Media watch: NHK takes a bullet for the official Olympics documentary

Naomi Kawase (Mainichi)

On December 26, Japan’s public broadcaster NHK aired a special program on its BS1 satellite channel about the making of the official documentary for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which is being directed by Nara-based filmmaker Naomi Kawase. One scene depicts a man whom NHK described in the explanatory subtitles as someone who had participated in an anti-Olympics demonstration and received money for his participation. Then, on January 9, NHK Osaka, which had produced the special, issued an apology, saying that some of the information conveyed in the explanatory titles had not been properly vetted. That night, there was a two-minute message aired on BS1 explaining the problem and apologizing to viewers and those associated with the Olympic documentary.

According to Asahi Shimbun, the scene in question was part of a program segment in which NHK was following another director, whom Kawase had asked to cooperate on the documentary, as he interviewed anti-Olympic protesters. The subject of the interview was not identified, but the chyron (explanatory titles) described him as a demonstrator who had been paid for protesting against the Olympics. According to NHK the chyron had been written by the NHK director based on “supplemental materials,” but apparently he hadn’t double checked whether the man actually participated in any anti-Olympic demonstrations. After the special was aired viewers wrote to NHK to complain about the segment. Then, in early January, NHK somehow located the man and learned that even when he was originally interviewed for the documentary—in June, before the Games began—he actually said that in the past he had appeared at demonstrations, though none had been protests against the Olympics, and he was sometimes paid for his participation. The only thing he said about the Olympics during the interview was that he was “thinking” of participating in an anti-Olympics demonstration “in the future.” 

NHK said it had no intention of “fabricating” information. The problem was simply the result of a misunderstanding and lack of rigorous checking on the part of NHK staff. However, Asahi Shimbun said that before the special was aired, it had been shown to people “related” to the production, and none requested revisions. Asahi does not say whether any of these related persons were working on the Olympic documentary itself, but in its apology NHK insisted that the special was completely the responsibility of NHK, and Kawase had nothing to do with it. It should be noted, however, that while the interview with the anonymous “demonstrator” was aired by NHK, the interview itself was carried out for the purposes of Kawase’s documentary.

Nevertheless, Kawase, who has cultivated an enviable reputation with documentaries and feature art films that have won prizes at prestigious international film festivals, has received a certain measure of criticism on social media from people who think her documentary is essentially pro-Olympics propaganda. According to a January 6 posting on the media watchdog website Litera, these critics mainly cite a statement Kawase made during the NHK program where she insisted, “It was we [meaning Japan] who invited the Olympics [to Tokyo] 7 years ago,” adding that the nation as a whole was pleased to win the bid and happy to host the Games. Actually, a fair number of people had advocated that it should have been cancelled outright after it was postponed in 2020, so Kawase’s recent social media critics begged to differ, saying that there had never been a strong national—or for that matter regional—consensus regarding the Tokyo Olympics.

The Olympics ended without any serious problems regarding the COVID epidemic, which was one of the main reasons that protesters demanded the Games be cancelled. So in that regard, the pro-Olympic camp was vindicated. However, there were other reasons for people to object to the Games—the snowballing costs being shouldered by the Japanese public, the displacement of long-term residents by the construction of venues, the diversion of funds from 2011 disaster victims in the Tohoku region—and the feeling among Kawase’s critics was that if she doesn’t address these objections in her documentary, then the film will end up being nothing more than a propaganda device. More to the point, it was wrong for Kawase to generalize that everyone in Japan was happy about the Olympics. (It remains to be seen how Kawase addresses the anti-Olympic movement in the finished documentary, or is she does at all.)

Litera is also suspicious of Kawase’s intentions, since her media appearances in relation to the documentary tend to contain glowing descriptions of the Olympic spirit and the International Olympic Committee charter. When confronted with the COVID issue, she said that any such anxiety in relation to the Olympics had no meaning, and while there was no appreciable increase in infections among people involved with the Games, Litera thought that her assurances regarding people’s fears came off as sounding tone deaf at the very least. After all, if the public really had been unanimously excited about hosting the Olympics, the fact that they were eventually barred from attending the Games due to COVID countermeasures should have been a crushing disappointment. 

ADDENDUM, Jan. 11: Asahi Shimbun today published a statement by Kawase about the NHK faux pas, saying that she was not shown the footage of that interview in question by the director in charge of the interviews, and stressed that she was merely one of the subjects of the NHK special. Also, journalist Ryu Honma, speaking on the web talk show “Hitotsuki Mansatsu,” commented that the people NHK should apologize to are those who organized the anti-Olympics protests, not Kawase and the staff of her documentary project.

ADDENDUM, Jan. 14: On this week’s edition of the web program “No Hate TV,” activist/editor Yasumichi Noma talked about the video segment that NHK apologized for, and provided a bit more background. The director Kawase recruited to carry out the interviews is Kakuei Shimada, who attended film school with Kawase. According to Asahi Shimbun, Shimada was tasked with interviewing “anti-Olympics demonstrators,” though other media made it sound as if Shimada was just supposed to do man-on-the-street interviews in general. The Litera article said that in the controversial scene, NHK set up its camera at a distance and recorded Shimada talking to the man in question, so it’s not as if the interview was destined to be in the final documentary. In any case, as both Litera and Noma point out, the audio quality is poor. But Noma was also struck by the setting. If Shimada was trying to get comments from anti-Olympics protesters, then it made sense that he would go to a demonstration to seek them out, but the scene of the interview is not the new National Stadium, where most of the demonstrations took place in the month of June 2021. He says it looks like Sanya, the district in the shitamachi area of Tokyo where day workers traditionally gather for jobs. What’s notable about Sanya is that it is the preferred place to go to recruit anyone for purposes of mobilization, and that right wing groups have been known to go there and pay people to show up at their demonstrations in order to make it look as if whatever cause they are protesting/advocating has a lot of support. So Noma thinks that Shimada purposely went to Sanya to try and find people who had been paid to protest the Olympics, but this guy is the only one he found, and, from what was eventually discovered in a follow-up interview by NHK, he never attended an anti-Olympic rally. This, of course, brings up the question of NHK’s rationale for following Shimada to Sanya: Didn’t they think it strange he was going to Sanya, rather than to the National Stadium, to do interviews? Also, Noma brings up Shimada’s background. As a director, he is probably most famous for his music videos of Japanese punk groups with a nationalist bent, a related theme that is also touched upon in the Litera article, which mentions Kawase’s close association with Akie Abe, former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s wife and a fellow believer in “Japanese spirituality.”

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