Japan's first daily newspaper was founded in the port city of Yokohama in 1871. And, like most other dailies that would follow, government support figured prominently in their survival. Not only did it provide financial subsidies to prop them up, the government often served as a sales proxy, for instance, by arranging meetings in outerlying towns and villages to have newspapers read out loud.
Such largess appears to have been based on the state's early recognition of the dailies as a potent means to propagandize its own goals and interests. In fact, some Japanese historians describe newspapers of that era as being little more than transmitting boards of government information (a description that still applicable to this day, given the fact that up to 90% of the news is generated from public sources, according to Toshio Hara, former editor in chief of the Kyodo News Service).
The one exception to this snug relationship between dailies and government took place from around 1874, when a series of civil rights movements began to sprout across the country. These grassroots groups, which flowered briefly under the more liberal Taisho era, led a number of newspapers to move away from an editorial stance of cooperation with the state to one of confrontation. By advocating progressive agendas, many of them developed into organs for political parties pursuing specific political changes. Others, meanwhile, grew into profit-making enterprises, with an emphasis on sensationalism to attract a larger readership.
In response, the state moved aggressively to suppress the trend. By 1875, the government enacted a law regulating newsprint; public officials were given free hand in banning what they perceived as anti-government literature and prosecuting their authors. Libel and defamation laws also were strengthened. As a result, arrests of journalists soared: in 1880, 77 people were convicted of violating media-related laws; by 1884, the figure had nearly doubled. Over time, the government augmented these measures with stiff fines on dailies that persisted in publishing independent editorials on current affairs and the institution of the notorious kisha kurabu, or a reporters' club system unique to Japan.
Amid systematic repression, two of the largest newspapers in Japan today--the Yomiuri Shimbun centered in Tokyo and Asahi Shimbun in Osaka--were emerging as industry frontrunners. Asahi, whose popularity stemmed from its insightful commentary and intellectual readership, was subject to so many fines it had to halt its presses. Still, as the paper struggled to renew publication, the government covertly loaned what was at the time a vast sum of 25,000--an act of generosity that, given the political climate of that era, could not have been bereft of any strings attached.
In 1910, the newsprint law was revised to double the amount of government subsidies to publications--for a price: stricter restrictions on editorial content. There was hardly any dissent over the changes. Indeed, of the 18 members selected by the Imperial parliament to evaluate the revision before its passage, eight were newspaper publishers. And the only issue that mattered to them, according to research done by historian Akihiko Haruhara, was the freedom to pursue business activities.
Even as the government's restrictive policies were having their desired effect at home, it was faced with mounting criticism from abroad. Although Japan entered World War I on behalf of the Allied cause, its subsequent incursions into Chinese territory was lambasted by Western governments and the foreign media. The merger of the Rengo and Dentsu news agencies into one state sanctioned wire service, Domei, was an attempt to cast a more favorable light on Japan's expansionist policies in the international arena, especially before the League of Nations. By then, however, events had begun to outstrip the government's ability to control them.
The "independence" of Manchukuo under the auspices of imperial Japanese forces and the ensuing outbreak of open hostilities between Japan and China put the country on a war footing. In July 1937, Prince Ayamaro Konoye, then premier, officially requested press cooperation in achieving national ends; two months later, Konoye's cabinet established the Bureau of Information to enforce a media clampdown. With these measures, concluded a 1949 report by the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, the Japanese print media devolved into "a public utility, together with political, financial and industrial circles, to concentrate national energies on the accomplishment of war aims."
By 1940, one year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a system of rigid self-censorship was imposed. To make it easier for in-house censors to screen news coverage, Asahi and Mainichi Shimbun, another major Japanese daily which continues to this day, centralized all four of their main editorial offices into one. Of course, whatever news being reported out of China had already been heavily doctored, thanks to a large contingent of pro-war writers and correspondents. Dubbed the "Pen Corps," this propaganda group was organized by Hiroshi Kikuchi, then president of magazine publisher Bungeishunju Ltd., and a military intelligence unit.
Unlike Germany, which discontinued any publication supportive of the Nazi regime, Japan's defeat in 1945 hardly brought any changes to the print media. In fact, the only news organization to be disbanded was the Domei News Agency; other mainstream media operations remained intact, even to the point of retaining the same wartime logo, as did Asahi Shimbun. Although the new Japanese constitution, adopted several years later, would guarantee press freedom and the right to unrestricted expression, these were basically cosmetic advances.
What was amiss were actual reforms in the practice of journalism in Japan. This was due in part to U.S. concerns over the cold war: while senior newspaper executives were purged by the Allied occupation, all of them--being avowed anti-communists--were reinstated with the escalation of East-West tensions. Says Kazue Suzuki, feature editor of the English-language Asahi Evening News: "Newspapers that supported the war effort survived intact, and the people who bore responsibility for conspiring with the militarists still enjoy power in the modern mass media."
That meant little, if any, wrenching self-reflection took place within the print media; nor were the initial postwar years marked with concerted debate over the formulation and implementation of Western-style journalistic principles and standards. "Instead, newspapers absolved themselves by concluding that, while the war was a mistake, it was an error of collective judgement on a national scale," says Masanori Yamaguchi, a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter and a leading media critic. "What that meant was that our profession set foot into the modern era unchastened by the past--and that sense of irresponsibility, actually an act of cowardice to make genuine improvements, festers to this day."