When senior United Nations envoy Yasushi Akashi, who directed the UN's peacekeeping activities in Cambodia and Yugoslavia, returned to Japan on a brief home leave in February 1996, he was asked by a local reporter whether he was a member of a religious organization in Japan with extensive ties with the world body, and whether his membership would prompt him to run for the governorship of Akita prefecture upon his retirement from his present post.
For an instant, a look of exasperation crossed his face. Then he said: "Having been responsible for disarmament and public information at the UN, I have had the opportunity to cooperate with Japanese NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. But I am not affiliated with any particular political party or religious organization. Yet some weekly tabloids in Japan wrote that I am. When I protested, the only thing they did was run an obscure correction. With journalism in this country stuck at this level, the democratization of Japan has still got a long way to go."
No tabloid publisher is as guilty of Akashi's charge than Bungeishunju Ltd. Founded in 1923, it was an active proponent of the country's expansionist policies in Asia almost from its inception. In 1938, as the Japanese army plunged further into China, Bungeishunju's then president and avowed pro-militarist, Hiroshi Kikuchi, played an instrumental role in the formation of a group of writers who were dispatched to the Chinese front to whip up public support for the invasion. This group, dubbed the "Pen Corps," was not some volunteer association for patriots who sought to assist their country, but a military intelligence operation conducted under the auspices of the Japanese government.
One corps report, "Following the Yangtze River Fleet," declared: "All Japanese should participate in this war. For this purpose, the literati, as representatives of the soul of the people, must serve to call forth echoes of this noble task in the people of Japan." Another, this file dispatched from Nanking after thousands of Chinese civilians were butchered by Japanese forces, had the audacity to note that: "It was a beautiful view, looking over Nanking from the roof of an astronomical observatory."
Not all publishing houses supported the Japanese incursion. Chuokoron Ltd., a highly regarded publisher even to this day, raised serious misgivings about the war. Not so for Kikuchi and his flagship monthly, Bungei Shunju. In its October 1938 issue, the magazine touted: "You readers may dream of such movements as the Nazis and the Fascista. Keep in mind that it is the people, united and centered on Hitler and Mussolini, who are moving the world." In December 1941, the month the U.S. declared war on Japan following the Pearl Harbor attack, Bungei Shunju urged: "Unless and until we sweep away every and all influences of democracy and internationalism, we Japanese will not be able to see the truth... We should eliminate any suspicious thoughts that lurk within academia and the press... It is Bungei Shunju's position that the freedom of speech and publication must be strictly controlled."
The bluster continued until the final days of the war. "In order to cut the enemy into two pieces," read a passage from its February 1945 issue, "one must be prepared to cut himself into two pieces"-rationalizing Japan's last-ditch attempt to commit national suicide to defeat an Allied invasion of the homeland. And, as U.S. bombers mounted massive incendiary attacks on Tokyo, Kikuchi boasted in the following month's issue that: "With such a puny fire, it will take many a decade to burn Tokyo down... It must be said that those who are overly afraid of air strikes lack knowledge of aviation." An April issue, however, was never published. Kikuchi had fled the very bombings he had belittled.
When Japan capitulated that summer, Kikuchi returned to Tokyo to restart the magazine. Its relaunch issue, published in October 1945, revealed that, though Kikuchi had abandoned his former ideals, he had lost none of his vituperation: Failure to control the expansionist zeal and "arbitrariness" of the militarist government, he wrote, was due entirely to "the lack of discipline of the Japanese people." As a fitting postscript, when the firm released its "35-Year History of Bungeishunju" in 1959, it listed many of the wartime issues, including the October relaunch, as "missing."
Bungeishunju's sole claim to upstanding journalism came during the 1970s, when it was the trend for the Japanese press, including the tabloids, to take part in a rising chorus against a gamut of social evils in Japan. Its biggest coup during that period was a series of explosive expos $B;T (B by Bungei Shunju on the huge kickbacks Japanese politicians, including then-prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, were receiving from U.S. airframe maker Lockheed Corp. to get the government to buy jetliners for the national airlines. Yet media analysts tend to credit the author-Takashi Tachibana, perhaps the premier investigative journalist in Japan-more than the publication itself. (Tachibana has since left Bungeishunju). While the publisher has parlayed the coup into a measure of credibility, it has yet to repeat that success.
In comparison, about the only bragging rights for Shinchosha Ltd., postwar rival of Bungeishunju, is its invention of the weekly tabloid format in 1956. But its weekly, Shukan Shincho, is every bit as revisionist-and perhaps even less savory because it is "anchored to a concept of journalistic nihilism," says Noboru Maruyama, an expert on Japanese media. "Nothing is sacred and everything is suspect, especially such basic democratic tenets as human rights. So [the editors of Shukan Shincho] do not hesitate to trample on the civil liberties of citizens; they see real people as nothing more than characters out of a work of fiction."
By the 1980s, in fact, the tabloids had become such a nuisance, a new term was introduced to the lexicon of the Japanese mass media: "weekly tabloid pollution." What motives them? "That's simple enough," says Jun Kamei, who worked as a Shukan Shincho editor for nearly 20 years until he became fed up with the system. "It's the profit motive. By deliberately infringing on the rights of ordinary people, their stories sell better. They've learned that every time they appeal to their readers' baser instincts-that sense of sadistic voyerurism latent in all of us which delights in the suffering of others-circulation soars."