Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Reporting on Abe's Demise

Confusion, self-censorship and the cult of confirmation

by David McNeill

Professor of communications and English at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, and co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee. He was previously a correspondent for The Independent, The Economist and The Chronicle of Higher Education

No. One Shimbun, August 2022

Shinzo Abe’s murder and the media

Media critics could find plenty of grist to their mill in the aftermath of Shinzo Abe’s murder. For a start, there were the near identical headlines that ran in the big national dailies on July 8, stating simply that the former prime minister had “died after being shot” in Nara – a product of risk-averse editorial decisions. 

Breaking news of the incident, saying Abe had “collapsed”, confusingly suggested he had suffered a heart attack. Amateur videos taken at the scene and circulated online made it clear that he had been gunned down. Millions found themselves scouring the internet for a better picture of what had happened. 

This was another small signpost in the death-march of the traditional print and broadcast media: After all, it could be asked, if professional journalists and editors are slower at getting timely news to our newspapers and screens than bystanders with cellphones, then what use are they?

Then there was the decision by editors in Japan to steer clear of the word “assassination”, (暗殺), which suggests the killer was motivated by politics or ideology. Sources inside the newspaper industry said this was to avoid conferring legitimacy on Abe’s presumed killer, Tetsuya Yamagami, when his motives were still unclear.

Yet the word is widely used in the Japanese media when citing the assassination of foreign leaders such as President John F. Kennedy, who was also targeted by a lone killer with opaque motives.  

As some pointed out, domestic media steer clear of the word because of its association with Japan’s chaotic and murderous prewar era, when political killings were common. The 1960 killing of Inejiro Asanuma, then chairman of the Japan Socialist Party was the most famous Japanese assassination of the postwar era – but it was referred to as a “death by stabbing” in the domestic media.

There were other timorous editorial decisions, such as censored closeup photos of the homemade gun used by Yamagami. Some newspapers (and Japan’s biggest news agency, Kyodo) carried the pictures, taken by the Nara Shimbun, but banned them from being published on websites, apparently to avoid encouraging copycat killers. 

Images of the gun, the killer and the murder could be found online, however, fueling a small army of amateur sleuths. Many, for example, were struck by the light security around Abe and the sight of his assassin wandering about freely for several minutes before attacking his target. Some even speculated that the killing was a false-flag operation in a worrying echo of the conspiracy theories that now plague the aftermath of violent incidents in the U.S.

Once the domestic media deployed their huge resources, a lot of careful, diligent reporting followed.

Journalists determined that Yamagami was driven by hatred of the Unification Church, whose members are commonly known as Moonies. His road to middle-class prosperity was blocked when his widowed mother drained the family purse to make donations to the cult. 

According to family sources quoted in the Mainichi Shimbu, she donated about ¥100 million, including insurance money from her husband’s death, to the church. Testimony from neighbors and colleagues helped build a rich picture of an intelligent, flailing man who grew bitter as he slipped down the social ladder. 

Relatives recalled phone calls from a young Yamagami and his two hungry siblings, demanding food. Instead of going to university, he joined the Maritime Self-Defence Force in 2002, the year his mother declared bankruptcy. Work colleagues described an ordinary but prickly character. Fuji TV interviewed neighbors who recalled him noisily building a small arsenal of home-made weaponry in his one-bedroom apartment. Rather than eject the troublesome tenant, the building management asked everyone to be “considerate”. 

The most contentious issue in reporting of the Abe killing was the delay in publishing the name of the church. For several days, the mainstream media referred to the Moonies as simply a religious group, avoiding any mention of its name – this despite the fact again that it was being widely discussed online.

Press clubs played another role, reckons Kaori Hayashi, a professor of media studies at the University of Tokyo. “I think it was because the police at first didn’t reveal the name,” she said. “Confirmation by the authorities is still a big factor for the Japanese media.”

There were, of course, other ways of confirming the name, such as talking to families. And it was revealed online that Yamagami had blogged or written about his feelings on the church. In any case, it was left to the weeklies tabloids to bridge the gap between cyber- and mainstream reporting. Shukan Gendai leaped first, outing the church and “again fulfilling their role”, said Martin Fackler, a former Tokyo bureau chief of the New York Times, “to write what the big dailies cannot.”

Gendai noted that Shimbun Akahata, the newspaper of the Japanese Communist Party – a long-time adversary of the church – had reported last year that Abe had sent a video message to an affiliate of the Moonies, praising their focus on family values, for which he was condemned by lawyers for cult victims.

Once the Unification Church acknowledged Yamagami’s mother was a member at a press conference on July 11, the reporting dam burst. Reporters have dug deep into the connections between the cult and right-wing politics. The South Korean church, founded in 1954 by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-professed messiah, has invested heavily in conservative causes, much of it financed by selling religious baubles in Japan. Fiercely anti-communist, it set up the Washington Times newspaper in 1982 as a platform for anti-liberal views and forged ties with a string of conservative American leaders including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Surprisingly to some, the connections included politicians with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the party Abe once led and which has governed Japan for all but a few years since 1955. One of the party’s elders, Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a former prime minister who some experts say brought the church to Japan, where he used it to promote anti-communist views and win votes.

The Mainichi summed up the feelings of many in a July 27 editorial when it surveyed this little-known history: “It is only natural for the Diet and media organizations to clarify the state of affairs. And above all, the LDP should take a look at its long history and provide an explanation to the public and wind up its relationship with the religious group.”

If Yamagami’s wider aim was to exact revenge on the church and its enablers, he could hardly have done a better job.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Japan's New Capitalism

Prioritize Equality of Opportunity with Predistribution

by Steven K. Vogel, UC Berkeley and APP Member

Nihon Keizai Shimbun, July 27, 2022

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has vowed to shift Japan toward a “new capitalism” that will deliver growth with redistribution. The administration’s plan announced in June combines a wide variety of measures, from boosting wages to increasing investments in science and technology – yet some critics charge that it offers more hopeful proclamations than promising substance.

The prime minister is right to strive to reform Japanese capitalism to achieve both growth and equity. But how should he do that? If the government really wants to address inequality at its roots, it should prioritize growth with “predistribution” over redistribution. The term may be obscure, but the concept is rather simple. Redistribution accepts the market allocation of profits as given and tries to moderate inequalities after the fact with policies such welfare spending or progressive taxation. Predistribution, in contrast, seeks to affect who benefits from economic activity in the first place through public investment and market governance reforms.

The British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband heralded “predistribution” in his new agenda in 2012, presenting it as a way to create a fairer economy without huge increases in government spending. In more recent years, scholars have refined predistribution analysis to evaluate the sources of economic inequality and to devise remedies. Some of the leading scholars in this area, such as Thomas Piketty and others associated with the World Inequality Lab, have increasingly emphasized the predistribution roots of inequality.

Predistribution and redistribution policies can blur in practice, but the distinction remains useful in evaluating Japan’s past performance and its future prospects. In fact, Japan delivered growth with equity through most of the postwar era via what could be interpreted as a successful predistribution strategy. It achieved a relatively equitable income distribution not through a big welfare state but rather through “predistribution” factors such as corporate practices, labor relations, and societal norms. And now that Japan confronts higher inequality and lower growth, it should prioritize predistribution solutions to these new challenges.

The predistribution-redistribution distinction engages the timeless debate over equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Predistribution seeks to eliminate inequalities of opportunity rather than to compensate people for them. Yet advocates of predistribution insist that equality of opportunity must be substantive, not merely formal. That is, predistribution should enhance human capabilities and give workers and entrepreneurs greater ability to compete in the marketplace. It does not take away resources from one group and give them to another, but strives for a more equitable distribution of returns in the first place. It does not seek to override markets but to make them work better.

Now libertarians would surely object to this line of argument. They would insist that the government should not intervene in the free operation of the market. But there is no free market. All markets are embedded in government regulations, business practices, and social norms. All real-world markets reflect balances of power, such as employers versus workers or producers versus consumers. So devising and refining market rules is not an alien intervention into a pristine free market, but rather a prerequisite to properly functioning markets. Think of it this way. If workers are being paid too little for their labor and consumers are paying too much for their products, then should we sit by idly or change the rules of the marketplace to addresses these injustices?

From the other side, egalitarians might argue that we should seek equal outcomes by any means possible, and that would mean going all in with redistribution. Yet the advocates of predistribution do not oppose redistribution so much as they contend that predistribution should come first. Shouldn’t we try to eliminate unequal opportunities first, before we start compensating people for them? Then redistribution policies could fill in where predistribution policies fall short in producing a fair and equitable market society.

So how does all of this grand theory apply to Japan past and present? We can reinterpret Japan’s postwar success in achieving growth with equity via the lens of predistribution. The government invested in transport and communications infrastructure that supported economic growth and mobility, and it provided high-quality universal education and health care that sustained both growth and equity. Japan’s large corporations practiced a stakeholder model of governance, with channels for labor incorporation at the plant and office level and job security and benefits for core workers. Japan’s postwar system harbored some major structural inequities, of course, such as large firms versus small, urban regions versus rural, and male workers versus female. Yet it nonetheless delivered a combination of growth with equity that was the envy of the world.

Some of Japan’s vaunted strengths have partially eroded since the 1990s. The education system has become less equal as those with resources have gamed the system to advantage their children. The employment system has become less stable and more unequal as the share of nonregular workers has increased. The predistribution lens offers a framework for setting priorities for reforms. The predistribution approach would prioritize public investment in education, training, research and development, and startup funding. It would also favor family policies, including pre-school education, and maternity, paternity, and elder care leave. These policies are redistributive and predistributive at the same time because they support children while also enabling parents to enhance their skills and to participate in the labor market. My own mentor, the late Harold Wilensky, studied the economic and social performance of 20 rich democracies, including Japan, over a 60-year span. He found, not surprisingly, that some government policies favored growth over equity while others favored equity over growth. But he stressed that the most enlightened policies, such as these family policies, managed to achieve both goals at the same time.

With respect to market reforms, the government should immediately hike the minimum wage. This will boost growth and equity by putting money into the hands of those most likely to spend and by raising the income of those earning the least. The government should reduce the gap in pay, security, and benefits between permanent and non-regular workers by vigorously enforcing equal pay for equal work. And it should promote work-life balance policies that will contribute to higher productivity, such as fewer working hours, more flexible schedules, and remote work options. Japan has made some real progress in these areas in recent years, but it could go much further. With respect to corporate governance, the government should continue to promote greater diversity and accountability, which will enhance both equity and productivity. But it should resist reforms that will raise corporate returns at the expense of workers and other stakeholders.

None of this suggests that Japan does not need redistribution as well. For example, the government could enhance both growth and equity by raising corporate taxes while reducing consumption taxes. Consumption taxes are regressive, and they slow growth by reducing demand.

For many years, economic analysts have assumed there is a tradeoff between growth and equity. Japan disproved this in the postwar era by achieving high growth with equity. And Japan, the United States, and many other advanced economies have doubly disproved this thesis in recent years by demonstrating that inequality can become a drag on growth.

The United States is much further down that road than Japan, so Japan should heed this as a valuable warning. In fact, the U.S. economy could rightly be viewed as one of upward predistribution. That is, the market rules – from labor regulations to corporate governance practices – are structured to maximize returns for the wealthy and the powerful at the expense of everyone else. Viewed through the lens of predistribution, current-day Japan is underperforming the Japan of the postwar era but it remains much less unequal than the United States. With greater attention to predistribution reforms, it can do much better.