A tale of three scandals: behind the headlines in Japan

Shukan Bunshun magazine is a conservative weekly which has recently brought down three figures who, in different ways, represent the forces of change.

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For a taste of Japan’s media landscape, look no further than the conservative weekly Shukan Bunshun. Catering to a highbrow audience while delivering dirt, it is like the Spectator and the News of the World rolled into one. Since the beginning of the year, it has brought down three prominent figures in politics and entertainment who, in their different ways, seemed to represent the forces of change.

In January, the magazine shook Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government with allegations of bribery that forced the resignation of the then economy minister, Akira Amari, an architect of the “Abenomics” programme. This month, it revealed that Kensuke Miyazaki, a lawmaker from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who grabbed international headlines by becoming the first Japanese politician to take paternity leave, had had a fling with a model shortly before his wife, also an LDP lawmaker, gave birth. Days later, he confessed and gave up his seat.

Perhaps most astonishing, Shukan Bunshun humbled the mighty Becky, a popular half-British TV tarento (“talent”), with claims she was having an affair with a married pop star. It led her to take a “break” from broadcasting: punishment from the industry was swift.

What these stories have in common is that they take aim at the changes that many say Japan needs in order to pull itself out of stagnation. If the allegations are true, there is nothing commendable about the actions of those involved (except in Becky’s case: strong condemnation seems misplaced, because her main trespass was that she fell in love). Journalistic duty requires that corruption and hypocrisy be exposed, but it is worth considering what is behind the headlines and what that may mean for the nation, as well as the global economy.

Japan’s reactionary forces can smell blood after a prolonged period in which Abe, a hybrid of reformer and hawk, seemed too strong to attack. The reason is that Abenomics, an experiment aimed at reviving Japan’s economy, refuses to bear fruit, even as his “third arrow” of reforms (involving increased foreign investment and immigration) is alarming the old guard.

Akira Amari, nicknamed “the minister of Abenomics”, led negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that pained many conservatives. His departure is a blow to measures that could prove vital to staving off a global rout, signs of which are plentiful across stock exchanges from Tokyo to Frankfurt. A U-turn on Abenomics would spook the markets further, potentially triggering a meltdown that would make the Greek crisis seem like a pleasant memory. Some considered the scoop that felled Amari as a classic sting – evidence that Abe’s enemies are emboldened.

The circling sharks closed in with the downfall of Miyazaki, which is equally worrying in the context of Japan’s demographic crisis. Miyazaki and his wife, Megumi Kaneko, were symbols of the social changes that Japan needs to make to free itself from its malaise. They are a power couple who sent a signal about the need for men to take paternity leave (only 2.3 per cent of those who are entitled to it do so) and to contribute to domestic labour. Such changes are essential for boosting the fertility rate of 1.4 births per woman and to help career mums succeed.

While the attack on Becky (full name: Rebecca Eri Ray Vaughan) has no direct bearing on the government, it is a parable of conservatives’ reaction to the more pluralistic Japan promoted by Abe’s team. The haafu (“half-Japanese”) play a vital role in the country and their status is evolving. A generation ago, mixed-ancestry TV personalities were mostly sexy, exotic and somewhat scandalous – admired but set apart. Today, they are more readily accepted as Japanese. Becky had led the charge, by becoming Japan’s girl next door.

Meanwhile Abe is himself seen behind another troublesome trend: pressure on mainstream media, especially national broadcaster NHK, to tote the government line. The latest twist is the expected ouster of Hiroko Kuniya, a widely-admired veteran female journalist, as anchor of one of Japan’s few hard-hitting news programs. The move is seen as punishment for asking top government brass – in Japan’s male-dominated political arena – tough questions.  

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming