Press Freedom and Kisha Club in Japan

Published on 15th May 2010

To discuss press ownership and freedom in Japan is to discuss Japan Press Club popularly known as “Kisha club.” Kisha clubs are drawn from Japanese nationals ready to work within the dictates of government agencies and ministries. The clubs do not only lock foreigners out of information gathering, but also lock out other Japanese deemed as competitors or antithetical to why Kisha clubs exist.

Often reporters content with comforts provided by Press Clubs do not use their authorities to unravel wrong doings. Organizations like Japan Newspapers and Editors Association {Nihon Shimbun Kyokai} are formed as a foothold to exclusively report and access information held by public authorities.

Kisha clubs prevents the public from knowing for instance, the actions of bureaucrats such as embezzlement of public funds within the foreign office. There is also no competition among reporters as they willingly serve as conduit pipes for distilled information that emanates from government sources, ministries and agencies. Variety in news reporting obviously lacks as reporters slovenly relay the same thereby denying the public in-depth analysis.

With the above situation, cozy relationship between reporters and news sources easily develop. Filtering of unwanted information becomes easier for anyone wishing to manage it or to spin the truth. It is noteworthy to mention that Kisha clubs are often quartered in government offices with facilities installed and paid for with public tax.

To check-mate the activities of Kisha clubs, foreigners aided by a few Japanese politicians and Japanese nationals never fold hands. In August 2004, Mr. Ken Takeuchi, Mayor of Kamakura, an ex-reporter, decried the existence and activities of Kisha clubs, especially when they are provided with public property as a base. He opened a media centre which permitted free flow of information within his locality.

Maverick Governor, Yasuo Tanaka of Nagano followed suit in 2001, closing Kisha clubs and replaced them  with “PressCenter.” Tanaka cited non-admittance of Matsumoto Shimin Times to the Kisha club as reason for shutting down of the Kisha club in Nagano prefecture. It was a clear case of a newspaper organization gaining advantage over others by protecting vested interests. Tanaka said that “it was unreasonable that certain media had exclusive right to occupy the press room while some are disallowed.” Governor Shintaro Ishihara of Tokyo toyed openly with his version of charging each member of Kisha club operating in Tokyo metropolis about US$1000 to pay for utilities but quickly changed his mind.

It was Takashi Tachibana, non member of a Kisha club that unraveled the fraud that made former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka to his resign after rigorous drilling at Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. The media also in 2001 failed to report the diplomatic embezzlement of hundreds of millions of yen by a senior Foreign Ministry staff. According to Mr. Ken Takeuchi, “in both cases, Kisha club reporters must have been aware of the nature of Tanaka as a money brokering politician and what discretionary diplomatic funds are but they failed to look into details.”

In January 2003, Taro Kono, son of former Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said that Kisha clubs are making a lot of people to interest in Japan. "The last thing we want is to bother someone who is writing about Japan. I think we must open the doors so that everyone who wants to cover Japan…is welcome,” he said.

In December 2002 publication of #1 Shimbun, Pio d’ Emilia, Eric Johnston then the only journalist at the Japan Times Osaka Bureau noted:  “my experience with Kisha clubs where I am not a member has been positive as far as routine request for information and interviews with lower level officials go, but difficult when it was a request to cover larger stories, or interview high level officials.” 

Hugh Cortazzi, former British Ambassador to Japan (1980-1984) observd that this view on Kisha club practices…”foreign newspapers frustrated by Japanese exclusiveness have reduced their presence in Japan, and reporting of Japanese affairs in the media abroad have declined both in quality and quantity. Inevitably, the stories that do appear about Japan are sensational and unhelpful to Japan’s image.”

Japan media club became an economic complaint often cited by EU as “restraint in the free trade in information.” The European Union also accused Kisha clubs of “cramping access to information.” EU in a document “Proposal for Regulatory Reform in Japan” issued by a delegation in Japan in 2002 suggested that apart from abolishing Kisha clubs, press ID’s issued by Foreign Ministry to correspondents should serve as access to briefings organized by public institutions.

Etienne Reuter, public relations officer to the delegation of European Commission in Japan, gave an instance of the case that involved Haruho Fujii, former president of Japan Highway Public Corporation who was being quizzed for alleged attempt to hide debt ridden state of its ministry’s finances and foreign correspondents were excluded from attending the public hearing.

At the same time, Van der Lugt, former Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan President, explained that it was a “tug of war” to get the relevant government ministries allow foreign correspondents access to news. He stated “it is alright for Kisha clubs to exist but it doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to stop members from attending press conferences and other events….”

In December 2003, Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association {a.k.a. Kisha clubs} responded. They defended the existence of Kisha clubs stating that “the Kisha club is fulfilling its role, supporting the public rights to know. There is no need to abolish it.” They posited that “members must abide by Media ethics: accurate and fair reporting and consideration for human rights…organizing press conferences is the right to know. Press club promotes official public especially where life is involved like in a case of kidnapping.” The association concluded with the following statement: “The EU claims are based on misinterpreted facts and misunderstandings.”

EU led by Bernhard Zepter however gained an inch: Japan decided to allow any holder of Foreign Press Card {Gaimusho cards} to access information. This was achieved after Misako Kaji, the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman for the foreign press, observed that overseas journalists who can’t accept local costumes should “get out of Japan.”

With the above scenarios, Kisha club continued to exist. However, aggressive pursuits of news were often made by those media organizations that are locked out. For instance, it was The Asahi Geino that blew the horn on the beaten to death of a 17 year old sumo wrestling lad which probably “did not allow authorities any cover up.” According to a Japan based writer, Mark Schreiber “weekly magazines {non-members of Kisha clubs} often break political and other scandals first” because of their independence and the need to be out there with their own news.

Japan major newspapers are: Asahi, Sankei, Yomiuri, Mainichi and Nikkei. There are also five commercial networks: TV Asahi, Fuji TV, Nippon TV {NTV}, Tokyo Broadcasting System {TBS}, and TV Tokyo. Each of these channels are owned respectively by the newspapers corporations above.

NHK {Nippon Hoso Kyokai}, Japan Broadcasting Corporation is funded by mandatory fees paid by householders. NHK reports news including English news channel at 19:00 pm daily but it is not as aggressive as other five commercial studios seen as entertainment outfits. In fact, it was not NHK that first broadcasted former Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa’s drunken posture at G7 summit in Rome, February, 2009.

Again, the resignation of NHK president, Geinichi Hashimoto in January 2007, over cases of embezzlement, back room stock deals by employees and tinkering with program content due to pressure from political quarters has shown NHK to be in same shoe as  activities of Kisha clubs.

The present government must have had all these in mind when on September 29, 2009; Japan Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada while giving a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan stated that “henceforth, foreign journalists, along with genuine freelancers and writers from magazines and cyber space will be allowed to attend the regular briefings.” Instead of waving Ministry of Foreign Affairs press card, all that is needed is to apply online. He went on to posit that “this is a matter of the public right to know.”

In China, control of media is never hidden. Before 2008 Olympics, Chinese communist regime in Beijing promised unfettered access to Journalists before and after the Olympics but this was not to be. As the Olympic torch toured countries, reactions from nationals like Tibetans led to further clampdown on freedom of expression. It is well known that Chinese government release official media policy through Xinhua Newspapers and its CCTV channels. The recent eleven years jail sentence handed a Chinese dissident, Mr. Liu Xiaboa for calling for political reforms is typical.

In Palestine, newspaper organization and whatever broadcasting stations that exist are subsidized by government. According to Ms. Yasmine Abu El-Assai of Jerusalem Media and CommunicationCenter {JMCC}, “journalism practice is much like a part time job and not as a main occupation. However, young generation have rights and often express their views through internet and independently so. Freedom of expression can be sensitive because of the question of sovereignty.”

In Yemen, the business of journalism is not optimal though, progress is taking shape. There are five public TV channels and two private ones. Yemen has more than a hundred newspapers ranging from daily to weekly and monthly. Mr. Nasser Al Shawafi, a journalist with Yemen Television has this to say, “the freedom of expression is fully guaranteed on the constitution but things one the ground are a bit different especially when It comes to the president or corruption in the country….Like other parts of the world, Internet press is wining and became more popular among intellectuals. For instance, Abdulkareem Al Khiwani , the Cheif Editor of Al Shoura newpaper and Al Shoura- net (online ) was beaten and left for dead while government refused renewal of its newspapers operational license.”

In Afghanistan, there are 362 newspapers belonging to warlords and Ministers. Walik Kazai, brother to Afghanistan President, Hamid Kazai owns one of the newspapers. There is Afghanistan Times, the only paper published in English. “With every Minister and each warlord having its own newspaper organization, it is obvious that each portrays and promotes only the activities of its owner…” according to Mr. Kazim Ali Gulzari.

The question of media ownership and freedom of expression can be concluded with the words of Sasa Vucinic of Media Development Loan Fund; “83 percent of people on this planet are without independent press. 83 percent do not know what is going on in their country. The information they get gets filtered from somebody who either twists that information or spin that information. So, they’re deprived of understanding the reality.”

By Patrick Nwadike

Writing from Japan.  

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