Is Dentsu Pulling the Strings in the Japanese Media Industry?

Article  by  Mathieu GAULÈNE  •  Published 08.06.2016  •  Updated 08.06.2016
Dentsu
Dentsu, the world's fifth communications group, holds most of Japan's ad market, which has an impact on the freedom of the media in this country.

Summary

 NoteSur la NHK, l’allocution de Tarô Yamamoto est coupée (volontairement ?) au moment où il évoque l’influence des annonceurs et la censure des médias. X [1] NoteSur la NHK, l’allocution de Tarô Yamamoto est coupée (volontairement ?) au moment où il évoque l’influence des annonceurs et la censure des médias : X [2] NoteSur la NHK, l’allocution de Tarô Yamamoto est coupée (volontairement ?) X[3]Japan still remembers: On Senate election night, former actor Tarô Yamamoto[+] NotePrior to 2011, Tarô Yamamoto was one of his generation's foremost actors, who had acted in Battle Royale, for instance. Following the triple disaster on March 11, 2011, Yamamoto has expressed his anger at the fact that the radioactivity limit had been raised to 20 millisieverts per year, including for children. This led to his being fired from his agency the following May, and to the cancellation in June of the TV show he starred in. Blacklisted from film and TV, he decided to enter politics. X [4], a one-of-a-kind candidate running on an anti-nuclear platform, with no political party to back him up and campaigning over Twitter, he recently won a seat in the Senate in Tokyo. Censored by media, this young and famously vocal candidate ran mainly in opposition to the nuclear industry, but also against the media, accusing them of being "lackeys to the advertisers, which includes power companies" and to "systematically censor any information critical of the nuclear industry".

A TV network invited him for an interview at the end of one of their shows, but they first had a journalist on set to champion his colleagues. On air, the young senator only has a minute to answer. "I'll take a simple example. The food can now contain up to 100 Becquerels per kilo, which means that by simply feeding ourselves we get irradiated. This is never said on TV--" Taro has to end it there. The end credits began to roll, the host jeered that the show was through and introduced an advertising break[+] Note On NHK, Tarô Yamamoto's speech is cut (voluntarily?) when he talks about the influence of advertisers and media censorship. X [5].

 

Edit (16/05/2016) : This video recording, which has been online for 3 years, has been deleted soon after the first release (in French) of this article. 

 An entertainment show begins with a message from its sponsors, then is interrupted every five minutes by numerous ads  Ads are literally everywhere in Japan: A sea of screens and billboards in train and stations, giant billboards on the side of buildings, human billboards or trucks fitted with huge posters and a loud sound system in the street; there are even ad screens installed above urinals in some restaurants. In this advertising empire, the media are no exception. Same as in France, large corporations pay for full ad pages in newspapers. But TV is the most notable outlet. An entertainment show usually begins with a message from its sponsors, then is interrupted every five minutes by numerous and very short TV ads, often from the same sponsors. There's little time for thinking, with most networks presenting programming in a pachinko-like universe: garish colors, incessant noise, broad or even vulgar humor.
 
In this huge TV circus, advertising is orchestrated by one of the world's giants: Dentsu, the world's number 5 communications group and number one ad agency. With its competitor Hakuhodo, number two in the country, the two agencies nicknamed "Denpaku" handle advertising, public relations, media monitoring, and crisis management for large Japanese and foreign corporations, local authorities, political parties and the government. They're said to have control over nearly 70% of the market[+] NoteBut Dentsu has a quasi-monopoly with almost 50% of the communications market in the country, well ahead of Hakuhodo, which "merely" has 20%.X [6]. An empire some accuse of reigning supreme on Japanese media.
 
One figure speaks volume about Dentsu's weight: In 2015, the group had a nearly 7 billion euro turnover, behind France's Publicis, who achieved 9.6 billion euros over the same period[+] NoteDentsu Documents (April 2016); "Publicis wraps 2015 with better than expected results", Les Échos, February 11 2016.X [7]. The group's core business is centered on TV advertising[+] NoteAccording to Dentsu, the group has around 38% of the TV ad market, as well as 25% of all advertising. This last figure is disputed by Ryû Honmapour, who argues that "Dentsu only tries to hide the fact that it has a near-monopoly on the ad market, which is illegal; the corporation probably holds at least 50% of the market".X [8], the ads are all wacky as it gets. For instance, Dentsu has made, for the last ten years or so a series of films for Softbank: The famous "Shiratoke family", in which the father is a white dog, the eldest son is played by an African-American actor, and the maid is Tommy Lee Jones.


 


In July 2013, the group also achieved international expansion when it bought British company Aegis for 3.7 billion euros[+] NoteThis deal was also the occasion for Vincent Bolloré, the main French shareholder, to achieve a capital gain of around 450 million euros.X [9] and arrived in London with Dentsu Aegis Network. This international network made up of a dozen ad agencies present in over 140 countries allowed the Japanese corporation to diversify, for instance in digital marketing, and to have a presence on the international market, which accounts for more than half of the group's whole turnover (54.3 % in 2015). Dentsu now has 47,000 around the world, of which 7,000 are in Japan.

Dentsu and information about nuclear energy

Dentsu's tower stands in the Shiodome business district -a few blocks away from Nippon TV, Fuji TV and newspaper Asahi Shimbun- strikingly beautiful and awe-inspiring. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, its light curves and perfect glass walls present the eye with a sleek silhouette. Inside, Mr. Shusaku Kannan, the group's communications manager, welcomes us with a large smile to give us a tour of the premises. On the ground level, there's a wealth of modern art pieces, such as a white chess board by Yoko Ono. There, a string of lifts take the employees toward various floors, strictly separated by departments. The corporation's clients are the top 5 of each industry and "everything is made so that employees working for competing companies never bump into each other", Mr. Shusaku Kannan assures us. Dentsu ostensibly acts transparent, but is its image that smooth?
 
In a 2012 book, Ryû Honma sheds some light behind on Dentsu and its tight control over media, for instance on behalf of one of its main clients, Tokyo power company Tepco. Ryû Honma isn't an outsider to the advertising world: For eighteen years, he worked for the competition, Hakuhodo, then after having been sentenced to one year in prison for a scheme, he started a writing career, first recounting his experiences in prison, then his years as an adman and the methods he resorted to in order to placate the media[+] NoteHis latest book, Genpatsu Puropaganda [Nuclear Propaganda], was published in April 2016 by Iwanami Shoten.X [10]. In 2012, his book "Dentsu and information on nuclear energy", became a best seller in a few months, in spite of an almost complete silence from the media[+] NoteRyû Honma, Dentsû to genpatsu hôdô. Kiyodaikôkunushi to ôtekôkokudairiten ni yoru media shihai no shikumi, [Dentsu and information on nuclear energy. A media domination scheme from main advertisers and ad agencies], Akishobo, June 2012. Here, regarding media reception, only Aera, Asahi Shimbun's weekly magazine, covered it.X [11].
 
 Dentsu implicitly imposes to the media what can be said or not about nuclear power  He meticulously describes the mechanisms through which Dentsu, the unavoidable intermediary, implicitly imposes to the media what can be said or not about nuclear power, and at which conditions. "Dentsu is in an interesting position, since it controls over 80% of advertising about nuclear power", said M. Ryû Honma in an interview in a kissaten at Ueno's station. In 2010, on a huge ad market, Tepco, a local company, was ranked 10th in terms of ad investments, behind power plant builder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. That year, prior to the Fukushima disaster, Tepco had spent over 2 million euros in advertising. On the whole, Adspend for the 10 local power companies amounted to 7 million euros[+] NoteRyû Honma, op. cit., p.25.X [12].
 
For decades, and especially from the 1990s when public opinion began to get weary of nuclear energy as several incidents occurred, Tepco and the other power companies ordered many TV ads and print infomercials.




On TV, these spots can be enough to stifle any criticism. Large corporations sponsor shows, talk shows or series, sometimes for a whole season, and self-censorship, a common practice, is rarely broken. Sometimes, entire documentaries are produced by Denjiren, the Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC), a key player in the nuclear power lobby, to praise the industry. No dissenting opinion is welcome, for fear of losing precious show sponsors. After Fukushima, Tarô Yamamoto learned this the hard way: Until then a frequent guest on shows as a tarento, he suddenly became persona non grata on TV and even in cinema because he had spoken out against nuclear power. There nothing new here: Main figures in the anti-nuclear movement, best-seller authors Takashi Hirose or Hiroaki Koide have barely ever been guests on TV shows, including after the Fukushima accident[+] NoteFor further details about the various elements in the "machine to sell nuclear power" in Japan, see Mathieu Gaulène, Le nucléaire en Asie. Fukushima, et après ?, collection « L’Asie immédiate », Philippe Picquier, 2016.X [13].
 
This "control over media" Ryû Honma criticizes isn't restricted to nuclear power, of course. He also reminds us in his book of the time Toyota recalled millions of vehicles because their gas pedal had a defect. The story hadn't come out in Japanese news until Toyota's CEO issued an apology to the US Congress. "There's no doubt the ad agency had succeeded, up until then, in maintaining their client's image, but when the scandal became too important and was talked about abroad, the media had no choice but revealing the story", he writes. It's not a stretch to argue that, apart from a couple of shows, such as "Hôdô station" on TV Asahi, delivering quality journalism, sometimes criticizing the government, most of Japan's TV newscasts are moderate quality, dominated by general news, very rarely broaching topics which could upset one group or another, relaying the government's communications with no perspective and talking about international news only when the story includes Japanese nationals.
 
Among all these private media corporations, only NHK eludes this advertising empire and is still able to boast independence, getting funded directly by viewers. Unfortunately, the situation is even more disastrous there, with its president Katsuto Momii having unashamedly declared several times that the network had to be a mouthpiece for the Abe government. In a recent address to 200 pensioners retired from the network, he even allegedly ordered journalists to simply air the reassuring releases from the authorities about earthquakes in Kyûshû and possible threat they pose to the power plant operated in the South of the island, pressing them not to interview independent experts.
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Indirect pressure on print journalists

 How about print journalism? Dentsu already has a special relationship with the two press agencies Kyodo News and Jiji Press, both historical shareholders and with good reason: The three units were part of the same news group before the war. News in newspaper are harder to control. On this level, Dentsu doesn't limit itself to advertising; it offers full after-sale services: media monitoring, crisis management, and also indirect pressure on newspapers via the advertising department.
 
Whereas in France, news groups getting bought by industrial conglomerates creates a concern for direct pressure, in Japan pressure is applied through the ad agencies, which act as the groups' ambassadors with media. "I know very well how things go down," recounts an amused Ryû Honma, "I would do the same when I was with Hakuhodo. If an incident occurs in a power plant or a factory and the press writes about it, Dentsu acts directly and pays a visit to the ad sales department of the newspaper in question". No threats, things are done "Japanese style". "We politely ask them to try and write less about the case, not to put the article on the front page, or to publish it in the evening edition, which is less read." A message sales people then pass on to the directors.
 
Journalists won't know a thing, but the following day the article will be pushed to lower profile pages, or won't be published, even, officially for lack of space, for instance. But many grow suspicious and according to Honma, after his book was published, many journalists came to him confirming instances of censorship. "I know at least one case where an automaker managed to impose censorship in one of the three largest daily newspapers, the Mainichi Shimbun" he says. Regarding advertising for nuclear power, it's mainly put in weekly magazines and in national daily newspapers. Since the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, they have stopped, but for Dentsu a new profitable business appeared: Promoting Fukushima agricultural products. TV, newspapers, posters in all the train stations: Since 2011, with the participation of star singers, the Fukushima prefecture has spared no expense to promote its fisheries, its rice or its tomatoes, with slogans such as "Fukushima Pride" or "Fukushima is OK!"




All this thanks to the selfless help of Dentsu and Dentsu PR, Dentsu's public relation subsidiary, the country's top agency. "Dentsu PR also works for several ministries, such as the METI, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA)" explains Mrs. Kyoko Fujii, communications director of Dentsu PR. "On behalf of the latter, we organized tours of the Tôhoku for foreign journalists, Thai and Malaysian journalists, to show them how the region rebuilds after the disaster."[+] NoteAt first, Mrs. Kyoko Fujii had stated these tours had been organized at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Change made on 06-02-2016.X [14]And to make them forget about ambient radioactivity?
 
Dentsu holds a peculiar place in nuclear power promotion, alongside Tepco but also with a very powerful Ministry of the Economy and Industry (METI) and the liberal democratic party (PLD)[+] NoteDentsu has a monopoly on communications for the PLD, a party which remained in office nearly continuously since the end of World War II. But the ties do not end there. Many politicians of the PLD are former Dentsu managers, including the current Prime minister's wife and, reversely, there are former ministers of the government in the group's board of directors. As for Hakuhodo, it exclusively handles communications for the opposition party, the Japanese democratic party (PDJ).X [15], both clients of the ad agency. Given all this, can one consider Dentsu as part of the "nuclear village"? To this, M. Shukasu Kannan, who welcomes us in his office at the top of Dentsu tower, bluntly replies: "We do not have the power to influence the media and we do not go into politics." Still, when asked why Dentsu is a member of the Japan atomic industrial forum (JAIF), nuclear power's foremost lobby, alongside Japanese power companies, but also EDF, M. Shukasu Kannan becomes more cautious. "I do not know this association... Are you sure?" he answers, embarrassed, and then takes his smartphone out. "Oh, indeed, we're members. But we're members of many associations, you know. People ask us to send them someone and we sign, simple as that." "We're also members of the timber association," he adds later. Looking little convinced by his own argument, he finally finds a way out: "There, Hakuhodo is a member too!" he cries suddenly, seemingly happy not to be the lone one mired in this lobby.
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2016, return of nuclear ads and resignations of TV journalists

 For Mr. Ryû Honma, this is the sign of an uptick in nuclear power promotion. "Hakuhodo has indeed been a member of JAIF for two years," he explains, surprised by this interest after the Fukushima accident. Evidently, after having been kept away during several decades from the goldmine of nuclear ads, the competing agency now intends to have its share of the loot in the new promotion of nuclear power, which should get intense in a post-Fukushima atmosphere. These ads had completely disappeared since the accident on March 11th 2011. After a last full page of apologies put out in the press and in TV by Tepco, power plant builders and owners had chosen to keep a low profile, airing no ad about nuclear power for five years.
 
But as the power plants' return online is thwarted by dozens of legal actions, some successful like the one in Takahama, and as most of the population is weary of restarting the reactors, nuclear promotion is once again a high stakes game. After having a plant come back online in 2015, 2016 is the year when nuclear ads quietly reappear. They appear in newspapers and on local TVs in prefectures with power plants. Mr. Ryû Honma is showing off his latest find: Since February 2016, full ad pages are put out in the Fukui Shimbun by Kansai electricity company, where the Takahama plant has just been shut down following legal action from the citizen. In the Niigata Nippo and on local TV, Tepco ads for the restart of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, the world's largest nuclear plant, appeared again in a special context: Current governor is staunchly anti-nuclear and opposes any restart, but elections are taking place before the end of the year as his term ends. This return of nuclear ads by Tepco doesn't fail to anger Niigata citizens, most notably Fukushima refugees who launched a petition demanding the end of these ads.
 
 

The message in all these ads is strictly the same, and one can imagine Dentsu pulling the strings behind the scenes with all of them. The power companies promise they'll make every possible effort to ensure the safety of plants, while photographs highlight plant workers, in order to use the key topic of employment in these often deprived areas, sometimes very dependent on nuclear industry, like Fukui. According to Mr. Ryû Honma, these ads are probably only the tip of the iceberg: They'll be followed by a close survey of all the news published on nuclear power, and the near-certainty these local papers will provide as little a podium as possible to naysayers.
 
In a report on the freedom of the press released last month, Reporters sans frontières now ranks Japan 72nd, behind Hungary and Tanzania. The country was 11th six year earlier. While visiting Tokyo, a UN Rapporteur also alerted the country about the pressure increasingly put on Japanese journalists, from private media or from NHK. The focal point of these concerns are growing government pressure, exacerbated by a law on State secrets entering into force, which covers questions relative to nuclear power. A vague and ill-defined law, threatening journalists with prison sentences if they reveal "secret" information. It must be a sign of the times, at the same moment, three TV journalists known for their independence have announced their resignation early this year. Among them, Ichirô Furutachi, a "Hôdô Station" presenter, who Mr. Ryû Honma days was in Dentsu's crosshairs for several years because of his criticism of nuclear power and of Abe's government's politics. There's no doubt Dentsu, the preferred ambassador of the largest industrial corporations, will keep on playing its role as a great lock on Japan's media.

--
Photo credit :
Blossoms and Dentsu [Dentsu's head office. Architect : Jean Nouvel]. Tadashi Okoshi / Flickr.  CC Licence BY 2.0

Translated from the French by Patrice Piquionne.

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  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3.
  • 4. Prior to 2011, Tarô Yamamoto was one of his generation's foremost actors, who had acted in Battle Royale, for instance. Following the triple disaster on March 11, 2011, Yamamoto has expressed his anger at the fact that the radioactivity limit had been raised to 20 millisieverts per year, including for children. This led to his being fired from his agency the following May, and to the cancellation in June of the TV show he starred in. Blacklisted from film and TV, he decided to enter politics.
  • 5. On NHK, Tarô Yamamoto's speech is cut (voluntarily?) when he talks about the influence of advertisers and media censorship.
  • 6. But Dentsu has a quasi-monopoly with almost 50% of the communications market in the country, well ahead of Hakuhodo, which "merely" has 20%.
  • 7. Dentsu Documents (April 2016); "Publicis wraps 2015 with better than expected results", Les Échos, February 11 2016.
  • 8. According to Dentsu, the group has around 38% of the TV ad market, as well as 25% of all advertising. This last figure is disputed by Ryû Honmapour, who argues that "Dentsu only tries to hide the fact that it has a near-monopoly on the ad market, which is illegal; the corporation probably holds at least 50% of the market".
  • 9. This deal was also the occasion for Vincent Bolloré, the main French shareholder, to achieve a capital gain of around 450 million euros.
  • 10. His latest book, Genpatsu Puropaganda [Nuclear Propaganda], was published in April 2016 by Iwanami Shoten.
  • 11. Ryû Honma, Dentsû to genpatsu hôdô. Kiyodaikôkunushi to ôtekôkokudairiten ni yoru media shihai no shikumi, [Dentsu and information on nuclear energy. A media domination scheme from main advertisers and ad agencies], Akishobo, June 2012. Here, regarding media reception, only Aera, Asahi Shimbun's weekly magazine, covered it.
  • 12. Ryû Honma, op. cit., p.25.
  • 13. For further details about the various elements in the "machine to sell nuclear power" in Japan, see Mathieu Gaulène, Le nucléaire en Asie. Fukushima, et après ?, collection « L’Asie immédiate », Philippe Picquier, 2016.
  • 14. At first, Mrs. Kyoko Fujii had stated these tours had been organized at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Change made on 06-02-2016.
  • 15. Dentsu has a monopoly on communications for the PLD, a party which remained in office nearly continuously since the end of World War II. But the ties do not end there. Many politicians of the PLD are former Dentsu managers, including the current Prime minister's wife and, reversely, there are former ministers of the government in the group's board of directors. As for Hakuhodo, it exclusively handles communications for the opposition party, the Japanese democratic party (PDJ).
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