Government Stooge or Public Advocate?

Japanese Newspaper Coverage of Government Policies Toward China

Mary M. McCarthy, Department of Politics and International Relations, Drake University [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 1 (Article 9 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 24 May 2013.


The Japanese media has presented itself as being impartial and representing the voice of the people. Others have criticized it as being anti-government, too dependent on the government, or pandering to the Chinese government. This article illustrates that the Japanese media is a more nuanced actor than either it or its critics often assert. It does so through an exploration of Japanese newspaper coverage of government policies towards China during two periods of crisis in the bilateral relationship: the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and the 1994/95 Chinese nuclear tests. The findings reveal that, although in the Tiananmen case, the newspapers often did act as a servant to the state, in the nuclear case, newspapers acted as an intermediary, providing information to both the state and the public. It was a servant of each, forcing government responsiveness and public acquiescence at different stages of the crisis.

Keywords: Japan, media, China.

The media plays an indispensable role in a democracy. This is especially true in a one-party dominant system, such as Japan had for the first four decades of the post-Occupation period. The Japanese media has presented itself as serving this role by being impartial and representing the voice of the people. Yet some critics have held that this is not necessarily the case. First, the relationship between Japan’s media and the government is often discussed, with the media being charged with being either anti-government or too dependent on the government.1 Second, the media has been criticized as pandering to the Chinese government.2

This article looks at the Japanese media’s coverage of government policies towards China during two periods of crisis in the bilateral relationship: the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and the 1994/95 Chinese nuclear tests. In response to both situations, the Japanese government chose to impose economic sanctions in the form of halting or delaying the provision of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to China. In 1989, Japan froze all new economic assistance projects to China; in 1995, the government froze all grant aid to China.

However, the way in which the media reacted to each of these overseas events and to the implementation of aid sanctions differed greatly. In the Tiananmen case, the media supported government policy and took on the role of explaining those policy decisions to the public. In the nuclear case, the media focused public attention on the issue and helped to force government responsiveness to public preferences. As evidenced by this study, one cannot find substantial support for any of the criticisms described above. In the Tiananmen case, the media was far from anti-government, but it was also constrained in its condemnation of China. In the nuclear case, the media did not hesitate to criticize either the Japanese or Chinese governments. As for impartiality, the newspapers did adopt policy positions, not only in editorials but in news stories. In addition, they did not fully align themselves with either public opinion or government policy. As a whole, these findings suggest that the Japanese media is a more nuanced actor than either it or its critics often assert.

The Role of the Media

Those who research the Japanese media have asserted that the media is one of the greatest power brokers in Japan, although one that is often overlooked. In interviews with Japanese leaders from various sectors Kabashima and Broadbent (1986) found that the media is considered to be the most influential social group in Japan.3 In part, this influence stems from mass consumption. Data from the period when the cases in this study occurred reveal that ninety percent of people in Japan read newspapers daily and per capita newspaper circulation was the highest in the world (Pharr 1996a); about 53 million newspapers were sold each day (with a total population of approximately 123 million people).4

Influence also originates from the essential role that the media plays in a democracy, especially one like Japan that lacked a strong opposition party during much of the postwar era. The media essentially becomes the opposition and acts as a constraint on the ruling party. In a democracy, the media is situated between the state and society, working for both but wholly dependent on neither. Pharr (1996b) lists four roles that the media can play: spectator, watchdog, servant of the state, or trickster.5 She sees the Japanese media as fulfilling the role of the trickster. The trickster serves both the public and the state, but always does so as an outsider and is unpredictable in its alliances. Therefore, it may ally with one group on one occasion and then ally against that same group on another occasion.

As both an outsider and an intermediary, the media relays information between state and society, as well as among members of each. In fact, the media is often the only way that the public learns about government policies such as those related to ODA (Kusano 1999). On the other hand, Japanese officials use that same media to gather information about public preferences (Campbell 1996). In addition, the media also influences how the public thinks about the ‘climate of opinion’ on an issue. In other words, what other members of the same group think (Takeshita and Takeuchi 1996).

Still, the media may do more than simply inform. It may purposefully sway public opinion in one direction or another. Kusano (1999) lists three functions of the media: 1) offer information for the purpose of evaluation, 2) increase issue consciousness, 3) persuade the public to a certain way of thinking about an issue. He conducts a content analysis of articles on ODA that were printed in the Asahi Shimbun and the Nihon Keizai Shimbun between 1980 and 1992. He finds that the majority of the articles lack impartiality.6 He argues that the objective of many of these articles is not to inform, but to persuade. There are many ways in which the media can achieve this: increase volume of coverage of an issue, include a large number of editorials and commentaries from a specific point of view, limits one’s news sources to those with which one agrees, take a policy position even in supposedly straight news stories.

However, Flanagan (1996) suggests that the media is not most influential in changing people’s opinions on an issue, but on focusing people’s attention on an issue.7 He calls this ‘attitude mobilization.’ Therefore, he emphasizes valence issues, or issues on which everyone agrees; the only difference being the strength of one’s opinion. In such cases, the media can play a significant role in increasing awareness of an issue. Flanagan found that the higher the level of media exposure, the stronger the position against the valence issue. In other words, volume of coverage plays a big role.

Japanese sanctions in response to the Tiananmen Square incident and Chinese nuclear tests are interesting cases through which to study the role of the media. The massacre of Chinese citizens and China’s nuclear tests were both valence issues in Japan. The Japanese public was universally shocked by the events on and after 4 June 1989. They could not support the actions of the Chinese government. However, the question of how this should affect aid to China remained an open one. Similarly, in 1995, the public agreed that China should not be conducting nuclear tests. There was also widespread support for the ODA Charter, created in 1992, which called for aid policy to consider certain items, such as the development of nuclear weapons. The only question for the populace, in this case, was how strong a stand to take in applying the ODA Charter to the Chinese nuclear tests.

My argument is that this is where the similarities end. In 1989, coverage of the Tiananmen Square incident and aid sanctions was generally low-key and pro-government. Volume of coverage was minimal until government pronouncements were made on the topic, then coverage followed those policy decisions. There were few editorials discussing the relevant issues.

After China’s tests in 1994 and 1995, there was a huge surge in negative public opinion that the media reflected. However, the media also reinforced and strengthened that trend, through its editorials and news reporting, as well as through the high volume of coverage. Still, in the end, there were media efforts to pacify the public in a way to accept the relatively mild policy position that the government finally took. It accomplished this by virtually ending its coverage.

During the 1989 crisis, the print media came across mostly as a servant of the state. (In fact, one might say a servant of both states – Japan and China.) It informed the public about Japanese government policy and preferences. It also persuaded the public to support government policy by explaining policy decisions and framing them in terms that the public would find persuasive (such as concern for the welfare of the Chinese people).

During the 1995 crisis of Chinese nuclear tests and ODA, the media played three roles. First, it was a neutral conduit of information, in that it provided government officials with information on public preferences and the public with information on government policy preferences. Second, the media also helped to mobilize public opposition to the nuclear tests and public support of a policy to suspend some portion of aid to China, in accordance with the ODA Charter. Third, the media helped to convince the public of how the policy that was finally decided upon was a good compromise.

Research Design

Print Media Content Analysis

In this paper, I conduct a media content analysis of each of my two cases. I examine the following two time periods: April 1989 – November 1990 and October 1994 – September 1995. The first period begins with the start of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and ends with Japan’s decision to resume aid to China. The second period starts with the delay in negotiating the fourth yen loan and ends with the suspension of grant aid to China. I focus on three newspapers: the Asahi Shimbun, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (hereafter Nikkei), and the Yomiuri Shimbun.8 Asahi leans liberal, Nikkei tends to be middle-of-the-road, and Yomiuri leans conservative.9 All are national papers with large circulations.10

In my analysis, I chart trends in volume of coverage, type of article (news or opinion), and policy position (on Japanese ODA towards China). In terms of policy position, I looked at the article as a whole (not at individual messages within the article). I created five categories of policy position: Supportive, Probably Supportive, Neutral, Probably Critical, and Critical. All of these policies refer to the position on Japanese ODA towards China. I define Supportive as a desire to leave ODA towards China as it is. I define Probably Supportive as a desire to continue aid to China, but add more in certain areas, such as women or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I define Neutral as a factual report without a voice. I define Probably Critical slightly differently depending on whether the article relates to Chinese nuclear tests/Tiananmen Square or not. Related to Chinese nuclear tests or Tianamen Square, it refers to a desire to review or stop grant aid, or some unspecified degree of aid, to China in response to the crisis. In articles unrelated to the Chinese nuclear tests or Tiananmen, it is the desire to change aspects of ODA towards China of which it is critical, such as reinstating tied aid (aid that can only be used in contracts with Japanese businesses). I also define Critical slightly differently depending on whether the article relates to China’s nuclear tests/Tiananmen. In articles related to the crises, Critical shows a desire to go beyond government aid suspension policy, such as stopping yen loans to China in addition to the compression of grant aid. Critical can also refer to a desire to end all aid to China, whether or not related to China’s nuclear tests or Tiananmen. However, there was no article that fit that last definition.

Volume of coverage refers to the number of articles on ODA towards China, including the number of articles that discuss the connection between China’s nuclear tests or Tiananmen Square and Japan’s ODA towards China. The type of article is delineated as straight news, editorial, or commentary.

Case 1: The Tiananmen Square Incident


Aid to China was considered a major component of Japan’s China policy since ODA to China began in 1979. It was a policy of carrots, or economic engagement, to promote a stable bilateral relationship. The quantity and type of aid has been such to develop China, economically and socially, and to tie Japan and China together in an interdependent relationship.

At the time of the 1989 suspension of aid to China, China was in the final year of its second five-year yen-loan package from Japan, which totaled 470 billion yen. In August 1988, Japan pledged 810 billion yen to China for the third yen-loan package, to begin in early 1990. Japan was, by far, the largest aid donor to China. In a meeting with the Chinese leadership in April 1989, Japanese Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru stressed the three pillars of the relationship with China as cooperation in international peace, the expansion and strengthening of ODA, and cultural exchange.

However, within weeks, diplomatic and economic relations were at a virtual standstill, not only between China and Japan, but between China and all the countries of the developed world, as the world watched the events unfolding within China with shock and dismay. In April 1989, a student movement began calling for greater democracy in China. The movement grew in strength and the demonstrators gathered in Tiananmen Square began a hunger strike in support of their cause. The thousands gathered disrupted the normal workings of government, including the state visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In response, the Chinese government imposed martial law in Beijing in May. Everything came to a head on 4 June 1989, when hardliners in the Chinese government ordered the military to forcefully suppress the democracy activists who had gathered in the Square. Hundreds of protestors were killed and scores were injured. Additional thousands of activists were arrested and an unknown number were executed in the days and weeks that followed.

In response to this incident, the US and Europe implemented a number of sanctions measures against China, including suspending diplomatic relations, imposing an arms embargo, and freezing ODA. The immediate response from Japan was that it was a ‘matter of grave concern’ and regrettable (Diplomatic Bluebook 1989). Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) immediately announced an advisory against visits to Beijing due to the imposition of martial law and the unsettled state of affairs there. They later extended this advisory to include the whole of China.

The reaction of the Japanese government to the incident was generally one of caution. It did not want its policies to have a damaging effect on Japan-China relations. However, the Japanese public complained that the Japanese government should do more. Some within the government also criticized this cautious approach to the incident.11 Even within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), some thought that Japan should make a more direct statement against the situation in China.

On 8 June, MOFA’s Economic Cooperation Bureau (ECB) first announced that all ODA projects had been suspended because of the worsening state of affairs in China, including the lack of information and transportation problems.12 It had become a state where it just was not feasible to continue work. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which implements grant aid, had already called home the employees and specialists it had working in Beijing. Half of the technical cooperation teams in China also returned to Japan.13

Despite official assertions by the Japanese government that it was not going to impose economic sanctions against China, it was feeling the pressure of international and domestic public opinion that it take a stronger position against the Chinese government’s suppression of human rights. On 21 June, MOFA presented their decision to separate new and existing aid projects to China. It would continue to implement existing projects, but would freeze all new aid. As for existing aid projects, in principle there was a continuation, but MOFA acknowledged that there would be a ‘material delay’ and difficulty in actual implementation.14 All aid would be resumed when China was evaluated by Japan to have achieved calm and normality, which would include things such as the end of martial law. In deed, if not in word, it was an economic sanction.

In January 1990 China ended martial law in Beijing. In September 1990, former PM Takeshita15 visited Beijing to convey the decision to resume the third yen loan package to China. In August 1991, PM Kaifu Toshiki became the first leader of an industrialized democracy to visit China after Tiananmen.

Volume of Coverage

During my period of interest (April 1989 – November 1990), there were a total of 109 articles that discussed Japanese ODA to China. There were 38 articles from the Asahi Shimbun, 40 from the Nikkei Shimbun, and 31 from the Yomiuri Shimbun. As for articles that mentioned the connection between Tiananmen and ODA, there were 15 in the Asahi, 16 in Nikkei, and 13 in Yomiuri.

The Asahi was the most assertive in making the initial connection between the Tiananmen Square incident and ODA to China. It published 12 articles on Japanese ODA to China in June 1989, 10 of which mentioned aid in connection to the Tiananmen incident. Nikkei and Yomiuri gave less attention to the issue of ODA at the start of the crisis, but sustained attention through August 1989 (whereas Asahi coverage dwindled off after that high peak in June). However, in all three newspapers, once continuing aid projects were resumed, there was minimal attention given to the subject (despite the fact that new aid continued to be frozen). In fact, from October 1989 on, there was no more than a single article during any month in any of the three newspapers that discussed aid in association with Tiananmen. Through the end of my period of analysis, the last article that mentioned the topic was in Nikkei in July 1990. (The reinstatement of new aid was officially declared in September 1990.)

Type of Article

Asahi had 30 straight news stories and 8 editorials and commentaries. Nikkei had 29 and 11, respectively. And Yomiuri had 16 and 15, respectively.

Both the Asahi and the Nikkei had a high percentage of their articles being straight news stories, 79% and 73%, respectively. Yomiuri had 52% news stories and, an almost equal, 48% commentaries and editorials. The greater the percentage of news stories the more I would expect to find that newspaper has a greater percentage of neutral stories.

Policy Position

Critical, Probably Critical, Neutral, Probably Supportive, Supportive

I first examined the changing trends over time for each of the three newspapers separately. I plotted the number of articles that were Critical, Probably Critical, Neutral, Probably Supportive, and Supportive, respectively, for each month of my study. There is no Critical article in any of the three newspapers during the period of study. The Asahi had 2 Probably Critical, 31 Neutral, 2 Probably Supportive and 3 Supportive articles. The Nikkei had 1, 32, 5, and 2 respectively. Yomiuri had 2, 25, 3, and 1, respectively.

Asahi was the most likely to be Neutral, as we would expect from its having the largest percentage of straight news stories. In Asahi, 82% of articles were Neutral. However, in Nikkei, 80% were Neutral; and in Yomiuri, 81% were Neutral. Therefore, this does not support the view that more straight news articles means more Neutral stories, since all three had almost the exact same percentage of Neutral articles overall, and Yomiuri actually exceeded Nikkei in the percentage of stories that were Neutral. In fact, in Asahi, only 90% of the straight news stories were Neutral; in Nikkei, 96% of the straight news stories were Neutral; in Yomiuri, 100% of the straight news stories were Neutral.

Throughout the period, Nikkei was much more likely to be Probably Supportive or Supportive than the other two newspapers, with 17.5% of its articles on ODA to China falling in one of those two categories. In fact, Nikkei published only one Probably Critical article. That was in January 1990. It was a commentary by a member of a citizens’ group that criticized aid to China based on the argument that if aid was actually helping China, not so many Chinese workers would be coming to Japan. It did not mention Tiananmen. This high degree of support for ODA to China is as we would expect from a business newspaper, whose customers are likely to benefit from aid that pays for construction and other projects in China in which they may be involved.16

Asahi published two Probably Critical articles, in June and September 1989. The first was an editorial related to Tiananmen, which supported the Japanese government approach of delaying the provision of ODA. The second was a commentary criticizing the Japanese government for not making the connection between economics and politics, and utilizing strategic aid. After September 1989, any article that appeared in the Asahi that was not Neutral was Probably Supportive or Supportive.

In Yomiuri, the two Probably Critical articles that appeared were in November 1989 and May 1990. The November article was an editorial that called on China to improve relations with the West, before Japan could resume aid. The May article was also an editorial, but did not mention Tiananmen. It was an appraisal of economic cooperation with Asia, including with China.

Figure 1. Number of Articles on Policy Positions (View towards ODA to China)

McCarthy, Figure 1
Critical, Neutral, Supportive

In order to view the overall differences in policy position across the three newspapers more clearly, I collapsed the categories of Critical and Probably Critical into a single category called Critical, and the categories of Supportive and Probably Supportive into the single category of Supportive. By combining these categories, the only change is in the Supportive category (since, according to my earlier classifications, there were no Critical articles printed, only Probably Critical articles). Asahi had 2 Critical articles, 31 Neutral articles, and 5 Supportive articles. Nikkei had 1 Critical, 32 Neutral, and 7 Supportive. Yomiuri had 2 Critical, 25 Neutral, and 4 Supportive. (See Figure 1.)

In order to get a richer understanding of the meaning of these numbers, I next looked at the percentage of articles representing each policy position. In Asahi, 5% of the articles were Critical, 82% of articles were Neutral and 13% of the articles were Supportive. In Nikkei, 3% of the articles were Critical, 80% Neutral, and 18% Supportive. In Yomiuri, 7% of the articles were Critical, 81% Neutral, and 13% Supportive.17

In terms of editorials and commentaries, 25% of Asahi, 9% of Nikkei, and 13% of Yomiuri articles were Critical of ODA to China. At the same time, 25% of Asahi, 55% of Nikkei, and 27% of Yomiuri editorials and commentaries were Supportive.

First, this illustrates the influence of the business sector on Nikkei. It is in the interests of Nikkei to support its business customers, whose interest was in the continuation of ODA. So we would expect to see a large percentage of articles that show aid to China in a positive light. Also, Yomiuri has the largest percentage of articles critical of ODA to China, as expected from a right-leaning newspaper. Asahi is more of a puzzle. As a left-leaning newspaper, traditionally supportive of China, one would expect it to have the largest number of articles in support of ODA to China. However, the Asahi and the Yomiuri were almost identical in percentage of articles supportive of ODA to China, and had the same number of articles critical of ODA to China.18 Asahi also had the largest percentage of editorials and commentaries critical of ODA to China. I believe this reflects the disillusionment that was felt by the Japanese in response to the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The interest of the Asahi was in somehow distancing itself from China during this period. The Communist party in Japan acted in a similar way.

Figure 2. Percentage of Articles on Policy Positions (View of ODA to China)

McCarthy, Figure 2

Editorials and Other Assessments of Government Policy

After the ECB announced the suspension of ODA projects in China on 8 June 1989, an editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun, referred to this suspension in the same way that the government had framed it, by simply mentioning the stoppage of yen loans to China as due to ‘practical reasons of disorder’ following the Tiananmen Square incident. Similar to the sentiment in the Yomiuri, the Nikkei Shimbun called the ‘delay’ of ODA ‘inevitable’ given the state of affairs in China, in a news article on 7 June. And, as early as 13 June, the Asahi Shimbun stated that the Japanese government was moving towards the resumption of ODA projects. The newspapers reiterated the government view that actions with regard to ODA were not sanctions. Nor did the newspapers suggest that there should be aid sanctions. In fact, the newspapers made no connection between the Tiananmen Square incident and possible Japanese aid sanctions at this point in the crisis. This was regardless of the fact that Western governments had already implemented aid sanctions and those within the Japanese government were debating the issue as well.

On 22 June, 18 days after the massacre at Tiananmen Square and one day after MOFA announced the freeze of new aid to China, the Asahi Shimbun printed its first editorial related to the Tiananmen Square incident and ODA to China. It was generally supportive of the government policy of watching China and international trends. Still, it emphasized that economic assistance is meant to help the Chinese people and it cannot be supported if it is not accomplishing that. This reflected the concerns of the Japanese people.

Also on 22 June, the Nikkei Shimbun printed its first editorial discussing the Tiananmen Square incident and Japanese ODA to China. It examined the pros and cons of Japan implementing economic sanctions. The editorial discussed how such sanctions would hurt the general welfare of the Chinese public. Conversely, it also stressed that, if Japan ignored the human rights element in international aid policy, it would be isolated in the West. There was also implicit support for some type of suspension of aid to China, on moral grounds, due to the suppression of human rights. In conclusion, the article appealed for a revival of dialogue with China. In these ways, it did not place itself clearly in any camp, but basically endorsed government policy while continuing to support its business readership’s interest in ODA, wrapped in concern for the Chinese people.

These editorials merely reflected what the ongoing discussions were within the Japanese government. They did not push for a specific government policy outside of what the government was already doing or seeking to do. Nor did the three newspapers’ editorials, news stories, or commentaries differ significantly from each other. There was a great deal of consensus among the newspapers and between the newspapers and the government.

On 8 October, an editorial in the Yomiuri referred to the stoppage of aid to China as an example of the increasing incidence of the entanglement of politics and aid. The act itself was not criticized but it was stressed that the policy aims of aid must be explained to the Japanese people in an easily understood manner. This illustrated a slight push from the newspaper towards the government to be more responsive to the needs of the public. Still, an editorial in the same newspaper on 26 November stated that China must move towards improving relations with the West, in order for Japan to be able to fully resume all aid.19 Again, like in earlier editorials in all three newspapers, this was merely a reflection of Japanese government policy. In addition, it was useful as providing an explanation to the Japanese people of why new aid projects had not yet resumed, despite an earlier emphasis by the government and newspapers on the practical aspect of the freeze.

An editorial in the Asahi on 16 April 1990 supported the resumption of the part of ODA to China that dealt with improving the welfare of the people. This was in response to reports that the government was considering this very resumption. Once again, it was not calling for any new policy direction, but just supported what the government was already planning.

In an editorial in the Yomiuri on 13 November 1990, the fact of Japan’s aid policy becoming a more intimate aspect of diplomacy was discussed. The freeze of aid to China after Tiananmen was given as an example of this. In general, the editorial supported the move, but warned not to passively follow the US and Europe, and not to forget humanitarian aid.

The role of the newspapers during this crisis after the Tiananmen Square incident was basically to showcase and explain government policy to the Japanese public. However, the coverage also reflected the concern of the public with regard to the welfare of the Chinese people. The Japanese public was extremely agitated and disillusioned by the Tiananmen Square massacre. Their chief concern was for the Chinese public. Nikkei raised this issue in support of aid; Asahi mentioned it as a possible questioning of aid. Still, the only explicit mention of Japanese foreign policy needing to be responsive to the Japanese public was in a single editorial in the Yomiuri in October 1989.

The newspapers did not push the government on any policy with regard to aid to China. Economic sanctions were not discussed in the editorials of the newspapers I reviewed until after the Japanese government had implemented those sanctions. This is despite the fact that the issue was being discussed within the government. The media took no side until the government stance was decided. After that, it was a position of basic support for government policy.

Case 2: China’s Nuclear Tests


China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964. Japan began ODA to China in 1979. For 16 years China’s nuclear tests did not affect Japanese ODA to China. However, in 1992, the Japanese Cabinet created the ODA Charter, with the purpose of putting in writing the basic philosophy of Japanese ODA in the post-cold war era. According to the Charter, before assistance is granted, the administrators of Japan’s ODA must consider the following Four Principles: 1) Japan’s ODA should seek to advance sustainable development, 2) ODA should not be used for military purposes, 3) aid decisions should not support the allocation of resources towards the development and production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or the export and import of arms, 4) assistance should be granted only after taking into account the promotion of democratization, the introduction of a market-oriented economy, and the advancement of basic human rights and freedoms in the recipient country.

Following the passing of the ODA Charter, some argued that China did not abide by the Four Principles, particularly in terms of WMD and arms. Still, MOFA continued to favorably evaluate China’s steps toward a market economy and liberalization, and, thus, determine that aid to China was in tune with the ODA Charter. However, in 1994, the link between Chinese nuclear tests and Japanese ODA began to take center stage.

In 1994, China conducted two nuclear weapons tests. In response, Foreign Minister Kōno Yōhei suggested that China’s nuclear tests might have some negative influence on the fourth yen loan package that was being negotiated at the time. The government suspended the trip of the Japanese team that was scheduled to go to China on 17 October to conduct the final stage of negotiations on the fourth yen loan. In discussing this decision, MOFA officials stated that it was in response to public opinion both inside and outside Japan.20

Still, negotiations for the fourth yen loan to China were successfully concluded on 22 December. The result was yen loans worth 580 billion yen for the first three years of the yen loan package, with an additional two years to be decided later. It is an amount that exceeded the previous yen loan package (the third yen loan) by 43%. And it rocketed China into the first-place slot of Japanese ODA recipients, bypassing traditional first-place recipient Indonesia.

In early May 1995, PM Murayama Tomiichi visited Beijing. He brought the fourth yen loan package with him as a gift. This was the common practice of the Japanese government. However, Murayama also made another plea to the Chinese leadership to halt nuclear tests. Jiang Zemin expressed China’s ‘understanding,’ but no promise or commitment was made.21

On 15 May, a mere nine days after PM Murayama left Beijing, China conducted its 42nd nuclear test. As usual, MOFA protested to the Chinese government.22 Still, on 16 May, PM Murayama stated that there would be no review of ODA to China. Even within the Japanese government, this statement sparked some controversy. Opinions were divided over what to do. MOFA’s Economic Cooperation Bureau, which is in charge of ODA policymaking, stressed the position of the ODA Charter, not to extend aid to countries that proliferate WMD.

Finally, on 19 May, MOFA announced that grant aid would be ‘compressed.’ On 22 May, the Chinese ambassador to Japan was officially notified of this stronger stance. This was the first time that Japan’s warnings to China over its nuclear tests took on a form beyond verbal protest.

Still, the Japanese action continued to be rather vague. The statement to the Chinese about the compression of grant aid actually emphasized the permanence of Japanese economic cooperation with China, and seemed to highlight how similar this policy was to the previous policy, rather than how different. Still more confusingly, according to Asahi, Japan’s Foreign Minister stated that the compression of grant aid should not be considered as having a direct link with the nuclear tests.23 This suggests that elements continued to exist within the Japanese government that did not want to take even this minor action against China and wanted to downplay it as much as possible.

In addition, no concrete plan was made in terms of how much grant aid or what specific items would be affected. The Chief Cabinet Secretary said that that decision would be made later. However, even if all grant aid was frozen, grant aid was only a small portion of total aid to China. And, while yen loans tended to support large-scale infrastructure projects, grant aid tended to go towards humanitarian needs, including medical services. Therefore, both the scale and the targeted items were designed to limit real impact on Japan-China economic cooperation. Overall, this action did not assuage the growing discontent among the Japanese public, nor did it quell voices within the Diet.24

On 6 and 9 August, Japan commemorated the 50th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Naturally, Japanese sensitivities were heightened in relation to nuclear weapons. Still, on 17 August, China went ahead with its second nuclear test of the year. The Japanese government immediately decided that it would suspend more grant aid to China.

On 30 August, MOFA informed China that it was suspending all grant aid to China (other than emergency measures) and would not resume grant aid until China agreed not to conduct any further nuclear tests. Grant aid suspension to China was not lifted until March 1997, about seven months after China announced a moratorium on nuclear testing and about six months after it signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, along with the US, Japan, and other countries. Yen loans to China were never suspended, but there was some delay in the initial disbursement of loans from the fourth yen loan package that began in 1996.

Volume of Coverage

During my period of interest, there were a total of 163 articles that discussed Japanese ODA towards China. There were 69 articles from the Asahi Shimbun, 53 articles from the Nikkei Shimbun, and 41 articles from the Yomiuri Shimbun. There were 54 more articles on ODA to China during the nuclear crisis than during the Tiananmen crisis. As for articles that mentioned the connection between aid to China and nuclear tests, there were 32 articles in Asahi, 16 in Nikkei, and 27 in Yomiuri. Interestingly, Nikkei had the exact same number of articles as it did on aid and Tiananmen during the earlier period. This is despite a much higher number of articles on aid to China, in general. Asahi and Yomiuri had more than double the number of articles referring to aid to China and nuclear tests, as they did on aid and Tiananmen.

The volume of coverage followed fairly closely with the ebb and flow of Japan-China relations, with one major exception. While there is a peak in the month of May (and for Asahi, in the month of June as well) when Japan responded to China’s first nuclear test of the year by compressing grant aid, there is no such peak in the month of August when Japan responded to China’s second nuclear test of the year by taking concrete measures to suspend all grant aid (other than emergency aid). Asahi published 13 articles in May and 10 articles in June. Nikkei and Yomiuri each published 11 articles in May. On the other hand, Asahi published 8 articles in August, while Nikkei and Yomiuri each published 5. The difference becomes more apparent when looking solely at articles that connect ODA to China and Chinese nuclear tests. Asahi published 7 articles in May and 9 articles in June. Nikkei published 5 articles in May. Yomiuri published 9 articles in May. In August, Asahi printed 3, Nikkei printed 2, and Yomiuri printed 4. For each newspaper, there is less than half the number of articles in August that we saw in May.

Why the difference between May and August? One plausible explanation is that the Japanese government was ready to be responsive to China’s nuclear tests in August in a way that it was not immediately prepared to be in May. In May, perhaps the media needed to focus on the issue in order for there to be some government action. In August, it was clear that the government was taking concrete steps.

Type of Article

Asahi had 46 straight news stories and 23 editorials and commentaries. Nikkei had 38 and 15, respectively. And Yomiuri had 22 and 19, respectively.

Nikkei had the largest percentage of straight news articles, at 72%. Yomiuri had the smallest percentage of straight news stories, at 54%. Asahi fell in between the two, with 67% of its articles on ODA towards China being straight news stories and 33% being editorials and commentaries. The percentages with regard to Nikkei and Yomiuri are similar to the finding on Tiananmen coverage. However, Asahi had 12% less news stories here than during the previous crisis. In this case, Asahi was more likely to print editorials and commentaries on the topic than it had been in the earlier case.

Policy Position

Critical, Probably Critical, Neutral, Probably Supportive, Supportive

As previously, I plotted the number of articles that were Critical, Probably Critical, Neutral, Probably Supportive, and Supportive, respectively, for each month of my study.

Asahi had 4 Critical, 13 Probably Critical, 45 Neutral, 2 Probably Supportive, and 5 Supportive. Nikkei had 3 Critical, 6 Probably Critical, 40 Neutral, 2 Probably Supportive, and 2 Supportive. Yomiuri had 2 Critical, 11 Probably Critical, 26 Neutral, and 2 Supportive.

As we would expect from the types of articles printed, Nikkei was the most likely to be Neutral, Asahi was second, and Yomiuri third. However, the percentages of Neutral articles were extremely close between Asahi and Yomiuri. In Nikkei, 75% of articles were Neutral, in Asahi 65%, and in Yomiuri 63%. Across all three newspapers, articles were much more likely to be Neutral during the Tiananmen crisis. For Nikkei and, particularly, Asahi, this was generally because there were more editorials and commentaries in this case. In terms of straight news stories, 89% of Asahi articles, 97% of Nikkei, and 91% of Yomiuri were Neutral. Asahi and Nikkei had almost equal percentages of Neutral news during the Tiananmen crisis, but Yomiuri was 9 percentage points less likely to have Neutral news in this case.

In Asahi, the Probably Critical and Critical articles followed the flow of developments in China’s nuclear tests and Japanese growing sentiment. The first fully Critical article appeared in May and was followed by Critical articles in June, August, and September. Therefore, although the quantity of articles was reduced, Asahi’s stance throughout this period from May to September, actually, continued to be strong. However, quite surprisingly, the largest number of supportive articles for ODA to China that were published in any month throughout this period was published in May. Two of them were published before China’s nuclear test that month, but one of them was published thereafter.

In Nikkei, we do not find much difference between the number of Critical/Probably Critical and Supportive/Probably Supportive articles, until May. In May, there was one Probably Critical and one Critical article. It was the first Critical article published in Nikkei during this period, which reflects the growing intensity of opinion. There are two additional Probably Critical articles in June (the largest number of Probably Critical articles we see in a single month through this period), one Critical article in July, and one Probably Critical article in August. There are no Supportive or Probably Supportive articles from June through September.

In Yomiuri, there are two peaks in the quantity of Probably Critical articles, occurring in December 1994 and May 1995. May also witnesses the first Critical article, which is followed by another Critical article in August. However, in September, Supportive articles peak with the highest number in any other single month during the period of study.

In conclusion, all three newspapers increased the intensity of their negative sentiments towards continuing aid to China amidst that country’s nuclear tests in May 1995. They also all sustained this intensity for at least two months. However, Nikkei did not revive this intensity in response to the nuclear tests in August. Although, Yomiuri did have an article in August expressing support for the freeze of yen loans to China, there was no repeat of this sentiment after the government’s official announcement on 30 August that it was suspending grant aid to China. And, in fact, there were more articles supporting ODA to China than we had seen previously. Asahi is the one newspaper that continued its calls for stronger measures through September 1995.

Figure 3. Number of Articles on Policy Positions (Views toward ODA to China)

McCarthy, Figure 3
Critical, Neutral, Supportive

I next collapsed the categories of Critical and Probably Critical into a single category called Critical, and the categories of Supportive and Probably Supportive into the single category of Supportive. The Neutral category remains the same. Asahi had 17 Critical articles, 45 Neutral articles, and 7 Supportive articles. Nikkei had 9 Critical, 40 Neutral, and 4 Supportive. Yomiuri had 13 Critical, 26 Neutral, and 2 Supportive.

In Asahi, 25% of the articles were Critical, 65% of the articles were Neutral, and 10% of the articles were Supportive. In Nikkei, 15% of the articles were Critical, 75% of the articles were Neutral, and 9% of the articles were Supportive. In Yomiuri, 32% of the articles were Critical, 63% were Neutral, and 5% were Supportive. The difference in policy position during this crisis and the Tiananmen crisis could hardly be more dramatic. Asahi, Nikkei, and Yomiuri were all five times more likely to be Critical in this case.

Turning to editorials and commentaries, 52% of Asahi, 53% of Nikkei, and 58% of Yomiuri articles were critical of ODA to China. Compared with Tiananmen, this is a 100% increase for Asahi, a 489% increase for Nikkei, and a 346% increase for Yomiuri. At the same time, 30% of Asahi, 27% of Nikkei, and 11% of Yomiuri articles were supportive. Compared with Tiananmen, this is a 25% decrease for Asahi, a 51% decrease for Nikkei, and a 59% decrease for Yomiuri. The results for Asahi and Yomiuri closely reflect those found when looking at all the articles together. The results for Nikkei reveal that, in terms of opinion pieces, Nikkei resembles Asahi in policy position.

These differences across newspapers are as expected, given the ideological position of each newspaper. The left-leaning Asahi had the largest percentage of articles supportive of ODA to China, even during this time of great condemnation for China’s continuing nuclear tests. The middle-of-the-road Nikkei had the greatest percentage of neutral articles and the closest balance of critical and supportive articles among the three newspapers. The right-leaning Yomiuri had the largest percentage of critical articles. This may indicate that the newspapers at either extreme were becoming more ideological. The findings with regard to Nikkei may be a result of the fact that by 1995 Japanese business was less likely to be dependent on ODA, as new business opportunities opened up in China and the Chinese became better able to pay for their own infrastructure projects. However, Nikkei’s low volume of coverage of the connection between aid to China and nuclear tests may reveal that it still did not have the same interest in increasing awareness of the issue as its rivals, due to its readership. Nikkei did not focus in on the issue any more than it did on the issue of Tiananmen and aid.

Figure 4. Percentage of Articles on Policy Positions (Views toward ODA to China)

McCarthy, Figure 4


In the autumn of 1994, there were two editorials that connected Chinese nuclear tests and the ODA Charter. On 29 October, Asahi ran an editorial stating that the Japanese government cannot excuse China from the requirements of the ODA Charter, if it seeks the confidence of the international community, and of the Japanese people. It called on the use of ODA as a diplomatic tool. About a month later, on the same day that it was reported that PM Murayama told Jiang Zemin that yen loan negotiations would be completed by the end of 1994, Nikkei ran an editorial that criticized China’s continuing nuclear tests despite opposition from countries around the world. The editorial stated a worry that if Japan furnished the new yen loan package while such tests were ongoing, it would turn the ODA Charter into a ‘dead letter.’ It also expressed a wish that PM Murayama had given a clearer warning to the Chinese government about how the continuation of tests would have a negative impact on yen loans.

During the first three months of 1995, the newspapers were quiet on the issue of ODA and Chinese nuclear tests. However in an editorial on 7 April, Nikkei revived the issue by discussing how to apply the Four Principles of the ODA Charter in a practical manner. One case it analyzed was Chinese nuclear tests. Nikkei maintained that aid to China was still necessary, but added that a continuation of nuclear tests should elicit more than verbal protest from Japan.

On 15 May China conducted another nuclear test. The following day, Nikkei ran an editorial strongly protesting China’s nuclear tests, and advising the government to take a stronger stance, including reviewing ODA to China. A day after that, Asahi ran its editorial condemning the tests and calling for a review of ODA to China, if the situation did not change. On 19 May, Yomiuri followed with its own condemnation of the tests and a declaration that it was natural for the Japanese public to seek a review of ODA to China.

Finally, on 19 May, MOFA announced that grant aid would be ‘compressed.’ An article published in Asahi on 23 May stated: ‘Since China’s nuclear tests on the 15th, the government response has become gradually stronger, with the background of this being that the feeling has grown among the public that not enough was being done.’25 In an editorial on the same day, Nikkei indicated the growing public sentiment within Japan against the tests, and put forth the hope that China would seriously understand that the compression of grant aid was an escalation of Japan’s protest. On 25 May, a Yomiuri editorial spoke of the decision to compress grant aid as a decision that considered relations with China, but warned that the government cannot neglect Japanese public opinion.

On 17 August, China went ahead with its second nuclear test of the year. In an editorial on 18 August, Asahi took a stronger stance than ever before in connecting ODA and China’s nuclear tests, by calling for a freeze on a portion of yen loans that support large-scale projects in China. In addition, the newspaper said that it would be worth it even if it injured Japan-China relations, because it would express the extent of the feelings of the Japanese people on this issue. On 30 August, all grant aid to China was suspended.

Although this final policy decision has been accepted as largely symbolic (due to the scope and target), it was extremely significant in that it was a different policy approach than Japan had ever utilized towards China previously.26 The qualitative evidence suggests that the media played a number of indispensable roles here. It revealed public preferences to both political elites and to the public itself (allowing individuals to view group preferences). It also focused sustained attention on the issue and the policy options, helping to force government responsiveness. At the same time, it benefited the government by explaining both sides of the issue and why it would not benefit Japan to be overly aggressive, allowing the issue to basically come to a close after September 1995. It differed dramatically from the role of the media during the crisis after the Tiananmen Square incident. In 1995, the media was much more clearly on the side of the public and pushing for government responsiveness and a more assertive government policy.

In addition, all three newspapers followed the same trends. They were much more likely to be supportive of ODA to China during the Tiananmen crisis than during the nuclear crisis. They were also much more likely to be neutral during the Tiananmen crisis. They were significantly more likely to be critical during the nuclear crisis. The timing of the articles, the high volume of coverage, the larger number of editorials, and the policy positions taken in both opinion and news stories suggest that, during the 1994/95 crisis, the newspapers sought to sway public opinion and government policy.

Still, there were differences across the newspapers in both crises. During the Tiananmen crisis, the Asahi was most likely to discuss the minority opinion, both inside and outside government. This made it less of a mouthpiece of official government policy. In the nuclear crisis, Nikkei did not increase its coverage of the connection with aid from its reporting in 1989/90. Therefore, it did not use volume of coverage to increase awareness of the issue, as the other two newspapers did.


In the Tiananmen case, the media emphasized official government policy and supported the majority government opinion. It acted as a servant of the state. However, it did not fully disregard the public. It expressed the public’s concern for the Chinese people and the need for the government to explain policy aims to the public.

In the nuclear case, the media emphasized the different opinions both inside and outside government and often supported those minority opinions. It acted as an intermediary, providing information to both the state and the public. It was a servant of each, forcing government responsiveness and public acquiescence at different stages of the crisis.

These cases do not support the criticisms that the Japanese media is necessarily anti-government, over-reliant on government, or pro-China. Yet nor is the media universally impartial and consistently the voice of the people. Instead, the media has proven to be flexible in its alliances. This is true not only across cases, but within a single case. For example, after helping to force government responsiveness, the media helped to promote public acceptance of the Japanese government stopping its protest of Chinese nuclear tests at the compression of grant aid. It did this by greatly reducing the intensity of its coverage once the government had shown a willingness to make a measured response.

So, what is the reason for the difference in the role of the media in these two cases? Although definitively answering this question is beyond the purview of this article, one plausible explanation is that the environment within Japan changed. The early and mid-1990s witnessed political and bureaucratic corruption scandals, voter volatility, and economic recession. Distrust of the government’s ability to serve and provide for the people became widespread. Politically, it was a time of uncertainty. In 1993, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost its majority in the lower house and, even after it regained power, it did so through coalition governments. Feldman (2004, 2005, p.9) discusses the end of the LDP reign in 1993 as one of the primary factors that caused a change in ‘political reporters’ newsgathering styles, their interaction with information sources, and the focus of their attention.’ A diversity of views was more likely to be heard. At the same time, anti-China sentiments and “China threat” rhetoric began to proliferate in public and political circles. Changes in public and political discourse may have encouraged changes in media discourse toward China making it more likely to speak up against government policy towards China that was not in line with public preferences.


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[1] For example, see Kim (1981), Thayer (1975), and Whittemore (1961).

[2] In January 2011, Seiron, published a series of articles under the heading, Nihon no media wa chuugoku no geboku ka, (“Is Japan’s Media China’s Manservant?”). There are also numerous historical explanations available, including Miyoshi and Eto (1972). For English accounts, see, for instance, Kim (1981) and Thayer (1975).

[3] Of the ten groups interviewed (business, bureaucrats, LDP, farm organizations, mass media, intellectuals, labor unions, opposition parties, citizens’ movement groups, feminist groups, and the Bunraku Liberation League), only the media did not place mass media first among influential actors. It placed mass media second, directly below the bureaucracy.

[4]This data is from the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association (Nihon Shimbun Kyoukai, NSK) and is collected from the members of NSK; it includes newspapers sent abroad,

[5] Krauss (2000) has a variation on this, saying the media plays three roles in a democracy: watchdog, guide dog, and lap dog. He argues that the Japanese media is best at being a guide dog (educating and informing the public).

[6] This is despite the fact that 80% of the articles were fact-based.

[7] Flanagan (1991, p.322) argues that “while the media may not be very successful in telling people what to think, they are extremely successful in telling people what to think about.”

[8] In order to find the appropriate articles, I utilized Nikkei Telecom. I would like to thank Columbia University’s Center on Japanese Economy and Business for the use of their database.

[9] Although scholarship on the Japanese media has often emphasized conformity among newspaper coverage, irrespective of ideological bent, I do not focus on this issue in this article, but do mention my findings in this regard in the context of my analyses. (For discussion of this, see, for example, Krauss (2000:271).

[10] All translations from Japanese are my own.

[11] See, for example, political statements made at the plenary session of the House of Representatives on June 7, 1989 and at the plenary session of the House of Councillors on June 8, 1989, as well as reports in “Taichuugoku, kunou no seifu ‘kako’ ga bureeki, hihan wo abitemoshirezu.” Asahi Shimbun 7 June 1989, morning ed.:3.

[12] “Taichuu ODA jigyou shuudan, ukeire taisei mahi, ribarai chien kenen, gaimushou.” Asahi Shimbun 9 June 1989, morning ed.: 3.

[13] “Minshuuka danatsu ookiku koutai taichuu bijinesu (keizai sukoopu).” Asahi Shimbun 13 June 1989, morning ed.: 11.

[14] “Taichuu shinki enjo wo touketsu, daisanji enshakkan nado, gaimushou houshin.” Asahi Shimbun 21 June 1989, morning ed.: 1; “Taichuu bijinesu, mahijoutai, jimusho heisa aitsugu – komotsuyusou, ichibu sutoppu.” Nikkei Shimbun 7 June 1989, morning ed.: 5.

[15] By this time he had been succeeded by both the short-lived PM Sosuke Uno and PM Toshiki Kaifu.

[16] Still, it should be noted that some scholars of the Japanese media have noted that the readership of Nikkei has broadened beyond business circles.

[17] Where numbers total more than 100% it is due to rounding.

[18] The percentage of articles critical of ODA to China was greater in the Yomiuri because it had a smaller total number of articles.

[19] The main subject of the editorial is aid to Eastern Europe. The connection to China was socialism.

[20] “Sougaku kettei sagyou oodume de chuudan, chuugoku e no enshakkan – kakujikken ni kougi.” Nikkei Shimbun 16 Oct. 1994, morning ed.: 3.

[21] Budget Committee Meeting, House of Representatives, May 18, 1995.

[22] See FM Kono’s response to MP questions at the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on May 26, 1995.

[23] “Seifu, jiremma tsuduku, Chuugoku e enryo kiezu, kakujikken ni kougi shi keizai kyouryoku asshuku.” Asahi Shimbun 23 May 1995, morning ed.: 2.

[24] “Seifu, jiremma tsuduku, Chuugoku e enryo kiezu, kakujikken ni kougi shi keizai kyouryoku asshuku.” Asahi Shimbun 23 May 1995, morning ed.: 2; also see Diet proceedings, May 1995.

[25] “Seifu, jiremma tsuduku, Chuugoku e enryo kiezu, kakujikken ni kougi shi keizai kyouryoku asshuku.” Asahi Shimbun 23 May 1995, morning ed.: 2.

[26] The Tiananmen case was different in that the suspension of ODA was part of a global response to the situation within China. In 1995 it was unilateral action taken by Japan.

About the Author

Mary M. McCarthy is an Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. She received her Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University in 2007. She specializes in Japan’s domestic and foreign policies. Her current research interests include the Japanese media, cooperation and conflict between Japan and China in the East China Sea, and the historical legacies of the Asia-Pacific War on Japan-China and Japan-U.S. relations.

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