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Japanese Tabloids

Media's Role in Society, Ties to Establishment Examined 

by Kyoko Sato

The summoning of a television journalist to the Diet last October to give testimony about his private remarks, a seemingly unprecedented event in modern Japan, has given rise to questions about the role of the mass media in society and their relationship with the powers that be. 

Observers say the episode is one of many examples testifying to the spinelessness of Japan's media, which have been criticized for cozy relations with the government. 

Sadayoshi Tsubaki, former head of news at Asahi National Broadcasting Co. (TV Asahi), apologized over remarks that were taken to mean he ordered his staff to cover the July Lower House election in a way that would help oust the Liberal-Democratic Party from power. "I'd like to express my heartfelt apology over my unnecessary, inappropriate and careless remarks," Tsubaki said in the Diet, although he denied issuing the instructions to his staff. 

The LDP demanded Tsubaki be summoned, apparently in the hope of revenge for its election defeat. The TV journalist promptly agreed to testify under oath before a Lower House panel. 

While there seems to be wide agreement that his original remarks were imprudent and inappropriate, many regard the summons as an infringement on the freedom of the press and fear it set a bad precedent. 

Some also are concerned because TV Asahi, with government renewal of its license hearing, did not object to the summons. 

They argue that Tsubaki's remarks, made in a meeting sponsored by the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan, constituted an internal press problem and that such problems should be handled without outside pressure. 

However, some media organizations called Tsubaki's remarks mistaken and approved his summons to the Diet, saying governmental guidance is sometimes necessary. 
The Japanese media are often described as being close to the government, rather than to the public, and as being timid watchdogs. 

To encourage the media to come to the people's side, analysts have called for the press to have more feedback from citizens and for staffers to act more like independent journalists than business employees. 

There have been proposals to transfer the government's licensing jurisdiction over television stations to an independent commission, modeled after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, and the abolition of exclusive kisha (reporter) clubs. 

"Have the media played a full role in reforming this society? I think not," said Toshio Hara, who worked as a Kyodo News Service journalist for three decades and now lectures on journalism at Seikei and Bunkyo universities. 

"I think the media in effect supported the four-decade-long rule by the Liberal-Democratic Party," he said. 

Hara admits the media have occasionally functioned as a watchdog, such as when they pursued bribery incidents like the Lockheed, Recruit and Sagawa scandals and similar allegations involving construction companies. 

However, he called the Japanese press an "amplifier of the status quo" and said that it, as a whole, has had "too much understanding of the Establishment."

Most reporters did not pursue the alleged wrongdoings of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, although they knew of his involvement in corruption, until magazine writer Takashi Tachibana published investigative reports about the scandal in 1974. The stories led to Tanaka's resignation and eventual conviction. 

In August 1992, when then LDP Vice President Shin Kanemaru held a news conference to announce his resignation over the Sagawa money-and-mob scandal, only reporters who had covered him for a long time were invited. Kanemaru ended his news conference in seven minutes, leaving many questions unanswered. 

The system of kisha clubs, which number over 1,000, is often said to contribute greatly to the media's weaknesses. Many of the clubs, which are autonomous associations attached to governmental agencies and other public organizations, have the exclusive right to official information from those sources. 

The clubs lead to exclusive inner circles linking the Establishment and the beat reporters, resulting in collusion. 

Also, club reporters spend a great deal of time processing overwhelming amounts of announcements and handouts, which makes their coverage uniform and an easy target for manipulation a phenomenon known as "announcement journalism." 

Another controversial matter is the appointment of many senior journalists to governmental advisory panels. Some analysts have expressed fears about the dangers of reporters being co-opted by state power. Others argue that journalists can reflect public opinions in government policy through these panels. 

Another perceived weakness in the media is that most news organizations are, after all, businesses, and mainly small ones at that. For the sake of stable business, they may strive to get along well with the powers that be, Hara said. 

Some media firms have made donations to politicians and have hired former officials of the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, which issues broadcasting licenses. 

Harsh competition among media firms prevents them from taking a united stand against the government, it is argued. In the TV Asahi incident, some rival media organizations encouraged the Tsubaki summons. 

"It's good and healthy that media organizations differ in views on certain issues and argue with one another," said Keiichi Katsura, a professor at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Socio-Information and Communication Studies. "But because the (Tsubaki) issue was political pressure on the press, they (press organizations) should have united as one and resisted it." 

When the Asahi Shimbun's investigative reporting unearthed the Recruit scandal, rival media organizations did not support or follow the momentum, he said. 

Coverage somehow faded away before the whole case was brought to light. Rival firms should have responded more quickly and pursued the case thoroughly and persistently to discover the wrongdoings of the politicians, Katsura said. 

It is often argued that the nation's press is relatively unconcerned about its role as a public institution, compared with the Western media. 

In 1971, the U.S. government tried to put pressure on The New York Times and other newspapers that had begun disclosing the Pentagon Papers on the: Vietnam War. The papers said they were publishing the information for the public good. Other media organizations, including The Times' archrival, The Washington Post, fully supported the newspapers. The papers eventually won their case before the Supreme Court and proceeded with the publication of the documents. 

When The Washington Post broke the Watergate scandal in 1972, other media organizations backed the newspaper. Investigations into the scandal led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

"I consider newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post part of the Establishment. It seems that such established U.S. media maintain some sort of tension, a kind the Japanese media doesn't have, which comes from the notion that the media will decline unless it is able to criticize the Establishment (even if they are part of it)," Katsura said. 

Modern journalism in countries such as France, Britain and the United States developed through social revolutions that created democracies, in which freedom of speech was one of the important goals, Katsura noted. 

Japan, on the other hand, has not experienced such a revolution. Some newspapers were set up in the Meiji Era, when Western culture flowed in but they were created by the government. The Japanese press lacks the tradition of serving the public interest, Katsura said. 

When Japan went to war in the 1930s and 40s, the nation's newspapers were tools for government propaganda. Most survived in the postwar years, in contrast with German newspapers, many of which were discontinued for assisting Nazi propaganda. 

Tetsuo Kogawa, a professor of media theory at Musashino Art University, said the spirit of rebellion against the state has been extinguished since the Meiji Era through Japan's conformist education. 

The education system, which has made people obedient and stresses uniformity, became more powerful as Japan embarked on its rapid industrialization after the war, he said. 

As the world moves further into the age of new electronic media, such as cable and satellite broadcasting and computer communications, people are beginning to have a tremendous amount of choice in their sources of information. 

Already, more than 50 cable channels are available in some U.S. cities, and electronic newspapers, with information retrieved from computer terminals, are starting up in the United States and Britain. 

In an age when information is becoming global, the government should not stick to the current pattern of tight regulation, Kogawa said. 

"At the same time, people in the media need to ease their extraordinary self-regulation on issues like the Imperial family and seek different possibilities," Kogawa said. 

He suggested print media carry more bylined stories, which would give reporters greater responsibility but also greater freedom. 

Hara said media workers must become more mentally independent as journalists, rather than as employees of corporations. In the West, media people consider themselves journalists, instead of employees, he said. 

"With the coming of the information era, each journalist should ask himself or herself what a journalist is and why he or she is one," he said. 

Hara stressed the importance of alertness to the risk of the government strengthening its grip on the electronic media by taking advantage of its authority to license and regulate these new areas. 

He suggested the creation of an independent administrative organ like America's FCC, to arrange matters such as allocation of broadcasting bands. 

Katsura argued that the media should promote the participation of their audience by, for example, expanding the letter to the editor sections in newspapers, by boosting public access to broadcasting and by creating powerful ombudsmen. 

The kisha clubs should be abolished and freedom of information should be promoted so that any reporter could get all official data by computer without depending on briefings from bureaucrats and politicians, he said. Such systems are gradually spreading in the United States, according to Katsura. 

He warned that as competition heats up among corporations from various industries for the right to operate in the growing electronic media industry, a line must be drawn between the true press and information businesses. 

"The new electronics industry should be open to everybody. But those who qualify as the press should take on responsibility for the public good and be given favors, such as lower taxes, like current newspapers receive," Katsura said. 


Copyright 1994 UMI, Inc.; ABI/INFORM Copyright Japan Times USA 1994, Japan Times Weekly International Edition
March 7, 1994 - March 13, 1994 SECTION: Vol. 34, No. 9 Pg. 10-11; ISSN: 0447-5763; CODEN: JACYAD 
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