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JAPAN: NHK World TV – New Kid on Broadcast Block

Catherine Makino

TOKYO, Feb 2 2009 (IPS) - Determined to tell its own story to the world Japan on Monday launched its own 24-hour English-language TV news channel – NHK World TV.

Japan now becomes a member of a club of countries outside the Anglophone world with a full-fledged, on-the-hour, English-language news channel. Others in this club are India (which has several), Russia (Russia Today), China (China Central TV) and Qatar (Al Jazeera).

Backing NHK’s international venture – called Japan International Broadcasting (JIB) – are government subsidies and taxes on TV viewers worth close 80 million US dollars.

JIB’s programme is already available in 70 countries, but it expects to reach 110 million households in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia by March. Apart from news focused on Japan and Asia there will be a variety of programmes on politics, the economy and pop culture.

There are plans to bring NHK World TV over Internet in Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish.

“We will try our best to make this channel the real ‘Showcase of Japan’ for global viewers and Internet users,’’ Hatsuhisa Takashima, CEO and president of JIB TV, told IPS.

Takashima explained the rationale for launching NHK World TV in an already competitive and saturated market by saying that Japan needed to maintain good relations and promote better understanding with the rest of the world.

“The people living on this island nation have very little energy, resources and food production to sustain the level of its daily life,’’ Takashima said.

There is a widespread feeling among Japanese leaders that Western media have not been reporting on Japan extensively enough and that the country has been missing from the world scene for many years, except in extraordinary situations.

“We believe that there are many Japanese opinion leaders, business leaders, politicians as well as artistes and athletes who can convey their thoughts and opinions fluently in foreign languages, especially English,” Takashima said.

One of JIB’s main tasks will be to provide these people opportunities to appear on TV to express their views to a global audience and to provide wider exposure for Japan, the world’s second largest economy.

Currently there is also concern that the interest of foreign media in Japan is shrinking. Japan has recently been obscured in the region by China and the Koreas. For example, ‘The Los Angeles Times’ has pulled out of Tokyo and is now reporting from Seoul.

Takashima denied that NHK TV was about propaganda or publicity but hoped that the channel will help ‘’reduce and correct any misunderstandings that have been caused by the foreign media’’.

Yoshi Imai, vice-president of NHK, noted that, in general, foreign correspondents interpret stories for their viewers and readers. Sometimes their points of view do not match the way Japanese see themselves or wish to be viewed.

“The Japanese are often described by foreigners as an invisible nation with no distinctive expression on their faces,” Imai said. “This is somewhat true, partly because they lack fluency in foreign languages, and also due to their culture which does not encourage speaking openly in public.”

‘’In the globalised world what is most important is to know each other, to recognise differences and accept them as they are, and to try to find a way to live and work together. This kind of approach must work both ways,” Imai said.

Librarian Kanako Nakayama hopes that JIB will clear up the misconceived portrayals of Japanese women as well.

“They make us seem like we’re weak, but it’s not true,” she says. “In fact, we control the family finances. In Japan the husband gives his whole pay check to his wife, and she gives him a monthly allowance.”

Weston Konishi, adjunct fellow at the Mansfield Foundation in Washington D.C., subscribes to the criticism that foreign media sometimes do not accurately or fairly report on Japan, although this is not always the case.

Often there is overemphasis on the exotic, and the weird, he said.

“On the other hand, I am not sure a deeper coverage of the domestic political gridlock in Japan would necessarily cast the country in a positive light,” Konishi said. “After all, the Diet [parliament] may be the only legislative body in the world that makes the U.S. Congress seem productive.”

However, Konishi is optimistic that the new media outlet will counterbalance less nuanced coverage of Japan, especially in the face of further cutbacks in the foreign news coverage of Japan.

“The broadcast project will be a net gain for Japan’s global profile, and will hopefully lead to increased foreign interest in Japan,” Konishi says.

Funding for JIB includes tax money, NHK viewer fees, and private companies like commercial broadcasters, trading companies, information technology companies, and other private sectors including NHK’s affiliates.

Advertisements and public banner ads will be shown on its websites.

JIB has said it will not act as a propaganda arm, and will not sell the good things, but real images and report fairly and accurately.

The broadcaster will try to match Al Jazeera which is a respected news channel that gives the Arab view on various events in the world, especially in the Middle East.

Jeffrey Kingston of Temple University in Tokyo does not see JIB filling a niche in the way Al Jazeera does, providing an alternative non-Western view with special appeal to and emphasis on the Muslim world.

“It is entering an already competitive service niche with established heavyweights,” Kingston said. “NHK will have to overcome its institutionalised bureaucratic style of journalism and often tentative reporting.”

Whether all this will be commercially viable is the big question. ”NHK is run more like a bureaucracy than a media business. Its habits, inclinations and practices are not business savvy and it tends to shy away from hard-hitting news stories,” notes Kingston.

Few deny though that the new kid on the broadcast block will be a net gain for Japan’s global profile and could lead to increased foreign interest in Japan.

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