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.

Making Nice Instead of Making News

Satsuki Katayama, a newly elected, high-profile member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), sat with grinning TV celebrities on a Sunday morning talk show. She held a conversation without much expression, but appeared to be relaxed during the one-hour program.

“Itsumitemo Haran Banjo,” a national program of the Nippon Television Network Corporation (NTV), focuses on celebrity profiles, looking back on a star’s past. The title translates to: “Whenever you see it, it’s a roller-coaster life.” The program has featured a number of politicians as guests, according to the network.

Prime Minister Koizumi’s LDP had a landslide victory in the general election for the House of Representatives last September. Katayama was one of the party’s first-time female candidates who was extensively covered by the media. After the race, former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa attributed the victory to media coverage – what critics called a “feeding frenzy” – during his appearance on a national political talk show. Such major media as NTV still follow Katayama, a former bureaucrat at the Finance Ministry, who apparently distances herself from other fresh-faced politicians.

The NTV talk show emphasized Katayama’s intelligence and lauded her victory as “outstanding.” It was a de facto victory even before election day. The LDP placed her at the top of the list of proportional representation candidates.

In a society in which many people try to maintain smooth relations and avoid confrontations, a talk show host of a program seldom throws hard questions to a guest, nodding in agreement with the TV personality.

Moreover, in a voice-over narration, the program dwelled on Katayama’s “beauty,” explaining Katayama was once Miss University of Tokyo and Miss Finance Ministry. She was described as a “beautiful fighter who possesses unparalleled brain power,” and as a “Madonna of Reform.” (“Madonna” in Japanese means “an admirable, beautiful lady.”) She did not appear embarrassed by such comments and remained impassive. While Americans
would find these remarks frivolous or even sexist, many Japanese viewers regard them as compliments.

In addition, Norio Fukutome, the program’s soft-spoken host, compared Katayama with a certain former British prime minister and asked her, “It is a matter of time until you will become the Japanese [Margaret] Thatcher, isn’t it?”

While opposition party members believed the program was unfair in Katayama’s case, more politicians from both ruling and opposition parties seem to believe that getting their faces on a TV program – whether it is a serious political talk show, tabloid program or even quiz show – is very important. They can cash in through appearing on a TV show since the exposure makes them better known to many Japanese, probably the world’s most avid TV watchers.

Yukio Hatoyama, who is now a secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), appeared on a tabloid TV program with a couple of comedians last year, in which Mr. Hatoyama invited them to his palatial residence in a well-heeled community in Tokyo. Mr. Hatoyama was not only playing with them, including throwing a football, but also trying to sell his wife’s cookbooks on the air.

Meanwhile, more TV celebrities, including some comedians, are becoming commentators or even anchors on television, voicing their opinions on a broad range of issues from entertainment and gruesome crimes to education and politics. What’s more troubling, experts said, many of them appear in commercials as well.

Lassalle Ishi, whose real name is Akio Ishii, was an anchorman for Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) until March, while he also appeared in ALICO Japan commercials. ALICO Japan is a branch office of American Life Insurance Company of Wilmington, Del. During the TBS news program, Ishii predicted a possible face-off between first lady Laura Bush and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. He added, “They are very beautiful, aren’t they?”

Japan Internet News CEO Ken Takeuchi, who was an Asahi Newspaper editorial board member and also served as mayor of Kamakura near Tokyo, said television networks already relinquished journalism.

“News programs were turned into entertainment programs with TV celebrities (as commentators) for news,” said Takeuchi, whose company launched Japan’s first serious alternative online newspaper, Jan Jan (Japan Alternative News for Justice and New Cultures) three years ago.

TV celebrities “make comments on various topics. But how can they be so sure? They have no hands-on experience or studies on a specific issue like social ones,” said Nobuhiko Suto, a former member of the House of Representative from DPJ, who was a political science professor at Tokai University. “Then they change their opinions in order to have mass appeal. So considering how we can form sound public opinion, they have a destructive impact.”

Apparently responding to mounting criticism of media coverage, “News 23,” the major nightly news program of TBS, hosted a public debate during the show. A couple of comedians were even invited to such a supposedly serious discussion, along with two newly elected LDP lawmakers, including Katayama. Critics and opposition members were not invited.

Takaaki Hattori, a media law professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, agreed that politics is treated as material for entertainment programs these days and such programs have had political implications. But that lighter brand of coverage, including recent reports on several proposed laws such as an amendment to the Fundamental Law of Education, could help make more people aware and ignite debates, he said.

The ruling bloc of the LDP and New Komeito attempted to pass the proposed laws without much debate, opposition members said. But they are likely to be postponed.

“Since the media have an impact on the public, what issues they cover and how they cover them makes a big difference,” said Hattori.

The emergence of celebrity commentators aggravates a long-standing problem in the nation’s journalism, critics said. The mainstream media have long been criticized for their symbiotic relationship with authority figures through the press club system. By hiring celebrities, the media “more often fail to raise issues and become unable to search for the truth and to have balanced coverage, which means they are easily manipulated by those in power,” said Kenichi Asano, a professor of journalism at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Journalists, as well as many in the public, however, are not aware of such criticism in a country where a deeply rooted journalistic tradition like that of the United States does not exist. The media also lack self-criticism, experts pointed out.

Takeuchi of Japan Internet News added that the mainstream media “got into a situation where they place ratings above anything else, which means they make advertisements the highest priority.”

Other critics echo Takeuchi’s concerns. Minoru Morita, a long-time political analyst in Tokyo, said since Koizumi took office five years ago, advertising giants have exerted more influence over media coverage than ever.

Those who work for the major media “are telling me that an advertising giant, namely Dentsu Inc., has become more powerful than ever and that they are scared of the company rather than the prime minister’s office. They said the company will immediately cancel advertisements [if something happens],” said Morita. “The advertising giant has flexed its political muscle.”

Yasuhiro Nakasone is a former Japanese prime minister who served from 1982 to 1987 and had amicable relations with late U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He was considered to be relatively skilled in media management.

The 88-year-old former premier, looking back on politics and journalism when he was a prime minister, said, “Nowadays, both politicians and journalists lack substance. They are apt to focus on shallow events that have little significance.”

In an era when television has enormous influence over politics, Nakasone said a politician’s image on TV is important, to some extent, but not one of the most important qualifications.

“We can compare a politician to a tree. A tree has flowers and branches, but its most essential part is its trunk. ‘Perfomance’ may be represented by the leaves and flowers, but it is the trunk that produces them,” he said emphatically.

“So, as long as one is preoccupied by leaves and flowers, I would say that further growth as a politician is necessary. Appearing on tabloid TV shows rarely leads to greatness.”

Nakasone added the public would also shy away from such politicians.

“When it comes to the prime minister, people focus on the trunk and roots, not just the leaves and the flowers. The public already has the ability to distinguish between the substance and ‘performance’ of politicians, at least to a certain degree. It is the media – its commercialism—that caricatures politics. Politicians must be wary of this and not allow themselves to succumb to this commercialism.”

While both Nakasone and Koizumi have similarities in their effective use of the media, the key difference between the periods of the two leaders in terms of media coverage is whether or not there are some people in the media who are critical of a prime minister, said Morita.

“While more journalists supported Mr. Nakasone [when he was a prime minister], there were still those who criticized what he did. So there was always a lot of tension between reporters and politicians and also among reporters,” recalled Morita. However, those who cover Koizumi “are competing to flatter him. It is ugly journalism. There is no one in the media who is critical of what Mr. Koizumi has done. Critics in the media were purged.”

Morita, the author of “All-Round Criticism of Koizumi Politics,” is no exception. He was a regular TV commentator for national news programs. His
appearances on TV have dwindled since Koizumi took office. TV staff members confided to him the pressure from the Prime Minister’s office.

“One TV staff member said to me apologetically, ‘Mr. Morita, I like you. But if I continued to work with you, my job would be on the line. I have a family to feed,'” Morita said.