(Journalists on Japan Part Two available here)

(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Thu, 16 Apr 1998)

I thank those who responded to my long essay on journalists on Japan, but feel that many of the points I raised were misconstrued or avoided. I would like to a) respond to the critics and b) provide evidence that Japan's media is highly cartelized--that information control is not conspiracy theory but conspiracy *fact*, in hopes that people will address the larger issues I raise, instead of hoping to deligitimize the source on smaller points.

This essay is organized thus:



Critics took tacks that were peripheral to what I was getting at:

ET wrote (in part):
"I would like to add that Japan experts and/or long-time residents do not have a monopoly on the analysis and interpretation of Japan. The old rule about garbage in, garbage out also applies to the mind processing the information."

and JD wrote (in part):
"Most people get things slightly wrong, none have a monopoly on truth, and to ask that foreign journalists comply with the perception of Japan as seen from Hokkaido seems to be not only undesirable but arrogant and possibly dangerous."

My response: I don't understand how this "monopoly of truth" theme came into this discussion. It's something I never claimed exists or that I possess. I was talking about how information gets processed: i.e. 1) the ways views get filtered out of news (by "pegs", "tags", and "area studies as an elective"), and 2) access to information--meaning both how journalists choose to access their information, and conversely how that information is "accessed" for them. Granted, I'm running on fumes on part two (due to lack of my own journalistic experience, lack of familiarity with individual journalists to see where their viewpoints are coming from, and lack of experience with the system in Japan in specific). But this is why I am positing this issue in the first place--to get feedback from those who know.

JD continues:
"The perception is in the eye of the beholder, and there's no right or wrong here as Mr. Aldwinckle suggests. Furthermore, Mr. Aldwinckle seems to be demanding that all journalistic assertions be backed up by facts and hard evidence --politicians, presidents of the United States, Princess Di and most of the most powerful people in the world have had cause to complain about bad reporting, but even they cannot achieve the ideal world Mr. Aldwinckle apparently seeks. A free press means the freedom to speculate and to write nonsense, one reason why journalists have the lowest public approval rating of any profession in Britain at least."

I don't see this as helping your case. Is journalism not backed up by facts and figures (incidentally, not necessarily what I called for--just a larger survey sample and duration of time to tease out data when talking about social trends) something desirable? You yourself note in what low regard journalists can be held. Is this a goal that journalists should shoot for? Or something that they should work against? Does the lack of an "ideal world" mean we give up trying? This is way off my point, but I don't see how this fount of relativism can allow any journalistic ethics to exist at all.

JD concludes:
"Why should lack of prior knowledge or language skills disenfranchise someone? And even as I write, the new correspondent of the BBC world service is reporting from Japan on a festival in Nagoya with 'the world's biggest penis'. Whether this constitutes the kind of reporting that upsets Mr. Aldwincle I'm not sure, but it's certainly got me hooked. In fact I'm signing off to listen to the interviews with the excited women who are explaining why they want to touch it..."

A penis is quite a "peg", I must say. The Japanese economy is in flux and the new people are covering phalluses. Turns down the gaiatsu on Kasumigaseki to reform.

Anyway, how closely did you read my essay, Mr Dougill? I am *not* trying to disenfranchise people. If anything, I'm trying to enfranchise *more* viewpoints by calling for more access in a system (particularly Japan's) that curtails it (evidence on that below). In any case, it's important for the public to understand, as far as "news" goes, where the cut-off point is for deciding what information matters and what doesn't--via pegs, tags, whatever.

To behead me as a censor or an "information monopolist" is to behead the messenger, and the points I raised, unlike that penis, remain untouched.

DS, on the other hand, took on one of my points and proved it unlikely quite well:

Doreen Simmons wrote (in part):
"Just a few extra comments on the great Aldwinckle journalistic conspiracy theory: There are currently 862 accredited journalists in Japan working for a total of 280 media companies of 43 countries. Of these 862, 462 are foreigners whose experience of Japan ranges from 'just-arrived' to 'but who's counting?'; the remainder are Japanese employed by foreign companies. The Foreign Press Center has a total staff of 27, of whom five arrange interviews for journalists - six if you count the kacho...Another four deal with clippings and research requests. Most of the resident journalists do their own fact-finding and set up their own interviews (or get their Japanese staff to do the groundwork). Just what do you think would happen if they all sat back and waited for the FPC to do it for them?...The resources won't stretch that far."

Which is fine. The FPC can hardly maintain a effective machine of "gaijin handlers" (as I put it) for image control when it is so understaffed. I agree it seems unlikely (although part of me--the Oliver Stone sitting on my shoulder--whispers that staff numbers aren't always related to effectiveness: JETRO is also understaffed yet used quite effectively as window dressing to show that "foreign businessmen don't try hard enough"...). So I acquiesce on that point. Thanks.

However, DS (or anybody else, for that matter) did not deal with any of the other points I raised in my previous essay, such as:

1) Do overseas editors think that regular journalistic wits, honed overseas, will do in Japan, or do they take into account factors that are quite singular to the Japanese media? (again, see below)

2) Is journalistic hyperbole about social trends (re Kristof) warranted after such a small sample?

3) Does the lack of information flow from disenfranchised parties affect good reporting?

4) Have you, like Dave Barry, ever been "briefed" by the Japanese government?

5) What exactly are the kisha kurabu (press clubs) there for, if not for information control?

Addressing these issues will better elucidate to the readership what journalists have to go through over here.

I understand that my previous essay was long and journalists spend their lives reading more important things. But the fact is that of the people who answered, nobody dealt with the references I provided either. Yes, Ivan Hall's book may be harder to find, but Laurie Freeman's paper (http://www.jpri.org/wp18.html) is but one click away. If anything, it bodes ill for people to fire off like that without doing their research.

Let go on and talk about research:


Here is my case:

1) Information is far more tightly "controlled" (meaning decisions on what is made public is more often skewed in favor of the powers that be) within the Japanese media than in the West. And for foreign correspondents, access to that information is even more controlled.

2) Given the sensitivity of the Japanese media to overseas reporting, foreign correspondents will face domestic parties which try to "rosy up" their image of Japan.

Let's deal with Case One. To save people some legwork, let me give excerpts from my references:

LAURIE FREEMAN'S "JAPAN'S PRESS CLUBS AS INFORMATION CARTELS" (JPRI Working Paper 18, April 1996--an excerpt of an upcoming book):

Prof Freeman deals with the phenomenon of the Kisha Kurabu as a bottleneck of information flow for *Japan in general*. She asks: "[W]ere Japan's press clubs merely functional equivalents of news-gathering and news-dissemination routines found in other advanced industrial democracies, or did they have a substantively different impact on the way "reality" is socially constructed in Japan and the functioning of Japanese democracy?"

She answers: "In Japan (and to a lesser extent in Britain), the information-gathering process takes place within a "closed shop" made up of journalists having proprietary access to information and sources. Contact with official sources is limited to a select group of individuals or organizations that have established a clerly-defined, if not codified, set of rules and practices. The perpetuation of the closed shop is guaranteed by the enforcement of sanctions or the threat of their enforcement. These define the basic features of what I term Japan's 'information cartels'."

More background for those who don't know:

"The main focal point for these interactions is the press club (kisha kurabu). Located in most in most major governmental, political, and business organizations, Japan's press clubs serve to control the access to and presentation of news. In Tokyo, they can be found in every ministry, the headquarters of all of the major political parties... Keidanren, ...[also many of the] local parliaments, police headquarters, the courts and chambers of commerce, ...research hospitals and major universities... From early morning until quite late at night groups of... journalists follow powerful individuals with whom they ultimately develop very close (and at times quite deferential) relationships."

She says: "The exact number of press clubs in Japan is not known." Sources estimate between 1000 separate clubs nationwide, others (Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Associateion, or JNPEA) 400, Kyodo Tsushin 600 (1986), Asahi Shinbun says 700. In any event, there are a lot, and "...the press clubs serve as 'home base' for the majority of Japanese journalists."

Getting into a press club requires prior membership in the JNPEA, but membership "is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition." She continues: "Generally, in the case of the major clubs in Tokyo, access to information is limited to an even smaller and more exclusive group of news organizations holding a virtual monopoly over sources thorugh their tight control over the day-to-day management of the clubs... [I]n practice, only the major 15-20 mainstream Japanese news organiztions participate as regular club members in many of the clubs in Tokyo... much less diverse than [the overall multi-media industry with] 111 newspaper companies, 50 broadcast stations, and 5 news agencies."...

"The practice of press group self-censorship [she refers to the case of the "okotoba mondai"] is one of the most noteworthy aspects of the Japanese press club system.... When one is confronted first-hand by the implications of these practices, it becomes increasingly difficult to view Japan's press clubs as functional equivalents of the general journalistic practice found in outher countries to withhold certain information to protect sources... [N]ot only were Japan's press clubs distinctive, they also performed a function in controlling the flow and interpretation of information at an industry-wide level, the equivalent of which one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere."

The effects? "[T]here is a price for having information filtered in this way--a price paid by the public. Under this arrangement, because [through exclusion of the more 'lowbrow' magazines and nonclub members] the magazine has gotten such information second or third hand, it either gets written as rumor or, because it is written anonymously and/or does not include an attribution of sources (a practice followed by club members and non-members alike), its news value and believability are seriously diminished."

There is plenty more in Professor Freeman's paper, but retyping up a few of her points above is instructive.

That's how it works in Japan for the Japanese press. But if you are a foreign correspondent you face even greater hurdles, and not just the language barrier. Here we turn to Ivan Hall's CARTELS OF THE MIND (1998) for substantiation.

Hall, himself a former journalist, has had first-hand experience in dealing with kisha kurabu in his thirty years in Japan. In Chapter Two, "Segregated Scribes: The Foreign Correspondents" (pp 45-89), Hall does not mince his words when he writes:

"Of Japan's various cartels of the mind, the one in journalism is indeed 'egregious'. It is the intellectual cartel most obvious to the eye; the one with the most baneful impact on the exchange of ideas with other countries; the one most restrictive of an open and democratic flow of information among the Japanese themselves... The kisha club system also represents the Japanese intellectual barrier longest under assault by organized foreign professionals seeking access--ever since 1960, with only marginal results. As such, it richly illustrates not only Japan's consummate skills at procrastination, evasion, and the psychological stringing along of would-be intruders... but also those foreign foibles for distraction, lack of institutional memory, and wishful thinking, which play so readily into Japanese hands." (pg 47)

The history of the struggle for foreign correspondents to get the same access to information as domestics is a long one, as is the logic employed by even Japanese journalists to keep the cartels intact and exclusive. But let me point out the results of the system here:

"The press conference announcing plans by Toyota for a major automobile factory in Kentucky in 1985. The Keidanren kisha club at the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations pleaded too small a room."

"The announcements by Fujitsu of a majority stake in the American chip maker Fairchild Semiconductor, and by Nippon Electric (NEC) of a joint venture with US electronics giant Honeywell, as well as the press conference held in Tokyo for the US Semiconductor Industries Association, all in 1986. No foreign reporters were invited, and those who got wind of these sessions were advised they could not attend."

"The barring of AP's picture desk man from a Simon and Garfunkel concert in Tokyo. ('It's an American group for chrissake, and here we are an American news organization which reaches virtually every corner of the earth...and they wouldn't let us in.')"

And several others listed on pages 64 to 65.

Moreover, fellow DFSer Andy Horvat of the LA Times was turned away at a prosecutor's office when asking for information about a well-publicized murder: "You're a gaijin? I'm not supposed to talk to you." (pg 65).

Fukuzawan and (former?) FCCJ President Sam Jameson of the LA Times noted, in paraphrase, "whereas Japan's import quotas were by then 97 percent liberalized to foreign goods, the liberalization rate for foreigners' access to Japan's news sessions was about two percent." (pg 60)

(Mr Horvat and Mr Jameson, why so silent during this email discussion?)

These are the rules, not the exceptions. And although things have gotten a bit better (the big names overseas, such as Time, Newsweek, CNN, Agence France-Presse, AP, Reuters, and Knight-Ridder are let in to many conferences), there is still a lot of haggling, personal patronage, and refusal to set clear rules that establish nonarbitrary guidelines. Not to mention that agencies must negotiate with every kisha kurabu attached to each Japanese organization, one-on-one, for access. Then the journalist goes home and the doors can swing shut all over again.

On the other hand, Japanese journalists face really none of the blanket restrictions in, say, America, where accredited journalists can get into press conferences if they're accredited and there is space (first-come, first-served). Unlike Japan, where "news organizations represented in the kisha clubs had to belong in the [JNPEA], whose membership in turn was restricted to Japanese firms!" (pg 69).

Chigau? Clearly the hurdles are here and quite substantiated, making the "conspiracy theory" into, by dictionary definitions, conspiracy fact. Given that human beings are limited by what they see and what information they receive, foreign correspondents face a very special situation here in Japan that hinders their input, and hence their output.

Now for the bonafide conspiracy theory:


LC sniped:
"Dave Barry is a *comedian* for crying out loud. He's not a journalist, and he doesn't play one on TV, either. He does refer to himself as one sometimes, but anyone who can't feel the sarcasm in this is numb. Barry writes . . . comedy. Anyone who looks to him for the deep, inner secrets of Japanese society -- or anything else save perhaps how to make people laugh -- deserves our deepest pity."

Which is again beheading the messenger. Even if I had removed Dave's name and called him "Reporter X", the fact is he was given a briefing--and a well-practiced, elaborate one at that--by one of Japan's most powerful business actors in Japan's most powerful business organization. The question is not "who got briefed?", but "why?" And that to me is an issue of image control. The fact that the Keidanren man looked at him for *what* he is (a journalist), not *who* he is (a humor columnist trying to keep the corn off his pizza) adds ground to my claim that he was targeted because he was a journalist.

Couldn't you see what was happening in that exchange? Not only was Keidanren trying to give him the facts of the case, they were trying to tell him what to *think*--that Japan should be seen as an apt pupil and left alone on its merry profitable way. Dave saw through that and told us so, albeit in a humorous way. But that makes the event no less noteworthy. He was being fed a line, and he knew it. But I fear not all are so flinty-eyed, especially amongst the "two-week trippers" who subsequently have to go home and write. And surely this is not an isolated case.

Granted, I probably made a fallacious attribution in my previous essay--that the FPC is part of the "image machine". But like it or not, the man in Keidanren was giving precisely the spin that the Japanese government would like the image-makers of the world to perpetuate: keep the status quo and don't push Japan into equitable relations with the US. Those images and spins are ultimately what make policy.

Again, I am NOT saying that journalists are blind fish on the Japanese government's line, ingesting whatever is fed them. I AM saying that there exists a line being fed, organized by the politically-aware in Japan's government, perpetuated by the gaijin handlers and the Japanese media system; and it will take a journalist *seasoned in Japan* to better see through it all. My evidence is scant (but not dismissable just because it is Dave Barry), but the output in Japan-related articles, as I have said, is chaffy enough to raise fears that either newbies aren't quite into it yet, or that important information has been overlooked due to restricted access.

My suggestions, FWIW, to reduce the incidence of chaff:

1) Longer foreign correspondence stationings. For a place like Japan, I'd suggest at least a ten- year rotation of staffing. This will lower the learning curves, strengthen reporter networks that can push for kisha kurabu access, and increase acclimatization both professionally and personally.

2) Language training before arrival. Particularly in reading Japanese. A post in Japan is not a vacation or a stepping-stone. We are writing about the world's second-largest economy that has a vague world view, and Japan should be treated with the proper seriousness.

3) Clearer guidelines about what makes news and what doesn't. Phallus stories are fun, but how do they tie into a bigger picture, especially overseas? Otherwise, people will get random and skewed ideas about things Japanese and perpetuate the chaff.

Finally, may I please have some comments from those in the know about the points I raised? If I stand corrected, I will acquiesce. I'm not trying to make people defensive about professional matters, but these are burning questions that I hope other people feel deserve attention in the international arena. Thanks very much.

Dave Aldwinckle

(The final, definitive response--from a journalist--follows. Click here to see it.)

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