AAJA TOKYO: Advancing News Diversity in Asia at FCCJ

By Kantaro Komiya & Erica Yokoyama

AAJA-Tokyo hosted a panel on AAJA-Asia’s Advancing News Diversity in Asia (ANDA) Report on July 11 at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. With four prominent guests the panel addressed topics including prevalent sexual harassment against female journalists in Japan, the myth of ‘homogenous Japan’ in the media and the ways to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in newsrooms and news coverage in Japan.

You can watch the video recording here

Following a presentation on the ANDA Report’s key findings by AAJA-Tokyo Co-Vice Presidents Erica Yokoyama (@erica_yokoyama) and Kantaro Komiya (@KantaroKomiya), the four panelists introduced themselves in the light of how diversity in news and the society matters to their career and life experiences.

Madoka Nakano (@MadokaNakano) is a freelance journalist and researcher at the University of Tokyo’s gender equality office. A former reporter at Nikkei, Nakano has authored books on gender roles in modern Japanese families and was one of the winners of the PEP Journalism Award 2021 for her reporting of sexual abuse cases involving the child care platform Kidsline.

Nakano recalled her experience at the Japanese newspaper, in which senior male writers accompanied her to source meetings merely because she was an unmarried woman. “In those meetings, I was not sexually assaulted or anything, but it was very humiliating to be treated not as a journalist, but something like a flower in the room.”

Later, when Nakano carried out the reporting on babysitters’ sexual abuse, “although it’s such an important topic for parents who need help, most news outlets didn’t report about that in detail” and almost all of her sources and journalists who followed up the topic were women, especially mothers, she said. “If there’s no diversity in journalists, important incidents or discussions in certain areas will be ignored, and taken as not existing,” said Nakano.

Baye McNeil (@BayeMcneil) is an American writer based in Japan since 2004. As an author of two books and a columnist for the Japan Times and Toyokeizai, McNeil has written extensively about issues of race and discrimination, including stereotypical representation of Black people in Japanese media.

McNeil cited the case of an offensive illustration of the Black Lives Matter protests the Japanese public broadcaster NHK aired during its news show in 2020, which stirred an international controversy.

“NHK actually sent journalists to the States to investigate, but they spoke with white police officers in Los Angeles. So this kind of thing leads to this type of presentation, what took place with this racialized caricature,” McNeil said. He added NHK must seek internal advisory by people of African descent or biracial people before broadcasting such a segment, and “make programming that focuses on concerns of the people of non-Japanese descent living here in Japan.”

Misook Lee (@MisookLee20) is an associate professor at the University of Tokyo. Her research has been focused on journalism and social movements such as #MeToo in South Korea and Japan. She was previously a visiting fellow at Harvard-Yenching Institute.

There were “significant differences” in the mainstream media’s response to the #MeToo movement between the two countries, Lee said. “In Japan, there was relatively the lack of news coverage on that issue, and also the lack of journalistic interpretation regarding the gendered structure and culture in many different sectors of the society as the background of sexual violence. Hence the issue often, rather, has been ‘personalized’.”

Also as a member of the Society for the Fundamental Examination of Media Expression and Diversity (MeDi) founded in 2017 by researchers and media workers in Japan, she said the press conference is “meaningful” as it is tied to the group’s effort to discuss political and social structures that create such representations of women and other minorities.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee (@myhlee) is the Washington Post’s Tokyo and Seoul bureau chief, who is also the president of the Asian American Journalists Association.

“The people who made the biggest difference in my trajectory have been the colleagues and editors who saw the value in my diversity of experiences as a journalist that I bring to my job, and who support the way that shapes my storytelling as a young Asian-American woman who was born in Asia, grew up in a small U.S. territory of Guam, was naturalized as an American citizen and went to a college in the American South,” she said. “That collection of experiences just means that I have a different perspective on life, and on stories, and on another colleague who has another set of lived experiences.”

“I believe that building a news industry where the diversity of each journalist’s lived experience is valued and uplifted makes our newsrooms’ and our coverage even stronger and more reflective of the communities that we cover, and therefore builds trust with our audiences,” she added.

Which ANDA survey result surprised you? Which didn’t? 
Nakano characterized the remarkably high ratio of female journalists in Japan who experienced sexual harassment as “a shame, but a kind of not surprising for me at the same time.” Referring to her experience at Nikkei, she attributed the situation to the way how news is produced in the Japanese mainstream media, in which reporters are urged to establish close relationships with sources to get exclusive information while working long hours. Nakano also pointed out the societal norm set for women to care for male counterparts.

Quoting the Report’s opening statement, McNeil said “I haven’t felt that ‘diversity is Asian value’,” in his nearly two decades of residence in Japan: “Ninety percent of respondents say ‘diversity improves the quality of news’. I’m sure they do agree, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into they’re willing to do the hard work as needed to diversify their work environment.” He said the survey result that showed Japanese media workers’ strong awareness of diversity was “surprising”.  “If these numbers truly represent what’s happening out there, it’s not reaching me. It’s not reaching the public.”

Misook Lee said the high frequency of sexual harassment against female journalists not only by their sources but also by their co-workers suggested that the “inter-culture of media organizations in Japan is highly sexist”. In the region-wide findings, Lee added the fact that 77% of Asian journalists said they should advocate diversity and social change was “surprising”.  “When I met with reporters in Japan, a large proportion of them said that ‘journalism is not social movement’, ‘journalism is a work for delivering what happened. … Journalists working in Japan also need to acknowledge more about advocacy here, for diversity,” she said.

Michelle Lee echoed McNeil in pointing out a disparity between respondents’ belief that diversity improves the quality of news and the actual state of their newsroom experiences and coverage, saying, “there’s definitely room to improve”. Lee also said in addition to social media attacks, harassment is often kept invisible from the public, e.g. via emails or within their workplaces, highlighting the need for newsrooms, the industry or even the FCCJ can step up to protect female journalists both online and offline. On the finding that a major barrier to achieving DEI in news is the lack of time due to conflicts with daily news coverage, she called for more education and training to newsroom leaders to show “why it does matter to make room for diversity and inclusive coverage, and that it doesn’t go against the news values.”

Is there any particular diversity topic avoided in Japan? 
“We have lots of things that we’re passing because of the lack of diversity,” said Nakano, based on her experience of the difficulty she initially faced when pitching the underreported story of babysitters’ sexual abuse to several magazines: “the editorial board mostly consists of men whose wives take care of their children. For them, ‘why do you need babysitters?’ — I had to explain from the beginning,” she said.

McNeil referred to the lack of discussion around Japan’s “homogeneity” myth, saying, although the government census counts more than 90% of people living in Japan as the “Japanese” and labels only a small fraction ‘foreigners’, there are a diverse group of people — such as “naturalized citizens…biracial citizens…other ethnic groups here in Japan, Okinawans, Ainus” — being counted into the majority cohort. “These people are not, if they’re walking down the street, seen, viewed, treated as Japanese people. I think that needs to be taken into consideration by the entire populace,” McNeil said. “So that people can stop using the number, because the number sends a message to the people that ‘diversity is not important here because it only impacts a very small percentile of the public.” He added international journalists, too, are sometimes complicit in reinforcing the narrative.

Michelle Lee said the Japanese media had not been reporting the name of the religious group that was assumed to be involved in the shooting of Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe, which had happened three days before the event. “I do believe we have to inform the public, and news outlets that do have the name of whatever organization that they’ve talked to should be releasing it to the public,” she said, before leaving the panel to cover a press conference by the group in question, Unification Church’s Japan branch.

“Deconstructing the myth is very important, and that’s also the work of journalists,” said Misook Lee, supporting McNeil’s point. In Japan, Lee said, news coverage hardly sets the public agenda and broadens the public discussion on subjects such as sexual violence and racial hate crimes. For example, discriminatory incidents against ethnic Koreans have often been reported as “mere incidents”, giving the audience “the impression that such occurrences are [due to] individuals’ deviant behavior and not a social or public problem that we need to tackle together,” she said. Journalists must consider that “the issue of diversity cannot be addressed unless people try to face those taboos or the silenced parts, or lacked parts that we try to avoid in our own society,” she added. “Diversity is also [about] facing those parts that are not addressed, and also silenced.”

For the rest of the panel discussion, you can watch the video here.

Featured image caption: From right to left, Ilgin Yorulmaz, Kantaro Komiya, Madoka Nakano, Baye McNeil, Misook Lee and Erica Yokoyama. Michelle Ye Hee Lee joined the panel online

About ANDA Report

Advancing News Diversity in Asia (ANDA) is a project of the AAJA’s Asia Chapter launched in 2021 with the support of the Meta Journalism Project. In April, ANDA released a Research Report based on a survey of 1,200+ journalists and media professionals in seven Asian markets, to define, raise awareness of and improve diversity, equity and inclusion in newsrooms and news coverage in Asia.

For inquiries, please contact AAJA-Asia’s Tokyo Sub-chapter Co-Vice Presidents: Erica Yokoyama (Bloomberg) & Kantaro Komiya (Reuters) at tokyo@aaja.org