In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, not many journalists set out — as I did — to befriend the executives of nuclear utilities while they fought to restart their reactors. The company I kept made me seem trustworthy to bureaucrats at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which had been blamed for regulatory lapses that led to the disaster. I took them to lunch and let them talk.
After Yoshihide Suga became prime minister, I asked one of my lunch companions about the rumored cancellation of the Olympics (METI had assigned him to the area where the torch relay would begin). “There’s no way they’re canceled,” he said. “A bungled Olympics is the best way to get Suga out of office. The worse things go, the better it will be for a lot of important people.”
I was shocked, but only for a moment. Shinzo Abe’s resignation had allowed Suga to skip the line of aspiring prime ministers, and as anyone who has watched a season of "The Wire" can appreciate, causing a problem and offering the solution is an effective way to defeat an incumbent. Japan may be the country where this strategy is least likely to backfire. Its bureaucracy is so complicated — and so trusted by the public — that it’s almost impossible to publish detailed reporting about government affairs without leaving the average voter bewildered and sleepy.
I followed up with other trade ministry contacts and friends in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). The Olympics were Suga’s sword to fall on, they confirmed, describing the arrangement as an open secret. Bureaucrats were frequently being advised (by their politically connected superiors) that Olympic planning — especially virus control measures — should be channeled through a shrinking group of Suga loyalists. No one else could be trusted to move quickly.
I expected that a journalist covering the Tokyo Olympics would hear the same loose talk, investigate it, and I would learn through the resulting stories what kind of dung pile I’d brushed against.
The stories never appeared.
Reporters for global news outlets portrayed the Games as an urgent threat to public health but seemed to be at a loss to explain the government’s decision to go forward. Instead, many resorted to a cartoon version of the country’s politics, depicting Japan’s leaders as a club of socially backward octogenarians who hate women, immigrants and poor people; but who love money — especially money handed to them by the unctuous hypocrites who run the International Olympic Committee.
"Tokyo is the only city I have lived in where veteran journalists read newspapers from the middle pages outward."
All of that is true, but doesn’t explain why Japan’s politicians have rallied around the most unpopular decision of their lifetimes or why precautions surrounding the Olympics have been so poorly managed despite constant scrutiny. As Olympics-related blunders have driven Suga’s approval ratings to historic lows, no global news outlet — not even those predicting the imminent end of Suga’s administration — has assigned reporters to investigate the improving fortunes of several candidates for prime minister in this autumn’s election.
The New York Times published its strongest statement about the Olympics in an opinion piece by political scientist Jules Boykoff, a perennial critic of the Games. Boykoff used several press conference quotations from Japanese politicians (not a famously candid bunch) to argue that the “powerful drug” of “Olympic spectacle” had led organizers to make “wildly irresponsible” decisions. In coverage of the Olympics’ opening week, the Associated Press lamented that “not many visiting journalists will linger in ICUs or chase down interviews with angry residents who feel that these games were hoisted onto the nation so that the IOC could collect its billions in TV money.”
If Japanese lives can be purchased as cheaply as the AP’s comments allege, I don’t want journalists — especially journalists supported by global media outlets — chasing human interest stories. I want them making lists of local politicians and mid-level bureaucrats who might know too much about their bosses’ affairs. I want them documenting the “wildly irresponsible” decisions of Japan’s government in conversations with people who were present when these decisions took shape. Isn’t that the purpose of journalism? To examine injustice forensically, so that its mechanisms are no longer obscure? Most coverage of the Tokyo Olympics is closer to the AP’s version, where the world receives a stern lecture and ground-level reporting contributes a few anecdotes.
Coverage of the Olympics may be remembered as the first comprehensive example of how journalists, faced with the diminishing relevance of their profession, chose to present the news without engaging in journalism. Japan would be a fitting backdrop. It’s a nation where the intricate system of mutual reward that links reporters and politicians is official and explicit. Good journalism doesn’t disappear as a result. It simply receives less attention than propaganda, polemic and infotainment that cover the same events. Tokyo is the only city I have lived in where veteran journalists read newspapers from the middle pages outward.
Prime Minister Suga’s contempt for the press is legendary. Many journalists believe he was the architect of the Abe administration’s successful campaign to undermine the credibility of the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s leading opposition newspaper. Reporters who cover Japan will celebrate the end of Suga’s administration and will be happy to believe they hastened it. How many will also acknowledge that their coverage of the Olympics has justified a certain amount of his contempt?
It would be an odd thing to celebrate: how a man who believes that truth belongs to the powerful was ultimately proven correct.
Dreux Richard is a writer, journalist and literary translator from Washington, D.C. This piece is adapted from his first book, “Every Human Intention: Japan in the New Century” (Penguin Random House, 2021).© Japan Today