Media Critic: Asano Kenichi

Interview by Stewart Wachs

[F]ormer Kyodo News Service correspondent Asano Kenichi was expelled from Indonesia in 1992 for his investigative reports on shady deals between Jakarta businessmen and Japanese politicians. Asano quit Kyodo News in ‘94 and now teaches journalism at Doshisha University. He is author of many books of media criticism, including the bestseller The Crime of Criminal Reporting (Hanzai Houdou no Hanzai, 1984). A well-known advocate of news media reform, Asano is a founder of JIMPOREN (Japan’s Liaison Committee on Human Rights and Mass Media Conduct).

STEWART WACHS: Why didn’t you yourself become the type of Japanese reporter that you criticize? Was there some turning point?

ASANO KENICHI: May I tell you first why I wanted to be a journalist? When I was a junior high student, the news arrived that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Now, this would have been a memorable day for us Japanese for still another reason, because NHK had scheduled the very first live overseas TV news broadcast, from Washington. It was supposed to start about six in the morning.

Well, I loved English classes, so at two or three AM I was listening to the American Armed Forces Radio Network and I heard about President Kennedy. I didn’t know the word “assassinated,” so I opened my dictionary and was shocked by what I found, because I really liked John F. Kennedy, as a kind of new leader. I used to read a lot of books about him. A few hours later, just before that first live TV, I woke my mother and father. There were not many people who knew about this so early in the morning, all over Japan, so I was very excited to tell my father. And he said, “Why? It’s incredible! Is it true?” And then together we watched the television. I remember the NHK correspondent saying, “It is very sad to have to bring this kind of news, this saddest news to the Japanese people for the first live broadcast from the United States.” And though it was a dark moment, at that time I thought that being a correspondent, a news reporter there on the spot, would be very exciting. If I learn English, I thought, maybe I can go to places that not many people ever visit. The first to see and report. And after that I started trying to become a journalist, especially an international reporter. I started reading lots of correspondents’ books.

My dream was to be an NHK correspondent to the United States. And to do so, I thought studying in the US would be very good for me. So, nearing my senior year of high school I applied for the American Field Service International Scholarship. I passed the test and my colleague was Fujisawa Hidetoshi, who is now the main newscaster of NHK, and former chief correspondent to Washington. We are both from Shikoku. Anyway, I went to Springfield, Missouri and graduated from a high school there. Staying one year made me more confident that I should be a journalist. That was 1966-67. There were lots of Asian students from all over the world.

It was a time of great change in the United States.

Still very conservative at that time.

Perhaps in Springfield, but in other parts of the country, as I am sure you were aware, there was great upheaval and a critical attitude towards the government.

And the Vietnam War.

Did you take journalism classes at high school?

Not a class, but I belonged to the high school newspaper. Lots of my friends were members. I was even interviewed, so I appeared in the campus paper there very often, and also sent articles to my high school newspaper in Takamatsu, which were printed there.

I dreamed of becoming a new type of correspondent who not only follows what the president says, but who tries to convey the real American society. I thought the Japanese correspondents to New York and Washington were not so good. They were just following the politics, economics and new phenomena, but didn’t report what the American people were really thinking.

After university, when the Kyodo News Service employed me, it was only for my knowledge of English and the United States. I passed the entrance examination at the top of the English tests. There are two: English-Japanese and Japanese-English, very important exams at Kyodo News, if you compare it with Asahi or other companies.

All of the news organizations except the Nihon Keizai Shimbun put all their new reporters in the police press club for at least two or three years. So I began by covering the Tokyo Ueno Police Station. And once there I thought, It’s very strange, why do I have to write — at that time there was for suspects no honorific “-san” — only “Asano arrested,” charge of murder, names of those involved, pictures, and background. So I had to write a story including those details.

In other words there was no yogisha (suspect) and once someone was arrested you had to use just their bare name, and you also had to list their relatives and so on?

Yes. And about their university, whether they were married or not, children or none, nationality and their address. So I thought, it’s a kind of punishment, an extra punishment even for the criminals. But there were some suspects who were not criminals, of course, so the assumption of innocence until proven guilty was not practiced in the mass media, I realized, nor by the police. It was against what I’d learned from schools. So I protested to the editor that we should change this, but he got mad, and the others, including the labor union, did not understand what I was saying.

The labor union’s purpose was to raise the wages. There is a Japanese expression: onaji kama no meshi o ku — “They are eating rice from the same bowl as us.” So you should not criticize the police. They expected us to be police with pens. But I said no, these may in a sense be colleagues, but we should change. So I named this criminal reporting as “public pollution.” The Minamata mercury poisoning case was prominent at that time. Disclosing such personal information about suspects and their families is public pollution, I said, and we should change. But the editors and the top-ranking Kyodo men, they all hated me. Then in the third year of my career, summer 1974, I was moved to the Chiba bureau where there were some rape and murder cases, three or four similar cases near Matsudo City. And the mass media and police all branded a man named Ono as the murderer, printed it before he was even arrested on that charge.

They referred to him as a murderer even prior to the arrest?

Yes, even though he’d been arrested for theft. So this case was very symbolic, the very worst. I also had to write stories about him, but then about half a year after we started coverage I met him in the detention house and interviewed him. He denied the allegation and I wrote the story.

You interviewed him in prison?

Yes, I believe I am the first journalist to have done so. Before that there were politicians who had been interviewed in prison, but Mr. Ono was a very common man and he was accused of rape and murder. Actually, the mass media wrote that he killed 11, at least according to the Mainichi Shimbun. The Asahi and Kyodo said nine, some of the newspapers said seven.

Was he convicted?

Yes, only in one case. But he was proven innocent in ‘91. And then, unfortunately he really killed a woman who lived with him after he was released, five years later. It was terrible. But still, meeting Mr. Ono was the turning point. Before that I had been taking this issue to the labor union and the editors, and at that time I was still okay in the company, not really being punished. But from the end of ‘74 to early ‘75 I became very outspoken about this and began to write a lot of stories in the labor union newspapers, the dailies and so on. My boss at Kyodo got mad, and also other companies now. Because the way criminal news is reported in Japan is not only one or two pages in the paper. The hierarchy of the news organization is mostly controlled by the shakai-bu kisha, or city news editors, and many of them go up to the top. They didn’t like what I said, because they are friends of the police. They work together with the police to make, they believe, a safe country. They are proud of this. But I thought that the role of journalists was not to be friends of police, but watchdogs of the authorities and officials, especially police and Self Defense Forces. Those people are dangerous if they go to the wrong side. Anyway, compared with my dream of being a good journalist, the reality was so far apart, and the result was that Kyodo news put me away from the editorial department for 12 years.

Where did they put you?

First at the same Chiba bureau, but not as a reporter. Usually you spend four years in such a local bureau, then you go back to the foreign desk or politics department, but I couldn’t return until ‘80 or so, and even after that I had to stay out of the editorial section for seven years, just rewriting the newspaper stories for broadcast news. And my section did not create news. It was culture, cooking, clothes, homemaking and so on. I thought of quitting Kyodo. But at that time I felt that if I moved I would lose this fighting. To remain at Kyodo is my duty, I thought.

To try to reform it from within?

Yes. And also, since my wife was a high school English teacher and we had a good income, I didn’t care. So my Kyodo working hours went from ten to six Monday through Saturday, and from six to ten in the evening I became a journalist. I wrote for magazines using my other name, a pen name. I used my wife’s former name.

And I started writing the book The Crime of Criminal Reporting. I went to Sweden in ‘81 for three weeks and a week in Finland and after that I went to the US to see the Minnesota News Council and I met the press ombudsman for The Washington Post and representatives of The Los Angeles Times, and I made international comparisons of mass media reports on crimes. And I wrote that book, using my paid vacation, under my own name.

Did you have trouble finding a publisher?

No. My proposal was accepted in 1984, and in August of that year it was printed. Until now I think 150,000 copies have been sold in 15 printings, including the paperback. After this book was printed there was interest in it from all over Japan. And after that, Kyodo News felt a lot of pressure from outside: Why do you keep Asano in this kind of soft feature section? Kyodo, after all, was regarded as a very liberal and good news organization, and non-profit. It’s not a corporation, so it’s very clean. There is no specific interest in making money. They just distribute news.

Even so, there was all this trouble? So what happened next?

They moved me to foreign news desk in ‘87, three years after the book was published, finally. And I became the Jakarta correspondent around ‘89, to ‘92.

So you never got the assignment to the US that you wanted?

No. When I returned to Tokyo after three and a half years in Indonesia, after being deported, I asked the boss to make me a correspondent to the United States, but they rejected it because they didn’t like what I had written about Suharto and so on. I was expelled by Suharto and I wrote a whole story about how the Japanese embassy was involved in my expulsion. I wrote everything, and Kyodo got mad and demoted me to a facsimile news rewrite service to Japanese ships abroad.

Were they trying to get you to quit?

I think so. And at that time Doshisha University was looking for a professor of journalism and mass communication. It was very good timing for me.

You did some lecturing at Keio University prior to that for a little while. And Keio is where you graduated from. What did you study there?

Economics. But my professor, Shirai Atsushi, was an authority on economic social thought, an expert on young Marx, and very well known for his anarchism research.

I am beginning to see how your thinking may have been shaped!

I think I am very much influenced by American democracy — until now, its good aspects, like human rights.

What motivated you to move to an academic position in your mid-40s? Why not another news service or newspaper? With your credentials couldn’t you have landed such a job?

It’s impossible in Japan, because I am very notorious.

Were you essentially blacklisted?

Yes, by mass media and police — and the government, maybe.

Then how could you get into Doshisha?

This is a unique university, very Christian. So the only universities I could have moved to were this one or Meiji Gakuin, Ferris, ICU (International Christian University), or Kansai Gakuin. Maybe Kyoto Seika. Keep in mind that I had not only been criticizing Kyodo, but Asahi and NHK, all the major news organizations, and the structure of the mass media. They all hated me, and still do. So the Asahi Shimbun almost never uses my name in articles. I’m always referred to as nado (etcetera). I’ve published all these books, but they very seldom put them in their book reviews, not a word, only the name of the book printed in their advertisement section.

And besides, they know what I’ll say. Like with Princess Masako’s pregnancy issue. If they ask me, they know my answer, so they don’t call. That is why I have to use my homepage, about Aum Shinrikyo issues and so on. They know what they are doing is wrong, so they don’t ask me. I still want to move to some news organization that would make me a correspondent to the United States. I asked TV Asahi and friends at TBS and the Mainichi Shimbun, but they all said, It’s impossible, Mr. Asano, I want you to come, but given the public opinion in my company it’s impossible.

If TV Asahi or the Mainichi Shimbun asks me to be a correspondent in New York I will move. It’s bad for students here, but I prefer to be a journalist. The only way is if I become a freelancer, but my daughter is still going to school and also my wife quit her job before I quit mine, so I need money.

But, what you are doing here is of great value.

I also like this, being a professor here. I wanted to continue being a journalist, but this choice was not bad. I thought it was kind of God’s decision. Being a professor of Doshisha, I can use the name of the university to make what I say more critical and influential.

In this society, of course, such credentials carry a great deal of weight, even giving you a certain immunity. But let me ask about the personal price of your decisions: Has your campaign to reform the Japanese news media cost you any friendships?

If you were working for Toyota and you wrote a book saying let’s get on the buses and public transportation instead of cars, how would your friends in the company treat you? Imagine, you are a member of mass media, and you criticize it. We all are friends of the police, and against journalistic principles. If you write a book that is “outside” the mass media, you can imagine how you are treated. You lose almost all of your friends. But fortunately I think you can also get real friends. I could get more new friends because of this campaign, all over Japan, including many reporters who began thinking seriously about the way they report on criminal cases.

About ten years before your career shifted into the academic world, you had helped to found JIMPOREN (The Liaison Committee on Human Rights and Mass Media Conduct). How did this come about and why, and how do you feel about JIMPOREN’s progress today?

One year after I published my first book, in July of ‘85, JIMPOREN was established. At that time, do you remember the Miura Kazuyoshi case in Los Angeles? He was arrested for killing his wife for the life insurance benefits. This started in January of ‘84 and lots of so-called “wide show” programs in Japan started to focus on ordinary people’s crimes in a very sensational way. The Japanese mass media’s attitude changed. More criminal stories and more wide shows. I think it was because the pages of the newspapers had increased a lot and the channels of the television and radio, so you needed more competition and more attractive and sensational news to get the high ratio of the audience. Also, so-called “sports newspapers” started to write about city news. Before that they didn’t write much of this, but now onto the front page went the Los Angeles case. If a young woman was killed, lots of coverage. It started in ‘83, ‘84. So then my book appeared in that kind of social mood, where many people began to feel that this mass media coverage was very indecent.

So there was a growing public awareness at the same time this was happening?

Biologically speaking, it was like an evolution. Lots of victims of the press all over Japan started to organize, feeling that this was like a public pollution. So the people started to go to the courts and fight against the press, plus I wrote a book from inside the mass media. And also the scholars of criminal law started to think about the matter. It’s against the due process of law if you punish the suspects with the arrest. Even the attorneys and the judges will think they are already guilty, so it’s a violation against the right to have a fair trial. Some of the academics began to think that, so they all got together in JIMPOREN. It began with a symposium in ‘85. The m.c. was an attorney, and the panelists were from newspapers. JIMPOREN’s chief director was and still is Okudaira Yasuhiro, a constitutional scholar at Tokyo University and later an ICU professor; he has since retired from academia.

Did he recruit you?

No, we recruited him. There were about 20 or 30 executive members who were founders. About one-third were journalists, another one-third victims of the media, and the rest attorneys, scholars and so on. Today we have 500 members, including some foreigners. Similar organizations were set up in Kansai, Sapporo, Sendai, and Fukouka, and we made a kind of federation together. But still this is a very small group. We don’t have an office yet, but I think this is the only Japanese citizens’ organization to monitor the press. In the United States you have lots of different organizations. But in Japan we have been campaigning, I think successfully, to establish a new press council.

In 1997 a broadcasting organization was established named BRO (Broadcasting and Human Rights Organization), dealing with human rights. You can appeal if you are victimized by improper broadcasts on television or radio stations. For the press we don’t have this yet. But now the Japanese government and also the ruling parties are pushing the mass media to have this kind of organization, and the Japan Bar Association are also suggesting this.

Are they aiming for an independent council or one linked to the government?

What they are saying is that if you don’t make it by yourself, we will make it for you. My JIMPOREN activities for 14 years have been very successful and helpful for the journalists who are suffering from inside the mass media system. Because when I started this, I was the only one, but now there lots of us.

Has this been a kind of consciousness-raising organization, so that people who are in the mass media become aware that they are not alone with the doubts they have, the uncomfortableness with these ethical issues?

Yes. And it’s still small, but much better than before.

What tangible or intangible progress has been made by JIMPOREN?

The first, since ‘89, is the abolition of yobisute (using a person’s name without an honorific title). They are now writing, for example, Asano-yogisha when someone is arrested. And then, in ‘90, the Asahi Shimbun and other newspapers started not to print suspects’ pictures, except in big crimes. Also the Miura case, the Los Angeles case. He went to the court. He sued newspapers, magazines and television almost 500 times. And 70 to 80 percent he won. When you are arrested in Japan you wear handcuffs and you are forced to walk from the car to the entrance of the police station, about 100 meters. But now according to the courts it’s a human rights violation, so now they cannot do it. So you can see on the television that they digitally erase the handcuffed hands.

Until 1991-92 there were lots of improvements, but after that it went the wrong way again, after a medical doctor killed his wife and children in Yokohama. After that there was lots of coverage of the victims. The wife was reported to be working for a lingerie pub. And then there was the Aum incident and after that story broke, these kinds of small improvements disappeared, because you can write anything about (Aum leader) Mr. Asahara Shoko.

But they do still call him yogisha don’t they?

Yes. But the way of reporting changed. They supported what the police did. They just ignored believers’ rights. So lots of standards, basic rules slipped again in ‘95, ‘96. When a university student was killed in Saitama, the media went to her house and interviewed her grandfather and father. So now Japanese media not only report about the criminal offenders but also about the victims, including their private matters. That is why the government is trying to make a statute or regulation over the press, so this is a very critical situation, also a very good chance to have the media accountability system which I proposed.

What, in your view, is the appropriate role of the news media in a democracy?

To be the watchdog of the authorities. Democratic systems very often are used to help people who have power. In practice, democracy sometimes doesn’t work. For instance, if you have a dispute or are being victimized, we say you can go to court, but ordinary people find it very expensive to pay for legal costs. So I think the journalist’s role, on behalf of those who lack power but pay taxes, is to watch and monitor high ranking officials, the government, judges, the emperor, or even professors , anyone with influential power over the general public. The second role is to speak out for the voiceless people, and also to set a public agenda by reporting on social issues, especially for minority groups. Also of course the journalist’s role is to give entertainment, such as bringing the results of the day’s sports.

There is a debate going on in America between journalists over so-called “civic journalism.” Some journalists think that their business is mainly to report the news and that anything beyond that should be saved for the opinion and editorial page. Other journalists feel that reporters themselves should be advocates. Where would you stand on this?

I prefer good objective reporting. By choosing news items, reporters are advocates. If you write about how the Japanese public doesn’t accept Aum Shinrikyo members into their community, you are already an advocate.

Reporters shouldn’t bring their own opinions too much into articles. You can appeal to readers by writing truthfully and reporting facts and people’s comments, and this leaves the freedom to bring to news an attitude. It’s enough. If you report only what a government spokesperson says, it is against that principle. A Kyodo News survey in ’90 shows that 90% of their distributed news articles are from government, big labor unions, or big companies. In other words, 90% are from the press clubs — happyou, press releases. This is wrong. We need the American democratic style of objective reporting: reporters’ bylines printed, and where possible the news sources. People should be accountable.

What, as you see it, are the main flaws of Japanese news reporting and their root causes?

One is our way of training journalists. In the US you usually start at a small newspaper, you show what you wrote, then you get maybe a part-time job, then a full-time position, and later go up to the New York Times or AP. But in Japan you can get a job in mass media in your senior year of university and they don’t care whether you can write. They can train you.

Are you saying that graduates can get a job with a major paper or news service right away?

Yeah, and without any background. Most of them have never learned about press ethics or the meaning of freedom. From the beginning it is wrong. Also, most Japanese media companies have an informal agreement to keep their employment of females at 12 or 13 percent.

Is that an open secret in the industry, despite the national Equal Employment Opportunity Law?

It is. You can see at the Asahi Shimbun that from 400 last-stage applicants, 200 men and 200 women, the final result will be 70 men and maybe 10 women. And the total newspaper industry is eight percent women, the smallest, I believe, in Asia. You can see 20 or 30 percent females in Indonesia, 30 to 40 percent in Thailand. So a very small percentage, and that certainly would affect the reporting of women’s issues. Also there are very few Japan-born Koreans. And according to law, if you have 150 or more workers you must employ a certain percentage of handicapped people. But all news media except NHK ignore this law, so they have to pay fines every year. Then they write in their editorials that we have to have a fair society! I’ve asked them, “Why don’t you employ the handicapped, like a blind man?” They said, “How can you employ him in the newspaper? You have to run to get the news!” I’ve told them that having those handicapped people inside the editorial room would be good for the newspaper, but they said, “Ahhh! You are crazy!”

So their recruitment policies are wrong. And also, they use private detectives to build their personnel files. They find out what applicants’ parents are doing and their religions. There is a company in Japan called Koshinjo, mostly owned by former policemen and police officials. I found this out in Kyodo News, and I took this issue to the labor union, but they did nothing. To this day there is still Koshinjo. One of their detectives started to look around one of my students’ apartment house, asking the landlord what kind of friends come around and so on. Only Nishi-Nippon Shimbun, based in Hakata, Fukuoka doesn’t do this because people protested. The others are all doing it. They admit it. So you never see a Soka Gakkai sect member reporting for the Asahi Shimbun. The second thing is the kisha club system, of course.

On the JIMPOREN web page you actually have a list of the shortcomings of Japanese news reporting: “An astounding lack of editorial ethics and journalistic procedures. Endemic abuse of the civil liberties of ordinary citizens. A dearth of media accountability and schemes to insure proper redress. Persistent strains of historical revisionism, especially in tabloids. State manipulation of the news media through the press club system. The chronic failure to function as a fourth estate.” So far you’ve made it clear that much of this comes about through discriminatory hiring policies which shape a press that does not proportionally represent the population. Beyond that, how do working conditions for the average Japanese journalist affect their attitude towards social justice?

Working hours are terrible, but wages are very good. If I were a member of the Asahi at my age and I were director of the foreign news department, maybe I’d get more than 20 million yen (US $187,000). At TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) it’s more than that. But in the police press clubs, you have to work from seven o’clock in the morning until two AM. You can only sleep 3 or 4 hours. Strong people have been known to get mentally ill in their first six months.

Those are inhumane conditions. This is universal?

Yes, it’s the norm. One-third of the Asahi Shimbun’s new reporters reportedly left their jobs in ‘94-’95. One of the weekly magazines wrote that, and the Asahi Shimbun protested: No, one-fourth!

In America if you quit you can move to other news organizations, but in Japan if you leave the Asahi Shimbun there’s nothing. You have to totally leave the mass media system, so most of them became non-journalists, or mentally sick.

How big a lure is the starting salary for a new reporter?

You can start at 4 or 5 million yen (US $37,000-$47,000) at the Asahi Shimbun. They also provide houses and automobiles and computers. The perks are much better than other companies, even banks. My salary at Kyodo News was almost double my wife’s income, and in Japan a high school teacher’s pay is not bad.

So, first reporters are recruited with good pay packages and through discriminatory hiring policies, and then once they enter the system they are abused.

Yes. There is no free time. The labor union federation sent 50 members, Japanese reporters, to Stockholm and London. They were so surprised to find that reporters there can leave the office at 6, 7, 8 o’clock. In Japan it’s impossible to have such private time in the evening. And here a journalists’ life expectancy is ten years shorter than for other professions, according to the Federation of Japanese Newspaper Labor Unions.

The other big problem is sexual harassment of women reporters. One reporter for a leading Japanese newspaper was raped and got pregnant by one of the “career policemen” she went to interview. She didn’t go to the police. She got an abortion and is still working for this newspaper. Most women reporters say that every day there is sexual harassment from inside and outside the company. One reporter was asked to watch a policeman masturbate in front of her at 11PM, because female reporters are sent late at night to the homes of the career policemen, who often live singly, apart from their families, in apartment houses. The children of these officers usually attend the good private schools in Tokyo and these men are sent to Shikoku or Kyushu, leaving their families for years. If a 23-year old woman reporter has to go there, what do you think will happen? It is a crime of the company. So the Asahi once told its women reporters not to wear skirts but trousers.

This custom of journalists going to private houses late at night is routine here. But when a new correspondent for a major Japanese paper in Washington, DC tried to do this same kind of news gathering, he was almost arrested. He went to a state department official’s house about 10 PM with a bottle of whiskey!

You acquire these habits during two or three years in the police press clubs, and then move to the paper’s education or culture section, or to politics, and use the same methods there to get friends among news sources, and to ask for news leaks from the authorities. There’s a lot of gift-giving and drinking and playing of golf. And as your seniority rises you go to the press clubs of the Imperial Palace or the Supreme Court, and then perhaps you become a bucho (department chief) or something higher. Most of the presidents of Japanese newspapers are former political writers, and the managing editors, too.

Abolition of the press clubs is the most important step for reform, along with objective reporting principles such as bylines and attributed direct quotations. Today you still see Japanese reporters not bringing tape recorders, only their notebooks, because they don’t care. They put their own comments in their stories. They are very bad.

How exactly do Japanese news reporters become desensitized to the harm their news articles may inflict on other people? You’ve partly answered that by explaining how they themselves are abused. . .

I think those that who are not protected by human rights standards themselves, maybe these reporters cannot sympathize with the situation because they are victims also. The main thing is that there are very few chances for news reporters to reflect on how the victims of the press are feeling.

Is karoushi (death from overwork) a big problem?

Yeah, lots of people die. In one year, when there was the Sapporo Winter Olympics three or four reporters died, and two died when the emperor was seriously ill in ‘88. All, it seemed, from overwork. Middle-aged people in their 40s, 50s. Heart attacks, strokes and cancer. They drink a lot, most smoke. They have lots of frustrations. Journalists are like that mostly like that all over the world, but in Japan it is terrible.

In the post-war era the authority of the state over citizens has waned, but government collusion with the press remains very strong. Why has this sector of society remained under the thumb of the state to a greater extent than the others?

The 1945 collapse of the Japanese imperial state was like the fall of Nazism, but unfortunately the Allied forces allowed two things: one was the emperor, the other the press club. These were preserved to control the Japanese people, to use Japan as protection from the communists, and to stop communism in Japan. Especially after the Korean War started, the American GHQ apparently changed its policy in order to use former war criminals returned to society such as Kishi Nobusuke, who became Prime Minister, Sasagawa Ryoichi, the ultra-rightist owner of the boat-racing gambling racket and Nippon Foundation owner, and Shoriki Masutaro, president of the Yomiuri Shimbun — all war criminals. Also the former imperial universities remained, Tokyo and Kyoto University. So all of these, who had cooperated with the Asian invasion in the Pacific War, they all remained, whereas in Germany, all newspapers who were the friends of Hitler were abolished. In Italy, the same with the fascists. But in Japan, the Asahi Shimbun remained as before with the same name and title, and NHK as well. Only Kyodo News and Jiji Press were new, because the Domei News Agency dissolved itself, knowing that GHQ would do so, and they divided Domei into three new companies: Kyodo News, Jiji Press and the Dentsu advertising agency. Domei was the only news agency that took responsibility for the war, but the others all remained, as did all of the university professors. So the Americans used the emperor, mass media and conservative imperial professors to control the society; that’s why the press club remains.

During the war, the government had made a “one prefecture, one newspaper” policy. Also they had registered all the reporters in the press clubs. The power of the press club system was strengthened in the 1930s when Japan was invading China, and then after the war they remained, so the state then used the press clubs to make a kind of public relations offices of the authorities.

The other aspect is that Japanese newspapers were allowed to acquire the licenses of television companies. So we have Nippon Television/Yomuiri Shimbun, TBS/Mainichi Shimbun, TV-Asahi/Asahi Shimbun, TV Tokyo/Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Fuji Television/Sankei Shimbun. All television networks are owned by newspapers, so the newspaper chiefs have to be close to the government. And also the background of journalism in Japan is very weak. In the United States or Europe or the Philippines they fought for freedom of the press, but in Japan the freedom just came at the cost of more than twenty million victims in the Asia-Pacific countries, so few here feel that the freedom of the press comes from the people’s power. Not only in the field of journalism but in society, Japan has not experienced a civil revolution yet. Of course on paper we have a democracy, but still our way of thinking is very Confucian, very feudal, like 17th or 18th century, before the French Revolution. The government and the press should promote democracy, but it is used as a means for the authority to undemocratize the society!

And I said before, that the wages of the mass media workers are very high. This was a policy of Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei in the 1970s. At that time Japanese economic growth was huge, so lots of automobile and electric companies they could pay more wages for the workers, but the federation Keidanren made a new rule, they set pay limits. The exception was the mass media.

How and why did Tanaka do this?

Tanaka wanted the press on his side, so he asked Keidanren not to criticize the mass media for paying its employees more and more, especially bonuses. Every weekly magazine prints this winter’s bonus, and every time the mass media is the top. My father once told me, “Oh, you are getting a good wage. Please bring me a nice gift at the New Year Holidays!”

On another front, what influence do flaws within Japan’s justice system have on journalism here? For example, the weak libel laws . . .

The journalists should watch and monitor the justice system, but as with the police, journalists are largely the friends of prosecutors and judges. There is no organization to oversee the judicial system in this society. Besides that, the national budget is very small for the judicial estate, one-thirtieth that of the US. You have about 2000 lawyers in Atlanta, Georgia, and maybe 16,000 in all of Japan, a very small number of lawyers, and judges too.

And the justice system in Japan, from what I have read, falls far short of providing redress to victims of press abuse. Anyone who seeks to sue for libel has a lot of problems. The JIMPOREN web page bemoans the lengthy period of time it takes for a case to be carried out, the way plaintiffs’ lawyers have to basically work for free, and that settlements are still very small. So this lack of accountability, the comforting fact that even if you do libel someone you are not going to be punished very severely, isn’t that also a major factor?

Yes. But before answering that, I want to explain more about the judicial system. We don’t have the jury system. It is frozen. But if we had a jury system we’d have to change the style of our criminal reporting, because if the public can read all the supposed facts of a case before they see the suspect in court they could not judge fairly. Reopening the jury system here in Japan is important.

Reopening? Was there a jury system before?

It was frozen during the war. But you can just reopen it. There is a law. So if we had a jury system, we’d have to educate ordinary people about human rights and so on, which I think is very important. Now about redress, I think in Japan the highest amount of compensation has been 5 million yen (US $47,000), which is a very small sum by American standards, and usually it’s far less. And most suits are filed by politicians or other rich people. Very few ordinary persons go to the courts. If it is a freedom of expression matter, usually they go to the Supreme Court. It takes at least four or five years, costs a lot of money, and the result is only about one million yen (US$9,300). In effect it’s impossible for ordinary people to sue a media company. So what I have been promoting is the establishment of a media accountability system, with a complaint council, based on the Swedish model, to which you could easily go in order to start an investigation. The other necessity is to change the civil code system to make it easier to go to the court and to boost the amount of damages paid. But not too high or it will endanger the smaller media, like Kyoto Journal, if you are sued for breech of privacy, libel or something like that.

Both you and JIMPOREN compare Japanese news reporting unfavorably with that practiced in the US. Yet in America too, the field is struggling with many similar problems, especially since the advent of the World Wide Web and cable television, both of which have brought us 24-hour news reporting with its continuous, sometimes reckless competition to be first to break a story. New York Times columnist and author Russell Baker has described the Washington press corps as “foolish, shameful, and dangerous to American democracy.” PBS Newshour’s Jim Lehrer condemns “predatory stakeouts, brutally coarse invasions of privacy, and no source reporting,” and renowned newspaperman Pete Hamill, who happens to be married to Japanese journalist Aoki Fukiko, writes that most newspapers are getting “dumber, they are increasingly filled with sensation, rumor, press agent flackery and bloated trivialities at the expense of fact.” Hamill writes that American papers “cover celebrities as if their reporters were a bunch of waifs with their noses pressed enviously to the windows of the rich and famous.” He says the worst US newspapers are becoming “brainless junk food.” Do these descriptions sound familiar to you? This is American journalism as we see it degenerating right now.

These quotations can all be used to describe Japanese media. I’ve traveled to the US twice in recent years, once when two of my students and I interviewed Mr. Richard Jewell, the media victim in the Atlanta Olympic bombings, with my students. And after looking at the situation there, my new phrase became “Japanization of the US media.” Ten years ago the US media provided a good text for me, but nowadays, with USA Today and CNN and the Internet’s 24-hour reporting has made it become more like Japan. In the United States there was a good tradition of skepticism toward the authority and officials and the importance of journalism in a democratic society. These were fundamental principles recognized by most good journalists. But now it seems that it has become an information industry, not journalism. Like Mr. Murdoch’s. I’m very sad to see those phenomena, but in the US there are critics, scholars and journalists who are against this stream. That’s different from Japan.

True, there are Ben Bagdikian, Robert McChesney, John Stauber and others. And their analyses reveal that in addition to the advent of new technologies like cable TV and the Internet, many problems with US reporting stem from the rapidly increasing concentration of media ownership. You mentioned that in Japan the newspapers and TV networks are co-owned. In America it goes far beyond this. For example, with the merger of ABC, Capital Cities and Disney, a single multi-billion dollar conglomerate owns operations in every conceivable form of media. News, as a thin slice of their pie, becomes a mere subset of entertainment, and so it deteriorates. Is such a concentration of media is also occurring in Japan?

To a degree, yes, but with some differences. Recently the Yomuiri Shimbun bought the company Chuo Koronsha, which publishes a monthly magazine and lots of paperbacks. It was big news that this rather rightist news company acquired that publisher. The Mainichi Shimbun is losing its power, so now among Japanese dailies it is coming down to Asahi and Yomuri, two big newspapers, living together with prominent local newspapers, but in the new century the Yomiuri will likely grow bigger and bigger. The Asahi may well face financial problems soon, I imagine. As the monopoly of the Yomuri grows stronger, very good publishing companies that deal with social matters will be almost bankrupt. Already lots of them are disappearing.

Newspaper readership is not growing in Japan. Many younger people don’t read them. And the competition in the newsstands is much bigger than before. The Asahi and the Yomiuri formerly did not print so-called soft news on their front pages but now they do, and criminal news coverage has also grown much larger since the early 1990s. To increase profits they feel they have to be more sensational.

But in Japan, in one sense the mass media companies are lucky because they make newspapers and programs only in the Japanese language. There is no international competition for that. And Japan is the only country where very few people are reading English newspapers or watching English TV news. If you compare us with Thailand and Korea, for example, they have bigger audiences for English news. Here you never see government officials reading an English newspaper on their desks. On the other hand, in the Japanese language press you can see lots of plagiarism, the stealing of articles from overseas wire services and newspapers.

And then translating them into Japanese?

Everyday. Because the foreign writers of those original news articles don’t read the Japanese papers. In America, if a New York Times reporter didn’t attend a press conference and then wrote as if he’d been there, lots of people would notice, but a Japanese foreign correspondent can claim he was there and no one will find out, especially if there is no byline and no need to cite sources.

In your view, who is doing the best job of reporting news in Japan right now? Who is, shall we say, the “least distrusted”?

It’s not so easy to find really good reporters working for the papers, but there is Kamata Satoshi, a freelancer, who I think is the best journalist. He wrote a book about Toyota translated into 12 languages (Japan In the Passing Lane: An Insiders Account of Life in a Japanese Auto Factory. New York: Pantheon Books). And there’s Yamaguchi Masanori, who was kicked out of the editorial section in the Yomiuri and recently published a book reviewing ten years of the Japanese news media in the 90s. And also Kitamura Hajime, who is now editor of the magazine Sunday Mainichi, published by the Mainichi Shimbun. And of course there are several fine reporters in foreign news working for the papers, but they’re not very famous. Among journalists under 40 years of age, in fact, you can see lots of good ones, and I hope they will become the editors and change things. They understand the problems. They read my books when they were students at university, they really sympathize, and they are fighting for change. I believe we reformers have lots of quiet supporters.

That raises another issue. Why are there so few journalism programs in Japanese universities?

This involves history. Before the world war ended there were no journalism schools in Japan, and only one class, at Sophia University. After the war ended, the Allied GHQ thought the weakness of journalism in Japan was one of the causes of the war, so they asked the government to open journalism programs in Doshisha, Sophia University, and also a media research center at Tokyo University, and j-schools in Keio and Waseda universities. And there are several courses at Kansei Gakuin. These are the universities which suffered a lot under the military regime in Japan — Christian and pro-American or pro-European universities. But in the 1950s, after the GHQ left Japan, the Ministry of Education stopped this stream. There were no additional journalism schools. So I think the weakness of journalism schools in Japan is one cause of our terrible journalism. Waseda even abolished its program in the 1970s, which was unbelievable.

Nowadays the Education Ministry has started to implement so-called “informatics” schools, together with companies like NTT or NEC, which are teaching how to gain access to information through computers and so on. There are lots of these courses, but you can’t find one journalism professor at Osaka University, Kyoto University, or Kobe University. There is no one teaching journalism or mass communication, and I think it is very sad.

I understand that Japan’s big media are in fact reluctant to hire the few journalism graduates that the nation does produce. Why?

Because these students talk about human rights, press ethics, and the deeper meaning of the stories. The industry wants reporters who’ll just obey what their bosses tell them. “You go to Aum Shinrikyo,” or “You go to the earthquake zone.” They prefer reporters who don’t have their own opinions or code of ethics.

So what, then, is attracting 80 new students per year to enter a “Journalism and Communications” program such as yours here at Doshisha? Is it oriented not only to journalism but also to PR and advertising?

Yes, or liberal arts. In all, about one-quarter of our graduates go into the media industry. One-third if you include the public relations companies. Journalism is very competitive. The Asahi Shimbun hires one applicant out of three or four hundred. Nippon Television hires 10 or 20 new people a year, but 20,000 apply. Actually, graduates with law degrees have a better chance of being hired as journalists, because nationwide the law departments are ranked at the top. The media often regard a journalism major as a demerit. Sometimes they ask Doshisha students who apply, “What do you think of Professor Asano, who always criticizes the Asahi Shimbun?”

A do-or-die question! So, do you teach them how to attack you?

Well, I do advise them to say, “Yes, Professor Asano is teaching at our university and I have read what he is writing, but after I enter the news media myself I will see if his opinions are correct or not.” (Laughter.)

And have some of the students you counseled in this way been hired?

Yes, and some I didn’t advise got into quarrels at their job interviews. They said, “I support Mr. Asano!” And that’s it, they were finished! But as I said, only one in four even tries for journalism. Many others get hired by banks or become civil servants, and some go into PR, or advertising. But still, I am proud that several of my students have managed to get employed by important newspapers and magazines, and in the broadcast media.

You also teach a journalism seminar here to overseas exchange students.

Yes, from the US, China, Korea, and Taiwan. We have many graduate students from China, and they are very interested because their country doesn’t know the real meaning of journalism either. China, Japan and North Korea are very similar in their people’s concept of society, government and press. Indonesia too, until recently. We all leave things to the officials, just obey.

Here in Japan, it is the tabloid press — “sports shimbun” as well as weekly and monthly magazines — which are most likely to “disobey” and write investigative stories attacking government officials or policies. But they’re also the deserving targets of harsh criticism for recklessly defaming ordinary people, scandal and gossip mongering about celebrities, even printing sham articles that claim the Holocaust never occurred. They are also full of sex and nudity. All of this goes a long way toward undermining the credibility of the good articles they do print — indeed, of investigative journalism itself. Does Japan have any reasonably respected news magazines that are willing to stick their necks out on a solid story?

There is Shukan Kinyobi, edited by Honda Katsuichi, together with other former Asahi Shimbun reporters. He’s Japan’s most famous journalist when it comes to social matters of a serious nature. He is an anti-government activist. I often write for his magazine, and I believe it’s the only respectable news weekly in Japan today. There are also some monthlies, such as Hougaku Seminar.

On the whole, however, the tabloids are guilty of journalistic nihilism. The weeklies just make their readers feel disappointed; they don’t give citizens any impetus to fight for democracy and rights. They expose private matters about politicians or bad aspects of the government, but they don’t show how to solve these problems. There’s no structural analysis. Sometimes they criticize the imperial family or its members or even the big commercial companies, but all of this is within the framework of power. They don’t try to change anything. Also, they tend to focus on the privacy of the opposition parties’ leaders. It’s very clear they are politically linked to the LDP, government bureaucrats and high-ranking officials. They prey on the weak, but very seldom the powerful. And their thinking is very close to that of the ultra-rightists — denying, for instance, the Nanking Massacre.

One point to keep in mind about the tabloid press is that because of the way they advertise themselves, many people who do not even read them are still influenced. Tabloids post thousands of big ads on all the commuters’ trains, full of their rumors and baseless claims, where millions of Japanese can’t help but see them.

JIMPOREN criticizes major advertisers who purchase many pages of expensive ad space in the tabloids for being oblivious to their outrageous content, for not caring about the context in which their ads appear. What, if anything, can be done about this?

We have a self-disciplinary organization called JARO which is monitoring this, and we can appeal there, but it’s very difficult to solve this problem. After Marco Polo magazine denied the existence of the Auschwitz gas chambers, many international companies refused to buy advertising in its pages. The magazine retracted the story. So it seems we have to place pressure on the major advertisers. But another problem is that these weeklies are published by prestigious publishing firms like Bungeishunju and Shinchosha, which print a lot of good books — history, literature, and so on. I just wonder why these publishers have to produce such garbage when they can survive by publishing respected books.

In a strange and troubling stalemate, Japan’s press is at once too free and too controlled. It lacks the self-restraint essential to protect individuals’ integrity and privacy, yet it also fails to assert itself as a watchdog of the authorities. Again and again we’ve seen how these two characteristics can come together disastrously. Yet solutions to the many problems we’ve talked about will somehow have to come from within the news media and with the help of citizens, not from the government. Press councils and Western-style ombudsman systems, as well as peer review and comment could offer important remedies. At JIMPOREN we are working toward such goals. In Japan we need to cultivate many more professional journalists who can change society for the better and uphold democracy. I have little doubt that the road to reform will be long and winding, with many setbacks along the way.

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Stewart Wachs

Author's Bio

Stewart Wachs is formerly KJ’s Associate Editor.