Japan has a political system that is contrary to its Buddhist-Shinto philosophy and religion. Along with other Asian countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Thailand, Japan has a more liberal press than in the rest of Asia. Censorship issues that incrust most of Asia is not Japan’s most important concern, instead it is more occupied on newspaper maintenance system and broadcasting digitalization.
Japan, one of the few developed nations in Asia and the world’s second largest economy is considered a liberal democracy with a constitutional monarchy type of government and citizens maintain all their civil rights.
It is run under a one-party rule, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). No real challenge to the LDP was able to sustain itself despite the decrease in its popularity since the economic inactivity in l990s and corruption scandals.
For decades, Japan has not experience a change in political administration. Japan is a democracy without a competition. One may wonder how this could be possible when democracy is founded on competition. A Tokyo-based political analyst, Minoru Morita said: ‘For a long period of time, the major media have been serving at the LDP’s discretion. That is one of the secrets of the LDP’s long-term rule (Cited in “Japan’s freedom from,” 2007).’
The condition of the Japanese press seems to be, at first sight, analog to that established in the West. There are major daily newspapers with huge bulk of people reading at least one newspaper every day. The degree of reporting is adept. Dissemination of news is vigorous not only through newspapers but also the television and the internet.
There are only five national newspaper which accounts for half of the country’s total circulation, Asahi Shim bun, the Mainichi Shimbun, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Sankei Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun.
A scrutiny of the contents, however, reveals a uniformity of editorial style among these newspapers. It is hard if not impossible to characterize one or another as representing a specific political attitude as one can find in New York Times’ liberal standpoint and in conservative editorial page of Wall Street Journal.
When compared with the press in other leading industrial countries in the world, Japan is so remarkably different in media. This is primarily due to the deluging control of the Liberal Democratic Party over the mainstream media with the Kisha clubs system as its mouthpiece.
The first three decades of the 20th century, the press was controlled through self-censorship. Obnoxious events, no matter how significant received no attention if they could adversely affect the interest of the ruling party. The development of communist party was also a forbidden subject.
Media corporations of today already existed and were dominant during the military period of strict censorship from l930 until the end of World War II. Susan J. Pharr, a media scholar wrote: “Examining Japan's prewar legacy in relation to various interpretations of the media’s role today, what stands out is dual traditions. Given the powerful roles exercised by the state with regard to the media over the era from 1868 to 1945, the 'servant' tradition is obviously strong.
Access to information of Japan’s mainstream media is under the monopoly of the ill-refute Kisha (reporters) club systems. These clubs are attached to the government’s major institutions including the police. Foreign press, freelance journalists and magazines find it difficult to get access to important information. However, there were significant scandals uncovered by journalists working outside the system despite difficulties.
Most of the scandals were uncovered by Japanese magazines in the late 2000. One of these is the scandal which led to the resignation of a Cabinet Secretary, Hidenao Nakagawa, a top aide of Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori.
There was a sharp contrast between the reports of the outside press and those of the major newspapers. The major newspapers reported differently from those covered and reported by Japanese magazines. The major papers allowed themselves to be manipulated by the ruling LDP.
Japanese press does not lead but follow. This is one of the most serious issues in Japanese journalism – failure to keep those in power accountable. They cover the scandal only after it has already been uncovered.
A correspondent who has spent almost thirty years of his life in Japan as a cultural diplomat and professor, Ivan P. Hall, says: "As an integral part of Japan's powerful administrative state, the clubs, with their mutual back scratching between reporters and sources, serve as a brake on the healthy development of Japanese democracy.
Publisher, Matsuoka Toshiyasu was arrested in July 2007 and imprisoned for 192 days on suspicion of defamation which is a violation of the free speech clause of the constitution. The arrest and imprisonment was ignored by the Japanese media. The publisher was accused for defaming the executives of Aruze Corporation, maker of gambling and slot machines for tax evasion and unethical business practices.
Before his arrest, Matsuoka has published forbidden topics in Japan like financial scandals and reports on Abe Shinzo, now Japan’s Prime Minister. He said that he had been sued before, but he did not expect that he will be arrested and that it was unprecedented. The case has been decided against his favor and he was issued a sentence of one year and two months imprisonment.
Matsuoka did not get the support of Japanese journalists. In an interview with the ex-editor of the defunct scandal magazine Uwasa no Shinso said on the arrest: ‘If we casually permit a member of the media to be arrested on suspicion of defamation,’ he said, ‘it is the same as if freedom of speech had died (Cited in McNicol, T. & McNeil, D., 2007).’
The latest freelance writer to feel the heat is Ugaya Hiro, a music journalist who is faced with a ¥50 million libel suit for his brief comments in a telephone interview doubting the accuracy of the Oricon charts (Oricon is a company that publishes Japan’s pop music charts).
Both cases are disturbing indications for Japan’s press freedom, according to Asano Kenichi, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at Doshisha University; that the arrest of Matsuoka has a scarey effect. The mainstream journalists say it does not affect them as he is a scandal magazine journalist, however, he continued, that looking back at the history of Japanese journalism as what had happened in the l930s, the police always start with extreme case.
Ugaya’s lawyer commented: ‘It is unprecedented to sue a person who has not written the article but merely answered questions on the phone (Cited in 2007)’, explaining further that who would now answer questions from journalists if interviewees think the risk of being sued? He believes that the libel law was designed to protect individual rights but he said that it seems that lawsuits are being used by oligarchs to forestall and hush critiques (2007).
The decline of Japan’s mainstream media to discuss the issues and offered no support or solidarity for their plights is a signal to the world that the world’ second largest economy is not truly responsive to the Western liberal ideas.
Responding to the pressure from European Union (EU), Japan’s Kisha Clubs open its doors to foreign news writers. However, Japanese freelance journalists are still excluded. Terasawa, a freelance investigative journalist, like other journalists in the world, has to access information to do his job, but he was cut off from information reserved for Kisha Clubs members.
He said that it is easier for foreign correspondents from America and Europe to gather news information than Japanese freelancers because Japan has to show to the Western world that it is an open country with equal standards. The EU was not successful as far as the Asian and Japanese correspondents are concerned. They are still being discriminated.
Terasawa said that freelance journalists are regarded by the Japanese public and mainstream media in a totally different way than in the West. He said it is just the same way as saying you are unemployed if you are a freelance writer (McNicol, T, 2004).
Terasawa, one of Japan’s best investigative reporters has launched a court action against the government and the Kisha club system for obstructing the work of a freelance journalist. He argues that the collaboration between journalists and press clubs boosts indolent journalism and assists enthroned interests.
In July 2004, he was refused a seat in court and copy of the verdict primarily because he is not a member of the press club. It was the second time that he was denied a seat in court. The first one was when he was trying to cover a police corruption case in April 2003.
He argues that the government violated the constitution that guarantees press freedom and equality. This is his second attack on the press club system. The first case he begun reached the Supreme Court but he lost.
Nonetheless he did not lose hope believing that the fact that it reached the highest court is a positive indication that the judiciary is cognizant of the seriousness of the issue. Terasawa is aware that he is actually asking the court to acknowledge its own mistakes; however, he is determined to fight no matter how difficult it is for the sake of press freedom (2004).
The worst characteristic of the so-called “liberal press system” in Japan is the existence of kishi clubs. It has subsisted since the pre-war period but continues mostly unreformed today. Members of the press clubs enjoy privileges and exclusive access to sources of information. News items are spoon-fed without conducting verification or investigation before being released to the public. Press is controlled through self-censorship. Responding to the pressures from EU, Japan has opened its doors to foreign correspondents, however, Asian and local freelance journalists remain cut off from access to information.
Japan is a constitutional monarchy, a liberal democracy. It does not mean however, that the government of such democracy must follow the political ideology of liberalism. Liberal democracies feature constitutional protections of individual rights against the powers of the government.
Freedom of expression is fundamentally a human right, a right protected not only by the constitution but recognized under international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights where Japan is a signatory provides the framework for promoting a socially responsible press in Asia and the world. Freedom of expression cannot be disintegrated from press freedom. It is necessary for the press to assert freedom of expression to accomplish it mission and duties to the world.
Japan’s press system lacks independence. Its manipulation of the press does not only weaken democracy but also subverts press freedom globally. “Indeed, the west’s recent reporting scandal suggests that its media are drifting more towards the Japanese model than the other way round (Gamble, A. & Watanabe, T., 2005).”