You have worked not only in Japan, but also in the US and UK, two of the greatest powerhouses in the West where media plays a central role in every aspect of the nation’s operation. Based on your experience that gives you a good transcultural insight into how each country presents itself to the world, I would like to ask this: I often hear the Japanese speak about sharing similar values with those of the West. While I do think that there is some truth, however, there are striking differences in how we nuance situations. I am sure that media plays a strong influential role here.
Kimura Tadakazu: Let’s start by talking about sharing fundamental values. The most common denominator in this regard would be our interest in maintaining freedom and democracy in our societies. However, this is nothing unique to the UK, US or Japan. Almost all countries including developing countries will proclaim these virtues as their mantra. So, beyond the fight for freedom and democracy, what are the more specific values shared between the three nations, namely Japan, the UK and the US?
I have an interesting story. About ten years ago when I was the head of the European Bureau for the Asahi Newspapers in London, I was reunited with a previous UK Ambassador to the United States, whom I first met at around the time of 9.11 in 2001. He said that while he agrees that the US and UK enjoy what is called ‘a special relationship’, he questioned whether the two countries actually shared the same values in everyday life. He felt that the US and Japan shared more commonalities than between the US and UK. He used sports as an example mentioning that while the Americans and the Japanese can bond passionately over baseball, the British get excited about cricket, which neither the Americans nor the Japanese can barely understand. This may seem trivial but perhaps more important than we think.
There are of course instances where the three nations did come together over common values. Under the Blair, Bush Junior and Koizumi administrations, the three countries united efforts over the war on Iraq. In more recent times, however, the relationship has become less committed. For example, we can take the launch of China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). While the US was vehemently opposed to the establishment of AIIB, many of their allies including Britain agreed to join it. Japan by default, if I may say so, played the ‘blind follower’ role and backed the US on this—as expected. It is no wonder that Japan is often referred to as the 51st American State. Situations like this makes me feel that while the UK does share similar opinions to those of the US in times of crisis, they do not necessarily always follow the same path.
Having said that, perhaps what the three countries share most strongly—in terms of journalism—is our concerns on the contemporary role of journalism. In the first segment of this interview published in May, I spoke a bit about the changes in lifestyles and tools people use to consume information. That is, rather than looking for in-depth coverage and investigative reports that can really get to the core of issues, the appetite of contemporary audience is for more concise, short-and-sweet stories. As journalists, we are pressed to generate information that is easily accessible rather than necessarily deeply insightful. This concern is certainly shared amongst journalists across the three countries.
Back when I was in the States, these light reads were called ‘McPapers’, like McDonalds. They were treated as the fast-food equivalent of journalism. Gone are the days now when papers like The Times had the popular following as the go-to source on reliable journalism. More and more younger people lead a lifestyle that does not allow them to spend lengthy time to read the papers. When they do, it is mostly through digital access. These behavioral changes have forced many media companies to reconsider their approach. In the UK, one of the liberal newspapers, The Independent, has recently stopped their printed editions as subscription number continued to fall. The audience for traditional journalism are now mainly the senior citizens.
So what is the shared problem? Is it that the vast segment of our society is no longer interested in journalism that digs deep beneath the surface? Are their lifestyles just not cut out for that anymore? These questions on the future of journalism are far more universal than any other individual commonalities the three countries may share. It is a global and generational problem.
With this in mind, it might be interesting to look at how each country is treating media and in particular the relationship between media and politics. In Japan, there is an ongoing debate on whether journalism has kept an appropriate distance with politics. In particular, in Japan, whether the public broadcasting house NHK is abiding by this rule has been a matter of certain concern. Meanwhile in the UK, while things have not always been perfect, BBC has what I think is a critical and stringent system in place to constantly verify their position, such as in the case of their reporting on the Iraq war and claims that the Iraqi Government possessed weapons of mass destruction. I find the situation in the US increasingly difficult to understand in this regard. For instance, let’s take what is happening in the US presidential primaries campaign.* The wave that the most leftist and most rightist candidates, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump respectively, are causing is largely empowered by the media. They report a situation in a rather digital approach where the public is challenged to chose simply between one or the other. The question asked is on ‘which one do you favour?’, rather than ‘what do you favour’. While I think this kind of ‘yes/no’ approach always existed to a certain extent in the US media in the past, I feel that this either-or view has been taken to a new level of extreme.
If you allow me to explain a bit more in detail, let’s take Sanders who is hugely critical of both Wall Street and Washington, and Trump who seems to have no regard for any country other than for the US. While the two men are focused on separate issues, what they do share is their ability to force people to make a ‘one or zero choice’ by connecting with the deep frustration and the dissatisfaction brewing amongst the American people. Unfortunately, in my view, media is helping to reinforce this yes/no culture and shaping extreme opinions. I do try to suggest to my US journalist friends on the value of impartiality, but the American media is struggling more and more to report with neutrality.
Coming back to the UK media, reading the main papers, I am glad to see that there is still a relatively strong public interest in in-depth journalism. I feel that the views presented are often well- balanced and informative. What I found particularly interesting through my stay here is the recent attack against the BBC’s impartial style of journalism. Knocked as being too ‘timid’ especially over the Brexit reportage, its critics included those from the Guardian. While being ‘impartial’ is what we naturally expect from a public broadcasting organization, the claim suggests that the BBC were just pandering to both sides of the campaign. This relates to the concerns raised by the American journalist and critic, Brook Gladstone, who talks about ‘fairness bias’. That is, rather than providing a critical view and an opinion on a certain issue, some journalism attempts to practice impartiality by simply presenting two versions of the same story.
This debate made me think about Japanese journalism practices, and at the same time to re-evaluate American journalistic approach which is perhaps too heavily opinionated. Whatever the case maybe, these discussions indicate that journalism is changing as a result of social and financial changes. At the same time media as an industry is facing serious financial challenges and is grappling to find a new sustainable business models on which to survive. When media representatives get together, whether we are from the UK, US or Japan, we ultimately end up scratching our heads over what can be done to secure a sustainable future model for our business. For instance, should we readjust our resources towards the digital media rather than print publications? Unless we find a workable business strategy, we cannot be certain about sustaining high quality journalism. There are a number of ideas being tried and tested, but we are all still searching for a new way forward. What is interesting is that the global journalism community is united by our common search for survival.
MM: You mentioned about BBC’s verification process and to extend your point, the trust people place on independent inquiries here in the UK. It suggests that there is a culture where those held responsible for wrong doings can be challenged and held accountable. I feel that the culture in Japan, though I should say with caution, does not easily allow for such kind of investigations and verifications.
KT: I cannot agree with you more. It is without exaggeration that I have lost count of the number of government officials who proudly claim that they will take their stories to their graves. The culture is such that those privy to sensitive information are reluctant to blow the whistle in order to avoid humiliating others including those holding public offices. My concern is the level of responsibility the officials feel in treating information. I feel that any information which lead to important decisions should be treated as a public commodity rather than personal knowledge. Whether it is to re-investigate history, including the way in which we interpret events during the war, and being able to acknowledge wrong doing is I believe where one’s dignity is truly tested. It is no secret that during the Second World War, the Japanese media committed a grave mistake by acting as a mouth piece of the then militaristic government. By being able to present facts, however unpopular to some they may be, would be a far more important and noble act than concealing the truth, because everyone makes mistakes. We make mistake at a personal level as well as at policy levels. What is crucial is to create a society that is open to correcting skewed views. I feel that media should play a strong role in shaping this process.
MM: Changing the subject and bringing the conversation closer to what we do here at the Sainsbury Institute, I would like to ask your thoughts on two notions: ‘the power of culture’ and the ‘globalization of education’. These two issues are given a lot of importance currently in Japan. On the former topic, I personally feel that there is a strong drive within the governmental sector to ‘ sell’ a rather pre-conceived stereotypical image of Japan to the world with the aim of bolstering its international presence. I am a bit skeptical of this approach. And on the latter, when you look at the globalization programmes on offer at Japanese universities, it almost seems as if ‘globalisation in education’ does not mean anything deeper than merely teaching modules in English, which again concerns me. I may sound a bit cynical and am happy to learn your thoughts.
Certainly. Even to this day, there are many in Japan who share a rather simplistic view that the international appeal of Japanese culture rests on only a few things, such as sushi and manga. While there is nothing wrong in associating sushi and manga with Japan, what we should be focusing on is not a few products closely associated with Japan. So what should we try to achieve when we are talking about promoting our culture? There is a lot to be considered. For one, during my Fellowship in Norwich, I have attended many workshops, seminars and conferences organized by the Institute. Despite the differences in themes which varies from archaeology to art history this experience which made me realize that what we call ‘the Japanese culture’ is a hybrid of many layers of all sorts of different cultural influences. Despite being a small island nation, what we detect as being Japanese are many times actually influenced by our neighbours on the continent as well as from much more distant cultures. I believe that being able to relate the duality of hybrid and native characteristics is what makes cultural promotion worthwhile. The audience, for example in Norwich, would not benefit much by being shown a snapshot of popular Japanese cultural moments. What they appreciate is understanding these snapshots in context and this is what brings genuine knowledge exchange. So it’s about cultural understanding, not cultural promotion.
This brings me to the theme of education. Nowadays, there is a trend to glamorise people who are referred to as ‘global citizens’. But what is a global citizen? In certain times in Japan, MBA graduates from top US universities who could speak fluent English and earned high salaries from big multi-national companies were celebrated as being a global person. In a way, yes they are global, but I feel that they are not necessarily global citizens. They may possess skills and talents required by their chosen profession. To me, however, a truly global citizen is an individual who in addition to knowledge of what is happening in the world and have a firm understanding of their own cultural background. Their ability to situate and express their opinions tempered with deep understanding of one’s own culture is essential to effectively connect with different communities and cultures.
Relating this to Japanese history, let’s look at a man named Sakuma Zōzan (1811-1864), who was a politician and scholar active in the turbulent bakumatsu period. This was a time when isolationist shogunate was being challenged by radical progressive reformers. Sakuma was one of the eminent scholars during an inward-looking era who tried to push Japan to globalize. He proposed two essential requirements to achieve this: michi (path) and gei (skills). The ‘skills’ he promoted was fairly straight forward. This was to bring in new knowledge including Western science, engineering, medicine and so forth. The ‘path’ he encouraged were new ways of thinking, such as philosophy, ethics, pedagogy and so forth. He argued that both were equally important to globalize Japan, and he believed that the ability for the Japanese to enhance their knowledge by applying Western intelligence to existing Eastern scholarship made them a stronger more international nation.
Coming back to contemporary times, countries like China are also pursuing this hybrid approach to joining the global society. There is a sort of a race for who is the most global of us all that is judged by different performance standards, whether they would be, for example, technology-based or economy-based. What provides gravitas, however, is the ability for each participant to root their applied knowledge to their own culture, tradition and heritage. The world culture is undeniably dominated by multi-nationals with their products and services influencing our lifestyle. Even the far-right nationalist politician Marine Le Pen is always seen drinking Coca Cola, one of the most global products in the world. While we could argue that capitalism is the all mighty force that will continue to shape the future of our societies, I think heritage education and appreciation are what underpin our social identity. The realities may pose challenges, but I believe that our continued investment in cultural promotion will have immense value in shaping a globalized society.
In that sense, I feel that the mission of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures is truly important.
MM: You have spent a few months now in Norwich. How do you find Norwich in relation to your experiences living in a number of different countries and cities?
My wife and I are both really enjoying our time here. We have been taking the opportunity to explore the city and talk to the locals. One person we met while visiting the cathedral asked whether we have lived in England before to which I replied ‘yes, in London’. His response was, ‘ah, so this is your first time living in England. London is London, here [Norwich] is England.’ I think his comment encapsulates the essence of Englishness in that they have a firm appreciation of what makes their culture and heritage unique. They are aware of their local assets to distinguish themselves as having an independent identity and simply not part of a United London.
I admire the people of Norwich. We have met some of the kindest, gentlest and most generous people. They are elegant, highly intellectual and worldly. I’m aware that not all of its citizens have been treated well by the Japanese in the past, to put it mildly, including those who were kept as prisoners of war of the Japanese military during World War II. Before I arrived, I wondered whether the people here would be more skeptical of foreign visitors, and in particular someone from Japan. Although my view is limited to my own direct experience here, I found to my delight that the people are incredibly open-minded, thoughtful and graceful. I really like Norwich.
I think this relates back to the cultural historic fabric of the city. Norwich was not immune to social problems. There was the Kett’s rebellion in 1549 where villagers and farmers revolted against the religious establishment. There was also an influx of foreigners, mainly protestants from Belgium, France and the Netherlands escaping religious persecution. They, called the ‘Strangers’, were welcomed to the region to help pull Norfolk out of economic crisis with their advanced textile manufacturing skills. While Norwich is very much part of England and continues to be proud of its history, heritage and culture, the city is also open to international exchange. Even after they were bombed by the Germans during World War II that killed 340 people and devastated the city, Norwich still had the strength and resilience to pull themselves out of the rubble in a noble and courageous way. I am profoundly touched by the strengths of the people here. I can’t see any fault in the city. If pressed to comment on what is still lacking, all I could think of is that there are no mountains here! It has been a genuinely positive experience living here.
My wife and I decided that all future trips to England will be made through the Norwich International Airport!
*The interview took place in late May 2016 during the middle of the presidential primaries race.
To read the first of the two-part interview, please see here
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