It seemed like a disastrous debut. Back in 1989, television commentator Tetsuya Chikushi broadcast a series called Japan in Crisis. It was one of the early projects of a newly launched late-night program called News 23. While the rest of the world was marveling at Japan's economic prowess, the series argued that Japan was heading for a rude comeuppance. "People were overconfident, and everybody laughed at us," Chikushi recalls with a grin.
Nobody is scoffing at Chikushi these days. Japan is in the midst of a long economic slump. And News 23 has evolved into the most powerful and critically acclaimed news program in Japan. In a nation where wa, or harmony, is cherished above all else, Chikushi, 62, has often cast a spotlight on social and economic issues many ordinary Japanese would rather not dwell on. He regularly draws the ire of the powers that be. Once an enraged Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu personally called to chew out Chikushi after watching the show from his bed one night.
Nor has Chikushi been shy about taking on the network bosses at the Tokyo Broadcast System (TBS), which airs his show at 11 p.m., Monday through Friday. In 1996, he denounced the network for trying to cover up an egregious lapse in judgment related to its coverage of the Aum Supreme Truth terrorist cult that orchestrated the infamous 1995 nerve-gas attack in Tokyo. A few years before, a TBS news team inexplicably had shown a pre-broadcast version of an interview with an anti-Aum attorney, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, to cult members. Soon after, the lawyer and his family were killed by the members of the cult.
As it became clear what had happened, Chikushi furiously demanded that his superiors publicly admit TBS's role in the tragedy, but they shrugged him off. So Chikushi told a national television audience that TBS had a "moral responsibility" for the crime. "It was the toughest time I ever had," he recalls.
Chikushi hardly fits the role of social gadfly, let alone network bigwig. He has a self-effacing style and lacks the swagger of your typical television pundit in the U.S. Perhaps that's why News 23 has little trouble arranging guest appearances by intellectuals, cultural figures, and politicians from all over the world. One of Chikushi's favorites is the controversial film director Oliver Stone. "He is a little difficult to handle," says Chikushi, "but very interesting."
In his own understated way, Chikushi is on a personal mission to shake the Japanese out of their deferential attitude toward authority. One reason behind Japan's economic slide this decade, he reasons, is the lack of real democracy there. Ordinary Japanese look to the nation's bureaucratic elite and primarily the powerful, pro-business Liberal Democratic Party to give them direction, rather than pushing for new political leaders and parties to lead them out of the mess. Opposition parties have rarely been a force in Japan's postwar politics. "It's the psychology of the people," says Chikushi, "I try to tell them that they should be the masters."
Chikushi's idealism has a lot to do with his experiences as a political correspondent in Washington during the 1970s. There Chikushi covered the Watergate scandal for the liberal Asahi Shimbun. He had a devil of a time convincing editors that, yes, an American President could be ousted over what seemed a trivial matter by Japanese political standards.
An even bigger impact on Chikushi, though, was the growing power of U.S. television in influencing public opinion toward the Vietnam War. "I was very influenced by the era of Walter Cronkite," he says. Chikushi's respect for U.S. media does not translate into awe of all things American. He has broadcast shows on the New York drug trade and other social ills.
Yet these days Japanese are far more fixated on problems at home. And unless things change in a hurry, Chikushi is convinced that it's going to take some sort of upheaval, such as a string of huge business failures, before Japan gets serious about reforming its political and economic landscape. "Day by day, it's looking like we will have a hard landing," he says. Whatever happens, Chikushi will be there every night, calling it as he sees it, even if that means infuriating the high and mighty.