Tensions arise between the media and Minister Kono surrounding historical agreement
Negotiations to solve a territorial dispute between the Japanese and Russian governments have also led to a moral dispute about national security and press freedom between Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and the Japanese media. It’s tit for tat; the media’s criticism of the Foreign Minister’s decision to put national security above transparency by not answering their questions is not conducive to Japan’s democracy. To put it simply, let Foreign Minister Taro Kono do his job.
The Northern Territories dispute between Russia and Japan has not been resolved since the end of World War II. The Japanese government argues that the Russian government violated international law by taking away islands that belong to Japan– the Hoppouryoudo— at the end of World War II. The Japanese government is attempting to retrieve at least two of the four islands, a decision the public endorses. According to the Asian Nikkei Review– an English-language publication that focuses on Asia– 33 percent of citizens wanted all four islands returned together, while 46 percent responded that the Japanese government should initially ask for two islands instead of demanding all four. On the other hand, the Russian government, which calls the territories the Kuril Islands, has pressed the Japanese government to “accept the outcome of World War II,” by giving away the islands to Russia. Even for a partial compromise, negotiations can become tense.
Yet, amid the tense negotiation process, the Minister’s refusal to answer questions related to Russo-Japanese relations at the Foreign Ministry’s press conference on December 11, 2018, angered reporters who represented Japanese media outlets seeking information about the negotiations. “Foreign Minister Kono ignores questions four times in a row regarding Japan-Russian relations,” reported major news publications such as the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Asahi Shimbun, The Japan Times, and broadcasting networks such as Fuji Television, TBS, and the NHK who believe that the government owes the media complete transparency. Not surprisingly, the press conference garnered negative attention from the Japanese media. After the conference, the media reported that the Minister had displayed a ‘poor attitude” and had failed to assume his setsumeisekinin—accountability— by refusing to answer reporters’ questions. On December 15, 2018, a few days after the conference, Foreign Minister Kono issued an apology on his blog, admitting that he should have rephrased his responses to, “I cannot answer your question,” instead of simply, “Next question.” In spite of the criticism against him, and however valid the media may be for seeking information, the Foreign Minister does not work in customer service; he works in the government. Yet, in addition to the negotiations with the Russian government, the Foreign Minister had to manage the unimpressed Japanese media. Because credibility leads to power, if Minister Kono’s reputation plummets, so too, will his negotiation process with the Russian government. Although the Foreign Minister is responsible for informing the public of the country’s foreign affairs, his priority is to protect his country. Therefore, the media’s criticism of the Foreign Minister for refusing to answer sensitive questions that could directly impact the negotiation process does not lead to productive discussions. It leads to fault-finding and breeds contempt.
Relationships between the Japanese press and the Foreign Minister, who has a reputation for being an outspoken maverick, has been rocky. In the past, Minister Kono has criticized the Sankei Shimbun, a major Japanese news publication, for calling Kono’s request to acquire a government jet to make his official trips cheaper “pestering.” He has also criticized media outlets at the Roclub (the Foreign Ministry’s press club) for asking questions only about Japan-North Korea relations in spite of his involvement in other issues. His diplomatic endeavors include hosting a meeting for Jordan, Israel, and Palestine to “enhance cross-border trade and cooperation”; his participation as the only male Foreign Minister in a Women’s Foreign Ministers’ Meeting co-hosted by Canada and the EU, and discussing ASEAN member states regarding trade. In addition to his work on nuclear disarmament, he has openly discussed refugee issues (rare in Japan) with Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and contributed an article to the Washington Post calling on the international community to support Myanmar and Bangladesh to solve the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. Yet, the media’s overt bias toward the Foreign Minister, who placed national security above transparency, is misleading and fails to recognize that future Russo-Japan relations may depend on how the two governments discuss this territorial dispute.
Reporters have the right and responsibility to seek information. It’s their job to challenge authorities and to deliver accurate information to the public. According to Reporters Without Borders– a non-profit organization that measures press freedom globally– the Japanese government’s world press ranking fell from 53rd to 72nd in 2017 under the Abe Administration, which sparked vigilance among the Japanese media. (In 2018, Japan ranked 67, five points above the previous year.) In addition, the state secrecy law, which the Japanese government implemented in 2013, threatened Japan’s democracy. The state secrecy law is vague; it does not specify to what extent the government has the right to keep state secrets and no independent oversight exists to challenge the government’s lack of transparency, which allows the government to evade questions that are important to address to the public but inconvenient for them.
Despite these challenges, answers about the territorial dispute and Minister Kono’s negotiation with his Russian counterpart can wait; national security, however, cannot. Given the complexity of dealing with the Russian government, the Minister’s stance to refrain from answering questions related to the negotiations— and by extension— Russo-Japanese relations, was most appropriate. As the press conference neared the end, the Foreign Minister explained that he “would like to properly arrange his negotiations,” but stopped short of discussing the negotiation process. His call for understanding fell on deaf ears; reporters criticized his unwillingness to share details of the negotiations. The media’s reports of this incident attempt to hurt Minister Kono’s reputation; such an attempt could undermine his credibility as he works with foreign diplomats. As a result, rifts between not only Japanese and Russia, but also among Japan’s allies and its neighbors, and Minster Kono and Japanese citizens can emerge.
Leave the Foreign Minister alone. In politics, inaction is action, too. Therefore, what Minister Kono does not say matters just as much as what he does say. By refusing to answer questions, he was protecting negotiations in which the Japanese government has invested for decades. Given the urgency and sensitivity of the Northern Territorial dispute between Japanese and Russian governments, answering reporters’ questions could have led to a regression in negotiations or even distrust of the Japanese government. The media’s role is to report the truth and seek information and thus challenge authority. The media, however, must know their place; they are not participants but observers of the negotiation process. Democracy is not always about speaking; it’s about knowing when to speak.
Marina Yoshimura was a visiting student from Japan. She is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Quill Times, a student publication, and is a student at Waseda University in Japan. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org