JPRI Critique, Volume X, No. 7: November 2003
Confessions of a Foreign Correspondent
by David McNeill

Is Japan disappearing from the world's media map? With the country apparently having become, as one business magazine put it, the "Switzerland of Asia," that is, rich but boring, foreign newspapers are shuttering their Tokyo bureaus as fast as they can move their correspondents to cover bigger stories in China and elsewhere.

In the last two years alone, The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, the British Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian and a host of other famous European newspapers have downsized or closed their Japanese operations. Membership of the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan has fallen by over a quarter since its peak and even this underestimates the decline as a large share of paid-up members of the FCCJ are Japanese businessmen who are "non-working journalists."

Perhaps more worryingly, specialist publications like Japan Quarterly, which was propped up for years by the Asahi Newspaper group, have also hoisted the white flag. This is part of a trend that has seen many struggling Japanese publishers prune English-language publications and cede the shrinking market for general information about this country to the few foreign organizations still providing it. The Nikkei Shimbun, for instance, which in the 1980s planned an English-language financial daily newspaper, also recently rationalized its operations by turning its loss-making weekly newspaper into an even smaller tabloid. One glossy publication that recently tried to buck the trend, called simply Japan, went belly up after just two issues. Another publication that recently folded, Insight Japan, had relied mainly on subscriptions from the Japanese foreign office.

The picture is not uniformly bleak. Organizations that provide economic stories have stayed put and even expanded, reflecting the strength of an economy that not only remains second or third-largest (depending on what statistics you prefer) in the world, but which has also, by certain economic indicators, increased its presence on the world stage. While Japan is invariably cited as the world's second largest economy, the purchasing power parity (PPP) method of calculating national income, used by, among others, the CIA's World Fact Book, puts it third with a GDP of $3.55 trillion after China's $5.7 trillion. Nonetheless, Japan claims that its net external assets during the 1990s grew from $294 billion to $1,153 billion. The Economist, for example, has kept two correspondents in Japan since the 1980s and Bloomberg has expanded steadily since it set up here in the 1990s. News agencies like AP, which are increasingly filling the gap left by departing correspondents, are doing well. Still, it's fair to say that the Japanese profile of most foreign newsgathering organizations is in decline.

The great media pullout has not been matched on the Japanese side. The Nhon Keizai Shimbun has nine Japanese correspondents in London alone, not counting local staff, the Yomiuri also has nine staff in London and the Asahi has six, including four correspondents. What this means in practice is that the readers of Japanese newspapers probably get a more subtle picture of what is going on abroad, at least in the rich countries.

Given the nature of Japanese politics and society, where developments often seem to move at the pace and clarity of a drunken salaryman, and where cultural and other obstructions (the infamous press club system, for example), make it difficult to report them, it's hard not to sympathize with the people who make the decision to pull out. If I were a busy foreign editor forced to choose between a story about yet another thrilling factional fight in the liver-spotted old guard of the Liberal Democratic Party, or the latest shenanigans in the court of Kim Jong-il, no prizes for guessing what would be on tomorrow's pages.

Still, this whole business is bad news for foreign perceptions of this country. The more the newspaper world's gaze shifts elsewhere, the harder it gets for remaining Japan-based correspondents to get their stories into print. In my experience as a stringer for the London Independent and the Irish Times, this translates into less nuance and depth, and more colorful entries into the pages of "weird Japan"Ñstories about cults, gangsters, geishas and suicides.

When I started writing here three years ago I was determined never to contribute to the weird Japan syndrome. This country was just as complicated, daft and infuriating as anywhere else; the lives of ordinary people in Bed-town, Saitama were little different, minor cultural issues aside, from those in Bedford, England, and that's how I would describe it. Three years later I look back over near two hundred articles and find the biggest, most prominent pieces are about cults, gangsters, and suicides. I've managed to avoid geishas but that's more than been made up for with articles about kamikaze pilots, train gropers, Sumo wrestlers, and ultra-rightists. Okay, there's stuff in there too about teachers, factory workers, and students, some economic analysis, one or two big political stories, but can I say I've given a balanced picture of this country? Nope. Japan looks pretty weird.

Even when writing a straightforward piece about a political leadership contest, I can't claim to be without journalistic sin. Take the defeat two years ago of Yoshio Mori by "maverick" politician Junichiro Koizumi for the presidency of the LDP. One way of writing the story would have been like this:

Koizumi wins political kabuki show

"Bumbling Yoshio Mori has finally been replaced by the more media-friendly Junichiro Koizumi in a contest for leadership of the LDP that nevertheless leaves Japan's sclerotic political structure intact. Politicians in Japan have, in any case, very little power to influence policy in comparison to the bureaucrats who write it."

Here's what I wrote:

Japanese reformer poised to become next premier

"The reformist Japanese politician, Mr. Junichiro Koizumi, won a landslide victory in the contest for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party yesterday, and immediately promised a radical overhaul of the country's stagnant political and economic landscape."

Some readers might prefer the second version, but which looks more correct now?

What are the reasons for this phenomenon, apart from my own failings? Partly the issue here is that newspapers in particular are driven by the relentless pursuit of the fresh and interesting to hold onto their readerships, encouraging writers to sprinkle their accounts of mundane developments with lively adjectives like "radical" and "reformer." But increasingly intense competition in most print markets and the post-2001 advertising slump also means less space for analysis and "public-service" style journalism, more for sexier stuff that grabs the reader's roving eye. Sales of the Independent, for example, which were nearly 420,000 in 1990, have slumped below 220,000 now (with only 143,000 paying full price), and the newspaper has undergone extensive remodeling, downgrading foreign news to just one page and replacing hard news with tabloid-style features. The Irish Times, while managing to hold onto its core middle-class readership, missed bankruptcy by a whisker in 2002 and has since cut back sharply on its foreign news output. Both cases demonstrate very sharply how sensitive newsgathering is to the vagaries of the market and in particular the advertising that keeps everything afloat.

Struggling newspapers at home, staffed by editors who often know little about Japan, mean that the main political and economic stories are distilled to a sort of standard template ("Japan is an economic basket-case," being a typical example) that often don't allow for more analysis (Japan's political economy doesn't work like the West). It was difficult for me to argue, for instance, during the brief tenure of the unpopular Yoshio Mori, that newspapers should carry some analysis to inform readers that Mori was not a prime minister in the sense that most British or Irish readers might expect, being more of a figurehead for a system of government dominated by turf-conscious civil servants. And few editors cared that Mori's endless "gaffes" were not the isolated mistakes of a political leader out of his depth, but representative of a large section of views within the party he led.

Freelancers probably unwittingly contribute to this process because they have less authority to insist on a particular version of the story than an established staff correspondent does. A lowly stringer trying sell her story to a busy foreign desk with which she has only the most tentative of connections will often tailor a story to meet the expectations or demands of that newspaper. Sometimes the same stringer will write very different stories on the same topic for different newspapers.

Many of course would like to approach the disappearing Japan syndrome from an entirely different angle, laying much of the blame with the systematic intellectual obstructionism that characterizes much of the newsgathering apparatus in Japan, an issue dealt with by, among others, Ivan Hall in his book Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop (W.W. Norton, 1997). Correspondents face unique problems working in Japan, thanks to extensive collusion between the local media and power brokers, meaning fewer opportunities for stories that might bring some color to the gray political landscape that has proved such a turnoff to foreign editors. This argument can and has been extended further to claim that the Japanese government here deliberately obstructs the work of foreign correspondents in a bid to blindside Europe and the U.S. about its world-beating industries. In other words, the mandarins in Nagatacho are perfectly happy for distortions in Japanese coverage to continue because it takes the foreign heat off their mercantilist trade practices.

These arguments have a lot of merit, and have been covered extensively elsewhere, but my concern is not so much with what might be called the supply-side of providing an accurate portrait of the country in all its complexity, but with the problems of demand at the other end of the information conduit. These problems have always been around (a glance at British coverage of Japan in the 1980s is advised for those who believe otherwise), but they seem to have worsened considerably in the opening years of the twenty-first century, and with so many agencies and stringers now taking the place of full-time correspondents, the situation looks unlikely to improve soon.

David McNeill resides in Kanagawa Prefecture. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Japan Times, September 23, 2003.

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