[Viewpoint] Korea and Japan: Two peas in a pod

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[Viewpoint] Korea and Japan: Two peas in a pod

Since the Democratic Party came into power in Japan in September 2009, I have been feeling that there was change in my job as a journalist.

When the prime minister has a news conference, the foreign press are allowed to attend the conference. Some 150 Japanese journalists are allowed in the news conference, while only 15 seats are given to foreign correspondents. When more members of the foreign press want to attend the press conference, the attendees are decided through a lottery.

Since Prime Minister Naoto Kan was inaugurated four months ago, five press conferences have been held. Luckily, I was able to attend most of them. After the prime minister gives a speech, which usually lasts about 15 minutes, he then takes questions. At first, I frantically raised my hand to get the chance to ask my question.

However, these days, I no longer raise my hand and I keep on taking notes. I somehow figured out how the prime minister picks who will ask a question. He takes 10 to 15 questions from Japanese reporters. And always one member of the foreign press gets to ask a question. Also, the questioner and the question are discussed in advance. So, no matter how hard I try and raise my hand high, I would never get a chance unless I am the chosen one.

So, the Korean media requested an interview with the prime minister. I had an interview with Kan at the end of last year. He adhered to the format of a written interview and I thought that he was too busy to personally meet me.

However, I was told that he took nearly 30 minutes to personally review the answers prepared by the officials. Thirty minutes was enough time to have a face-to-face meeting. And the returned answers only included courteous yet insubstantial comments such as, “Tokyo will continue to try.” He skipped the sensitive questions altogether.

It was not the first time he gave a half-hearted interview. In November 2010, he had interviews with the Korean media right before the G-20 Summit, and all of them were in writing.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the annexation of Korea by Japan, and then-Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada gave an interview in writing. When current Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara had an interview, it was also a written one. As far as I remember, all the interviews with Japanese officials were in writing for the last several years.

The written interview is not the original format the Japanese government followed. In the past, interviews with the prime minister and foreign minister were face-to-face meetings. When the personal interviews became written ones, the journalists could no longer make additional inquiries.

The Japanese government unilaterally delivers the usual rhetoric and says what it wants to say. And the interview is over.

Japanese leaders rely on the writings of bureaucrats and try to avoid criticism. But when the Japanese politicians and leaders lack confidence, their arguments are not powerful or convincing. They can have many press conferences and interviews, but the stories are not covered in a major way by the foreign media. There is a reason why the correspondents and journalists from around the world are leaving Tokyo one after another.

However, Korea is in no position to criticize Japan, either. The year 2011 marks the fourth year of the Lee Myung-bak administration, but Lee has had only four press conferences, excluding those related to summit meetings. Two of them were on the G-20 meeting.

The press conference in April 2008 was about a tour of the United States and Japan and the one given in June 2008 was about the crisis over U.S. beef imports. The New Year’s message for 2011 was given in a form of an address, and no press conference was held.

The Blue House cannot complain when it is criticized for one-way communication. Lee cannot refute that he is better than Prime Minister Kan when two-way communication with the Korean media, not to mention with the foreign press, is completely blocked.

*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Hyun-ki
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