A one-time journalist for the Mainichi Shimbun, Sasaki Toshinao (佐々木俊尚) is one of the most articulate and widely-read commentators in Japan. He is an expert on the country’s “net culture” and its relation to the so-called “Lost Generation” — the group of people in their twenties and thirties who joined the work force just after the bubble economy burst in the early Nineties. In his books and articles, most recently Birth of Blog Discourse 『ブログ論壇の誕生』 (2008), Sasaki portrays the emergence of Japan’s netizen population through the lens of the conflict between this younger generation, who have found an outlet for expression in the Internet, and the Baby Boomer generation before them, whose members occupy the upper management positions at Japan’s “old media” institutions.
In this article, we offer a translation of one of Sasaki’s most recent insights into this conflict: a two-part blog post that takes a closer look at the now-infamous Mainichi “WaiWai” controversy, focusing on how it has impacted the Mainichi Shimbun, Japan’s third largest newspaper by circulation. The posts registered a huge reaction on CNET Japan where they were originally posted, drawing tens of thousands of votes on the site and hundreds of bookmarks.
No doubt WaiWai is something of a household name among many Néojaponisme readers. For those who missed the recent absence of sensational, sex-fueled articles on the Mainichi English website, however, WaiWai was the name of a now-defunct feature that published sleazy, often plainly false articles loosely translated from Japanese tabloids. For years a guilty pleasure to millions in the English-speaking world, the fun came to an end this spring when a firestorm of outrage over the content broke on Internet forums such as the popular 2-Channel, leading the Mainichi to take the articles down and apologize.
While anyone can find the superficial details of what happened to WaiWai on Wikipedia or the apology on Mainichi’s website, a discussion of the larger significance of this incident has been harder to find. And significant it was — this appears to be the first time backlash from Internet-based readers posed a real threat to the business of a major media institution: a development that, as Sasaki describes, could prove “the milestone that turns the relationship between the Internet and the mass media on its head.”
The articles are translated with permission from the author.
Due to their length, we are posting the translations separately. The first part, translated by Adam Richards, is included below.
Posted: August 5, 2008 2:14 PM, Author: Toshinao Sasaki
The amazingly destructive power of Internet-organized telephone pressure campaigns
To find out about the recent scandal involving sleazy articles disdainful of women posted for years on the Mainichi Shimbun’s English-language website (Mainichi Daily News), over the past month I have met with many people, both inside and outside Mainichi [Japan's third-largest newspaper in terms of circulation.]
As a result of my discussions, I have learned that this incident’s impact both on Mainichi and the newspaper industry as a whole was much greater than people imagine. Its destructive force has created an astonishing situation. This incident may well be the milestone that turns the relationship between the Internet and the mass media on its head.
First of all, let me give a brief explanation of what is happening. Everything started with ads placed on the [Mainichi] website. As is well-known, ads on Mainichi.jp — the Mainichi news site — were suspended temporarily starting in mid-July (They are back up now). This happened because Yahoo Japan, which operates the ad network that distributes ads to Mainichi, suspended the placement of ads on the site. A Yahoo employee whose name I cannot disclose (Due to the sensitive nature of the discussions, those quoted in this story shall all remain anonymous. My apologies) had this to say:
Many sponsors requested that we stop running ads on Mainichi. Yahoo’s ad network supplies ads to multiple media simultaneously, so we refused at first, explaining that “it would be technically difficult to stop ads to a specific site.” But we ended up having no choice due to the large number of requests.
As this employee attests, a large-scale dentotsu (「電突」, Internet-organized telephone campaign) was targeted at sponsors, business partners, and affiliated groups that place ads on the Mainichi site. Internal Mainichi estimates place the total number of companies and organizations targeted at more than 200. As a result, the ad cancellations spread from the web to the print edition. A substantial number of sponsors, including big companies that everyone knows, moved to suspend their ads.
An employee in Mainichi’s advertising division explains, “Sponsor companies suspended their ads left and right. Senior managers at sponsors would yell at us, claiming, ‘our customer service division’s phones are ringing off the hook because of your scandal!’ At present, our upper management is in the process of visiting the sponsors and begging them to resume their ads.”
In the background, a decline in newspaper advertising
Why were the sponsors so angry? To be certain, it was unforgivable for Mainichi to post the sleazy articles. But there’s a chance that might not be the only reason for their anger. A senior manager at a major ad agency explained it to me this way:
Mainichi’s effectiveness as a medium is almost as low as [sixth-ranked] Sankei’s. Sponsors tend to want to avoid advertising with Mainichi. Once, a major securities firm advertised one of its new financial products in the Asahi and in the Mainichi. When we studied where inquiries were coming from, we discovered something shocking: while several dozen inquiries came from Asahi, not a single person responded to the Mainichi ad. Asahi has attracted a relatively more urban readership, while Mainichi readers tend to be elderly people living in the countryside. It has become common knowledge in the world of newspaper ads that Mainichi is much less effective as a medium than its circulation numbers would suggest.
The adman continued:
The economy is in a slowdown, which means ad budgets are being tightened. On top of that, the growth of Internet advertising is moving budgets away from newspaper ads, meaning that the budget for ads in the Mainichi were destined for the chopping block. With this recent incident, it looks as though the sponsors have taken the tack of using the incident as an excuse to pull out of Mainichi ads all at once. Up to now, Mainichi has been able to prop up its decline as a medium with desperate sales efforts, but this incident may have overwhelmed their defenses.
The other papers are growing aware of Mainichi’s current state. Some commenters on the Internet have suggested that “Asahi and Yomiuri might use this incident as an excuse to crush Mainichi and benefit from their rival’s misfortune.” However, there is no sign of such sentiment among the industry as a whole. Far from “crushing” Mainichi, the newspaper industry is fast becoming overwhelmed with the fear and unease that they could be next.
Rampant fear in the newspaper industry
Another reporter, this one from the Society section of a national newspaper, told me,
A lot of people in my department wanted to properly report the Mainichi’s sleazy article scandal. I, too, recognized that this issue was important as a member of the media. But there is a fear that taking this scandal head-on and revealing how powerful Internet attacks on newspapers can be could end up making us the next target. We want to report it, but we are chickening out.
There are few news articles on this scandal, and the ones that do exist are treated as minor stories. But that is not because of a self-defensive attempt to protect their buddies in the media. As this reporter makes clear, they are simply afraid.
So what has the reaction to this situation been inside Mainichi?
As some of you may know, I used to be a reporter for the Mainichi’s Society section, so I have a lot of acquaintances inside the company. Almost 20 years ago, current president Yutaka Asahina was the desk editor of the reporting team for the series “Following Organized Crime” — my first assignment after coming from the countryside and landing my dream-job at the Society section in Tokyo. I had a lot of great assignments under Asahina after he became the manager of the Society section. I only quit the company after collapsing from a brain tumor that required the surgeons to open up my skull. But even then Asahina was immensely helpful. He was a mentor to me.
The current head of the Legal Department was my direct supervisor during my time as a reserve reporter, and the PR contact in the president’s office was a fellow reporter a few years my senior — we used to report in the field together. And the head of the General Affairs department who responded to the recent demonstrations outside the Mainichi headquarters? Also someone I worked with as a reporter (senior to me) and whom I respect. I did not know the head of the Digital Media division when I worked at Mainichi, but we have grown close over the past few years. So people who are like family to me — senior reporters, my bosses and former mentors — are playing central roles in this scandal. It feels like a nightmare.
Why was the post-scandal management so inconceivably horrible?
I am sorry if this sounds like I am turning my back on my mentor, senior reporters, and bosses, but the Mainichi’s handling of the post-scandal management was just terrible. This has been pointed out several times elsewhere, but first off is the fact that the following passage was included in the June 22 “apology” article: “In a related development, a flood of messages and images have appeared online that gravely defame and slander a number of our company’s female staff writers and other employees, who are in no way accountable for this matter nor subject to punitive measures. The Mainichi Newspapers Co., Ltd. is determined to take legal action against such clearly illegal acts that constitute defamation.”
Second, their responses to media coverage of the scandal were awful. For example, they acted snobbishly toward J-Cast News, the first media organization to report the scandal, and this attitude became even clearer with their unbelievable response to a citizen journalist for PJ News.
Thirdly, it has never been made public how Mainichi views this issue internally, what sort of debate is taking place, or how employees see the reactions from the Internet. A two-page examination of the scandal was printed in the July 20 edition of the newspaper, but this article only describes the series of events leading up to the scandal, and contains nothing whatsoever about the company’s views after the scandal broke. Far from it — the article contains a shocking comment from freelance journalist Kunio Yanagita: “The fact that these attacks on a failure are taking the appearance of violence caused by Internet agitation make me fear that the dark underbelly of the anonymous Internet is no longer a distant phenomenon.”
Looking only at these responses, the people inside Mainichi seem firmly “anti-Internet.” Only Net-hating sentiments seem to be welling up to the surface. However, in reality Mainichi is not so monolithic. One feature of this company is a lack of a proper “company line” or even a proper organization. The anarchy is such that the word “governance” hardly exists there. This lack of governance produces strange reporters who fiercely attack Japan’s emperor system [Mutant Frog readers may remember my earlier coverage of this incident], and in the most recent scandal an Australian reporter [Ryann Connell] was posting sleazy articles under his boss’s nose. In essence, the majority of employees ignore their boss’s orders and do whatever they want.
But the lack of governance is both a bad thing and a good thing. Owing in part to those impetuous reporters who keep doing what they want, Mainichi has excellent investigative journalism and consistently wins NSK Awards [the Japanese equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, last year's winners in English.] Actually, I found the Mainichi Shimbun to be a very comfortable company for which to work.
So there’s just no way a company like that could be monolithic. Still — and this is again one of the more half-baked aspects of this company — when scandals such as this one hit, the company suddenly focuses on “properly establishing governance” and tries to limit outgoing information and unify everything. Despite really being in an anarchical state, they try their best to put on a monolithic front. The result can only be called foolish — Mainichi gains a reputation as a “rigid organization that hates the Internet.”
But the fact is, a great deal of internal debate, or rather conflict, is indeed taking place. Taken broadly, there are people who want to reconcile with the Internet [let's call them Net Reconciliationists] and those who criticize the Internet. The series “Ascendancy of the Internet,” which was serialized in the pages of Mainichi in January 2007 and caused much controversy in the Internet discussion space, was mainly written by the latter group of net critics.
My own stance on “Ascendancy of the Internet” has been strongly critical of Mainichi’s reporting, as recorded in two entries on this CNET blog: “Problems with journalistic transparency as seen in the Mainichi Shimbun series ‘Ascendancy of the Internet,’” and “I interviewed the reporting team for the Mainichi Shimbun’s ‘Ascendancy of the Internet.’” Also, you can find the detailed sequence of events behind these articles in my book The Flat Revolution 『フラット革命』 published by Kodansha last year.
Needless to say, President Asahina is one of the “Ascendancy of the Internet” faction. When Ascendancy was being serialized, Asahina was the managing editor and thus the one ultimately responsible for the book’s editing. Around that time, he served as moderator for an expert panel discussion convened to discuss Ascendancy, which included Kunio Yanagita, Yutaka Takehana of the National Police Agency, Yahoo Japan’s [Chief Compliance Officer] Naoya Bessho, and myself. At the panel discussion, I argued, “Anonymous debate on the Internet has an important significance as a forum for people to tell the truth when they cannot speak using their real names due to pressure from their companies or somewhere else.” At that, Asahina forgot his role as moderator and began rebutting my argument: “There is no need to respond to the arguments of such cowards,” he said. I retorted: “Isn’t it effective for people who can only speak anonymously?” Asahina was dismissive: “There is no need to listen to someone like that. If they have something to say, they can say it using their real names!”
President Asahina is rumored to have been a member of Tokyo University Agriculture Department’s Zenkyoto [leftist student movement] in the late 1960s. Many former student activists like him have found their way into the mass media, and they now dot the ranks of editorial boards and senior management in the industry. They typically believe they are on the cutting edge of the era and do not accept anything they do not understand. That is why they do not even try to understand the true nature of new media such as the Internet, nor do they try and accommodate it.
“Those people” — an insulting label
But this view is hardly unique to Asahina and other members of the Zenkyoto generation. It is also a trait that can be attributed to the “Ascendancy” faction at Mainichi. Their ranks include young reporters in their 30s, but inside Mainichi they make strong arguments such as “It’s a bunch of Internet crickets attacking Mainichi” or “The only way to shut those people up is to ignore them.” They have impacted Mainichi’s response following this scandal.
But by labeling [Internet users] as “those people,” the Ascendancy faction is leading internal debate in a peculiar direction. Insulting them as “those people” is an attempt to give the impression that “Those protests were done by only a small minority of people” or “They’re a distasteful minority.” In fact, one source told me that when the Net Reconciliationists argued, “There has been far too little information disclosure in this scandal regarding the series of events and the post-scandal response. We should be putting more information out there,” the Ascendancy faction scoffed, saying, “Absolutely not. It would be adding fuel to the 2-Channel fire.” The upper management ended up listening to this “guidance” due to the extremely high chances that any new information would be posted in 2-Channel threads. As a result, a tight lid was kept on information. For a time, the term “adding fuel to the fire” became a popular catch-phrase inside Mainichi.
This is what led to the awful response to people at PJ News and elsewhere. But as I am sure many of you would agree, the views of the Ascendancy faction are obviously wrong.
Sorry for the long post. But there is still much left to write — including the advice and requests made to me by a Mainichi senior manager. That will have to wait until the next entry.