Research at Sophia

Poverty and People with Disabilities—Two Incidents Involving Reporting about Socially Disadvantaged Individuals

Hiroaki Mizushima
(Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities)

This interview was edited and compiled from a conversation in Japanese and then translated into English.*

Circumstances within the Japanese Media Making Poverty a Difficult Issue to Cover

Hiroaki Mizushima, Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities

This August witnessed an incident that epitomized how difficult it is for the media to deal with the issue of poverty in Japan. A high school student who had been brave enough to be interviewed for an NHK ※1 news program to highlight the realities of childhood poverty was subjected to ferocious criticism via online media, along with the program itself.

※1 NHK is Japan's national public broadcasting corporation.

This incident reflects the fact that in Japan the concept of relative poverty is understood inadequately, if at all. For economic reasons this student does not have the option of going to university—something that is taken for granted by most high school students. This is, without doubt, a form of poverty that Japan and other developed nations need to tackle. Yet there are still a large number of Japanese people who think that a person cannot be poor if they have food to eat, much less if they have any money at all to spare for leisure interests or entertainment. Thus, in this case the uproar was triggered by online posts from viewers who erroneously questioned why there were video games and anime merchandise in the bedroom of the student being interviewed.

It has to be said that the program makers at NHK were in large part responsible for the uproar, having failed to think enough about the impression that could potentially be made on viewers by filming these objects in the background, and about what the likely outcome could be in an age when anybody can easily manipulate and retransmit images shown on television.

Another issue is the fact that, in this Internet era, even incorrect information spreads instantaneously via social networks and other online media if the information is entertaining. As a consequence, the privacy of those to whom the information relates can easily be violated, leading to unwarranted online abuse. If a story is taken up by an online media outlet with the word "news" in its name, it will have even greater capacity to spread, and will gain "credibility," further fanning the flames.

This August's incident produced the spectacle of a news site that had accused NHK of faking the program actually acknowledging its own fabrications and factual errors and apologizing; nonetheless, the online news industry is undeniably a mixed bag, and it is fair to say that misinformation and slander by low-quality sites go essentially unchecked.

Of course, there is no doubt that online media are currently developing and will increasingly take over the mainstream. For the time being, however, it seems that we can only wait in hope to see whether that process will lead the online media to create a structure for self-regulation like the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization (BPO) in the broadcasting industry, for example.

People with Disabilities Mock Inspiring Stories about Disability

Hiroaki Mizushima, Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities

Another topic that, like poverty, presents difficulties in terms of its treatment or presentation in the media is the topic of people with disabilities. The media's portrayal of people with disabilities is in fact one means of understanding the true nature of the media, and that is why the magazine I edit, Galac, is working on a special topic entitled "People with Disabilities and Television." We intend to feature the July stabbings at a care home for disabled people in Sagamihara, as well as the following episode, which also occurred this summer.

At exactly the same time that a fact-based drama about people with disabilities was being aired during Nippon Television Network Corporation's 24-hour television event themed "Love Saves the Earth," the competing Barrierfree Variety Show on NHK Educational TV mocked and parodied the drama, criticizing it as "inspiration porn." The term "inspiration porn" was coined by Stella Young, a comedian and journalist who herself had a disability. The phrase encapsulates her insistence that people with disabilities are not objects whose purpose is to provide inspiration for everybody else.

Many non-disabled people feel buoyed up by witnessing the noble, genuine perseverance of the people with disabilities portrayed on television, but a large number of those who actually have disabilities feel oppressed by the way the stereotypical image presented by the media takes root in the minds of others. The Barrierfree Variety Show took great satisfaction in pointing out that contradiction.

I myself always keep an eye on what the Barrierfree Variety Show is doing, and when I was one of the judges for the Galaxy Award, which is given for outstanding programs, I once recommended an episode entitled "Worries about Sex" for the award. I was really impressed by the way the episode combined laughing at risque jokes made by and for disabled people with content that also challenged viewers to reconsider what sex and sexual behavior actually are, thereby addressing something that is a fundamental part of being human.

At the moment it is precisely because people with disabilities are themselves proactively involved in the program that this approach can be taken, but eventually I hope such programming will help to create a climate in which people with and without disabilities can be more at ease interacting with each other simply as people.

"Civilian Army Employee" Is the Key Phrase That Clinches a Grand Prix Award

Hiroaki Mizushima, Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities

Sophia University has a TV Center with its own studio, and in my seminars I divide students into groups and task them with making 15 to 30-minute documentaries on their own chosen themes. One of those documentaries, entitled My Great-Grandfather Was a Civilian Army Employee, was awarded the Grand Prix at the Human Documentary Film Festival, Abeno. As the students involved were in the first class I taught straight after taking up my post, I couldn't have been happier.

The starting point for this documentary was one student's shock at discovering that her great grandfather had been treated as if he was of lower status than a horse, a dog, or a pigeon. The student, who was a member of my seminar group, had heard only that her great-grandfather was a civilian army employee who died during the war, and she set about finding out more about him, starting with the question of what a "civilian army employee" was. She discovered that civilian army employees were private citizens who served in the army temporarily, and that in organizational terms they were regarded as of lower status than animals such as army horses or dogs.

The documentary followed the student as she personally uncovered the circumstances up until her great-grandfather made his own choice to die on board his bombed ship. In the course of the documentary, however, it becomes apparent that as the Japanese government has decided to allow the right to collective self-defense, involvement in war by civilian army employees—or private citizens—is re-emerging as an issue that Japan will have to deal with in future. Bearing in mind that one of the reasons this documentary won the award was its good timing, the student in question may well be endowed with the intuition and good luck it takes to be a journalist.

The fact that the Department of Journalism has employed someone like me with a practical background as a faculty member is evidence that the university wants to help its students to acquire practical skills as well as knowledge. However, I am very aware that, while it is essential to fully comprehend the basics and essence of journalism before working in the worlds of journalism, publishing, and similar fields, once one does actually start working, there is no time to ponder or study such theoretical matters. That is why I want young people with journalistic aspirations to make the most of the environment here in the Department of Journalism where they can learn about both theory and practice in a balanced way.

Now that the age of the Internet has brought journalism to a turning point, the Japanese media are faced with a range of challenging issues such as those outlined above. The department is a unique research facility that uses newspapers as the basis to scrutinize journalism, and as such, I would like to ensure that it continues to deliver perceptive observations on our media.

Hiroaki Mizushima, Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities
Hiroaki Mizushima
Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities

Hiroaki Mizushima was born in Hokkaido in 1957 and graduated from the University of Tokyo Faculty of Law. He made documentaries for Sapporo Television Broadcasting: Mom's Dead, which exposed the inconsistencies in Japan's public assistance system, and The Angel Paradox, which inquired into problems in Japan's licensed practical nurse system. After stints as a correspondent in London and Berlin, he worked simultaneously as the director of NNN Document and commentator for Zoom In! at Nippon Television Network Corporation. He also made documentaries on the issue of poverty as originator of the Net Cafe Refugees series, in addition to documentaries on the environment and nuclear power. He was awarded the Japanese minister of education's Art Encouragement Prize, and became a professor in Sophia University's Department of Journalism in 2016.

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