Why Japan's Mainstream Media Can't Be Trusted To Report Objectively On TEPCO (東京電力)

When the earthquake struck Japan on March 11th and knocked out TEPCO’s Fukushima nuclear reactor, setting off a chain reaction of disasters–TEPCO’s chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata was nowhere to be found.  Where was he? He was on a tour of China with members of some of Japan’s largest media outlets–and TEPCO was footing the bill.

On March 30th, not only did TEPCO admit that the chairman had been taking Japanese mass media power brokers on the trip to China but also that TEPCO paid the majority of the travel fees for the participants. On April 7th, a reporter asked TEPCO to reveal the names of the mass media firms that had executives and/or former executives joining the chairman on his trip, but TEPCO dodged the question.

It’s well known that TEPCO pays huge advertising fees to most media outlets; it is one of the largest advertisers in Japan. It’s not as well known that the president of TEPCO, Masataka Shimizu, is also the chairman of  the Japan Society for Corporate Communication Studies (JSCCS), which includes among its members former and current top executives from Asahi Beer, Toyota, and Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency. The board of directors also includes a representative of Nihon Television’s Reporting Bureau, Economic News section:

大野 伸 (日本テレビ放送網(株) 報道局 経済部)

In a sense, the president of TEPCO is the chairman of what is whispered to be the equivalent of a lobby group that wields the power of advertising revenue over anyone who crosses their paths. It is ostensibly a group of scholars, executives, advertising agency bosses, mass media representatives, and businessmen who gather together to study more effective means of communications. Veteran Japanese reporters assert that the society also functions as powerful consortium of large corporations who know how to use the threat of taking away advertising dollars as a whip to keep the Japanese media muzzled.

You don’t have to be too bright to figure out that if TEPCO, Toyota, Asahi Beer and Dentsu somehow banded together and pulled advertising from your newspaper, television channel, or radio program, that it would be financially devastating. In the April edition of weekly magazine Asahi Geino, Noted journalist, Takashi Uesugi claims that on March 15th, after repeatedly lampooning and criticizing TEPCO on TBS Radio that the producer asked him to leave the show, claiming that the program was being “revamped.” TBS Radio refuses to comment on the issue at present.

Masataka Shimizu, the president of TEPCO, is still listed as the chairman of the JSCCS but on April 1st his “greetings” were taken down from the sight and replaced with the words of the vice-chairman. The current page expresses condolences to the victims of the recent disasters. There is no mention of the problems at the Fukushima reactor,  only that Chairman Shimizu is now too busy dealing with the disaster to fully devote himself to his duties for the organization.

According to a mainstream Japanese media reporter, the TEPCO tours of China have been going on for over ten year. “The trips have a token amount of study, such as visiting a factory, or whatever has been scheduled to justify the event for that year. In reality, most of the day is devoted to sight-seeing. At night the TEPCO executives wine and dine the reporters, editors, or  mass media representatives. And of course, the obligatory karaoke.”

It’s not surprising that much of the Japanese mainstream media has been less than critical of  TEPCO up until now. It’s very hard to raise your voice loud enough to be heard from inside the pocket of your sponsor.

The president of TEPCO also is chairman of the Japan Society For Corporate Communication Studies. Their motto: "Striving to create a new vision of society." It may be a myopic one.

25 thoughts on “Why Japan's Mainstream Media Can't Be Trusted To Report Objectively On TEPCO (東京電力)”

  1. i guess that leads to only one choice, a choice which helped to tear down the wall back in 1989, but also spreading real information in the 20 years before it.

    just as in #quakebook citizen journalists and bloggers have to raise their voice and make the noise necessary. I am very aware (and would’t encourage it) that these groups of people can hardly report facts, but 2 things can happen and have happened in the past:
    1) the general population can gain an awareness that there is a problem
    2) the general population can finally get on their feet and use their democratic rights!
    and a 3rd thing that I would hope to happen:
    3) whistleblowers take the lead and publish documents which reveal the facts.

    well, i guess I am dreamer, but I am sure I am not the only one ♪

  2. Nice post Jake. It has been very interesting looking into TEPCO’s history and the suspicions that mainstream media is under pressure not to criticise them. I would love to find more concrete examples of when this has happened in the past though (and throughout the quake, if it were possible). As seemingly obvious as it is to think that papers wouldn’t dare publish material damaging to their sponsors, it’s not quite the same as actually not making public information that people should have known. I imagine finding fact-based examples of malpractice would be extremely difficult though…

  3. Fascinating stuff- so now I know why they’re being less than critical.

    Just one thing- there’s a couple of typos that you might want to fix- “sight” to “site” and “ten year” to “ten years”. Sorry for being pedantic and pointing them out. 🙁

  4. Than kyou for this. No wonder there’s almost no news coverage about the still realtivly small but growing Anti Nuclear Demonstartions in Tokyo to be found. If it weren’t for some bloggers and YouTube-videos it would be impoossible to be informed about it.
    Only NHK reported a bit.

  5. “No wonder there’s almost no news coverage about the still realtivly small but growing Anti Nuclear Demonstartions in Tokyo to be found.”

    That simply isn’t the case. All you need to do is Google the words 原発 デモ and many results show up.

    NHK:
    http://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20110410/t10015213681000.html

    Nikkei:
    http://www.nikkei.com/news/category/article/g=96958A9C93819695E3E2E2E3878DE3E2E2E6E0E2E3E39180EAE2E2E2;at=DGXZZO0195165008122009000000

    47 News:
    http://www.47news.jp/CN/201104/CN2011041001000587.html

    Reuters Japan:
    http://jp.reuters.com/news/video?videoId=201717200&videoChannel=206

    MSN Sankei:
    http://sankei.jp.msn.com/region/news/110410/szk11041017420006-n1.htm

    It’s fun to point fingers, and I agree the relationship between TEPCO and the media is too cozy for comfort, but let’s not get too worked up just yet. I have yet to see any evidence of stories or data actually being suppressed. Care to supply any Jake?

    1. I never said that the coverage of the nuclear demonstrations would be suppressed. They were given coverage and depending on the news agency, some decent coverage.
      There’s an unconfirmed report of a radio announcer being fired after reporting negatively on TEPCO. Following it up .
      Most of the mainstream media has been very tame at the press conferences, including failing to grill the CEO when he lied and said “after the earthquake, the scale of the tidal wave that engulfed the plant was beyond our imagination” and made other comments of that nature, when in fact the IAEA had warned TEPCO two years ago that there were grave doubts the plant could survive an earthquake. As for the size of the tidal wave being “beyond our imagination” in 1993, an earthquake produce a 30 meter tidal wave on Okushiri Island. http://www.usc.edu/dept/tsunamis/video/okuvid/index.html
      It’s not that they didn’t know the risk was there, it’s that they didn’t want to spend the money to deal with the risk.
      Just like they waited a day to pour sea water into the reactor because they would rather save the reactors than save people.
      Also, the nuclear inspectors from the Japanese government who were supposed to be on site and monitor radiation danger all of them left right after the earthquake. So for at least a day, no one really had any idea what the hell was happening in the reactors. The inspectors who fled their post and the Japanese government agency that let them do it have yet to be questioned in the press, at least not anything I’ve read.
      The media in general, except for loose cannons like Sankei Shinbun, and some other magazine reporters, have been fairly meek in dealing with TEPCO and failing to ask hard questions. They’re either slightly afraid or slightly incompetent or a little of both.

  6. American media has been criticized for too much sensationalism and fearmongering which is true but I also think the American media is far better at reporting the truth about TEPCO and the earthquake than the Japanese media.

  7. Jake,

    Nice theory. Right out of the pages of Manufacturing Consent. However, there is one important piece of the puzzle missing here. NHK, which is still Japan’s most trusted source in news despite the scandals a few years back, is entirely commercial free.

    ” “after the earthquake, the scale of the tidal wave that engulfed the plant was beyond our imagination” and made other comments of that nature, when in fact the IAEA had warned TEPCO two years ago that there were grave doubts the plant could survive an earthquake. ”

    The scenario imagined by the IAEA was an earthquake, not an earthquake and a tidal wave. Actually, the plants did what they were supposed to do in response to the earthquake – the plants did stop the reaction process, so the IAEA might actually have been wrong in their assumption that Fukushima may not have survived a strong quake. Putting Okushiri and Fukushima together after the fact, meanwhile is 20/20 hindsight (although it might be reasonable to look at other tidal waves in the area, such as that which occurred in the 1800s and was taller than the recent one).

    “Just like they waited a day to pour sea water into the reactor because they would rather save the reactors than save people.”

    There has been a lot about this online. Rarely is it mentioned that pouring seawater into the reactors is also a very risky move because seawater can corrode the containment vessels. Do you have any hard evidence that the TEPCO officials acted merely to save their own ass, or were they also cautious because the potential risks might have outweighed the potential benefits?

    “all of them left right after the earthquake.”

    There was a Tsunami warning, remember.

    Tornadoes:

    “I also think the American media is far better at reporting the truth about TEPCO”

    In one case (Hiroko Tabuchi’s excellent article on part-time workers) you are right. The rest of the time it has just been preening about how TEPCO lies without providing specific examples. What is disgraceful is that the American media has not pressed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to tell them where it gets its information. One would think that the primary responsibility of the fourth estate is to oversee officials in its own country. Yet, the NRC got it wrong on a number of facts about Fukushima that were published in respected foreign media outlets and caused a degree of doubt about Japanese govt pronouncements based on very little (or no) evidence. It was industry groups and academics, not the media, that got the NRC to confess that it was plucking its information out of thin air. The U.S. media has been asleep at the wheel with respect to its fundamental responsibilities, because it is easier to beat up on the obviously hapless and guilty TEPCO officials.

    1. You make a number of excellent points. There have been previous tidal waves that were over 30 meters in the 1993 Okushiri Island case and the assumption that the sea wall (about 5 meters) would hold seems to have been wishful thinking. NHK does good reporting but they’re not so great on investigative reporting. TEPCO is heavily tied to politicians who have a say in NHK’s budget, many of the ties being through 水谷建設 which has done a lot of contract work for TEPCO. If you take a look at the history of that construction firm you can follow the money to some interesting places.

      If I had solid evidence that TEPCO was more concerned about saving their ass than saving lives, I’d put it out there. The police seem to have solid evidence but even if they told me, I don’t think I’d write it. If you understand the principle of 暴露の秘密 in Japanese law, doing so would weaken their case. It took years for the JCO officials to be indicted and found guilty for the Tokaimura disaster. I’m willing to wait a few years to see what really happened.

      Hiroko Tabuchi’s article on working conditions at TEPCO was very solid journalism. She’s one of the best reporters in Japan, period. I also have to say that Sankei Shinbun 【産経新聞), which I’ve always kind of considered a right-wing tabloid, has been doing very good investigative reporting that is illuminating and documents mistakes made on the TEPCO and GOJ side in clinical detail. They wrote a great piece on how TEPCO ignored good advice and offers from the US to help out and took stop-gap measures which resulted in the flood of radioactive waste into the ocean. If their reporting is correct, it’s one more horrible screw-up in a series of screw-ups.

  8. Jake,

    Sorry to be a bit shitshkoi, but

    “I’m willing to wait a few years to see what really happened.”

    As a point of law, that’s fine, but it is hardly a journalistic creed. Don’t get me wrong, I think some of the journalism including Tabuchi’s and your own has been great at times during this crisis. However, overall, I think a lot of what has been said about TEPCO conforms more to an image of information control in Japan than reality.

    “She’s one of the best reporters in Japan, period.”

    No argument there.

    “They wrote a great piece on how TEPCO ignored good advice and offers from the US”

    What makes the advice or offers from the U.S. “good”? Most of what the NRC said in the first few days of the crisis seemed to come out of its director’s head. SecState Clinton talked about some “really important coolant” that the air force delivered until she found out that it didn’t exist. Given these types of statements, I’m not surprised TEPCO “ignored” “the U.S.” I’m not sure what a bunch of Americans, who would presumably have to be briefed to get up to speed on the actual situation, would have been able to offer TECRO in the first few days of the crisis. The Sankei thinks it is a disgrace that the U.S. did not come to Japan’s rescue because the Sankei believes that the United States is the thin blue line that stops Japan from falling apart. It has done some good investigative journalism, you are right. But it is mixed with a strong and consistent (and in my opinion, consistently wrong) editorial position.

    “30 meters in the 1993 Okushiri Island case”

    A point of fact: is was water levels (遡上高)that reached 30m on Okushiri. The maximum wave height (波高) was about 16m. There is a difference. There have been conflicting estimates for wave height, but at Fukushima it was probably about 14m. This was lower than the max at Okushiri, but remember, 16m was the maximum there; in most in Okushiri places the waves were much smaller, at around 3-8m. Meanwhile, the water height for the recent Tsunami flooded over seawalls that were 38m in height. Nothing like that happened at Okushiri.

  9. Hi jake

    Thank you for your post about this issue.
    I almost watch to check  the press conference of Tokyo electric power cop on internet.
    In the conference, the free journalists try aggressively to ask questions. When they asked this China trip issue to the leaders in Tokyo electrics, other reporter try to stop it because his company involve with the trip.
    I have question. Do you have any similar issue which the infrastructure corp and the broadcast corp have such bad friendship in your country.

    I really afraid that he the broadcast corp hide true matter about FUKUSHIMA nuclear reactor because they would get a monetary support from Tokyo electrics.

  10. The reason they didn’t want to put sea water into the reactors was less the fact that after that the reactors would permanently damaged, they were anyway, no for cooling a nuclear power plant you use absolute pure water so that no particles can be made radioactive and nothing sticks to the rods. With sea water, which is highly salty, once it vaporizes, it leaves back a lot of salt, this salt sticks to the rods, isolating them and making cooling even more difficult.

  11. What’s interesting to note is that Tepco is a monopoly. There’s no need for them to advertise their services to gain market share from a competitor – they’re the only game in town (at least for Tokyo and the Kanto region). So, why are they the biggest advertiser? Why pour so much money into advertising? Is it only to muzzle criticism from the press? Is it to tamp down any legitimate concerns regarding the safety of nuclear power? Things that make you go “Hmm.”

  12. Good piece, Jake. Keep them coming.

    Totally agree with Rose’s point above: why exactly does a monopoly providing a service everyone has to use need a massive advertising budget?

    One of the sports shimbun had a column a few days ago where the author described how their paper was offered a substantial sum from TEPCO to write anything positive about TEPCO/nuclear power. Unfortunately this is the reality of how so much “journalism” in Japan works, with a few notable exceptions. I have much more experience in the arts/film/music side of things, but ever there it’s almost entirely pay-to-play.

  13. I’m sorry if this is posted in the wrong place but I wanted to know if you have information to confirm this. I heard it from a friend’s Japanese friend on Facebook, which of course can be absolute rubbish but still it would be lousy news if it were true.

    ” Though I could not confirm this, there are some disturbing reports that TEPCo subcontractors are hiring unemployed for the dirtiest and riskiest tasks at about $2K a day in return for not logging their radiation dose.”

  14. A few weeks back a Japanese investment fund, INCJ, made a company with 6 billion yen / $80 million in funding “to introduce Japanese content to international audience”. The company will be shot down if nothing happens after 3 billion yen / $40 million. “Collaboration partners” incl Dentsu, Fuji TV, TBS and more. And in the end of the press release it proudly says INCJ has previously invested in: “…. electronics and IT, and infrastructure such as water supply and nuclear energy.” Found the last press release INCJ sent out. Headline: “Establishment of International Nuclear Energy Development of Japan Co, Ltd.” Thirteen of the major players in Japanese nuclear energy listed, Incl. TEPCO. Collaborating with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan (METI). Presidency by a fellow of TEPCO. Coincidence? Or does it sound like ‘shot up’ money to media?! Could be interesting to know if the same companies were participating in the China trip…

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