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Japan's media has to account for its own failures

The recent downfalls in Japan of the Unification Church and J-pop agency Johnny & Associates seem to be, on the face of it, victories for justice: Two odious groups that used their outsized clout for years to cover up noxious acts have at last been hobbled, if not eliminated.

The country won’t miss the church, whose followers are often derisively called “Moonies”, after founder and supposed-messiah Sun Myung Moon. It’s now set to be dissolved in Japan after an investigation into its forced donations. Nor will it mourn Johnny’s (as the agency is known), which is changing its name, structure and management after a decades-old sexual abuse scandal perpetrated by its founder, Johnny Kitagawa. Few could have predicted 18 months ago that both institutions, whose tentacles run deep into Japanese society, would be chopped down to size. Though each will live on in other forms, their impact will be severely diminished.

While their fates are well-deserved, the methods of their undoing, and the media’s role in it, were quite different. And there will be consequences for the convenient, news-fuelled rush job that felled the Unification Church only because it was elevated in the public sphere by the most high-profile assassination in modern times.

There was introspection from the Japanese media for its failure to investigate well-established rumours of Kitagawa’s sexual abuse of aspiring pop stars. The downfall of Johnny’s came only as the result of a BBC investigation, albeit built on the work two decades ago by the Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine. It was long overdue; his victims may have numbered in the hundreds, with Kitagawa using his influence to keep them quiet until his death in 2019.

The media failed to expose him in life partly because of TV networks’ closeness and dependence on his stable of stars. It’s tempting to draw on stereotypical outlines of Japanese society — perhaps invoking hierarchical relationships, a seniority-based culture and sontaku — but the story is sadly familiar anywhere, usually featuring a powerful figurehead to whom too many were willing to turn a blind eye. There are numerous similarities to the Jimmy Savile scandal in the UK, which likewise had been whispered about for decades but only came to light after his death. The simple fact in both cases is the media and the public, for the most part, simply didn’t want to know.

Japanese media outlets have been asking themselves what happened. But there has been no such introspection for its complicity in another scenario — that of the eerily similar attack on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in April, less than a year after Shinzo Abe was murdered. This is why the dissolution of the Unification Church announced this week is concerning: Like Johnny’s abuses, the church’s connections to power and onerous tactics were well known, at least by those in the know. It was only after Abe was killed — by an attacker who blamed his impoverished upbringing on his mother’s lavish donations to the church — that the media, and thus the authorities, became interested.

The church’s links with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party became a national scandal, threatening to take down Mr Kishida’s government — even though his involvement with the sect was non-existent, and Abe’s was tenuous at best. (He wasn’t a member; the shooting suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, decided to target the former premier after seeing a video message Abe delivered to a church affiliate in 2021.)

Mr Yamagami’s ultimate target was the church nonetheless. And in that respect, he was more successful than he could have dared to dream. While some politicians indeed had a curiously close relationship to the religion, many who were tarred with having “ties” did nothing more than send congratulatory telegrams or show up at meetings the church participated in — in other words, the type of glad-handing of prospective voters that every politician must engage in. Attending a meeting isn’t an endorsement; many attend events organised by those they don’t agree with, and perhaps even despise.

That nuance was lost in the media pile-on, which some have described as the modern equivalent of fumi-e — the practice during shogun-era Japan of forcing suspected Christians to tread on images of Jesus Christ or Mary to prove they weren’t devotees. In a cynical level of manoeuvring, targeting the church to save their own skins, the LDP forced its members to cut ties despite the constitutional rights to freedom of religion, association and assembly.

That’s not how justice should work, even if the UC’s fate is deserved, and it benefits voters to know who is influencing their politicians. It’s unclear what separates the church from other cultish “new religions” that haven’t been targeted, or why its supposed influence on policy is such an issue while it’s not in the case of, say, the Soka Gakkai Buddhist sect, whose political arm is the Komeito party, the junior partner in government. And it’s ironic that in a country where, before World War II, assassinations were a common political tool, no one has stopped to consider the ramifications of beatifying Abe’s killer to the point where the church will now be dissolved.

We should be intensely wary of the precedent that this threatens to establish: Going about things the “proper” way, as with Johnny’s — with police complaints, media tip-offs and evidence — could take years, even decades, for justice to run its course. If you want fast results, Mr Yamagami has shown the way. The security procedures that doomed Abe seem to be little changed, and the suspect required little more than a 3D printer and luck.

Mr Kishida’s attempted killer may have lacked on the last part, but it’s impossible to look at the two cases and think that one wasn’t inspired by the other. Just as the industry has reconsidered its failure in the case of crimes like Johnny Kitagawa’s, it should reflect on its involvement in promoting the manifestos of assassins. ©2023 Bloomberg

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas.

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