The media in Japan is controlled



Although one might assume that this would render the disciplining of journalists useless as one would never choose to punish one’s own kind, especially in the case of the expected adversarial journalist-politician relationship, exactly the opposite is true. Among club journalists there is tacit understanding that no one should engage in any form of investigative reporting that might give them an edge over other publications. To this end, exclusive interviews are all but unheard of.

After learning that Rupert Murdoch had granted a correspondent from Nihon Keizai Shimbun an exclusive interview, a journalist from a rival newspaper commented on how he was “startled, really shocked”, adding that “usually in Japan that kind of thing does not happen” (Agence France Presse, 1996). In fact it is more often than not the case that a journalist who has approached a politician with details of a rumoured change in policy for example, will find the rumoured news the topic of the following day’s briefing where it is announced to all journalists.

This is consistent with the government’s attitude where it is imperative they impose their slant of the news. It also increases the pressure on journalists not to “scoop” one another or engage in investigative reporting. This practice goes even further, as journalists will generally share new information with their rivals within the group. Although this modus operandi is not exclusive to Japan, group reporting and the sharing of information is the norm and not the exception as it is elsewhere.

The issue of group reporting affects reporters’ motivation to scrutinise politicians’ affairs for another reason. Traditionally writing articles has been a group effort and bylines are relatively rare. There are very few prolific newspaper journalists in Japan; as a consequence there is little motivation to engage in any form of investigative journalism due to agreements among rival journalists within the club. If the kisha club’s role in government control of the free press is so central then why have moves not been made to abolish or at least deregulate entry requirements?

The reason is that this system is perfect on the one hand for the government to control the dissemination of information and on the other hand for the big news companies to stifle competition. The Big Five that dominate the news market in Japan have a vested interest in retaining the kisha clubs. As long as they are in place it is practically impossible for new companies to enter the mainstream press market as they have no access to the clubs which are still the only conduit for issuing news.

The Big Five’s dominance of the NSK who ultimately decide on whether or not an organisation may be permitted access to a kisha club has meant that any demands for reform have fallen on deaf ears. Calls on the government to become active have also been met by resounding silence as the kisha club system presents a very effective way of influencing the press as it insures that its version of events is very likely to appear verbatim in the newspapers and on television.

Although there have been some small reforms of the club system, notably agreeing to allow foreign press into certain clubs, many still refuse to admit foreigners, and domestic non-NSK members are still banned. Conversely it is the non-NSK press, that have no access to official sources at kisha clubs, that have uncovered most of the political scandals in the past. This is because they are not party to the agreements in kisha clubs that hamper investigative journalism.

It is often argued that the structure of media ownership in Japan, where power is concentrated in the hands of five companies who are, to all intents and purposes a news monopoly, is to blame for the press’s shortcomings in suitably acting as the “Fourth Estate” in society. Media ownership is quite different in other countries but has, especially in the recent past, attracted more and more attention as the focus has shifted to how media business agendas might affect how news is reported.

In the UK the national press has been dominated by four companies at least since the mid 1950s. Other papers make up only around 15% of the market (Sparks, 1995). These four have diversified into other media markets and now own shares in television and radio stations. However, the power these media companies wield pales in comparison to some of the new multi-national conglomerates that are present in numerous markets. These companies use their shear size and control over news dissemination channels to influence politics and more frighteningly influence the public.

Rupert Murdoch’s now infamous News Corporation, one of the biggest media companies in the world is often charged with placing business principles ahead of journalistic values, in placating China for example (Ashley, 2001). This behaviour of media companies actively trying to shape government policy is almost non-existent in Japan. In contrast the Japanese media seems somewhat lethargic, having grown comfortable with the existing structure. Government agencies and corporate enterprises have learned to play the big five media groups against one another and now exercise tremendous control over the media primarily through the kisha clubs.

Paradoxically the press are often given all the facts and have complete access to the news but for various reasons choose not to live up to their role as the “Fourth Estate” and inform the public, but instead chose to engage in self-censorship and leave society in the dark.

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