The scene is familiar enough: A horde of reporters rush toward a senior government official, most often a prime minister, and pepper him with what seem to the viewer as some barbed questions. As videocameras roll and shutters click, the politician deftly parries each one-to squeeze a few extra points from the rating polls. It all seems so extemporaneous.
Not in Japan. Every question is pooled by members of the public official's kisha kurabu (or press club system unique to Japan) and submitted to his aides to be screened and answers prepared for in advanced. No question can be asked if it hasn't been approved of prior to the event. And only members of that specific press club are allowed to be present; if one isn't, then the others--though they are reporters from different media firms, or competitors everywhere else but there--will share what they get. This, says Kazue Suzuki, Asahi Evening News feature editor and an expert on the press club, is typical of the "closed-shop system of journalism" that prevails in Japan.
There are an estimated 1,000 press clubs in existence today--each for nearly every state function (businesses also have their own clubs), including all the ministries, big-wig politicians and even the Imperial family. Membership, for the most part, is restricted to the major dailies and television networks; freelance and magazine journalists are excluded, as were foreign correspondents until recently. Their offices are equipped with desks, telephones, facsimile machines, office supplies and other facilities, even a full-time female secretary to serve tea and answer the phones (the prime minister's press club has five secretaries to pamper reporters)-all paid for by the taxpayer. Its members are entitled to access to the highest levels of government for the juiciest quotes and inside information.
And that is precisely what attracts the greatest criticism: that the institution is blatantly inimical to the most hallowed function of the press-to maintain constant vigil over political power in order to curb and prevent its excesses.
How? Because press clubs act as "gatekeepers" of government information-90% of all news from public sources originate from the system-and to protect this privelege, explains Suzuki, reporters have had to abandon all pretense of journalistic principles in order to appease their news sources. Says a director of a network news show: "Bureaucrats and politicians are able to manipulate the press through this system by threatening to withhold information, which would leave a member and his news organization at a severe disadvantage with his competitors. So the mainstream media has devolved into little more than servants of the state; they've become incapable of critical analysis and accept whatever information that comes their way as if it were a writ from God."
A standard practice is to delay or kill a story based on information from a government official if the pertinent agency requests it-a clear act of self-censorship. Those who breach this protocol are liable to be hammered down by their own peers. In 1990, Toshiaki Nakayama, then a photographer with the Kyodo News Service assigned to cover the Imperial family (a posting so rigidly controlled by the Imperial Household Agency, Nakayama had to become a "temporary" employee of the agency in order to be granted permission to take photos), photographed Princess Kiko in the entirely human act of putting a stray lock of Prince Akishino's hair back in place.
When the cameraman's photos were distributed for publication, the agency issued a vehement protest, calling it a violation of an agreement with its press club (anything that smacks of being too candid are banned from release). Instead of supporting Nakayama, however, his peers at the club roundly denounced him. Disillusioned with the state of Japanese journalism, the photographer resigned from the wire service nine months later. Says Suzuki: "Reporters may want to write up what they have learned, but cannot. This situation is probably unique to Japan."
Its origins hark back to 1890, when the first such club was organized as a means to provide journalists with official access to the Imperial Diet. Back then, relations between the press and news source was basically confrontational. During this time, they functioned as centers of dissent against escalating state controls on the freedom of the press; they also served as de facto labor unions when newspaper managers tried to exploit reporters. But by the 1930s, they had become completely "defanged"--a legacy that has carried over into the postwar period. Which is why progressive thinkers like Ken Takeuchi, mayor of Kamakura and creator of the municipality's new media center accessible by mainstream media journalists, called for a "return to a non-collusive relationship" between the news media and government in a 1996 interview with the Japan Times.
Ironically, most press club members concede Takeuchi's point. In 1993, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association conducted a survey of reporters who belonged to the system. Although 41% of the respondents said press clubs should be maintained, 65% noted that they allowed news sources to manipulate the flow of information-and a paltry 15% felt that the system functioned as a watchdog. As Hiroshi Matsuda, a media scholar at Kanto Gakuin University quipped back in 1973: "In trusting the information released by news organizations [through press clubs], Japanese citizens do not realize that, though told they are consuming corned beef, the truth is that they are being fed horsemeat."