Lecturer, Department of Media Studies, Metropolitan University Prague
Scandal (from the Greek scandalon) is most simply described as the revealed transgression of conventions or norms—symbolic or legal. In “ideal-type” scandals, certain unethical or corruptive practices are exposed and met with public disapproval, inviting reputational damage (Thompson 1997). When narrated by the media, scandals occur when private acts offend the dominant morality of a social community (Lull and Hinerman 1997). In other words, scandals always point to a “fall from grace” that is condemned by both media and nonmedia actors as a violation of what society deems “sacred.”
The function of scandal can be approached as a kind of social drama semantically located between ritual (motivated expressive behavior) and strategy (conscious strategic action) (Turner 1980; Adut 2008; Alexander 2011). Often the scandal mediation process progresses through five stages: transgression (as a necessary prelude to scandal), secrecy (transgression is disclosed via whistleblowing or leaks), disapproval (moral indignation is demonstrated by the media and the public), damage (individual or institutional), and stabilization (i.e., return to everydayness). The performance of various interrelated actors in scandal coconstitutes the wider scandal narrative. This set of social performances becomes narrativized, framed, and commodified by the media of communication as spectacle.
In Japanese scandal, I argue that the transgressions do not matter as much as does the nature of their mediation, including the biased overmagnification and spectacularization of scandal events, which make for an attractive media commodity to organize audiences and attention. In general, scandals in Japan are numerous, short lived, and regressive—in other words, they are ritualized social dramas of “restorative justice” (shūfukuteki seigi) with often little or no lasting social impact or importance.
The roots of media scandal can be traced to the nineteenth century with the advent of yellow journalism but have become more prominent since the 1950s with the rise of television. Much like the Watergate scandal in 1972, the Lockheed scandal in 1976 was for Japan a watershed in the history of televised scandals. However, the advent of the internet and social media has once again changed the rules of scandal, since the mainstream news outlets, which once served as the exclusive gatekeepers of information, are no longer the only sources for the disclosure of transgression. This was the case in the scandal involving the Japanese graphic artist Sano Kenjirō. On July 24, 2015, precisely five years to the day that the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will open in Tokyo, the new Olympic logo designed by Sano was officially revealed. However, only five days later, a relatively unknown Belgian designer Olivier Debie mentioned, on his personal Facebook profile, striking similarities between his logo (drafted in 2013 for Belgium’s Théâtre de Liège) and the new Olympic logo designed by Sano. On August 5, Sano held a news conference, where he stressed that the allegations of plagiarism were baseless. In the meantime, Debie filed a lawsuit in a local Belgian court, but the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), along with some mainstream art designers, stood firmly by Sano, insisting that he was not guilty of any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, the organizers grew ready to withdraw the logo after Sano’s office admitted to plagiarizing eight images in a separate advertising campaign for the Suntory brewing and distilling company. All the while, Japanese users on social media, acting as self-appointed detectives, discovered only two weeks after the Suntory incident that Sano’s office had also misappropriated two background images from foreign websites in order to promote the logo. Consequently, Sano’s logo for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games was officially scrapped on September 1, with estimated losses exceeding 160 million yen (1.5 million dollars).
The controversy over the Sano logo became a major international embarrassment for Japan. The Olympic Games in Tokyo were dubbed by some Japanese media as the “fourth arrow” of Prime Minister Abe’s ambitious strategy to restore the country. Japan is, however, no exception when it comes to scandal and the Olympic Games, since controversy seems to follow nearly every Olympics. The great number of scandals within the modern history of the games points to the fact that this global event par excellence has always been tainted by corruption and controversy since its outset. Moreover, both the sports values and the ethics of the Olympics have been questioned, as the games gradually have turned into a system of corporate welfare, funneling public money to large private businesses. The cofounder of the modern sociology of sport, Norbert Elias, noted that modern Olympics were from the beginning politicized and corrupted by greed and self-interest (Elias and Dunning  2008). Throughout their history, the Olympics have been permeated with propaganda (both military and commercial), boycotts, performance-related controversies, and drug use (e.g., Guttmann 2002). In short, the Olympics today have a very high degree of what Lull and Hinerman (1997) have called “scandal susceptibility.”
Scandals related to the Olympic logo share in this history of controversy. Most recently, the Olympic logo for London (2012) and Rio de Janeiro (2016) had sparked certain outrage. In other words, the basic narrative behind the Sano scandal was anything but exceptional. Indeed, the preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were tainted by scandal from its early stages. In 2013, Tokyo’s ex-governor Inose Naoki, who became celebrated for winning the games for Tokyo, was discredited by a political scandal after it was revealed that he accepted a large amount of money from a hospital operator (the Tokushukai Group). Moreover, the allegations of Sano’s plagiarism came only four weeks after the “stadium fiasco” wherein the Japanese government dropped the officially selected design for the main Olympic stadium (allegedly due to its cost), which infuriated the British Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.
In Japan and elsewhere, the nature of publicity in general and media scandal in particular depends on changes in technology and journalism (Thompson 2000). These transformations also redefine the public sphere since they can alter the power position of the overwhelmingly passive audiences in so-called “spectator democracies.” The media scandal of Sano illustrated the transformation, where the electronic panopticism (the few observe the many) retreats at the expense of online synopticism (the many observe the few). The latter is facilitated by the anonymity which the internet affords, by a rather easy traceability of images on the web and—most importantly for the Sano scandal—by the capacity to “flame” online debate (enjō jiken) via discrediting exposures on bulletin boards, chat rooms, and blogs. This “synoptic democracy,” however, cannot be approached solely in positive terms, since the largely anonymous internet makes public voyeurism possible while being “amoral” (i.e., careless in its invasion of individual privacy and incitement of hate speech). Moreover, the Sano incident became flamed mainly for its nonpolitical, easy-to-understand transgression. At any rate, an online petition for scrapping Sano’s Olympic logo quickly gathered around 22,000 signatures, while a survey conducted by the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) showed that as many as 85% of respondents disapproved of Sano’s design.
The controversy around Sano would have never materialized without the aforementioned “crowd journalism.” However, a proper media scandal emerges only if the “primary participants” (news agencies, media organizations, chief editors) decide to report certain transgressions (for a discussion of the gatekeeping process in Japanese scandals, see Prusa 2017). As is usually the case in high-profile Japanese scandals, the public broadcaster NHK was initially rather careful about the logo reversal, softening the impact of Sano’s controversy by only mentioning certain “strengthening tendencies” (hōshin katameru) to scrap the logo. Nonetheless, after Sano stubbornly insisted that he became the “victim” (and a scapegoat) of the scandal, even the biggest establishment-oriented daily newspaper, Yomiuri Shinbun, condemned Sano’s case as a “serious blunder.” While Yomiuri Shinbun published fourteen articles related to the scandal nationwide in a single day, the most proactive actors in the production of the “opprobrious discourse” were the nonmainstream weekly magazines (shūkanshi). Besides scrutinizing the person of Sano even prior to the logo withdrawal, two major weeklies dedicated a total of up to eleven pages of space to the structural corruption behind the logo selection on September 17. These weeklies resolutely condemned the logo selection process as “rigged” (dekirēsu) and pointed to evidence of nepotism.
In the social drama of the Olympics logo scandal, Sano, as the main actor, kept insisting on his innocence while refraining from following the scripted apologetic performance in the wake of an exposed controversy—which usually entails contrite expressions such as “nuisance” (meiwaku), “responsibility” (sekinin), and “apology” (owabi). In order to save face by all means, Sano swore, in the highest polite language, to have never plagiarized anything, while also insisting that the two logos in question were not similar at all. With these assertions, Sano largely discredited himself in the eyes of the public, but the real “expectancy violation” occurred when the bloggers revealed that the office of the high-end designer shamelessly plagiarized eight promotional bag designs for Suntory. Consequently, Sano kept shifting blame to his subordinates at MR_DESIGN instead of taking full responsibility (a strategy often employed by experienced politicians who use their personal secretaries as protective shields against accusations of corruption). Ultimately, Sano infuriated his professional colleagues, since creativity was simply too important to be ignored in the field of design. To make matters even worse, Sano indicated in his personal statement (uploaded on his homepage) that he, his family, and his staff had become victims of media-sponsored bashing. Sano even threatened some media outlets (via his lawyer) with legal action if the media frenzy continued. Needless to say, these actions only strengthened the negative media frame, triggering a fatal snowball effect: The Olympic sponsors (Japan Airlines, NTT, Mitsui Sumitomo) quickly removed the logo, while other companies (Toyota, Suntory, Dentsu) swiftly disassociated themselves from the stigmatized designer.
Scandal narratives often draw on dramatic tropes familiar in other media. In both fictional and factual morality tales, the heroic protagonists fight for a certain “good cause” (often the agents of social control or the socially responsible media), the villainous antagonist (the main transgressor) is found to be violating certain norms, and the victims (usually citizens as consumers/taxpayers) must be saved from the transgressive fallout. Every scandal is, however, an unfolding narrative with new revelations, subdramas, and twists and turns that can reinterpret the morality and cause for blame. Sano was initially the “hero” chosen to design the logo for a prominent global event. Within a short period, he was framed by the media as a “villain” who disgraced the nation, although he perceived himself principally as a “victim” of media bashing. Eventually, he was “scapegoated” by the corrupted system (TOCOG) in order to purify the negative publicity (pollution) arising from the exposure. His fall from grace likely could not have been prevented, even when the weekly Shūkan Shinchō correctly pointed out that the main “shadow villain” in the scandal was actually Takasaki Takuma from the advertising giant Dentsu. Takasaki was not only responsible for Sano’s plagiarized design for Suntory, but he was effectively using his authority in both Dentsu and the Olympic Committee in order to push through Sano’s logo by all means. In the end, Takasaki was fired from the committee (along with the marketing chief Maki Hidetoshi, who also vehemently defended Sano’s logo), but the mainstream media hardly reported on these events.
It was neither the confusing logo design nor Sano’s so-called “copy-paste” crime that primarily contributed to Sano’s fall. After all, certain elements of latent plagiarism (which is more common than the public is led to believe) is inevitable in any modern design, not to mention that imitation itself is a sort of “skill.” The real reason behind the exaggerated nature of the logo scandal was the fact that Sano happened to embarrass the Japanese nation on the international stage. Apart from the fact that sport is treated as integral to national identity, the Japanese designers saw the Olympic logo, as well as the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo, as an important means for distinguishing Japanese national identity (see Traganou 2013). Even when defending his integrity during the closely watched “innocence conference” (keppaku kaiken) on August 5, Sano was careful to emphasize that he had created the emblem “with pride as a Japanese” (Nihonjin no hokori o motte tsukutta). His doubtful design practices became a national disgrace as soon as the media set the opprobrious discourse into motion. The tabloids and sport magazines were now eager to report that “the shame goes on” (following the stadium fiasco) and that the image of Japan in international society is in ruins.
As is usually the case with structural corruption (kōzō oshoku) becoming exposed in Japan, the Sano scandal once again pointed to the institutionalized closedness within the collusive system of bid rigging (kansei dango) that spreads the largesse among a top tier of major contractors with little transparency or accountability. Unfortunately for the system, Sano’s lack of originality was simply too obvious to have gone unnoticed. Thus, the corrupted structure (TOCOG with its links to Dentsu) accidentally clashed with the corrupted agency (Sano with its predilection for imitation). As a result, the structural corruption became “reified” via the Olympic logo. The real scandal, however, came more from the nature of the mediation (i.e., media overexposure, Sano bashing), and less from the character of the transgression per se.
Once fully exposed, Japanese scandal is often treated as a “ritual of affliction” (to borrow from Victor Turner), which seeks to mitigate spirits that inflict society with misfortune. This lies in the purification of appointed individuals (often scapegoats) via degrading confessions and apologies in order to revitalize institutional sacredness and construct an imaginary return to normalcy. Similarly, in the case of the Olympic logo scandal, Sports Minister Shimomura Hakubun offered his resignation in September for failing the initial Olympic stadium plan; four days after Shimomura’s press conference, the president of TOCOG, Mori Yoshirō, apologized for causing “concerns” (meiwaku). Sano was missing at the conference, but his wife (who has been in charge of Sano’s PR since 2008) officially apologized on August 18. Following the scandal, Mori established a new team to reform the committee and yet another ad hoc team was tasked with managing the competition for a new logo. The latter made an announcement toward the end of the year that certain “unjust practices” (fusei) were involved in the selection process.
While instigated by online internet detectives on social media, enabled by the committee’s lack of governance, and prolonged by Sano’s disastrous scandal management, the Olympic logo crisis generated social sentiments of moral indignation and national shame. However, the high-profile media scandal, following its exposure, did not initiate any sweeping reforms nor did it affect any disruption to the existing social order. The revealed transgression was incorporated into the social order by ritual performances from all actors, and the brief liminal state of the scandal was concluded, permitting a return to the routinized world of journalistic sameness and political apathy.
Scandals can be either transformative or regressive, but more often than not, they are regressive in Japan. Indeed, they create a media frenzy for a limited period of time, but by doing so, they actually highlight the media’s fundamental failure to bring about reform through scandal mediation. In the end, rather than exploring the “real” structural causes of corruption, Japanese scandals serve merely as a form of spectacle and entertainment that seek to scapegoat the transgressor while generating greater commercial profits for the mass media.
- Born in 1972, Sano Kenjirō is a renowned art director, designer, and recently also an art lecturer at his alma mater Tama Art University. Sano worked for the second-biggest Japanese advertising agency (Hakuhodo) but established his own office (MR_DESIGN) in 2008. Sano’s résumé includes designs for prominent Japanese brands as well as many international awards. ↑
- “Itsu kara higaisha no kamen wo kabutta ‘Sano Kenjirō’ ga kataru-beki kotoba,” Shūkan Shinchō, September 17, 2015. https://www.dailyshincho.jp/article/2015/09200800/ (accessed June 2, 2016). ↑
- The Bank of Japan estimated that the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics will eventually generate up to 30 trillion yen (286 billion dollars) in sales and revenue. History, however, shows that many cities that have hosted the Olympic Games (including the Nagano Games in 1998) have come out at economic loss, while some experts (e.g., the entrepreneur William Saito and the sportswriter Ogawa Masaru) indicate that a serious economic crisis might hit Japan immediately after the Tokyo Games. ↑
- The London Olympic logo (designed by Wolff Olins) and the Madrid logo (by Luis Peiret) both became controversial due to their confusing design. In the case of the Rio de Janeiro logo scandal, which can be seen as analogous to Sano’s controversy, the Olympic organizers and the main designer (Fred Gelli) were suspected of plagiarism since the logo was too similar to another registered logo. Despite the fact that the Japanese logo controversy followed a similar plot, the Sano scandal became a global spectacle while there were only scarce mentions about the Rio de Janeiro logo controversy. ↑
- In the Olympic stadium fiasco, the Japanese authorities pointed to the spiraling costs of the stadium as the main motive, but critical observers (along with Japanese tabloids) asserted that the original design of the Olympic stadium was scrapped due to shady decision making when selecting the construction companies. Hadid not only dismissed the allegations that her design was unsuitable, but she fanned the fiasco after whistleblowing to the Telegraph that the Japanese organizers refused to pay her for the finished work unless she gave up the copyright (Telegraph, Jan 13, 2016). ↑
- The key role in the Sano scandal was played by the infamous 2Channel (nichan), where Sano’s plagiarism in the Suntory affair was fully disclosed, and by the online portal Netgeek.biz, which was among the first to expose the corruptive network behind the logo selection process. In addition, many Twitter users from around the world were tweeting (and retweeting) new updates on the case. ↑
- The case also provoked a satirical response from netizens, using their imaginations by both linguistically and visually mocking the image of Sano as pakuriētā, the media as masugomi, the Olympics as Pakurimpiku, and Japan as Pakuriteikoku. Besides, the failed logo itself was fetishized and commodified: Only a few days after the withdrawal, various promotional items with Sano’s logo on them were being sold in online auctions at a hugely inflated price (Hōchi Shinbun, September 4, 2015). ↑
- Yomiuri Shinbun, September 2, 2015. ↑
- First, the logo scandal also shed some negative light on the creative work of graphic designers, who, unlike other artists, such as fiction writers or filmmakers, do not advertise their names on their products and rarely feel the need to thoroughly explain their concepts to the public. Secondly, the scandal is representative of the crisis of “graphic design.” Namely, this relatively new sector of cultural production (the name was only coined in 1938) is threatened by the ubiquitous accessibility of “creative” software, which allow basically anyone to be a “designer” (Lynam 2016). ↑
- Shūkan Bunshun, September 17, 2015. ↑
- Shūkan Shinchō, September 17, 2015. ↑
- On October 2, 2015, Yomiuri Shinbun made only a brief mention about Takasaki’s suspension on page eighteen of the evening edition (and on page thirty-four of the October 3 morning edition). A closer analysis of the decisive role of Takasaki and Maki in the scandal came as late as mid-December (Asahi Shinbun, December 19, 2015). ↑
- For example, see Supōtsu Hōchi, September 2, 2015. ↑
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