By ERIC JOHNSTON
Exclusive to Debito.org (copyright resides with the author)
As a staff writer for The Japan Times, I’ve had the opportunity to cover more than my fair share of international conferences over the years. In most cases, they took place in Japan, where their organization has always been superb and the security has always been politely restrained.
Until last week’s G8 Environmental Ministers’ summit in Kobe.
Readers of this website are no doubt familiar with Debito’s warning about Sapporo and parts of Hokkaido becoming a virtual police state during the main Leaders’ Summit, which takes place at Lake Toya in early July.
Here, I owe Debito something of an apology, as I originally thought he may have been a bit hyperbolic, as I often am, for dramatic effect in order to emphasize a larger truth. Surely things weren’t that bad? Unfortunately, after my experience at the G8 Environment Ministers’ conference, I’m wondering if he might not have been prophetic.
The general sense of failure regarding the environmental summit itself has been documented in my paper and elsewhere, so I’ll not go into that here. But the monumental incompetence of the Environment Ministry in organizing the event, and the security arrangements that even the more distinguished participants for whom they were designed found excessive, made those of us in the media, and not a few delegates, shake our heads in disbelief at the way Japanese officials spent the vast majority of their time and budget on making sure “terrorists” (and I’ll get to that below) didn’t launch a pre-emptive attack instead of on the kind of advance planning needed to ensure a well-run conference.
Of course, the kind of money needed to host huge international conferences is often in short supply, especially at the Environment Ministry. It is not one of the more politically powerful ministries, as we all know. Its ministers are often up-and-coming politicians in their first Cabinet post, and hope to sit at their desks just long enough to figure out where the paper clips are before the Prime Minister reassigns them to a more glamorous ministry.
But that doesn’t explain the police state mentality in Kobe. At several past events at the same hotel where the environment ministers met, including far-larger and more prominent United Nations’ conferences on disaster relief (which came just weeks after the 2004 Asian tsunami) and AIDS, reporters, delegates, and NGOs were allowed to mingle fairly freely in the hallways, side rooms, hotel lobby, and press center. Security was present, but it was in the background and comparatively low-key.
Not this time. The day before the ministers’ summit, I arrived to attend a related NGO symposium at the Kobe International Convention Center, right beside the Kobe Portopia Hotel where the G8 Environment ministers were due to gather the following day.
As soon as one exited the train station beside the convention center and hotel, there was a battalion of Japanese police officers lined up along the covered walkway leading to both the center and the hotel. They were letting through only those with G8-releated ID badges. Uniformed and plainclothes cops stood every 100 meters or so, keeping a wary eye on visitors. Those without Environment Ministry-issued IDs were directed to take the long way around to the entrance. The chill in the air was not just due to the breeze blowing off Kobe harbor.
The media center was located right beside the hall where the NGOs were scheduled to conduct a day-long symposium. I was surprised to see several police blocking the entrance to the media center, standing at parade rest or in what appeared to be a slight jujitsu position. The cops were staring at everyone who entered the hall, or scanning the room with their eyes. Clearly, they expected trouble from the Japanese and international NGOs, and from the ordinary citizens who had come for the symposium. Needless to say, there was no trouble of any sort.
In my decade and a half experience as a reporter in Japan, this was the first time I’d ever seen such an in-yer-face display of police power on the eve of an international conference that, although important, was still to be attended by just a few Environment Ministers. “As far as I am aware, nobody has ever attempted to assassinate an Environment Minister,” Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commented to me wryly upon seeing the heavy security presence the next day.
Among those of us in the foreign press who have an inkling as to how Japan works, the consensus was the prominent display of force was less about beefing up security for visiting dignitaries and more about beefing up the police and security budget. In my case, I had good circumstantial evidence for drawing that conclusion.
A couple weeks before, friends in Japan’s right-wing media, upon hearing I was going to Kobe for the Environment Ministers’ summit, said, “Oh, we’ve heard the “Sea Shepherd’, the ship involved with the clash with Japanese whalers a few months back, will be docking in Kobe during the summit.” They didn’t say where they got that bit of information. But I’ll bet readers of Debito.org a drink at the microbeer pub of their choice that it was from-who else?-the cops. Need I mention that the “Sea Shepherd” rumor turned out to be completely false?
The heavy police presence was surprising. But far more irritating, and what made everybody’s blood boil, was the slipshod management of the Environment Ministry. At past conferences, reporters and NGOs were able to gain entrance to most of the areas the delegates can access. At the very least, NGOs were allowed into the press room while the hacks were usually allowed to move freely between wherever the media center was and wherever the delegates were meeting.
Again, not this time. In order to get a seat in the press section of the room at the adjacent hotel where the ministers were assembled, reporters had to gather at the media center reception desk at a certain time each day in order be led over to the hotel by somebody from the Environment Ministry. Once we entered the hotel and passed through the metal detectors leading to the lobby area surrounding the meeting room, reporters were told they had two choices. Stay in the lobby area until it was time to be led into the meeting room, or leave while the meeting was still going on and not be allowed to re-enter not only the meeting room (which would have been more understandable) but also the entire floor where the meeting room was located -a floor the size of a football field with at least a dozen other rooms and a huge lobby.
And what of those who showed up at the media center reception desk even a few minutes after ministry officials had led the group of reporters, like a busload of tourists, to the hotel (sometimes well over an hour before the meeting actually began)? Sorry, too late. You can’t go in by yourself. Sit in the media center and wait until the meeting is over. And those who might need to leave the cordoned-off area beside the meeting room for a quick interview upstairs in the hotel lobby? Go ahead. But don’t expect to be allowed back in, even if you have a proper press badge that got you in the first time! Thankfully, after, as diplomats say, a frank exchange of views on the matter with one overzealous Environment Ministry official, I managed to argue my way back in. But the amount of time wasted arguing with the bull-headed bureaucrats over the issue was a surprise, as it had never happened before.
Two actions in particular by the Environment Ministry demonstrated the arrogance and contempt Tokyo bureaucrats feel towards the Fourth Estate. In the first instance, Japanese reporters in the media room were preparing to go over to the hotel for an informal briefing of the day’s events. The time of the briefing had been clearly posted for all to see and had been verbally confirmed with the ministry. Furthermore, the briefing was not in a restricted area of the hotel. Thus, reporters were free to go over to the briefing room individually, and without having to worry about passing through metal detectors and paranoid cops and bureaucrats.
There was still about 10 minutes to go until the briefing, and most reporters were in the media center. Suddenly, somebody rushed in and shouted, ”The briefing has started already!” A mad scramble ensued, as reporters grabbed phones, computers, and notepads and raced over to the briefing room, about a five minute jog away.
We arrived to find a ministry official talking rapidly to the very few reporters who had bothered to show up early. A few minutes later, he wrapped up his remarks and left with no apology, no explanation as to why his briefing started early, and no explanation as to why the ministry had failed to notify the media center of that fact.
To those unfamiliar with the way the Japanese media works, this may not seem noteworthy. But it is unprecedented in my experience. Briefings at international conferences that start late are par for the course. Briefings that start early but with an announcement to all they will start early are not unknown. But briefings that start early with no announcement from anybody that they will start early and then conducted in front of a nearly empty room until other reporters start rushing in are unimaginable. To put it politely, that’s a very serious way to piss off reporters whom you want to write nice things about your event.
Needless to say, the majority of press members were furious. After the guy who did the briefing ran out of the room like a frightened rabbit, the other Environment Ministry officials present got verbally abused by the hacks in a manner one does not hear often enough from Japanese reporters. These officials, perfect examples of the stereotypical spineless and cowardly Tokyo bureaucrat, just kept repeating, ”moshiwake gozaimasen” over and over, bowing slightly and frowning when the abuse from reporters became particularly intense.
Worse was to come. On the last day of the conference, some members of the press nearly came to physical blows with the ministry’s press section. Normally at these conferences, groups of reporters wait around for a final statement from the delegates, as that’s the main news story for the day. If you’re on a tight deadline, as you usually are, it’s imperative to get a copy of the statement as quickly as possible.
How it works in Japan is that, once the final statement is ready, copies are made and then brought to wherever the reporters are. A mad rush ensues to get a copy from harried officials, and a reporter has to have the physical agility of an Olympic gymnast and the body checking skills of a Philadelphia Flyers thug-on-ice in order to squeeze through the scrum of reporters and snatch a copy.
Normally, paper copies will either be placed on a table or passed out by hand by the press officials (this is their job, after all). But when stacks of copies of the Environment Minister’s statement arrived hot off the presses from some back office and given to Environment Ministry press officials, they held the copies above their heads for all of the eagerly waiting press to see. . .and then dropped or threw the copies on the floor and backed away as the press had to dive like dogs on a bone. Of course, and is usually the case, there weren’t enough copies to go around. So, it was first come, first serve until the second batch came along 10 minutes later.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. How pathetic on the part of all concerned. Why not avoid all of the nonsense and just post the statement on the ministry homepage and let everybody download the information with no fuss or muss? Especially at a conference on the environment where one might expect the organizers to show environmental concern by cutting down on the amount of paper used. Good question, and one you can be sure is being asked in Tokyo at the moment.
The final coup de grace, at least for the overseas media who came to Kobe thinking they were in highly organized, polite, and efficient Japan and at a G8 meeting where English language materials would be available, was not the slipshod organization, the hordes of stern-faced cops, or the childish and unprofessional attitudes of the Environment Ministry press bureau. It was the paucity of English language information.
Ministry officials would rush into the press room where the overseas media were gathered, make an announcement in Japanese and then leave quickly with no English interpretation. Thus, foreign reporters from abroad were reliant for the first day and a half or so of the conference on the kindness of Japanese reporters who took the time to interpret, or of resident foreign reporters fluent in Japanese, like myself and Archbishop Pio d’Emilia, of the Unreformed Church of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.
After watching the chaos for a day or so, Pio, who does not suffer fools gladly, decided to intervene. On behalf of those reporters from abroad, Pio told the Environment Ministry in a polite but firm voice to stop running around like headless chickens, to remember this was not a domestic event but an international, G8 event, and to get its act together and provide English information to those who couldn’t understand.
To the ministry’s credit, they increased the amount of English information after that, although I can’t say if it was sufficient or not for the foreign reporters who so desperately needed it. Pio later interviewed me (wearing a “Japanese Only” T-shirt on-camera) for the Italian TV station he works for, where I spoke on the security and chaos of the conference. The damage had been done, though, and you have to wonder if the ministry officials directly involved in the G8 Environment Ministers conference will ever be reprimanded. What am I saying? Of course they won’t be.
At this point, many readers are no doubt thinking, so what? Isn’t this just all a teapot tempest, anyway, the moaning and groaning of a spoiled, arrogant American reporter who expects to be waited on hand and foot? Yes and no. Obviously in the grand scheme of things, this experience is not important and it’s hard, perhaps, impossible, not to sound like whining idiot to those who weren’t there.
I have also covered conferences in places like China and Indonesia, and, certainly, the kind of treatment dished out in Kobe to reporters is nothing compared to what foreign reporters have seen and experienced in those countries. Nobody was arrested, detained, physically abused or even shouted at by the cops or by security at the Kobe summit. In fact, the cops weren’t nearly as surly as some of the Environment Ministry officials I was forced to deal with.
But there are a number of reasons why I overcome my hesitancy about putting keystroke to Word Perfect and decided to write this story. First and foremost, many readers of Debito.org will be in or around not only Hokkaido during the main G8 Leaders Summit in July, but also Tokyo, Kansai, and other areas of Japan where the lesser ministerial summits are taking place. The security of the Environment Ministers conference may foreshadow the kinds of security measures that will be seen around Japan over the next month, as we approach the Toyako Summit. More ominously, these may be the kind of security measures we may yet see for more “international conferences” following the Hokkaido summit, as the government and their police and media allies bray on and on about possible “terrorist attacks.”
The second reason is to illustrate, in a small way, just what your tax money is buying -a stronger police state and a bureaucracy that is balkanized and increasingly unable, in my experience at least, to get the simple things done at these huge international conferences to the extent that they once could. Again, a little perspective. I’ve attended far more chaotic conferences elsewhere, as, I’m sure, all foreign reporters and delegates have, and as I’m sure many of you have. But long-term residents of whatever country they happen to reside in do have historical memory. I know many Debito.org readers in particular are likely to recall the not-too-distant past when much of the above would have been unthinkable at any type of conference in Japan.
Still, are these the cranky ramblings of a guy in middle-age who sounds like your father? Absolutely. But that doesn’t make the grumbling any less accurate, does it? NGOs in Hokkaido I have spoken to, as well as activists like Debito, who warn of G8 security measures are the thin end of the wedge, need to be taken seriously by the public and by those in the media, myself included.
Of course, human nature being what it is, incidents of bureaucratic arrogance and stupidity in the heat of the moment are often forgiven, both in the press room and among members of the public, if the bureaucrats prove themselves to be competent in the end. But that was not the case in Kobe and it may be part of a trend. As I write this, reports have reached me that the Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD) in Yokohama was a logistical nightmare and also extremely poorly organized.
In Osaka, the police have been out in force for the past month, ostensibly conducting security checks in advance the upcoming G8 Finance Ministers summit in mid-June. But it’s clearly overkill and, as one friend in the local media said, it might actually backfire. The current Osaka governor has indicated he wants to cut the prefectural police budget, and what better way to garner support for the idea than by having the boys in blue out in force, harassing motorists and pedestrians who are registered voters, all for a two-day event that is unlikely to get more than a few minutes notice in the local media, if that. Still, I will be very interested, as I know Debito and many of you will be, to hear from readers after all of the hoopla is over, and to learn, once and for all, if the comments made now were reflected too much of a concern about the security measures, or too little.
(The opinions contained within this piece are those of Eric Johnston and not those of The Japan Times)