Nothing better illustrates the flaws endemic to the Japanese news media than the state of crime reporting. The more heinous the crime, the greater media coverage devoted to it-and the more likely an individual's civil rights will be infringed in one way or another. "The most shameful example of journalistic abuse," notes Hajime Kitamura, chairman of the Japan Federation of Press Workers' Unions, "occurs on a daily basis by reporters on the police beat."
As in the U.S., newspapers in Japan identify a police suspect by name, age and occupation. Yet, while crime reports based on a single source are rare in other countries, it is the rule among Japanese newspaper reporters. Their source: the police-often through unattributed "leaks." Since suspects are held in near-total isolation (the only permitted visitor being their lawyer) for a period of up to 23 days, reporters cannot speak with the accused nor can they afford to interview other sources due to time constraints from tight deadlines.
Worse still, suspects who cannot afford their own attorney are entitled to a court-appointed one only after their are indicted--which is by then too late, for the police usually have forced confessions out of them, admissions of guilt that are then passed on to the press. The upshot: "Coverage is totally biased in favor of law enforcement," laments Toshinobu Narusawa, editor-in-chief of the Quarterly Keiji Bengo, a journal on criminal justice.
This partiality is aggravated by the print media's proclivity to band together and publish a slew of stories which treat the suspect as if his or her guilt were proven, "like piranhas in a feeding frenzy," explains Masanori Yamaguchi, a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter. (The jostling between journalists can become truly ugly: When more than 500 people died in a Japan Airlines jumbo jet crash in 1985, the worst death toll in aviation history, a handful managed to survive; one of them was a girl. As she was wheeled out of an ambulance, a horde of reporters descended on her, and in the ensuing tussle, inadvertently jerked the needles from intravenous bottles out of her arms.)
Even if the accused turns out to be innocent, as is often the case, the news media hardly makes any mention of this fact; they may even have the gall to criticize the police and prosecution for being too "soft" on crime. Thus, all that remains in the public's mind is the initial, slanted coverage-leaving the exonerated individual stigmatized by society for years, with little recourse for redress.
At the same time, because all five of Japan's largest newspapers--Yomiuri, Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei) and Sankei Shimbun--are so dependent on the police for their crime write-ups, their coverage is virtually identical. To differentiate one daily's story from another, reporters are under terrific pressure from editors to get whatever tidbits they can from their beat. So they naturally turn to the private lives of suspects--the more intimate the detail, the better--and almost invariably encamp en masse before the homes of the accused and victim.
Yet those who are being reported on are not the only victims in this scenario; given the 24-hour dictates of their jobs, the vast majority of reporters on the police beat suffer from occupational burn-out. As Munenobu Hirakawa, professor of criminal law at Nagoya University, once observed: "Considering how little protection there is for reporters' own rights in their daily work, it would be too much to expect them to uphold the rights of others."
Still, some powerful forces are at work in an attempt to justify the journalistic excesses of crime reportage. Japanese society, for one, has historically upheld that social ostracism of those who commit crimes and their families works to deter further crime. Yet, "in spite of the fact that it is the responsibility of the courts to convict offenders of the law, the news media has assumed this task," says Kenichi Asano, professor of Doshisha University's Department of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Not only is the suspect usually forced from his job, his children are victimized by schoolmates, and the spouse spurned by neighbors. In fact, the sense of shame and ostracism induced by the media is so potent, it can drive even innocent people to suicide. In 1988, for instance, a man in Gifu prefecture in central Japan hung himself soon after the dailies reported the police suspected him of "killing" a friend; only later, after the forensic report was completed, was it discovered that the cause of death was a heart attack. In his hastily written suicide will, the victim wrote, "Why was my name ever involved!?"
Editors, meanwhile, are prone to cite the public's right to know the identity of a person accused of a crime. But socio-political analyst Kenzaburo Shiomi (a co-founder of JIMPOREN), in a 1991 speech before the Stockholm Symposium on Press Councils and Press Ethics, points out the "folly" of such assertion: A 1989 Japan Federation of Bar Association showed that the total number of those arrested and detained in fiscal 1988 reached nearly 7,000 police investigations per day--presumably more today, with the leap in juvenile and white-collar crimes--and to publish the names of each suspect, he argues, would easily overwhelm the reader's ability to digest the information. The bar federation has urged anonymity for suspects since 1947 (though neither its recommendations nor censures carry any legal weight), yet getting the media to accept the practice has been "like preaching to the wind," Shiomi noted in his Stockholm address.
Statistics also help undermine another key media rationale: law enforcement's high conviction rate. "A typical news media fallback when rationalizing why they reveal a suspect's name is the claim that because the Japanese police develop such a strong case before any arrest, the guilt of the accused is a foregone conclusion," explains Asano, who spent 22 years working as a Kyodo News Service reporter before moving to Doshisha University in 1994. Yet, according to one study, just one-third of the 390,000 people arrested by the police each year are actually charged for a crime, and just 5% of those arrested sent to prison.
As in other democracies, the influence wielded by the news media extends beyond the public into due process. The police and press, for one, regularly exploit one another. The former by "shaming" confessions out of suspects by showing them sensationalized write-ups about their families or relatives and how much anguish they are undergoing as a result of the accused's refusal to admit to a crime. The latter often creates such intense public interest in a case that the police are railroaded into making an arrest, at times even suppressing evidence that validates a suspect's innocence. "A central function of news organizations is to ascertain that the criminal investigation is proceeding in absolute fairness," says chief editor Narusawa. "Yet in Japan, not only do they influence the investigation itself, they almost never fulfill the role of a police watchdog."
Even the courts are not immune. Akira Mitsui, a former Tokyo High Court judge, once confided that "sensational news about a crime or suspect do not escape the attention of magistrates." In his experience, the mental and emotional outlook of a judge assigned to try a minor robbery and one assigned to a case drawing high public visibility are vastly different. Indeed, "we are affected by public opinion, and may even feel a degree of fear over the consequences of freeing a person who has already been convicted in the minds of many," he noted.
Judicial impartiality can be compromised in any country. To reduce the risks of a miscarriage of justice, U.S. judges go through extraordinary pains to keep the jury as free from preconceptions as possible. Yet, because Japan does not abide by a jury system-which can offset the prejudices held by a judge-the courts are especially vulnerable to the news. "This is the greatest reason," said Mitsui, "why false convictions have been passed in cases that were of major concern to the mass media and general public."
Asano, who was among the first to draw public attention to the woes inherent in the Japanese coverage of criminal cases in 1984 with his book, "The Crime of Reporting Crime," concludes: "So much of what is fundamentally remiss in Japan's news media can be traced back to the police beat. If the current system can be reformed to approach the journalistic standards applied as in other democracies, the ramifications for the Japanese media will be profound."