Fight fire with fire? Maybe it can’t be helped…
On the 5th of April 2009, after a few false alarms, North Korea successfully launched a ballistic missile, with the (supposed) intention of putting a communications satellite into orbit. In the end the missile passed over Japanese airspace, the first stage dropping in the Sea of Japan. The launch was the latest episode in turbulent North Korea – Japan relations. It also marks a possible turning point in political moves towards revision of the peace constitution. Here I want to show how television programmes contribute to the framing of events so that revision takes on an air of inevitability in the general public.
Earlier that morning I watched two programmes that carried comment on the potential launch: a current affairs news corner (a segment in TBS’s Sunday Morning waido show) called kaze wo yomu (風をよむ) and another Sunday morning waido show called Sunday Japon (サンデージャポン). Kaze wo yomu can be considered a ‘hard’ news segment with one presenter and a panel made up of academics and journalists. Sunday Japon, on the other hand, can be considered a ‘soft’ news programme, with a much more diverse panel of guests and comedians acting as presenters.
For kaze wo yomu, which means literally ‘read the wind’, a reporter was sent out to ask the public about Japan’s stance towards North Korea in the context of a potential missile launch, and other questions about securing peace with Japan’s military in general. The people interviewed all replied in the same fashion, which can be summarised as: ‘as Japanese we don’t want to use force but in these times it can’t be helped.’ The finally refrain of this sentence was expressed in a multitude of ways, with the interviewees using terms such as shikata ga nai, shou ga nai or yamu wo enai, which can all be roughly translated as meaning ‘it can’t be helped’ or ‘there is nothing that can be done’. The programme picked up on this refrain and put its findings to a panel of political experts.
The experts, a collection of academics and journalists, were stunned by this general lack of contestation. They all expressed the view that military action could indeed be helped, and that not enough diplomatic work had gone on to warrant such a fatalistic point of view. They all bemoaned the lack of public debate over the North Korea issue, as well as the precarious position of military use in relation to article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which renounces the right to wage war. It was agreed that public debate over the best way to approach North Korea and international security, as well as on the status of the constitutional ‘peace clause’ was needed.
So the question to be asked is: why is there such a split between the opinions of the people on the streets and the panellists? This is an important question, because the fatalistic attitude towards military engagement opens up a gateway for the government push through constitutional reform. If nothing can be done about the dangers present in the world, other than addressing them with force, then revision of the peace clause in the constitution would be commonsense and therefore beyond questioning. Framing issues in such a way that only one option seems conceivable is to set the limits for debate and potential outcomes. Furthermore, by strategic utilisation of threats and claims to act in the name of ‘national security’, dissent can be stigmatised as ‘unpatriotic’ or worse just plain foolishness.
Media coverage of events surrounding the missile launch produced two complimentary discourses – one of threat and one of powerlessness – that make military responses commonsensical while shutting down other avenues. Both of these discourses were present in Sunday Japon. Sound, image and language combined to frame the North Korean rocket as something to be unequivocally feared, as well as present Japan as a hapless and panicked victim ill-prepared to deal with the ‘real’ world of international threat.
Sunday Japon, aired by the TBS network, describes itself as ‘a comedy variety news programme bringing issues to you on a Sunday morning’. Like most variety shows broadcast in Japan, it takes the form of two presenters, usually comedians, a female continuity announcer, and a panel of guests drawn from the geinoukai (world of entertainment) and one or two political ‘experts’. Sunday Japon runs through the news of the previous week one segment at a time and invites the panellists to make comments. Each news segment begins with a VTR presentation followed by the panellists’ discussion. Typically a small box will be laid over the VTR where images of the panel and presenters watching the presentation will be displayed. News stories covered included the North Korean missile, the wedding of two celebrities and the election of the new Mayor of Chiba-ken, who promised to make Chiba the number one prefecture in Japan.
Sunday Japon carried directly on from the earlier kaze wo yomu and this particular episode, because of the impending missile launch, began with the same news story. A composite VTR presentation was shown that discussed the North Korean rocket and recapped some of the news coverage from earlier in the week. It is here that the missile launch was framed and narrated in terms of ‘threat’. This was achieved through both linguistic and non-linguistic means, such as use of sound, colour, image and lighting. This discourse left little room for any counter explanations as to why the rocket was being launched and also the potential for pieces of the rocket actually falling on the Japanese island of Honshu. What follows is a short description of some of the methods through which the effect of ‘threat and powerlessness’ was achieved.
The VTR presentation was assembled from interviews with ‘ordinary people’ and experts, North Korean news broadcasts and images of North Korean weapons, images of Japanese defensive weapons and a short segment from the day before when the early warning detection system had thrown up a false positive. The last section of the presentation featured comments with a military ‘expert’ known as Terrence Lee.
First, fast-paced music played throughout the video, which a certain points rose to crescendo not unlike the last few seconds of an action movie trailer. At this point the video would switch to another subject and the music would start again. With the music providing a background of mounting tension, we see interviews with people living in Akita-ken, where it was feared that part of the missile would fall. The video showed comments from an Akita fisherman and numerous middle aged mothers, one of whom expressed the concern that ‘even if I ran I wouldn’t know where to go because it [the missile] could fall anywhere.’ These interviews were juxtaposed with images taken from North Korean news broadcasts of a female announcer relaying information about the launch subtitled in red.
Images of the Japanese Self Defence Force (jieitai) setting up PAC3 defensive weapons were also accompanied by tension filled music. PAC3 interceptor missiles were deployed in Akita prefecture and Iwate prefecture, as well as in Tokyo. The deployment of these anti-missile missiles drew some criticism in newspapers on the day after the missile launch, although questioning voices were restricted to small opinion columns. The Mainichi Shimbun carried a small piece, nestled next to a picture of panicking officials in Iwate prefecture that called form a calm response to the missile launch that suggests the deployment of PAC3 missiles was over the top, arguing that ‘now is the time to stay calm’. Another critical comment article appeared on the front page of the Tokyo Shimbun. The piece noted that PAC3 interceptors were set up less than 100 metres from skyscrapers in the capital without any explanation offered about the potential risks posed to the surrounding area from debris and radar.
At one point in the VTR presentation images from a government office in Morioka city, Iwate prefecture, were shown. As information of a possible North Korean missile launch came in from the national warning system the office descended into panic. The camera followed the action closely. It later turned out that the information was incorrect (gotanchi), although a second possible launch (also incorrect information) sent the office into panic again. The overall effect of this segment was to represent a room of scared people held hostage by the spectre of the missile. It is this picture of chaos that contributes to an overall impression of powerlessness as the people, living in a state of apprehension, could only react to information as it arrived.
Finally, the VTR cut to an interview with Terrence Lee, who was presented as a military expert. Terrence, an imposing figure wearing sunglasses, was bathed in red light and shot from a multitude of angles. He expressed the opinion that this missile launch was only the beginning of the threat, and that Japan has much more to fear from North Korea. At random points in the interview the audio was manipulated to sound like a conversation taking place over military walkie-talkie, further adding to the militaristic overtones emanating from the music and conspicuous shots of military hardware. Also, the editing style was replete with quick cuts and when coupled with the aforementioned odd camera angels generated a sense of panic that complimented the earlier video taken in the government offices. Terrence appeared as the personification of the military option, tough and pragmatic.
Fear sells. It is exciting: missiles, military hardware, fast music and menacing red lettering make good television. But media coverage of this kind, the way in which the issue is framed, may be contributing to a general feeling of fear and powerlessness. If real threats abound, then a more militaristic stance may by unavoidable: shikata ga nai, shou ga nai, yamu wo enai. The above mentioned opinion column in the Mainichi Shimbun notes that after the last missile launch from North Korea the missile defence (MD) programme was pushed through with little debate. The people hate North Korea, they fear the missile: what do they want this time? ‘To fight fire with fire?’ the journalist muses.
This might not be what the people want, but it may be the only option that makes sense. After all, the argument goes, with so much danger all around, it cannot be helped. There is of course another way of looking at the situation – the diplomatic option that the panel on kaze wo yomu suggested, or, as one of the panellists argued, a stance that recognises relations between common peoples rather than opposed states. But the more threatening North Korea appears, the more commonsensical a military move is, and the less debate there will be. Whether reluctant or not, the potential outcome is one further step towards constitutional revision.