Abe now pulling the strings at NHK

Updated: 2014-07-03 07:38

By Cai Hong(China Daily)

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A man in his 60s set himself on fire outside Tokyo's Shinjuku railway station on Sunday to protest against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plan to lift the ban on collective self-defense.

The immolation, an uncommon act in Japan, was a hot item on social media sites in both Japanese and English, with eyewitnesses posting numerous videos and photos.

Many Internet users identified the incident as part of the groundswell of opposition to Abe's push for constitutional reinterpretation to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense.

The mainstream media, however, chose to soft-pedal over the immolation. None of the national newspapers used a photo in their brief reports. And while two private TV channels covered the suicide attempt, using the footage posted on YouTube, Japan's public broadcaster NHK did not report it at all on the day.

Instead, it offered detailed coverage of the arrest of 43-year-old Toshio Otani who allegedly killied his 22-year-old girlfriend Miho Kato at a hotel in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

And it was not just the mainstream media that ignored the immolation in Shinjuku, so too did the Abe cabinet, which decided on Tuesday to remove the legal restraints on Japan's self-defense forces.

The new mission was Abe's birthday gift to the SDF, which was founded on July 1, 1954.

Different from its predecessors, the Abe cabinet has begun, for the first time since 1945, reinterpreting the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan's Constitution so the SDF can fight abroad.

The Liberal Democratic Party kept the debate on how to reinterpret the constitution between itself and its ruling coalition partner New Komeito. Although it put up a robust fight for months and questioning the various scenarios that the LDP dreamed up to sell collective self-defense, New Komeito finally succumbed to its powerful partner.

"Abe is suddenly in a rush to seal the deal on collective self-defense as he senses the media and public opinion is increasingly hostile to his project," Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies of Temple University Japan, wrote in Japan Times.

A nationalist, Abe wants to radically overhaul three of Japan's basic modern charters: the 1946 pacifist Constitution; the education law, which he thinks undervalues patriotism; and the nation's security treaty with the United States.

To shut down any debate on these issues, he has ensured NHK on his side. NHK is a public funded national broadcaster, which is supposed to be impartial and aloof from partisan influence. However, Abe engineered changes at the top of NHK by appointing four board members including its chairperson Katsuhito Momii, who has ultimate editorial control. All of them have close ties to Abe or his hawkish allies.

Momii, who has no previous experience in broadcasting, returned Abe's favor with words that stunned journalists. At his inaugural news conference in January, he said it was "only natural" that NHK's reporting should follow the government line on Japan's territorial disputes with its neighbors.

"When the government says 'left' we can't say 'right'," he said.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan says that the close relationships of NHK's new board members with Abe could pave the way for turning the board into something akin to his private property and hinder free speech.

Japan's conservative politicians have a long history of interfering with the press. Abe himself has a well-reserved reputation for strong-arming the news media.

In 2005 Abe was accused of pressuring the NHK to revise its documentary on "comfort women".

Some observers believe that the appointment of rightists on the NHK board is part of Abe's concerted effort to revise Japan's war history, as well as to push his nationalist agenda.

The author is the head of China Daily's Tokyo bureau. Email: caihong@chinadaily.com.cn