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Japan uses TV to improve its image abroad

Michele Kriegman
1986, 'Japan uses TV to improve its image abroad', The Japan Times Weekly, 11/29:5.

“I’d say Japan isn’t telling much about Japanese things….I’ll give you one example of where this has led to trade friction. For example, Japan has hardly any natural resources…How do you suppose a country with no natural resources survives? The only way is trade. Buy materials, make them into a product, and sell them….But there are few people overseas who understand this, we haven’t made them understand.”

~Toshiko Yamazaki, Executive Director of the Japan Center for Information and Cultural Affairs.

The Japanese government, along with Japanese corporations, hopes to fight U.S. trade friction with yet another export: their image. They are trying to win more and better coverage on American television by offering production grants, sponsorship and cut-rate programming as lures. And money-strapped, variety-hungry public and cable television stations in the U.S. are taking the bait.

This month Peter M. Grilli, the director of film and performing arts at the Japan Society of New York since 1975, became the head of a venture called the Japan Project. It is run jointly with New York public television station WNET.

The Japan Project will seek financial backing from Japanese corporations. Its primary backer is the U.S.-Japan Foundation, which contributed a $200,000 grant to the venture.

On the Japan side, two ministries are responsible for promoting television coverage of Japan abroad: the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and the Foreign Ministry. In early 1986 they ended a long-standing rivalry to coordinate the government’s public relations efforts.

“In the past, corporations would be asked both by MITI and the Foreign Ministry to contribute money in order to make Japan better know abroad, especially in the U.S.,” says Ian Mutsu, president of International Motion Pictures Co., who has coordinated join Japanese-foreign media projects for the past 30 years. “The upshot was a committee in Keidanren (the Federation of Economic Organizations) to coordinate these contributions."

Mutsu’s Tokyo-based production company has worked with several government agencies and he notes, “Government sources lack sufficient funds but they can pressure corporations to contribute.”

MITI works closely with TeleJapan, a Tokyo-based public relations firm. It finances in full “This Week in Japan,” a series produced by the Tokyo bureau of the Cable News Network (CNN). The show presents news from a Japanese perspective, along with recent developments in Japanese lifestyles. The program reaches an estimated weekly audience of 600,000 viewers.

Since April 1984 TeleJapan has been producing another news show on the U.S.A. Cable Network called “Japan Today” and a news magazine, “Beyond the Horizon,” for the Christian Broadcasting Network. It also supports programming on BIZNET and on independent UHF stations.

On the other hand, the Foreign Ministry in 1981 established the Japan Center for Information and Cultural Affairs (JCICA). Mutsu’s production company has coordinated some of their projects.

“The Japanese have this infantile notion where if they shell out any money to some visiting film company they expect a commercial,” says Mutsu. “The situation is changing slowly, and when it does it will be better for the country.” Mutsu believes many of the films produced by Japanese corporations and government are so self-serving that broadcasters disregard them and as a result they never reach a TV audience.

Officials at the U.S.-Japan Foundation were aware of this problem when they awarded WNET the grant money for the Japan Project. They hope the project will maintain the editorial integrity of PBS by enabling them to screen the growing flow of money and programming from Japan.

The Japanese-language press spells out clearly the link between TeleJapan and MITI, and between the JCICA and the Foreign Ministry. They also admit that the mission of these organizations is to improve Japanese public relations. But something is lost in translation, and as a result, English-language press releases are not as candid.

For example, an information series hosted by Dick Cavett called “Faces of Japan” premiered this October after being distributed to 144 PBS stations throughout the Pacific Mountain Network. In the announcements, TeleJapan claimed to be an independent production company.

During the course of filming, several American staff quit or were fired by TeleJapan over editorial conflicts; they felt company president Junichi Shizunaga, a former employee of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party, had liaised too closely with the Prime Minister’s Office and MITI over the budget and content of “Faces of Japan.” These Americans failed to realize they were working for a public relations firm.

Similarly, direct translation of the JCICA’s name (Kaigai Koho Kyokai) gives a better idea of its role: “Overseas Public Relations Organization.” Toshiko Yamazaki, the center’s executive director, points out that whatever the name or her organizaitoin, she has her work cut out for her:
“There was a survey done in the States on Japanese place names. You were asked to write the name of any place you knew in Japan. What do you think the No. 1 answer was?
“Hiroshima. Then Nagasaki. Number three was Tokyo. Cities like Osaka didn’t even appear. At number four was Hong Kong! That’s the state of things.”

Special to the Weekly

Picture caption:

COORDINATOR: Ian Mutsu, president of International Motion Pictures Co., who has coordinated joint Japanese-foreign media projects for the past 30 years, says that Japanese governmental and corporate sponsors of TV programs aimed at overseas markets have to make their products less “self-serving” in order for them to be shown abroad.

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