Too Hot for Japan

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The special feature for November 2009’s Cyzo is “Japan’s Taboos.” This does not entail stories on sticking chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice — they mean “media taboos.” Those accustomed to the Fourth Estate and rampant tabloid journalism will be a bit underwhelmed by what is considered “off-limits” in the Japanese mainstream press: Critical coverage of the male talent company Johnny’s Jimusho, reasons behind recent politician suicides, Glay’s management disputes, Yon-sama business intrigue, a CEO getting arrested for amphetamines, the dark side of adult video (there’s a dark side???), and serious flaws in Queen Subtitler Toda Natsuko‘s work.

None of these stories seem particularly shocking or controversial, but because the Japanese mainstream media is highly dependent upon the dominant companies for access to information and talent, magazines tend to avoid getting their hands dirty in muckraking. Cyzo can get away with it only because they’ve created an alternate set of marginal advertising sources for their revenue structure, and they have access to a sea of frustrated first-rate journalists with stories to tell on the sly.

Another headline in this “taboo” vein caught my eye last week: The vicious and well-read political tabloid Shukan Shincho reported on a Korean television special looking into the “new religion” Soka Gakkai’s leader Ikeda Daisaku. One of the subheads boasted information about, “the ‘Dark Sides” of Soka Gakkai that could never be broadcasted in Japan!” Most of the shukanshi magazines work in this manner. They don’t break stories as much as write about someone else — foreigners, 2-channel denizens — breaking a story. Now Shincho loves to hate on SGI, but lawsuits in the past have made them think twice about opening up another volley. But since a Korean network dished out criticism against the powerful SGI leader, the magazine gets to have a field day bashing their least favorite spiritual organization — all while hiding behind a wall of “Hey, we’re just writing about foreign broadcasting content!”

What is interesting is how both publications sell themselves on an idea of a self-censored Japanese media. The second-tier semi-tabloid press has a market niche of consumers who understand the standard practice of information sanitization, and these readers want to see the naughty bits left on the cutting floor.

At the end of the day, Cyzo or Shukan Shincho can get “taboo” info out into the public sphere, but with much lower credibility than the big five media companies could bestow. These topics, while broached, generally stay out in the fringes of discussion. Breaking taboos in this way may be a temporary release, but they hardly put a dent in the fortress. Maybe the Internet will rot the foundations of the current structure, but until then, Japan is still a place — in all seriousness — where the media is not allowed to say bad things about boy bands.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
October 2, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

7 Responses

  1. PM Says:

    So like, what was some of the dirt on SG?

  2. marta Says:

    That’s pretty interesting! A couple of decades ago, european people would buy Penthouse or Playboy precisely because they had all the ‘forbidden data’ about politicians, aristocrats and industry. They could afford the court cases thanks to the good bunnies and to the marginal advertising sources. That was all swallowed by the big media corps. Now everybody’s someone else’s cousin.

    In Spain the only real taboo is the royal family. Any paparazzi will tell you he’s taken pictures of the naked royal highness making love to his well known darling on a semi-public beach or the prince doing a ‘kate moss’ in any Ibiza party and he’s let them rot in his pocket. The real hardcore stuff will be bought by Hello!. And, if you manage to sell royal flesh to an italian mag or a portugese tabloid, spanish media may mention it but next thing you know is you’re writing the horoscopes for the local walmart’s mag…

  3. Chompsky Says:

    This may be nit-picking, but it’s inaccurate to imply that the only reason Shincho targeted Soka Gakkai is because it could do so without getting its own hands dirty, by reporting on what the Korean TV said; strictly speaking that may be true for this article, but Shincho has long written articles critical of Soka Gakkai, without any buffer like it had this time around, and has been sued many times by SG (and I think it lost several of the suits).

  4. marxy Says:

    That’s totally true, and I’ll correct the essay if it’s coming across incorrectly. But I kind of think them opening up another anti-SG story out of nowhere is a bit trying, so this Korean broadcast gave them a new angle of attack.

  5. marxy Says:

    I find it interesting that it is not really the threat of lawsuit that keeps “taboo” stories out of the mainstream media. The second-tier press has gotten sued plenty of times by SG, Johnny’s, etc, and perhaps that does drive their particular fear of certain topics. But the Big Five media conglomerates (all with their own newspapers and television stations) can lose access to news sources if those sources feel that the coverage is “unfair.” Didn’t the LDP recently decide not to give direct quotes to the “liberal” TV Asahi?

    Johnny’s is the same. They pulled out of “Hey Hey Hey” music TV for a couple of years because the producers insisted on also having their rivals – Da Pump, w-inds, Run&Gun – on the show. This tactic is something like “producer boycotting” – but it’s mostly using undue market power to manipulate third-party opinions. And since the other four networks will most likely be happy to oblige, the pressure forces the maverick network to come back into the cartel.

  6. matt Says:

    Not having read the article myself yet i’ve no idea what depth it goes into (not much by the sound of it ), but the politician suicide story is one taboo worth looking at.

    It has a good conspiracy theory attached to it that says that 50% of japan’s political suicides are actually hits. The twist in the tail of this theory is that it comes from the former chairman of NHK, a guy who certainly had access to the high & dirty, and probably not one to spin tall tales.

    link:

    http://joi.ito.com/archives/2005/08/02/postal_privatization_a_dead_politican_and_yasukuni_shrine.html

  7. Carl Says:

    In the US, Google is currently in the midst of a one year ban on talking to CNet News. Apparently, CNet posted an article saying that, hey if you Google search, you can get the name of the CEO’s kids and stuff, and it pissed them off, so a media embargo was put in place.