Challenges and Possibilities of Japan's Media Literacy :
Perspectives of the MELL Project

Media Education International Symposium
Korean Society for Journalism and Communication
October 2, 2003

Shin Mizukoshi
Associate Professor of Media Studies,
Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, The University of Tokyo 

  1. About the MELL Project

    The MELL (Media Expression, Learning and Literacy) Project is a loosely knit, networked research project intended to conduct practical research into expression and learning via the media, and research into media literacy.

    In the information society of East Asia, which continues to present a chaotic face as digitalization and globalization both advance simultaneously, how should people gain an understanding of media literacy? How should expression and learning via the media be developed? How should citizens independently design their own diverse modal media systems? To take on topics such as these, the MELL Project began as a cooperative research project of a brand new type of graduate school, the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, which was established in the 2000 school year at the University of Tokyo to fuse the areas of information studies in liberal arts, social science, natural science, art and design. Activities of the project, which officially began in January 2001, are taking place over a time frame of five years.

    The MELL Project is simultaneously advancing on several fronts, through several subprojects and more loosely related affiliated projects. The primary subprojects and affiliated projects are introduced below.

    The first project is the Media Literacy Project of the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan (NAB). This project links commercial broadcasters with children in their areas, enabling children to produce their own television programs. Through activities that enable studying media literacy and media expression together, conducted by creators and viewers in these regions, this project is enjoying wide-ranging success. Pilot projects are underway in four regions: Miyagi, Nagano, Aichi, and Fukuoka. The next project is the Tokyo project. This project is progressing in all areas of Tokyo, preparing a media literacy program that can be conducted using community centers and museums instead of schools.

    Other activities cover a wide range of subjects, including the Book Building and Media Literacy Project; the Asia Image Network, for practical research into the Asian media; the play "NEWS NEWS: What are they Saying on TV?," which covers the themes of inaccurate reporting in the mass media and human rights issues; the Media Expression Research Conferences, which conduct theoretical research into the new area of media expression; and others. Members of the MELL Project may be classified into three types, based on their degrees of connection to the project.

    (1)the project leaders: Katsumi Ichikawa (television producer), Mariko Sakai (museum director), Akiko Sugaya (journalist), Naoya Hayashi (high-school teacher), Shin Mizukoshi (media studies researcher), and Yuhei Yamauchi (education researcher).
    (2)the MELL members: those who conduct research as part of the project (approximately seventy members). Primarily staff and graduate students of the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, this group is made up of schoolteachers, persons involved in the mass media, journalists, persons involved in social education, information designers, citizen activists, librarians, museum curators, persons involved in online industries, and others.

    (3)the MELL supporters: those who receive project information via the project mailing list and other means. As of April 2003, this group numbers approximately 450 members.

    In addition, although these educational research projects take place within a system separate from the MELL Project (a cooperative research project), the courses we teach at the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, Information Literacy Studies and Media Practice are both deeply linked with the research practiced in the MELL Project.
  2. Characteristics of Japan's media environment and media literacy topics

    The genesis of the MELL Project is intimately linked with the characteristics of Japan's media environment and topics connected with media literacy in Japan. Without an understanding of this background, it may be impossible for readers in North America and other countries to understand fully the significance of the MELL Project. These topics are briefly explained below:

    (1) A massive and systemized mass-media and a frail citizens' media

    In the mass media that developed in Japan following World War II, newspapers and television particularly have flourished, becoming extremely large-scale industries and developing intricate systems. Similar tendencies can be seen in the U.S., the U.K., and many other developed countries. However, Japan perhaps has the most centralized national mass-media system of these countries. The beginnings of this system can be seen in the policies for suppression of speech enacted from the early 20th century through World War II. These policies encouraged the oligopolization of the media business. This system became settled in postwar industry developments.

    On the other hand, Japanese citizens' media and regional media are, broadly speaking, weak. A major reason for this situation is the establishment of the centralized national media since the Meiji Era, as part of the process of Japan's modernization as a nation. This involved the gradual elimination of regional, indigenous, and anti-Tokyo media

    Japanese became passive consumers enjoying a mass media that had developed domestically in peace, without open cultural encroachments from overseas or any major changes to the nation's political system. In these kinds of circumstances, it would be pointless for example to introduce Anglo-Saxon-style media literacy studies as-is. However, discussing and putting into practice media literacy studies in Japan's historical and social contexts is no simple task.

    (2) Media literacy movements: difficult to link

    Education and practice regarding the media and literacy may be classified into three lineages. The first of these is traditional media literacy studies, conducted through critical analysis of the popular culture arising from the mass media. This has primarily developed in the fields of social education, adult education, and citizens' movements. The second of these lineages is that of media education in the field of school education. This has developed continually from pre-World War II radio education and film education through today's computer education. The primary goal of such education is effective utilization of the media to promote many aspects of children's education. The third is the field of information education and computer literacy, intended to develop technical skills for using information devices, in line with recent advances in information technology (IT). The background for this field involves the state and the IT industry, both of which see a need for workers for new industries.

    Although this situation may be found in all countries to some degree, these three lineages have not been well linked in Japan. Japanese schools have tried to exclude popular culture, so that activities such as popular cultural criticism are generally not conducted in the classroom. Many reach the hasty conclusion that media and information are subjects of technical education. On the other hand, traditional media literacy studies, which have emphasized the analysis of the media primarily through critical thinking, have been introduced in Japan largely through somewhat hysterical anti-television movements, strongly rooted in enlightenment ideologies. These have not been fully reconciled with the rich understanding of popular cultural criticism influenced by cultural studies. In light of the interconnectedness between Japan's political culture and the media in around 1990, this movement was in danger of a careless connection with the movement to restrict speech for the cause of protecting youth, promoted by groups such as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the inherently conservative national PTA. This has been the situation in Japan until recently.
  3. Perspectives of the MELL Project

    Obviously, such broad-ranging views are not easy to reconcile. With these kinds of difficulties, how feasible are the continual development of media literacy studies and citizens' expression through the media in Japan? The MELL Project was born in response to this question.

    (1) Media literacy: the cycle of expression and reception

    In today's Japan, where citizens' media is frail and school culture is strictly controlled, we believe that putting into practice one-sided media literacy that leans toward critical reception of the media will likely not take root, but will be welcomed by the establishment as a simple anti-mass media movement. In order to fully train citizens' critical thinking, a program that activates the dormant communication abilities of citizens and actively promotes lively expression is required.

    The two aspects of expression and reception have not been sufficiently linked in media literacy practice in the past. Those who emphasize critical analysis have insisted that education in critical methods is more effective than media creation. Those who emphasize expression have tended to place little importance on critical thinking and to teach only techniques of expression.

    However, in the end these two purposes need to be unified. The vital topic in education is not which of these aspects to learn, but how to create an interconnectedness between the two. To this end, we have created the expression-reception spiral model, a learning model intended to unify these two aspects.

    By repeating this expression-reception loop numerous times, enabling students to move up the expression-reception spiral, the students gradually learn to analyze and express themselves, taking into consideration higher-level content, such as cultural, social, and economic factors. This enables deeply critical thinking backed up by practical expressive activities, and strong, high-level media expression supported by critical thinking.

    (2) Media play as the foundation for media literacy

    Media literacy evokes the image of "correct ways" of reading the media and media expression. This may be related to the enlightenment tinge of the word literacy. Of course, the fact that media expression includes various overlapping codes fostered by human beings over many years must not be ignored. It is vital to study what kinds of expressions to make, and what meanings will be attached to these expressions by receivers.

    However, these must not be taken as absolute, fixed matters. Since such codes have been created by human beings, they may change independently in response to various circumstances. Adherence to canonical, inflexible codes is an act not of literacy but of propaganda.

    In Japan, the state of the mass media and the educational system are currently uniform and regimental, and accordingly, people tend to show these characteristics as well. It is difficult convey the fact that media literacy possesses critical aspects that are playful and "hard fun", such as satire, humor, and parody.

    In these kinds of circumstances, the MELL Project has emphasized the importance of media play as well as media literacy, as means of enabling citizens to learn the variability of media codes. Play, as used here, does not refer to the mass entertainment offered as products by the media. It refers to experimental trials conducted by encouraging the human imagination, such as freely creating and interpreting media codes and readjusting the interconnectedness between the media and human beings. In Japan, this kind of media play leading to a dynamism that generates new meaning for the media must be considered a basis for supporting media literacy, and promoted as such.

    (3) Media practice as an intent of media literacy

    Media literacy itself is not the goal. Rather, like the larva for the butterfly, media literacy results in media practice. Through media practices, such as promotion of public access, bridging the digital divide, extension of information technology to depopulated areas, and workshops using museums and community centers, citizens must be able to enrich their own communication activities and change the information society. If not, then learning about the media serves no purpose.

    In Japan in recent years, media literacy has become a kind of fad. However, many of these movements have proceeded without adequate curricula and teaching materials, leading them to become simple criticisms of newspaper articles, criticisms of television programs, and vague criticisms of the information society (such as statements that information technology will lead to a breakdown of humanity). We need not only to receive knowledge concerning media literacy, but also to get to work in society himself or herself, to gain practical experience opening up new roads of communication. This is especially vital in Japan, where citizens' media is frail.

    As described above, media literacy, media play, and media practice share a cyclical relationship. Restoring this cycle in Japan's media environment is the perspective of the MELL Project.
  4. Development of the NAB Project

    The National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan (NAB) is an industrial organization of Japan's commercial broadcasters. The organization felt the need to respond to criticism from authorities and from citizens over scandals that have occurred in succession among member broadcasters since about 1990. In addition, it became aware of the danger posed by the development of digital television, which had been proceeding with its focus mostly on technology. For these reasons, the NAB has recognized the importance of media literacy as a means of building bridges connecting the media with citizens. This is an epochal change, even when compared with the situation of the organization's American partner, the National Association of Broadcasters.

    In order to develop activities on a fuller scale, the MELL Project conducted practical research on behalf of the NAB Project over the two-year period beginning in the 2001 academic year. The goal of the NAB project was to enable local broadcasters and schools to learn about media literacy, through the process of producing television programs. These programs are actually broadcast on NAB member stations as segments of evening variety programs.

    Through producing television programs together with local broadcasters, schools can learn about the characteristics of broadcast media and the processes of constructing a television program. The local broadcasters can attain media literacy from the creators' side, through rethinking their own impact by reviewing the media expression process in putting their activities into words.

    Even in the past, broadcasters gave their viewers short lessons in video techniques and broadcast videos produced by their viewers. However, these recent trials are original in that they combine these activities to study media literacy.

    The projects conducted in Nagano and Aichi in the 2001 academic year developed further in the 2002 academic year. In addition, in Miyagi and Fukuoka, a new pilot study advanced, not through the schools but through relationships with local children and NPOs. Although we do not have room to discuss these in detail here, the MELL Project is currently receiving a great number of requests to continue these types of activities, not only from commercial broadcasters but also from public broadcaster NHK, from local cable television providers, and from other media organizations, as well as from schools and social education institutions nationwide.

    The success of the NAB Project was in providing a strong feel for the possibilities of media literacy studies conducted in cooperation between media creators and educational organizations. However, at the same time many issues remain. Here we will look at three of these issues, and provide an indication of the future directions of our projects.

    (1) Repeating the expression-reception loop
    (2) Connecting with journalist education
    (3) Increasing the diversity of the media and education organizations

    The ideal goal for the NAB Project is construction of a type of media biotope, redefining the currently divided groups of media creators and receivers into media practitioners and media expressers who live together in a diverse culture, and connecting these groups in a cycle. A biotope is a small, man-made ecosystem. Learning media literacy is one of the cyclical principles of this media biotope.


  • Mizukoshi, Shin and Yuhei Yamauchi. Perspectives on Japan's Media Environment and the MELL Project, Duncan, Barry and Tynar, Catherine, Visions/Revisions, National Telemedia Council,2003.

  • Mizukoshi, Shin. Shinpan dejitaru media shakai (The digital media society: A new edition). Iwanami Shoten, 2002.

  • Mizukoshi, Shin and Shunya Yoshimi ed. media purakutisu. (Media Practice). Serica Shobo, 2003.

  • Sugaya, Akiko. Media riterashii: Sekai no genba kara. (Media literacy: On location around the world). Iwanami Shoten, 2000.

  • Tokyo Daigaku Joho Gakkan MELL Project ed. MELL no wa : Media hyogen manabi to riterashii (The Circle of MELL : Media expression, learning and literacy).Transart, 2003.

  • Yamauchi, Yuhei. Dejitaru shakai no riterashii: 'Manabi no komyuniti' wo dezain suru (Literacy in the digital society: Designing a 'learning community'). Iwanami Shoten, 2003.

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