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?

Filling Gaps Between Newspapers and TV

Yuji Yoshitomi is a correspondent for Japan’s weekly tabloid magazines from Japan’s third largest city Osaka, and the author of “Osaka Bankrupts,” an expose of political corruption and fiscal waste in the municipality. Although his book was well-received and widely reported in the local media when it was published last year, however, it was largely ignored by the national media. Yoshitomi fears that Japan’s overwhelmingly Tokyo based media have little interest in regional politics: “In the eyes of the Tokyo- media – and it’s the same for TV, newspapers or weekly magazines – the only news from Osaka worth taking up is about the Hanshin Tigers baseball team or murder cases.”

As a writer for weekly magazines, he has experienced their ambivalent relationship with Japan’s more respectable media. The latter are often amongst the weeklies’ targets, but newspapers and TV journalists use the magazines as an outlet for stories they can’t publish themselves. “There are gaps where [newspapers and TV] can’t report,” says Yoshitomi. “It’s the weekly magazines who fill those.”

But he also warns that the weekly magazines are losing their freedom to cover the stories other media won’t touch. Weekly magazine editors face rocketing libel payments, political pressure, even physical violence and the threat of arrest. In 2004, infamous scandal magazine, “Uwasa no Shinso” (“The Truth Behind the Rumours”) folded after a series of libel cases and a violent assault on its editor. On July 4th this year, the publisher of scandal magazine, “Kami no Bakudan” (“Paper Bomb”), was sentenced to 14 months imprisonment for criminal defamation. Freelance journalists say that a proposed anti-conspiracy law could further intimidate editors and restrict reporting.

While Yoshitomi is frank about what he calls the weeklies’ sometimes “sloppy” reporting, he stresses that scandal magazines and tabloids have an important role to play in the media – especially when large media organizations are vulnerable to pressure from the powerful. “If you want to understand about Japan, it’s not enough just to read the newspapers and watch TV,” he says. “You need newspapers, TV and weekly magazines.”

Japan Media Review: As a weekly magazine writer what kind of stories do you cover?

Yuji Yoshitomi: Basically, as far as weekly magazine reporting on Osaka goes, it is mainly “incidents.” In the eyes of the Tokyo media – and it’s the same for TV, newspapers or weekly magazines – the only news from Osaka worth picking up is about the Hanshin Tigers baseball team or murder cases. They have no interest in politics.

For example, when I wrote my book “Osaka Bankrupts,” it was a big issue in Osaka last year. Newspapers and TV were reporting on the Osaka government every day. In Tokyo, it was reported only briefly –Tokyo people didn’t know about the fuss in Osaka.

Tokyo weekly magazines don’t carry stories about Osaka politics. If they did, I don’t think people would read them. Osaka people know all about Tokyo from Osaka newspapers and TV, but the opposite is not true; Tokyo newspapers and TV don’t report about Osaka.

JMR: Why aren’t there any Kansai-based weekly magazines?

YY: I wonder why? There used to be one, but it didn’t sell. It seems that Osaka news by itself doesn’t sell. Unless it is some big Osaka murder case or scandal, people are not interested. Even people living in Osaka, they want news from Tokyo first.

JMR: How distinct are the Osaka and Tokyo media?

YY: Twenty years ago the tone was quite different between Tokyo and Osaka [newspaper editions]. Now, virtually all the Osaka newspapers have the same stance as the Tokyo papers. If there is an incident in Osaka, the papers will use more space and report it widely, but the political stance is the same whether it is Tokyo or Osaka.

JMR: What about other media?

YY: What’s interesting is that TV is different. For example, although Asahi Television is based in Tokyo, a company in the same business group, Asahi Broadcasting Corporation, is based here [in Osaka]. It is part of the same Asahi group, but they don’t broadcast the same thing.

The programs made in Tokyo are broadcast here, but there are Osaka-made “information programs” [news and entertainment shows] too. They are pretty extreme – they can freely broadcast things that can’t be said in Tokyo.

JMR: What kind of things?

YY: In Japan the imperial family issue is pretty much a taboo topic. It’s a delicate issue and the Tokyo media are very careful to be respectful. The Osaka media, on the other hand, are friendly to the imperial family, but they will be frank, too.

It started with entertainment news. Most entertainment journalists are based in Tokyo. If they report anything too extreme, they will get pressure from the big production companies. But if they come to Osaka, they can say what they want in the Osaka media.

After that, political journalists and commentators in the Osaka media started freely saying things which they can’t say in the Tokyo media. At the moment, if you are looking for a clear difference between the Tokyo and Osaka media – it’s the TV stations, and the information programs.

JMR: Are there fewer taboo topics in the Osaka media?

YY: No, that’s not the case. There are several major taboo topics in Japan; organized crime gangs, North Korea, the Burakumin [Japan’s social class of former outcastes] and Soka Gakkai [an influential and controversial Buddhist sect]. As far as these taboos are concerned, there isn’t much difference between Osaka and Tokyo. The Osaka media might say things slightly more clearly, but it doesn’t really apply to the major taboo topics.

Historically there have been more Burakumin communities in the Osaka area [than in Tokyo]. The Osaka media know that, so they are more nervous about reporting the issue than Tokyo. On the other hand, Tokyo is more nervous about reporting the imperial family issue.

JMR: What sort of role do the weekly magazines play in the Japanese media?

YY: The newspapers don’t report 100 percent of the situation in Japan. Take the issue of the imperial family. The imperial household journalists knew that the Crown Prince and Masako were planning to get married, but they didn’t report it because of pressure from the Imperial Household Agency. The story was first reported by foreign media. And the information had been passed on by the weekly magazines.

The things that newspapers and TV want to say, but can’t say, get said by the weekly magazines. The things the weekly magazines can’t say, they used to pass on to “Uwasa no Shinso” [a now-defunct scandal magazine]. But Uwasa no Shinso has folded; that’s a shame.

JMR: Why did Uwasa no Shinso fold? Was it because the media became freer and its role disappeared?

YY: It’s the opposite. The Japanese media isn’t getting freer at all. The reason Uwasa no Shinso folded was because the editor didn’t have freedom [to write].

JMR: Aren’t the Japanese media freer to write about taboo topics these days?

YY: It has got easier to write about those taboo topics, but it is much harder to write about political scandals. People who have power can use the authority of the police. These are the days when the editor of a publishing company like Rokusaisha can be arrested without anyone minding. It’s a time when it is extremely difficult to write about scandals concerning those in power – politicians and bureaucrats.

JMR: Why doesn’t a replacement for Uwasa no Shinso appear?

YY: For one thing, producing a magazine is expensive and very risky. Even if you produce it, you don’t know if it will sell or not. And even if it does sell, you can get taken to court. Libel payments are getting larger recently. Before they were less than 1 million yen or thereabouts. Now they are close to 10 million yen [about US$85,000].

The Japanese people need a magazine like Uwasa no Shinso, but there are too many risks now. No one will produce magazine like that.

JMR: What kind of relationship is there between the newspapers and weekly magazines?

YY: The relationship is bad. The reporters on the spot are friendly, but the companies don’t get on. That’s because the weekly magazines’ targets aren’t just people in authority, politicians, the presidents of big companies. They also target newspapers and TV – mainstream media.

JMR: Aren’t the weekly magazines themselves often criticized for inaccurate reporting?

YY: It’s not the TV and newspapers that say the weekly magazines write lies. It’s the politicians. Though it is true there’s a sloppy side to weekly magazine reporting. Say there is an incident in Osaka. The only weekly magazines who have Osaka correspondents are Friday and Flash. [The weekly magazine reporters] can’t cover enough ground and the reporting is sloppy.

Newspapers and TV have an extremely wide range of targets for reporting: sports, politics, the imperial family, incidents. But there are gaps where they can’t report. It’s the weekly magazines who fill those gaps. There are many examples where politicians have resigned because of weekly magazine scoops.

Each medium only tells part of the story. There is no medium that covers the whole picture. As a journalist, you need to read the left wing Asahi, the right wing Yomiuri, and after that the weekly magazines. If you want to understand about Japan, it’s not enough just to read the newspapers and watch TV. You need newspapers, weekly magazines and TV.

Journalists Protest Conspiracy Law

The people who don’t want articles to be written, who don’t want people to know about the bad things they have done… if they have this law, they can easily have us arrested as criminals at any time.”

The object of freelance journalist Katsuhisa Miyake’s concern is a conspiracy bill now being debated in the Japanese Diet. He believes that the law, which would make conspiracy to commit any of 619 different crimes an offence, could used to obstruct the work of investigative journalists in Japan.

Miyake has reason to be wary. In 2003 he was sued by Takefuji over articles he wrote on the consumer loan company for weekly magazines. He lost and was ordered to pay 110 million yen [935,000 dollars]. It was several years before Miyake could overturn the ruling on appeal. “It was preposterous. I couldn’t pay it. I would have gone bankrupt.”

He fears that the law could make it easier for large companies and politicians to intimidate investigative journalists through the threat of arrest. “Even the Diet representatives themselves who are debating the conspiracy bill don’t know what it is for,” he says, arguing that its main aim is simply to increase police power. “If the police or prosecutors decide to arrest someone, this law will make it extremely easy for them to do so.”

The bill was first introduced to the Japanese Diet in 2003 to ratify Japan’s signing of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. “It is Japan’s duty to ratify the treaty,” stresses Judicial Affairs Committee member and vocal supporter of the bill, Katsuei Hirasawa. He says that the law would be a powerful tool to fight against organized crime in Japan and abroad. Having spent over 25 years working in Japan’s Police Agency, he also believes that a conspiracy law is needed to strengthen police powers and protect the rights of victims. “[Opponents to the law] are saying you should crack down on crime after it has happened. It is too late then.”

Despite the backing of a large Diet majority from Prime Minister Koizumi‘s landslide victory in last September’s election, the bill has been twice rejected and revised. Now it has been postponed until the next Diet session. The delay and revisions were prompted by strenuous objections by lawyers, the Japanese press and opposition parties.

Lawyer and opponent of the bill Yuichi Kaido says that the concept of conspiracy is largely absent from Japanese law, restricted to only the most serious crimes. Unlike in the United States or the United Kingdom, where conspiracy laws have a long history, he says, Japanese law is closer to French or German law. Police can typically only make arrests after a crime has actually happened. “Japanese people can’t understand the concept of issuing punishment even though no crime has yet been committed,” he says.

The original draft of the bill made members of any “group” subject to arrest for conspiracy. Critics expressed concern that the law could be used against NGOs or unions. Although the bill has since been revised to apply specifically to groups with a criminal purpose, Kaido argues that the definition is still too vague. “It is the police who will decide whether or not a group is a criminal group,” he says. He is also concerned that once a member of an otherwise innocent organization was arrested, the group would be de facto classified as criminal.

Kaido notes that government officials have said little about how evidence of conspiracy will be collected. Wire-tapping, heavy-handed interrogation and tip-offs are likely tools for the police, he argues. Even conspiracy members who later change their minds will still be subject to arrest; only conspiracy members who go the police will be treated leniently.

The threat of arrest is a powerful tool for intimidation because once arrested, suspects have few rights, says Kaido. “For 23 days they can interrogate a suspect day and night. In a very serious case the interrogation can continue for 10 or 12 hours every day,” he says. Bail is rarely granted. “Almost everyone confesses to the Japanese police.” Until recently, interrogations were unrecorded, and even now prosecutors can decide when or when not to record. There are also persistent allegations of torture, says Kaido. “If you look at the totality of criminal cases, torture is very rare—but it is also rare for people to deny the charges. Among those cases, torture is not uncommon.”

Former National Police Agency official Hirasawa emphatically rejects the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ arguments. “[Their] opposition to the bill is absolutely groundless and mistaken. They haven’t studied the bill,” he says. “They are just doing their best to protect the human rights of offenders. They have no interest in the rights of victims.”

To the charge that the law could be used to intimidate NGOs, unions or journalists, he says only groups whose purpose was crime would be targeted. “Why would the law to apply to journalists? It would be inconceivable for journalists to be targeted by the law; they are not a criminal group. If their purpose was reporting, the law wouldn’t apply.”

He also argues that Japanese police have far less power than their foreign equivalents and have to be sure of a conviction before making arrests. “In Japan, 99.97 percent of people are found guilty in court after they are arrested,” he points out. “Take a look at America, Britain, Europe – it is 60 or 70 percent at most. You can easily see that foreign police are making more wrongful arrests.”

Opposition party, the Social Democratic Party of Japan is against the conspiracy bill. “There is no need to destroy Japan’s system of criminal law and create a conspiracy law,” says leader and former lawyer Mizuho Fukushima. She compares the anti-conspiracy bill to the science fiction film “Minority Report” in which Tom Cruise’s character is arrested for a crime he has yet to commit. “It won’t really be to fight against organized crime groups,” she says. “There is a high probability that it will be used against NGOs, unions, and infringe on various kinds of freedom of expression.”

She fears the law could be used to stifle opposition to right-wing projects, including reform of the peace constitution, a new education law to promote patriotism and expansion of the U.S. military bases in Japan. “The right to freedom of expression to protest against the [Iraq] war is being severely curtailed,” Fukushima says, pointing to the arrest of the “Tachikawa three,” peace activists who were arrested for distributing anti-war leaflets to the mail boxes of a Self Defense Forces housing unit. “This law could be a tool to further suppress anti-war freedom of speech,” she says.

Earlier in June, several hundred people gathered in Hibiya Park in Tokyo to demonstrate against the bill. The meeting, where Diet member Fukushima also spoke, was held a stone’s throw from the Ministry of Justice and the National Police Agency. The gathering included trade union representatives, peace activists and consumer groups.

Freelance journalist Hitomi Nishimura was at the meeting to represent “Opinion Makers Against the Conspiracy Law,” a group of journalists, writers, broadcasters and bloggers. The group has produced a DVD, a series of downloadable movies and an anti-conspiracy law blog that gets 1,500 hits a day.

“Journalists who report on those in power won’t be able to do their jobs,” says Nishimura. She suggests that without the support of large media organizations, the threat of arrest would be enough deter freelance journalists from investigating the powerful. If they are arrested, the loss of weeks of pay, whether or not charges are brought, could be disastrous. And the same applies to small magazine publishers. Last July the publisher of a scandal magazine, “Kami no Bakudan,” was arrested and charged with defamation. The magazine had published a series of articles on Aruze Corporation, a pachinko gambling machine maker. The publisher was released more than 6 months later. The magazine alleges ties between the company and the local police.

Another member of the group, freelancer Yu Terasawa says that he has particular reason to be worried about the law. “I write about illegal police activities,” he says. “If I tried to get incriminating internal documents through an intermediary, I could be arrested for conspiracy to theft.” Unlike even a defamation prosecution, the police could take action before an article was researched, never mind published. He points out that there is no independent police watch-dog in Japan, and he fears that the law would make it even easier for the police to impede investigation by freelance reporters.

Economics journalist Ryuji Shinohara notes a vast difference in the position of freelance journalists and those working for large media organizations. “Politicians are more afraid of freelancers who earn 3 million yen a year than big media journalists who earn 30 million,” he says. Japan’s press club system means that mainstream media journalists can’t rock the boat because they risk the very real threat of being denied access to sources. He argues that it is up to Japan’s freelancers to provide independent reporting – something that would be made even more difficult by the conspiracy law. “The main newspapers have their own influence with the police. It’s the small publishers and freelancers who will have problems.”

Ironically, even when “Opinion Makers Against the Conspiracy Law” attempted to attend Diet deliberations on the conspiracy bill they bumped up against all too familiar obstructions. On arriving at the Diet Judicial Affairs Committee, they were unable to get press seats, as those were reserved for the press club members.

Despite the bill’s postponement, given the strength of the ruling coalition majority, commentators expect it to pass sooner or later. If that happens, freelance journalists as well as NGOs and activists will have a nervous wait to see how the new law is applied. Many argue that they have little reason to trust the authorities. A recent editorial in the Asahi Shimbun echoed their concerns: “We cannot deny that distrust of police and the court system underlies the public’s anxieties regarding the conspiracy bill.