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Mission Statement


III. Flaws in the Mainstream Print Media

B. A Profession of Unprofessionalism

In 199X, the Japan Federation of Press Workers' Unions conducted a survey of all 84 press unions in the nation on the issue of editorial control. "The results," notes federation chairman Hajime Kitamura, "were simply shocking." Among the numerous complaints raised by reporters, a majority centered around the rampant degree of corporate intervention on editorial affairs. Non-editorial executives were routinely reading and rewriting pre-publication manuscripts that cited possible wrongdoing of politicians=, for instance. Other stories were killed upon screening by the circulation department because they contained unfavorable information about advertisers; one reporter was even reassigned when he insisted on writing up a scandal involving a prefectural governor.

"Young people are dissatisfied with the way things are in the newsroom, but continue to work under the time-honored standards of Japanese journalism," says Kitamura. "They have no outlet for their frustrations. In fact, everyone in our industry is frustrated with the status quo, but the system does not tolerate dissent." Just how intolerant it can be was evidenced by the "Recruit scandal," which rocked the highest levels of Japanese politics in the late-1980s.

A handful of Asahi Shimbun reporters and an aggressive editor in Kawasaki city learned that senior members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, including then-prime minister Noboru Takeshita, were being paid off for special favors through illegally-issued stocks from Recruit Co., a fast-rising debutante in Japan's publishing industry. Asahi's expose toppled the Takeshita cabinet, but when it came time for the annual Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors awards (the Japanese equal of a U.S.Pulitzer prize), reporters from Asahi's Kawasaki bureau were passed over. Why? Because they bucked established protocol--which insists that all major political scoops had to be covered by the head office--to get their story out. For that reason, "the system was not going to reward them," an editor at a major Japanese daily told Spencer Sherman, who wrote "Pack Journalism, Japanese Style" for the October 1990 Columbia Journalism Review.

Newspaper reporters, moreover, are subject to a grueling regime, especially those assigned to the police beat. "They may be camped out in front of a crime suspect's home, or waiting for a policeman or politician to leave his office in the dead of night-all this just for a quote or quip," says Doshisha University journalism professor Kenichi Asano. "So 17-hour days are standard. It certainly doesn't leave them with much energy to think about their responsibility to justice or society." The practice of all-night stakeouts-dubbed youchi asagake, which literally means "attack at night and swoop down in the morning"-has reporters currying favor with their news sources by offering them pricey liquor or confectionary in exchange for tip-offs.

This is especially true with freshmen reporters, who customarily lack even a basic understanding of the profession. "Young people who aspire to become journalists in the U.S. learn about the trade's ethics in school," says Asahi Evening News feature editor Kazue Suzuki. "They are taught, for example, that is okay to accept small tokens from sources but anything else is unethical. So, by the time they do become professional journalists, they've acquired a solid grasp of the profession's principles and standards."

In contrast, not only are there a dearth of journalism schools at the university level in Japan, the big dailies are averse to hire students who graduate from them. "Newspaper companies can't see any merit in employing them," says Hiroshi Fujita, a professor of journalism at Sophia University in Tokyo, one of the few schools with a journalism major. "They prefer graduates who they can train on their own, people who are free of preconceived notions of journalistic integrity." And the preferred method of in-house training is to place budding reporters in the care of the police, usually for the first five years of their career.

Being clueless about how to proceed, they place all their faith in the news source. "The ultimate origins of reporters' deeply-ingrained belief that they exist to protect national interests rather than the public's lies with their formative years as a police reporter," explains Asano. "This is when they learn deference to authority." Adds Masanori Yamaguchi, reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun: "It's a tragic mistake to throw cub reporters on the police beat. It takes years of reporting experience to see through the ruses cops will pull to make an arrest, the cases of brutality and coercion. That, afterall, is the prime purpose of the beat: to protect citizens, not the police."

Abused in all manner of ways, newspaper reporters in particular are liable to become desensitized to the abuses their articles inflict on other people. Yet life is not a complete wash for them: six-figure incomes are common, including bi-annual bonuses worth as much as six to eight months' of monthly salary, even for reporters in their twenties and thirties. And those assigned to the business beat, for one, can expect lavish parties, free of charge, and expect to be chauffered to all the press conferences of major Japanese multinationals. "They're so arrogant," a public relations assistant manager at Honda Motors Co. once fumed. "They're so young, many have only just graduated from university, they don't know squat about our business, and yet they expect us to fawn over them."

It gets better. Few of the accepted editorial standards are enforced in Japan. Bylines rarely, if ever, accompany articles, especially crime stories, relieving the reporter of even a modicum of responsibility. Independent fact-checking, an invaluable system for publications that prize accuracy, is virtually non-existent-meaning the writer is given inordinate leeway with the assertions he or she passes off as "fact" in stories. Finally, there is a dearth of attribution and direct quotations. In the U.S., if a story does not implement these two rules "an editor would kill it without a shadow of a doubt," a Tokyo bureau chief of a large American newspaper recently confided to Fumio Kitamura, former managing director of Japan's Foreign Press Center.

Yet even lax editorial rules and lucrative salaries often fall short of retaining young journalists. One Japanese woman, who joined Asahi Shimbun straight out of a prestigious private university in Tokyo, relates that her life there was "unmitigated hell." As with most other fledgling reporters, she was assigned to the police beat. "About the only thing I was taught by my desk and senior colleagues was that I should learn the tricks of the trade on my own, by sticking to my news source like flypaper."

The hours were so long and the job so demanding, she rarely ate, much less had a chance to go home and rest. In a three year-period, she collapsed from exhaustion twice-once while driving a company car. "I almost died," she shivers involuntarily as she recalls the accident. In the end, she quit and left for Canada. Says she: "I feel human again."