Japanese Media Starts to Make Waves in Burma

By Naomi Gingold 6 September 2013

RANGOON — It’s no secret these days that Burma is very much on the minds of Japanese policy makers and investors, who after decades of keeping their distance from the formerly military-ruled country are keen to get in on the action in Asia’s newest frontier market. But it is probably less well-known that as the country relaxes its controls over the long-stifled media sector, Japanese-language publications have been quick to stake out a place for themselves in Burma’s new media landscape.

Over the past year, at least eight new print and online publications have sprung up aimed at satisfying Japanese curiosity about the Southeast Asian nation that was once regarded as one of the world’s most closed countries. Although many of these new Japanese publications provide little more than PR for businesses trying to attract Japanese expats and tourists, at least one strives to be the real deal.

The Yangon Press, a now monthly newspaper launched in May as a bimonthly, calls itself “The first real Japanese media in Myanmar”—a boast that is slightly belied by its modest size and limited scope (the latest issue is just 16 pages long and consists largely of local business listings and practical information of interest to both residents and tourists, including lifestyle and travel advice), but one that its founder seems to take quite seriously.

“The regular Japanese media gets it wrong on Myanmar half the time,” says Tomio Kurihara, a veteran journalist who first came to Burma two and a half years ago on assignment. “That’s why one of our most important goals is to accurately convey the real situation here.”

Speaking to The Irrawaddy at the small Yangon Press office, Kurihara explains how on his first encounter with Burma he became enchanted with a country trying to rebuild and re-enter the world after decades of isolation.

“It reminded me of the Japan of my childhood, when all Japanese people were trying hard, working together to rebuild their nation from scratch after losing the war,” he says.

Within six months of that initial visit, Kurihara was back in Burma, this time as director and secretary general of the newly formed Japan-Myanmar Association for Culture and Economic Exchange (JMACE), an organization that seeks to facilitate joint business ventures, humanitarian initiatives and cultural exchange between the two countries.

But after a lifetime of traveling the world as a journalist, interviewing the likes of former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama, Kurihara couldn’t fail to notice that Burma lacked a homegrown Japanese-language newspaper.

When the government started liberalizing Burma’s media laws and handing out licenses for new private publications last April, Kurihara jumped at the chance to fill this gap, and at the same time put his years of journalistic experience to use in fulfilling his newfound role.

As Japan’s government commits to mega-projects such as the Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Rangoon and Japanese tourists and investors pour in to see what Burma has to offer, the Yangon Press will likely be well positioned in the years ahead to meet a growing demand. But it remains to be seen whether it will be able to realize its loftier goal of raising the standards of Japanese journalism on Burma.

One thing you won’t see in the pages of the Yangon Press is news that’s likely to rile the Burmese authorities. “We take a neutral stance,” says Kurihara, explaining that as the director of JMACE, he doesn’t want to jeopardize the goodwill that his organization fosters through its humanitarian work.

Kurihara’s goal, then, is to make a splash without rocking any boats—something that is easier said than done in the often treacherous waters of a country that is changing faster than anybody could have imagined just a few years ago.