Still, he retracted only one of his remarks, in which he compared Korean and other “comfort women” forced to work in military brothels during World War II to common prostitutes; his view has been rejected by many foreign historians, but has been espoused by many Japanese nationalists including, in the past, Abe. Even this retraction seemed less than heartfelt: Momii did not say the comparison was mistaken, but merely apologized for expressing a “personal opinion” while speaking in his capacity as NHK president.
The public interrogation, just a week after Momii took office, was a rare public humiliation for the head of a powerful institution whose influential evening news program can still set the tone for Japan’s group of smaller, privately run networks.
NHK is known for everything from children’s shows and high-quality documentaries to its popular samurai dramas. The network also has a storied history. When former emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender after World War II, he did so on NHK’s predecessor. And the network is so entwined with the culture that during the country’s headiest economic era, workers exercised en masse to its iconic morning calisthenics music.
Experts say the newest controversy hurts NHK’s image at a time when one in four Japanese households refuses to pay its monthly viewing fee of US$13 to US$22 because of scandals, including one in 2004 when a producer used company funds to take a mistress to exotic destinations. The broadcaster has also faced widespread distrust for coverage of the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant incident that some say complied with government efforts to hide the extent of radiation releases.
The latest accusations of political interference have also become a headache for the Abe government, which has seen its high approval ratings slide after passage of the secrecy law in December last year. Many Japanese journalists saw the law as a way of intimidating would-be government whistle-blowers from speaking with reporters, further hampering the independence of Japanese news media already criticized for being overly cozy with authority.
“This is gross political interference,” said Yasushi Kawasaki, a former NHK political reporter who teaches journalism at Sugiyama Jogakuen University near Nagoya. “The Abe government has stocked NHK’s board of governors with friendly faces in order to neuter its coverage.”
The top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has denied that the appointments were politically motivated, but said the prime minister chose people whom he knows and trusts.
The previous NHK president, Masayuki Matsumoto, suddenly announced in December last year that he would not seek a new term. Other news media said he was driven out by criticism from the Abe administration for critical coverage of conservative causes, such as nuclear energy and US Marine Corps bases in Okinawa.
This is not the first time that NHK has been criticized for caving in to pressure from Abe. In 2005, a producer said Abe and another Liberal Democratic lawmaker had forced the broadcaster to cut a scene from a program that showed a mock trial in which Hirohito was found guilty of permitting the military to use the comfort women in brothels, according to the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers. NHK officials and Abe denied political pressure was behind the deleted scene.