Our Fellow

Kimura Tadakazu CBE

Kimura Tadakazu CBE, Senior Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow 2016
Kimura Tadakazu CBE, Senior Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow 2016

Tadakazu Kimura: It is an interesting question. In order to answer, firstly we may need to try to differentiate the meaning of the two words, namely ‘ media’ and ‘ journalism’. I have been working in this field for many years and have often been asked the question, ‘So you are from the media? And, you are a journalist, aren’t you?’. Having said that it is quite common that the two are often regarded as separate entities. I feel that journalism is one part of media and in particular embodies a sense of civil duty within the society. Media, in comparison, is a more general umbrella term with multiple functions. For the mass majority in Japan, media, or ‘masu comi’ (mass communication), as it was usually referred to, implies something different from journalism, as something perhaps less serious. The term has since taken on even a somewhat derogatory tone where some refer to ‘masu comi’ as ‘masu gomi’ (mass rubbish)!

Media is essentially an agent, or an intermediary. It mediates information between things, events and people. At the end of the day I won’t necessarily disentangle media and journalism as I feel that journalism is a part of this agent called media which disseminates information whether it would be through films, anime, or world affairs news.

The most noticeable difference in the field since I joined it some forty years ago is the manner in which society consumes media. Traditionally, media in Japan held a dominant position in shaping opinions, and journalism was central to this. In a way, journalism helped construct and instruct public discourse. I think this trend was not unique to Japan but the same applied in Europe, the States and elsewhere. In Japan’s case, this dominance of journalism was evident as early as the Meiji period (1868-1912). However, with the emergence of the internet, the boundaries of media have changed dramatically to include new media outlets. This includes social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, commonly referred to as ‘new media’ or ‘personal media’.

The proliferation of information outlets has created a new type of attitude to media, referred to as ‘anti-media’ or ‘anti-journalism’. Anti-journalists argue that the role of professional journalists is overrated even though they are merely a middle-man who obscure relationships between consumers and the raw information. From my point of view, while certainly understanding the importance of the new-media, I think it is fair to say that the anti-media bias has unleashed an unprecedented amount of misleading information to circulate freely across themes, genres and societies, and this to me is a major concern.

Understanding how to define and distinguish credible information, and knowing how and what to communicate to the audience have been at the core of the ethos of journalism, but now we are criticized as being meddlers. In spite of recent trends, I feel that journalism continues to be important and relevant, and should play a leading role for its critical and investigative ability to inform the public.

That said, it is becoming certainly difficult to argue for the importance of journalism. The fundamental reason, I think, is that the public perception of ‘media’ and ‘journalism’ has changed from seeing it as an informative tool to a meddling presence. This notion is reinforced by our ability to have our own personal media and broadcast our own preferred information through mainly internet technology. I want to avoid sounding overly cliché or naïve, but I feel that the role of journalists remains essential so that the world can be made aware of critical situations, such as the current immigrant crisis in Europe which we are witnessing with great concern. It is also crucial to be aware of the existence of different opinions on global issues so that each one of us can make informed decisions ourselves. In a nutshell, journalism ultimately functions as a democratic forum that allows us to explore multi-faceted issues from different angles and approaches, and I still value it as a useful communication tool.

As a veteran journalist, do you see a difference in the attitude of the young journalists entering the field? Do you feel that they come in with views different to your own in regards to their role in the society?

Well, throughout my career I have met many young journalists and most recently as the CEO of Asahi Shimbun as an interviewer on various selection panels for new recruits. When I entered into the field some forty years ago in the 1970s, there was an acute sense of public duty amongst those who aspired to become a journalist. Many of us wanted to contribute to finding ways to make the world a better and safer place, and tried to help eradicate corruptions and other social injustices. I joined at a time when the Vietnam war was coming to an end. This was around 1975 to 1976. It was also the time when dramatic changes in Japan were taking place including the then Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei’s visit to Beijing in 1972 to normalise Sino-Japanese relationship. It was an exciting time. Initially I was thinking of going into academia after finishing my undergraduate studies, but became more interested in devoting my career to chasing key political events and international affairs that were unfolding within and outside Japan .

When I meet young potential journalists these days, the most striking observation is that most of them see journalism as one of their various career option rather than a devotion. Many of the interviewees who come to Asahi Shimbun, also present themselves to interviews for all other types of jobs and industries including banks, companies, and the public sector. There is nothing wrong with this, but I would like to think that deep inside, beyond the desire to make money or hold high offices, they are interested in a job that has the ability to change and benefit the society. Even if this does not amount to changing the world drastically at once, having a purpose to improve society, I think, is key to being a good journalist. I can happily say that when I do speak with young journalists, I feel that a lot of them share these believes.

That said, being inspired by social justice alone can not sustain each individual’s motivations, and there are many who come into the field with different drives. That is normal. What is different though with the young journalists compared with the time when I started my career is that they are products of a different media generation. They are digital natives who have a very different relationship with text-based information. It is not that they dislike text, but they have grown up in a culture where newspapers were not any more the dominating force in the media. There is little benefit for me in bridging this gap from a top-down attitude with us ‘oldies’ trying to drill in the traditional ways of operating or imposing our values onto the younger generation. Young journalists provide fresh approaches that are just as meaningful to critical exploration of contemporary events, such as the 3.11 Tohoku disasters in 2011. How they apply the obtained information and show a strong desire to improve communities through their work is admirable, and so I never try to look at the current state of journalism with a nostalgic view or generational bias.

Looking at journalism in a much broader context and particularly in relation to major world events, I think it is fair to say that Europe is facing a number of serious challenges and UK news headline is heavily dominated by debates on the EU referendum which will take place in June. Having spent three months living in England this time, how do you see the current situation in Europe and what is your view on its future?

Well, from a journalist’s point of view, my stay here in the UK this time comes at an exciting time, which is perhaps a misleading thing to say. Europe, to me, is a familiar territory as I was responsible for covering European affairs as the head of the European Bureau of the Asahi Shimbun in London for a year in 2006. This time, since arriving at Norwich in January, I have been able to dive straight into the issues being discussed as well as feel the general mood first-hand. In short, I feel that the role of Europe in the world is changing rapidly by being forced to take on a much more dominant global role. It is as though they are now at the epicenter of change that can shift the traditional paradigm of world power.

As you mention, Brexit is getting a lot of coverage these days, but it is also true that this isn’t a new conversation. Talks of similar nature were already taking place in the mid 1970s including the UK asking for membership to the EC while some member countries such as France questioned whether UK was truly a part of Europe. What is particularly striking about the recent events, including the Brexit debate, is that this time, the discussions are centered around the question on European values. While there is no definitive answer to defining what that shared European value might be, I think it is safe to say that there is a sense of commonly held believes that Europe has come to collectively appreciate over history such as democracy, respect for human rights and rule of law. However, in the past year or so, terrorist attacks, the refugee crisis, Brexit and other major events have been shaking and threatening to destabilize what Europe stands for. Europe is a complex structure involving many different elements, whether they are financial, political, economic or social, to operate as a cohesive unit. And this mechanism has been tested many times throughout history including battling two World Wars.

Looking at the historical timeline, I feel that the fall of the Iron Curtain was a momentous event that pushed European nations to emerge as the Europe we see today that has some form of consensus on what their shared values might be. However, I also see, especially as the more recent events unfold, that there are renewed iron curtains being drawn in Europe. Terrorists attacks, including the Paris attack in January and Brussels attack in March, are part of these iron curtains. These attacks masterminded by extremists are to a large extent part of the European history as, if you would remember, 100 years ago, Europe’s meddling in the Middle East including Syria was very much an impetus and the origin of what has plunged the region into violence and chaos. 100 years on, Europe has had its own conflicts to resolve, but the ripples that they created are, after a century or so, finally reaching its own shores with unreserved force.

Europe is now deeply embroiled in this international crisis. The future really depends on Europe being able to figure out the ‘how’: how will they organize themselves and how will they respond to these issues. There will be further challenges ahead. In regards to the refugee crisis, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a very welcoming approach to migrants trapped in Hungary last year together with her Austrian counterpart. I think the world was very impressed with their response. Of course, you can argue that Germany is financially more stable than other European countries and that therefore are more capable to offer shelter to the asylum seekers and refugees. Those who had risked their lives to flee serious conflicts at home must have regarded Germany as the crown jewel that offered new opportunities—like a European version of living the American dream. But then, Germany called for ‘solidarity’ amongst all EU member countries to accept a quota of asylum seekers. This changed attitudes virtually overnight within Eastern Europe. Newer member countries to the EU like Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland are now raising doubts about their relationship with Europe as a whole. At the same time, in the North, Sweden and Denmark have temporarily re-imposed border control to keep a check on migrant flow. Essentially, what we see now is a fracturing Europe with countries from North to East and Central quickly changing their tact to defense mode. In fact, Merkel is being challenged even in her own country with the far-right anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party gaining national support to win seats in the recent regional election. This is someone who a year ago was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, her influence has been significantly stripped and her call for solidarity is becoming an increasingly lone voice.

With Merkel’s presence or ‘aura’, should we say, being far less dynamic than it once was, who will step into her shoes to regain control of Europe? Who would be able to take on the central responsibility? The EU deal between Europe and Turkey to deport migrants will go into effect from tomorrow (note: at the time of the interview), but I am highly skeptical of the plan working smoothly. To be frank, dealing with 72,000 migrants efficiently is virtually impossible, especially in a country such as Turkey which already has a lot of problems including humanitarian issues. Everyone is turning a blind eye and throwing EU money at Turkey in the hopes of keeping the problem off of their own turf. When I see these events unfolding, I do feel that the European values are challenged.

Recent crises have forced Europe to become more insular and I feel that this isolationist response is something that resonates with American attitudes towards migrants. American who once believed in fighting for freedom globally no longer feel that it is their duty to send in their own troops and resources to achieve this goal. Instead, they have focused their efforts on domestic concerns by largely distancing itself with the rest of the world. For Europe to become as insular as the US, and during that process lose its zeal, would really make that question of who will run Europe all the more pertinent.

Japan is not a migrant nation and in fact, there are more emigrants than there are immigrants. At the same time however, Japan is a country rapidly aging and its labor force shrinking fast. It can no longer sustain itself without seriously considering welcoming migrant workers and look for ways to adjust our attitudes towards immigration. The country is criticized for its closed approach towards immigrants and asylum seekers. Japan has a lot to learn from the experience of Europe. What we see here should be studied very carefully and closely, because what is happening in Europe will play a role in help shaping the way Japan will evolve in the future.

We can even argue that the crises which are manifesting themselves in Europe are affecting how we protect our democracy, and how we maintain a pluralistic society. We are at present faced with serious challenges. I feel very strongly that we need to clearly understand what is going on. We should not be complacent or ignore real life tragedies as problems unrelated to those who live in distant lands such as Japan. Situations could similarly erupt rapidly in East Asia with uncertainty in the future on how the situation in China and North Korea might evolve. I am not fear-mongering, but I want to stress the importance for Japan on understanding what is happening around the world, and I hope to contribute to this through my work. My stay in the UK allows me to get closer, if not be immersed in, in these discussions.

(In our next edition of the e-magazine, Mr Kimura will talk about the power of culture, the Sainsbury Institute and Norwich).

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