Walls in Front of Freelance Journalists

How many freelance journalists are there in Japan? It’s not easy to say, but almost certainly less than in many other countries. One estimate puts the number at 3000 people, and the number of journalists who make a living just from freelance work could be even fewer. There are few support organizations for freelancers, and a generally low status in Japan’s company-centered society may even deter many promising freelance writers from embarking on a journalism career in the first place.

What is for sure though is that Japan’s freelance journalists include a select group of resourceful and determined investigative reporters. Delving into topics that that major media organizations can’t, or won’t, touch they fight a continual battle against obstructive officialdom, the threat of legal action, even physical attack.

Every month a group of writers, editors, journalists and artists meets in Ochanomizu, central Tokyo. The “Shuppan Network” union has 200 members and is the only labor union in Japan specifically for freelance writers and editors. Among their members are a number of freelance investigative reporters like Kenichi Kita. Kita says that some of Japan’s best-known investigative reporters are the ones who work outside of the major media corporations, but that overall Japan has too little investigative reporting. “If you look at the media in total, there is definitely not enough,” he says.

Kita writes on Japan’s controversial consumer-loan companies for the weekly magazines. He says that the weekly magazines rely heavily on freelancers. The best known writers, like Kita, will have their own bylines – other articles will be compiled from the research of a team of reporters and be published anonymously. Freelancers contribute to chaotic mix of scandal, entertainment news, political analysis, gossip and rumor, but also hard-hitting investigative reporting. Kita contrasts that with the bland output of Japan’s broadsheets. “It’s a fact that about half the articles in newspapers are based on announcements of some kind,” he says.

Freelancer investigative reporters, however, face formidable obstacles. Reporter Yu Terasawa is well known for an ongoing court case against Japan’s press club system. For 17 years he has been covering police corruption cases, but as a freelance he has been systematically denied access to the official information distributed through Japan’s press clubs. “It is obvious that official institutions should treat all journalists equally – but they don’t,” says Terasawa. His most recent suit against the government over the press clubs is now being deliberated on by Japan’s Supreme Court.

Without the protection of a major media organization, freelance journalists can also be easy targets for intimidation. Terasawa had his phone tapped by one of Japan’s controversial consumer loan companies, Takefuji Corporation, after he wrote articles critical of the company. Takefuji’s president was eventually sentenced to a suspended prison term. Another freelance investigative reporter, Katsuhisa Miyake, was sued by the same company in 2003 and ordered to pay 110 million yen (935,000 US dollars). That potentially bankrupting ruling was overturned, but Miyake’s counter-suit to seek compensation from Takefuji is still in progress.

Many freelance journalists point to an alarming trend where companies target individual journalists through the courts. The amount awarded in libel cases have ballooned. “I have been threatened by companies,” says one established weekly magazine freelancer and author, who requested that his name not be used. “I am trying to keep a low profile. There are rumors that some Japanese companies are hiring private detectives to investigate reporters who write about them.”

If freelancers are sued for libel or have problems with their employers, there is little support available. Very few freelancers join a union. According to Shuppan Network member Reiko Kado, that might be because most freelancers have deliberately opted out of Japan’s group-orientated work environment. “A lot of Japanese freelancers just don’t want to be in any kind of organization,” she says. “They are lone wolves.”

There is little training available for aspiring freelance investigative reporters, either. “Probably, many young people who could make good investigative reporters end up in other jobs,” says Yu Terasawa. Japan has few journalism schools and training is almost exclusively on the job. Newspapers can teach their new staff the ins and outs of the newsman’s job, but other cub investigative reporters tend to be on their own. “The weekly magazines don’t have the money or the time to train investigative reporters,” says Terasawa.

Yet, despite the obstacles, there have been a number of major scandals broken by freelance journalists and weekly magazines. Mostly recently, Japan’s consumer loan companies have been a cause-celebre for investigative journalists. A steady stream of revelations about the companies’ unscrupulous tactics has emerged and the government has moved to regulate the industry more strictly.

A number of well known freelancers have carved out reputations for themselves covering other topics neglected by newspapers and TV. Weekly magazine investigative reporter Mika Yanagihara started writing about car accidents 15 years ago. Now she covers police accident investigations and the insurance industry. Other articles have also detailed what she describes as an alarming number of suspicious suicides and accidents where no autopsy was performed. She has published 25 books and has several ongoing magazine series – one of her books was even turned into a TV drama.

But why can’t the newspapers with their vast resources pursue these issues, too? And why is so much investigative reporting left up to the weekly magazines and freelancers? “The newspapers won’t take one incident and investigate it [over time],” says Yanagihara. “They just report when there is news.” Newspaper journalists tend to get shifted around the company from department to department, she says, and from regional bureau to bureau, too. “Even if an individual journalist wants to pursue a story, it’s too difficult.”

She also suspects that advertising income is an issue when magazines consider stories about, for example, major automobile manufacturers. Although that’s not to say there aren’t problems with the weekly magazines as well. “I was once told by an editor, ‘sorry, we have an insurance ad this week, so we can’t take your article.'”

Shunsuke Yamaoka is another one of Japan’s best-known freelance investigative reporters. His articles on corporate scandals run in the weekly magazines, but he was in the news himself when his house suffered an arson attack last year. “They called me before I wrote the article to warn me off,” says Yamaoka. “I know who did it.” After the attack, which burnt out his entrance hall and melted his air-conditioner, Yamaoka had to leave his apartment. “The other people living in the apartment block were scared and forced me to move out.”

The attack didn’t stop Yamaoka’s work though, and he is now running a highly successful subscriber-based news website. “I am probably the first freelance journalist in Japan to make money out of their own news website,” says Yamaoka. He first set up the website in October 2004, and in May this year, when the site was receiving 50,000 hits a day, he decided to start charging money. All the content is written by Yamaoka, mostly about corporate scandals. A year’s subscription costs 9000 yen (76 US dollars) and he already has 1100 subscribers — with 100 new people signing on a month. Yamaoka has already made enough money to set up an office and hire a member of part-time staff.

“To put it simply, I am writing the stories that the newspapers won’t publish,” says Yamaoka. He explains that the newspapers and TV will only start to report on a story when the police have already made an arrest. “If the journalists are just going to wait for the police, what’s the point in having journalists?” asks Yamaoka pointedly. The website has a notice on its front page appealing for “whistle-blowers and information (cases with public benefit only)” along with Yamaoka’s fax number. He says that useful tips come in regularly.

One third of the articles are about stock-exchange listed companies. Yamaoka suspects that many of the subscribers are investors hoping to get unreported stock-related information. “If it was only regular news then I doubt anyone would pay a subscription for it,” he says. The listed company-related articles get about twice as many hits as those on politics.

His new job isn’t without its worries, however. “Of course, there are risks: [the companies] might sue me,” says Yamaoka. “Sometimes I get strange telephone calls.” He is no stranger to the courts having been sued 15 times during his 18 year long career in journalism (and won 12 times). “It’s tough now because I have to pay for all the legal fees myself.” He has several ongoing cases.

So what does the future hold for Japan’s freelancers? Perhaps it’s not all bad news. The Internet has enabled journalists like Yamaoka, as well as a huge number of amateur and professional bloggers, to reach readers directly. Japan has also seen the launch of several citizen journalism websites, most recently a local version of South Korea’s hugely successful OhmyNews. In 2001, Japan’s Freedom of Information Act came into force, making it much easier for freelancers – or indeed anyone – to access official information.

For investigative journalists the official walls that obstruct their research – and a fully free press in Japan – are certainly still standing strong. But then again, perhaps a few cracks have begun to show?

About Tony McNicol