While Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has emerged as the strongest Japanese leader in a decade, the dark underside of his administration has been widespread accusations of heavy-handed intimidation of the press. Especially in the last year, there have been numerous high-profile cases in which major media organizations have appeared to capitulate to such pressure, often engaging in a preemptive self-censorship known in Japan as jishuku, or “self-restraint.” A close examination of some of these cases reveals that the Abe administration has indeed engaged in an aggressive effort to shape press coverage using both the carrot of access, and the stick of political pressure and unbridled nationalist intimidation. However, much of the blame also belongs in the media organizations themselves, which have appeared unable, at least initially, to resist the administration’s pressure tactics. Indeed, the Abe government has appeared adept at exploiting weaknesses in Japan’s major media that include a competitive obsession with scoops, a heavy dependence on government sources seen in the so-called press club system and the lack of a shared sense of professional ethics and identity. The collapse of political opposition parties, and the strengthening of state secrecy laws during the second Abe administration also play roles. Deeper historical trends will also be considered, including weak notions of civil society and a moral centrality of the state that has its roots in the crash nation-building of the Meiji period.
Martin Fackler is currently Journalist-in-Residence at the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a Tokyo-based think tank. From 2009 to 2015, he covered Japan and the Korean peninsula as Tokyo bureau chief for the New York Times. In 2012, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for his and his colleagues' investigative stories on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown that the prize committee said offered a "powerful exploration of serious mistakes concealed by authorities in Japan." Martin is also the author (in Japanese) of the bestseller “Credibility Lost: The Crisis in Japanese Newspaper Journalism after Fukushima,” a critical look at Japanese media coverage of the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster. In total, he spent a decade in the Tokyo bureau of the New York Times, where he also served as economics correspondent. Before joining the Times in 2005, he worked in Tokyo for the Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Associated Press and Bloomberg News, and in Beijing and Shanghai for AP. He has Masters degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana and in East Asian history from the University of California, Berkeley.