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IV. Tabloid Horror

A. The "Marco Polo" Debacle

If the flaws inherent in mainstream Japanese newspapers appear crippling, then the tabloid press in this country may be beyond rehabilitation. Tabloids in Japan primarily come in three formats--dailies (lumped generically as "sports shimbun"), weeklies and monthlies--and specialize in what Noboru Maruyama, who has authored a study on the Japanese news media and is currently a freelance journalist, brands as a Japanese version of "scandal journalism." While all adhere to the poorest possible standards of journalistic ethics and procedures, the worst among them are the weeklies.

Describing one weekly tabloid pretty much describes the lot: they almost always contain sexually-related stories and photographs; the feature well is filled with gossipy tidbits about the hottest new actress or latest scandal; and articles are invariably laced with unattributed quotes and sources making the most outrageous accusations. Weekly tabloids are generally divided into two classes: those affiliated with large newspaper companies and those owned by magazine publishing houses. Subscriptions are unheard of; instead, both rely heavily on newstand sales, especially from railway kiosks servicing hordes of Japanese commuters each day.

Which explains why trains and subways in Japan are plastered with hundreds of advertisements peddling the latest issue. Yet this practice is where tabloids begin their assault on the privacy of ordinary citizens: "Every day and evening, as people commute to and from work, they can't help but catch sight of tabloid ads proclaiming something scandalous about someone," says Jun Kamei, a former editor at Shukan Shincho, a weekly tabloid published by Shinchosha Ltd.. "What this does is imprint a negative image of the person being reported on in the minds of millions commuters, even if most of them don't buy, much less read, these stories."

The victim may be innocent of whatever charges are made by tabloids--in the plural because they usually descend on an individual as a pack--but he or she is powerless to undo the damage. "It's a form of subliminal terrorism," notes Yomiuri Shimbun reporter Masanori Yamaguchi. But it is effective, because it achieves what tabloids really want: to boost sales.

The most hardened practitioners of this tactic are the weeklies operated by magazine publishers. Although most of these are second-tier companies with scant circulation and even less credibility, two of the largest-Bungeishunju Ltd. and Shinchosha-not only command sizeable readerships, their very size bestows them with a certain aura of respectability. Yet few publishers of tabloids are as flagrantly libelous and antithetical to the democratic interests of Japan. Especially Bungeishunju, the largest publisher of its kind in Japan, with its history of revisionism and government collusion--traits that can clearly be seen in the editorial direction of its publications even to this day.

Consider the case of "Marco Polo," a glossy newsmonthly that Bungeishunju launched at the height of the bubble era, when Japanese publishers sought to repeat the success of Newsweek and Time. Marco Polo met with decent success until its February 1995 issue, when it ran a cover that denied the Holocaust ever took place. The story, "There Was No Nazi Gas Chamber," was written by a Japanese neurologist who claimed that the Nazis interned Jews in order to relocate them to what was then Soviet territory. Not only were the lethal "shower rooms" a fabrication spun by Polish communists after the war, he asserted, the nerve gas used in the systematic murder of Jews and other minorities could not have been effective if used in the way it was.

Bungeishunju's initial response to the ensuing outcry was all to predictable: Marco Polo's choice of cover, it noted, was an editorial affair; thus, any criticism of the story was an infringement on its freedom of expression-a rebuttal tabloids unfailingly employ whenever they need to defend an indefensible article. Matters would have ended there had the controversy been limited just to Japan. But when the article began drawing protests from the Israeli government and respected human rights groups as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the U.S., it beat a quick retreat.

It was forced to do so in part because the writer had publicly admitted that his only sources were "some books and magazines from Europe and America." In the end, then Bungeishunju president Kengo Tanaka threw a hastily-prepared press conference. Yet reporters were quick to notice that the principal agent in the debacle, Marco Polo editor Kazuyoshi Hanada, was missing. When asked why, Tanaka said that he was replaced. When asked when, Tanaka could not answer. Then, either out of embarrassment or a genuine lack of remorse, Tanaka launched into a tirade: "It so happened that Hanada was unlucky. I still hold great expectations about his future."

In classic Japanese fashion, Tanaka took "responsibility" for the affair by resigning his post and promoting himself chairman. His assessment of Hanada, moreover, was apparently shared by others: Several months later, the former Marco Polo editor left Bungeishunju for a lucrative position at Asahi Shimbun, considered one of the most prestigious newspapers in Japan.