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Media Mix: Did Japan’s press drop the ball on the wining-and-dining scandal?



The recent wining-and-dining scandals involving the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications were sparked by the reporting of weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, which raises the question of why the mainstream media didn’t catch on to these matters first, since they seem to have been going on for some time.


The conventional response is that weekly magazines, due to the way they pursue stories for the sake of sensationalism, do not always follow journalistic “decorum” the way daily newspapers and TV stations do. The first scoop came about after Shukan Bunshun stalked Seigo Suga, the eldest son of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and caught him entertaining ministry officials as a representative of Tohokushinsha Film Corp. So while the tabloid press sometimes resorts to dodgy practices, such practices offer them more opportunities to find these kinds of stories.


But once these stories break, major media usually picks them up and elaborates. During a discussion on the web program, veteran freelance journalist Tetsuo Jimbo mentioned that the missing element in the story was why Seigo Suga was entertaining ministry officials. Given Tohokushinsha’s satellite broadcast business, it doesn’t sound like a mystery, since the ministry oversees the nation’s airwaves, but as Jimbo’s interlocutor, sociologist Shinji Miyadai, said, nobody even knows why Seigo Suga was working for Tohokushinsha in the first place.


Nonfiction writer Masaki Kubota pondered these questions in an article on the business website Diamond Online, observing that the major dailies and network TV news shows dropped the story fairly quickly. Kubota’s piece was posted on March 4, the day after Shukan Bunshun reported that Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. President Jun Sawada had dined with three top ministry officials at an expensive restaurant last June, with Sawada paying for it. One of the officials was Makiko Yamada, who on March 4 had already left her position as Suga’s press secretary due to the Tohokushinsha scandal — when she worked at the ministry she, too, took a meal with Tohokushinsha. Kubota prematurely wrote that after Yamada quit, the “mood” in the mainstream media was that the story was over.


Obviously, it wasn’t — Shukan Bunshun later reported that two ministers had also dined with NTT — but Kubota wanted to know why media like the Asahi Shimbun didn’t pursue the Seigo Suga story as doggedly as it did the twin education-related scandals involving former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2017. Having broken one of those scandals itself, the Asahi Shimbun had skin in the game, which Kubota ignores in the article, and the general tone of the piece gives the impression that he may have an ax to grind with the newspaper.


He goes on to explain the connections between Prime Minister Suga, his son, the telecommunications ministry and Tohokushinsha: When Suga himself was the telecommunications minister during the first Shinzo Abe administration in 2006-07, he hired his son as his secretary, and later Seigo Suga secured a management job with Tohokushinsha, presumably through connections he made at the ministry.


Kubota mentions a government working group whose task was to set a path for future satellite broadcasting. With the end of testing for 4K and 8K broadcasts, the government freed up bandwidth, and, in 2018, the working group recommended offering new companies the chance to bid for certain frequencies. However, by 2020 that policy had changed and the bids were offered to existing satellite broadcast companies — entities such as Tohokushinsha.


On Feb. 25, the Japanese Communist Party’s Yasushi Fujino brought these matters up at a Lower House budget committee meeting, and Kubota wonders why the mainstream media didn’t cover the exchange. The telecommunications ministry has the power to withhold access to the electromagnetic spectrum, so TV companies are cautious about making the ministry uncomfortable, but what about newspapers? Kubota explains that newspapers also rely economically on government policy, which allows them to pay lower consumption taxes and sell company stock to whomever they want, advantages other industries don’t enjoy. Also, most TV companies are affiliated with major newspapers.


The strategy games go and shogi also seem to be central to the Seigo Suga story, according to Isao Mori, who has covered Yoshihide Suga extensively and wrote a lengthy article for News Post Seven on how Seigo Suga secured employment at Tohokushinsha. Until 2005, when the company’s Star Channel obtained a satellite broadcast license from the telecommunications ministry, it was mainly a distributor of foreign films and TV programs. Later, it expanded its broadcast business by launching a special go/shogi channel, which had sponsorship deals with two of Yoshihide Suga’s most powerful friends, a former president of East Japan Railway Co. and the founder of the popular online restaurant guide Gurunavi, both of whom were big go fans.


The scandal took another turn on March 5, when opposition lawmaker and former telecommunications ministry bureaucrat Hiroyuki Konishi asked a ministry representative during debate in the Upper House Budget Committee why it didn’t revoke Tohokushinsha’s license in 2017 when the rate of foreign share investment in the company rose above 20%, which is against the law. Flustered, the ministry representative could only say that the ministry never “envisioned” such a situation.


It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder about the connection between Tohokushinsha’s entertaining ministry officials and their giving, inadvertently or not, the company a pass on foreign investment, but all reports seem to indicate that it was Konishi who made the connection, not the major media or, for that matter, Shukan Bunshun. Still, the issue might not even have come up if the weekly magazine hadn’t gotten the ball rolling.

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