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Japan's Media Dinosaurs Struggle to Adapt

By Mark Austin | August 19, 2010

Two foreign journalists with their hands forlornly in the air, ignored at a press conference where the Japanese prime minister dissolves parliament.

Blood spilled on the streets of Tokyo's "Electric Town" and splashed in a newspaper extra.

Circumstances surrounding former Prime Minister Taro Aso's announcement on July 21, 2009, of a general election, and the so-called Akihabara massacre that left seven people dead and 10 injured 13 months earlier, symbolize, respectively, the cartelization of information by Japan's mainstream media under the so-called kisha (press) club system and the unraveling of that cartel.

David McNeill, from Ireland, and Pio d'Emilia, who is Italian, were the reporters with aching arms who never got the chance to ask questions at Aso's half-hour news conference because they were not members of the Prime Minister's Press Club.

"Ahead of that press conference I was told by the Prime Minister's Office that we would have observer status only—we could listen, but not ask questions," McNeill says. "I was kind of mad: I thought that this would be one of the most-watched elections in Japanese political history because we were about to see the end of the LDP. So not allowing the foreign press even one question seemed to me to be unacceptable."

The watershed August 30 general election did in fact prove disastrous for the Liberal Democratic Party, which was hammered by the major opposition Democratic Party of Japan, losing 177 seats in the 480-seat House of Representatives, while the DPJ gained 195, giving it 308 seats and a commanding majority. While the DPJ's election manifesto did not spell out its intention to reform the kisha club system, the party had since its foundation in 1998 championed the cause of information disclosure by the government.

As far as the DPJ was concerned, the key to more open government was reforming the kisha club system. Tracing their history back to 1890, the kisha clubs are attached to entities including government ministries and agencies, local government organs, the courts, the Bank of Japan, the Tokyo Stock Exchange, prefectural police headquarters, political party headquarters, chambers of commerce and major corporations. There are thought to be as many as 1,500 such clubs, which act as channels for the dissemination of official information, but are widely criticized for their exclusivity, their symbiotic relationship with their sources—which breeds a culture of self-censorship—and the tendency of their members to write essentially the same stories, so that no member has an edge over his cohorts.

In his book Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop, American scholar Ivan Hall says of the kisha club system: "It is the intellectual cartel most obvious to the eye; the one most deeply set in the formal structures and working habits of an entire profession; the one with the most baneful impact on the exchange of ideas with other countries; the one most restrictive of an open and democratic flow of information among the Japanese themselves; and the only such cartel actually threatened with collapse should outsiders be allowed to participate."

The European Union agreed, threatening in 2002 to file a complaint against Japan with the World Trade Organization unless it ended the "widespread and undesirable practice of split briefings for domestic and foreign journalists," a move that prodded the Japanese government to instruct ministries to let holders of the Foreign Ministry-issued foreign press ID card attend press conferences. This instruction, however, was widely ignored.

Then DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama said at a press conference on July 27, 2009, seven weeks before taking office as Japan's 60th prime minister: "I and former party leader (Ichiro) Ozawa have long said categorically that we will open press conferences to all. We have no intention of going back on this. Therefore, there is no need to state this in our manifesto."

With a year having passed since the DPJ took over the reins of government, now is a good time to write a report card on the progress the ruling party has made toward its pledge of overhauling the kisha club system. But first, let's return to the bloodstained streets of Akihabara, scene of a tragedy that signaled another epochal development in Japan's media environment.

Real-time bloodbath in Akihabara

On a hot Sunday afternoon in early June 2008, disaffected loner Tomohiro Kato plowed a rented 2-ton truck into a crowd of pedestrians in Tokyo's electronics, video game and manga shopping hub, killing three people and injuring two, before getting out of the truck and stabbing 12 people, four fatally. It was a depressingly familiar incident of random mass murder in Japan, a country where the crime rate is very low, but sudden explosions of murderous rage far from uncommon—the National Police Agency logged 67 such attacks in the 10 years preceding the Akihabara massacre.

News organizations dispatched scores of reporters to the crime scene, and newspapers raced to put out extras. While the extra has become virtually extinct in Western countries, this antiquated platform for breaking news is still very much alive in Japan, for reasons one can only guess at. The Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with the largest readership in the world, boasting a combined morning and evening circulation of around 14 million, published a rare four-page extra with three Japanese pages and one English one (put together by staff of The Daily Yomiuri, an English-language daily published by The Yomiuri Shimbun). In a fascinating interface of old and new media technologies, four of the eight photos on the Japanese pages, including the only photo on the front page, which showed the perpetrator being led away by police, were credited to "dokusha," or readers, who had captured the assault on their cell phones or digital cameras. The others, showing the aftermath of the attack, were taken by Yomiuri Shimbun staff photographers. The one photo on the English page of the extra was from AP.

Unsurprisingly, given Akihabara's status as a technology mecca, the horror that unfolded there on June 8 last year was also reported as it happened on Twitter and broadcast live on streaming video Web site Ustream by two users who happened to be at the scene. The Ustream coverage ignited a firestorm of debate in the Japanese blogosphere over the morality of rubbernecking "citizen paparazzi" making public the massacre victims' private agony and triggered a backlash in the weekly magazines that seemed somewhat hypocritical given the salaciousness of much of their reporting. The Ustream link was posted on Internet mega-forum 2channel, attracting thousands of viewers and crashing the live stream. In an awesome demonstration of the power of the new "democratized media," personal information about the perpetrator of the massacre was also posted on 2channel, including his name and the schools he attended, within hours of the attack. The forum is said to have as many as 16 million users.

Banging on the door

Clearly, a tectonic shift is under way in Japan's media world. But how fast are the plates moving, and will traditional media be able to adapt to the "Web 2.0" world, in which Internet users play an active role in generating and sharing content?

Ginko Kobayashi, a London-based Japanese journalist who is author of the popular Japanese-language UK Media Watch blog says: "There's been a battle going on in recent years between the traditional Japanese media, whose policies are decided by middle-aged men, and the Net media, dominated by people in their 20s and 30s. Net media—Ustream, Twitter and famous blogs—are changing the direction of debates in Japan, though not in a major way yet."

Kobayashi credits freelance journalists, notably Takashi Uesugi and Tetsuo "Teddy" Jimbo, with forcing the DPJ to take the initiative to open up press conferences to non-kisha club members by "banging on the door demanding transparency and openness."

"Moves (to open up press conferences to non-kisha club members) were under way before the DPJ took power, but since the change of administration, responses have been mixed depending on the minister involved," says Uesugi, author of "Janarisumu Hokai" (The Collapse of Journalism) and arch-critic of the kisha clubs. Uesugi noted that with the honorable exceptions of former Prime Minister Hatoyama; Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada; Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Kazuhiro Haraguchi; DPJ Secretary General Yumio Edano; Ichiro Ozawa, DPJ powerbroker and former party secretary general; and Shizuka Kamei, leader of the People's New Party and former financial services and postal reform minister, "the others have reneged on the election pledge."

Commenting on how new media technologies have impacted traditional mainstream Japanese media, Uesugi singled out Twitter, whose adoption by freelancers means that "(government) press conferences are effectively held online. As a result, at least the public has learned about the existence of the dreadful system known as the kisha club. The Internet has had a positive effect. I think the kisha club system will collapse within the next 10 years."

Jimbo, editor in chief of subscription-funded Internet news broadcaster, shared rueful tales about his experiences battling the kisha club system with Japan Close-Up, describing how he was stymied time and again by the system when he worked as a reporter for wire service AP, including on the occasion of Emperor Hirohito's death in 1989.

As AP was not allowed to join the Imperial Household Agency Press Club, Jimbo was forced to attribute news of the emperor's death in his report to public broadcaster NHK, which, of course, is a member of the club. "As far as I know, North Korea and Japan are the only countries in the world where the head of state's death has to be attributed to official state media," Jimbo said in an interview at his modest broadcasting studio in Meguro, Tokyo. But while he is an ardent critic of the kisha club system, Jimbo doesn't seek its abolition.

"Throughout their history, (Japanese) media have held the upper hand over the government in terms of holding press conferences and the basic rules of how press conferences are conducted, such as who gets to ask questions and so forth," Jimbo said. "So if the kisha clubs become more open organizations, that relationship should, I think, be maintained—the media having the upper hand over the government, rather than the government getting to decide how to deal with the media."

Jimbo worries that if the kisha clubs dig their heels in and refuse—out of a determination to protect their vested interests—to let foreign media, magazines, Web media and freelancers attend the press conferences they host, the government will step in and take control of media affairs.

"The government can say, 'The kisha clubs aren't responding properly to the current situation, so we have to take charge and open press conferences.' And maybe the government's motivation is a sincere and honest one—it simply wants to open up press conferences, but the kisha club is blocking it, so it's taking over. Maybe that's the case with the DPJ. But five or 10 years from now, you don't know what kind of people are going to be in power," Jimbo pointed out.

Three moral hazards bedevil Japan's mainstream media, Jimbo says: cross-ownership, under which the "Big Five" media groups—Yomiuri, Asahi, Mainichi, Nihon Keizai and Sankei—own or have stakes in dozens of TV stations, radio stations, newspapers and magazines; the kisha club system; and the resale price maintenance system, which allows newspaper companies to sell their products at prices higher than the market would normally dictate.

Such cozy arrangements ill serve the Japanese public, Jimbo believes. "In the past 50 years, there's been no newcomer in the Japanese mass media industry. Back in the '70s cable TV came along, satellite TV arrived in the '90s, and now there's the Internet, which is finally changing the shape of the media, slowly," he says. "But in the past 50 years, the five conglomerates have dominated the market, and there's been no newcomer. That shows how closed the market is, and how well protected they are."

A veteran reporter for one of Japan's big dailies, who asked that his name not be given, stuck up for the status quo and defended the kisha clubs, which, he said, "serve the common good by enabling news-gathering in a way that goes beyond the everyday rivalry that exists among media organizations."

A Prague spring?

Irish reporter McNeill, who chairs the Foreign Press in Japan, the main conduit between the foreign press corps in Japan and the organs of the Japanese state, recalls the excitement that greeted Foreign Minister Okada's maiden press conference on September 18 last year. Okada, a longtime proponent of open government who made a point of opening his press conferences to non-kisha club members as he rose through the upper ranks of the DPJ, began his first press conference as Japan's top diplomat by saying that his meetings with the press "will be open, in principle, not only to media organizations that are members of the press club in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but to all media."

"That press conference was really remarkable because first of all it was really long—it was nearly an hour long—and Okada kept asking for more questions," McNeill says. "There was an official beside him who kept trying to wind things up: 'Ja, kore de ii desho ka' (OK, that should do it), and he kept looking at his watch, but Okada said, "Mo chotto de" (Just a bit longer).

"And you could see Okada enjoyed it. He took questions on all kinds of stuff, most of them from the freelancers, from the magazine journalists. There were a lot of questions about (the U.S. Marine Corps') Futenma (Air Base), there were a lot of follow-up questions. Usually it's one, one, one, one.

"You could tell why the press club system is so bad by looking at the conduct of that press conference because in the old system both sides got used to this very ritualized transfer of questions and answers—same questions, same answers—whereas introducing all these different perspectives from people who weren't members of the press clubs livened things up, kept Okada on his feet and broadened the debate. So we were all very impressed."

While hailing the "major change" in the Japanese government's dealings with the press, McNeill echoed Jimbo's concerns about whether the new dispensation is too good to last: "I don't know if it's a revolution, if it's irreversible. Let's say the LDP or some other conservative government comes back into power—what then?"

Veteran Japan watcher Karel van Wolferen, emeritus professor of comparative political and economic institutions at the University of Amsterdam, speculates that the DPJ government's policy of opening up press conferences to non-kisha club members could have ramifications that are more subtle and far-reaching than mere increased transparency of governance.

"I think it's a mistake to expect a direct effect like 'more people can ask questions, so we will know more,'" says van Wolferen, who memorably described the Japanese media as a "well-tuned single-voice choir" in his best-selling book The Enigma of Japanese Power. "Maybe it'll help a bit, but that's not important. What's important is that vis-à-vis this development, the monopoly of the big Japanese newspapers and NHK is undermined.

"Since the large newspapers in Japan are really major authors of political reality—much more so than newspapers in any European country or the United States—because of the arrangements that they have with each other: the agreements about what to highlight, what to write about and what to cover up, that means that Japanese newspapers are going to be less important in determining political reality in Japan."

Jimbo seconded van Wolferen's opinion on the waning authority of Japan's media giants, saying of them: "Because of the changing media environment, their influence and roles are getting smaller and smaller. They still have huge audiences, but they are less and less respected by so-called opinion leaders, who tend to rely more and more on nonconventional media, such as specialized magazines, the Web and blogs.

"These opinion leaders project their views and information to large sections of the public through conventional media, through the Web, through Twitter and other Web-related means. Horiemon (entrepreneur Takafumi Horie), for example, has half a million followers on Twitter, and when he writes a book it sells a million copies. (Economist) Nobuo Ikeda, (cultural critic) Hiroki Azuma—they have enormous influence over people."

Van Wolferen is more circumspect about the brave new wired world. "I think that for all the talk about an information society, there's another side to the coin—there's a disinformation society," he says. "The effect of bullshit is enormous. In a media culture that has given itself over, almost entirely, to entertainment principles, where celebrity counts and pseudo events are covered in what used to be serious publications, the bullshit factor is far more relevant than the access that we have to reasoned commentary."

Connected, but not united

The only other country that had a press club system comparable to Japan's is South Korea, which began dismantling what was a vestige of Japan's 1910–45 colonial rule following the election of left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun as president in 2002. Roh came to power with the support of young people who favored Internet-based news Web sites, notably OhmyNews, whose slogan is "Every Citizen Is A Reporter," and which relies on an army of 60,000 unpaid "citizen reporters" to generate the bulk of its content. A grateful Roh gave his first postelection interview to the site. OhmyNews opened a branch in Japan in 2006 using funds invested by SoftBank Corp., but the venture was closed down just two years later, having failed to attract enough volunteer reporters, page hits or advertising revenue.

Contrasting the South Korean example with Japan's, McNeill says: "There's been a political revolution in South Korea in the last 20 years, so you have this very vibrant, open democracy—that's why there's been a grassroots rebellion against the old conservative establishment, which includes the newspapers. There's a demand for liberal left, antiestablishment content, which the Internet providers like OhmyNews offer. There isn't the same level of grassroots political activity here that there is in the rest of the world. People are pretty apathetic politically."

Jimbo and van Wolferen concur with this assessment. "If OhmyNews had come to Japan at the same time as the DPJ took power, maybe things would have been different," says Jimbo, who admits his Internet news service is "struggling to survive" with just 12,000 subscribers, despite having the largest subscription base among Web news sites in Japan. Van Wolferen notes that while there is a citizen movement tradition in Japan stretching back to the late 19th century, such movements have tended to be local and concern themselves with single issues, such as the environmental-poisoning cases—Minamata, Itai-itai and Yokkaichi asthma—that he wrote about in the 1970s while a foreign correspondent in Japan.

"But within that tradition, you could imagine that the Internet amplifies the opportunity" for people to organize, he said, adding that the democratization of media "has expanded the means by which we can make our voices heard, but it also dilutes the content. The more that people throw opinions all over the place, what does it add up to? The problem is what I call the 'opinion mist,' which makes things less visible. What you need is a political movement."

Republished with kind permission from Japan Close-Up, a publication of PHP Institute.

Read More: Communication, Culture, Democracy, Technology, Japan, Asia

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