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Tuesday, April 22, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Media hounds muzzle selves

Japan's news organizations exercise self-censorship


A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be sent on a media junket to Sri Lanka.

News photo
Japanese newspapers report the anticipated resignation of former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in March 2001.

During dinner, one of our guides mentioned that the news in the local newspapers about the civil war in the north of the country was completely untrustworthy. It was all heavily censored, he said, and no one in Sri Lanka with a modicum of intelligence actually believed any of it.

Then he turned to a Japanese member of our group, a former reporter who had worked at one of Japan's major newspapers. "Does the news ever get censored in Japan?" he asked.

"Never. Not a bit," came the reply.

Once my jaw had bounced off the dinner table, I shot back: "What the heck are you talking about?!?!"

I should point out that by then I had under my belt several years of working in Japanese newsrooms. My main job had been to write domestic news stories in English that were based on the Japanese-language stories of the parent organization. Often I had to follow up with phone calls to reporters and editors to fill in missing information.

One thing the job taught me was that the government and police exert a large amount of control over the way the news is reported in Japan, mainly thanks to an obedient domestic media.

Naturally, I made all this known to my dinner companions in Sri Lanka. And I gave them a few concrete examples of how the authorities had managed to get the media to suppress some fairly significant news stories in Japan.

The ex-reporter was nodding the whole time and did not disagree. Yet he countered that this was "self-censorship." In other words, censorship in Japan is actually carried out by the media themselves rather than by the authorities directly, which apparently makes it OK.

Thus the defining feature of media in Japan had emerged: this may be the only country in the world where all the freedoms of the press exist, legally speaking, but where the journalists chose not to exercise those freedoms.

A friend of mine, a London-based reporter for the Reuters news service who once studied and worked in Japan, was quick to realize that much. "In Britain," he told me, "when you form a simple picture of the society in your mind, the government and police are on one side of a fence and the public and the media are together on the other. But in Japan, it's the government, police and the media on one side, and the public by themselves on the other."

At the root of this cozy relationship between the media and the authorities is the tightly knit system of kisha clubs, or press clubs. Of course, most countries have press clubs, organizations that give reporters direct access to official news sources.

But nowhere compares to Japan when it comes to the scale and the high degree of organization of the press club system. There are about 800 clubs attached to various central and local government offices, police forces, industrial organizations, and so on.

Legions of reporters belong to the clubs, which are strictly managed both by the organizations they are attached to and even by the clubs' own journalist members. The ties between the reporters and the people they are supposed to scrutinize are typically cozy.

The European Union sees the kisha clubs as no less than a trade barrier, due to how they monopolize information among certain, select journalists while barring full member to reporters from non-Japanese organizations. An EU trade report late last year called the system a "serious threat to the free flow of information" and urged the clubs' abolition. The EU has threatened to take the issue to the World Trade Organization.

Much has been written and debated about this subject, so I won't go into details on how the system works. Yet I should point out that the main result of such managed news reporting is that too often "news stories" merely mirror government and police views, and as such hardly qualify as journalism.

A clear example of this emerged last March.

The National Police Agency (NPA) had released report on crime statistics for 2002, a large part of which stressed crimes committed by foreigners. The report was picked up by nearly all the major news organizations, many of which printed stories and editorials containing words to the effect that: "A surge in crime committed by foreigners helped push up Japan's crime rate to a record level."

So I examined the numbers for myself. During last year, a record high 2,853,739 criminal cases were reported, 34,746 of which were committed by foreign nationals.

True, there was a sudden rise in crimes by foreigners (although inflating the figure was the inclusion of "visa violations" -- which only foreigners can commit), but I took out my calculator to do some simple mathematics, only to learn that foreigners were responsible for a mere 1.2 percent of all criminal cases. Hardly a contributing factor.

So what's going on here? Are Japanese journalists ignorant of basic statistics? Do they really believe that 1.2 percent makes up a significant portion of a total?

No. What they were doing was parroting the NPA report. Read the "foreigners and crime" links on the the NPA's Japanese-language Web site and compare it to some "news articles" that came out at the time, and you'll see what I mean.

As for the NPA, the agency has come under fire over the record-high crime rate, together with a pathetic arrest rate that has sunk to below 20 percent and a string of police corruption scandals throughout the country.

So for the cops, focusing on trouble-making foreigners is an effective strategy in deflecting such notions. The surge in crime is due to outsiders, the NPA insists, who enter and the leave the country as they please, leaving us powerless to deal with them.

The scary thing is how suspect information like this is accepted first by an unquestioning media and then by an unquestioning public.



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