|JPRI Working Paper No. 40: November 1997
A Veteran American Journalist Looks at the Japanese Media
by Sam Jameson
In January, 1966, upon returning from a trip to the Soviet Union and West Germany, then Foreign Minister Etsusaburo Shiina was scheduled to give a news conference at Haneda Airport after exchanging toasts with members of the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Shiina's airplane, however, arrived 30 minutes early-so early that some of the officials who were supposed to greet him had not yet arrived. A clerk in the Foreign Ministry's press section showed up in the VIP room where members of the Kasumi Club were waiting for Shiina's press conference to begin. The clerk politely asked the Kasumi Club reporters to wait a few more minutes to give the officials time to arrive.
"What the hell are you talking about? Get him in here right now" (Nani o itterunda? Hayaku tsurete koi!), shouted the Kasumi Club "captain."
The press section clerk rushed out of the VIP room without saying a word, and within 60 seconds, the foreign minister of Japan appeared and began his news conference.
The incident-inconceivable to an American reporter-underscored not only the deference that the media in Japan demand from government officials, businessmen and others who provide them with the information from which they make their living. It also underscores the power of the Japanese media, which often act not merely as observers and reporters of events but also as movers and participants in them.
That power has grown over the years-yet Japan's mass media still have not achieved their full potential. They have honed their skills in fixing blame and pillorying scapegoats. They can topple prime ministers, destroy careers, and make life miserable with invasions of privacy. They can set an outer boundary for permissible action. But somehow they have not yet developed the ability to uncover the facts needed to expose, uproot and correct social ills, corruption and inefficiency.
Journalists keeps reporting that there is a desire in Japan for fundamental
change, but somehow they can't help bring it about. The late Prime Minister
Kakuei Tanaka was drummed out of office by a media-created uproar over his
money-power (kinmyaku) wheelings-and-dealings. Yet after he stepped
down, the media never mentioned kinmyaku again. Two years later, when accusations of bribes by the Lockheed Corporation surfaced for the first time, Tanaka was arrested. Gratified by his arrest, media attention on the root of the Lockheed bribery-the government's power to intervene in the aviation business-soon evaporated. Similarly, the mass media hounded Morihiro Hosokawa out of office as prime minister over a loan he had received from Sagawa Kyubin. But as soon as Hosokawa left, not another word was heard about the loan.
Sometimes, it is just "scape-goating," as the Korea Herald in Seoul noted in an editorial about the resignation of Morihisa Aoki as ambassador to Peru in the wake of the terrorist siege of the ambassador's residence in Lima. (Public opinion turned-or was turned-against Aoki when the ambassador was shown chain-smoking cigarettes and acting in what was called "an unrefined manner" in a televised news conference after his release.)
"If the media don't conduct a witch-hunt against somebody once every 10 years, they can't achieve peace of mind. The mass media suffer from something like menstruation," political critic Minoru Morita says. Over the postwar years, the media, he says, have made "victims" of Prime Ministers Shigeru Yoshida, Nobusuke Kishi, and Kakuei Tanaka, as well as Shin Kanemaru and Ichiro Ozawa, both of whom served as secretaries-general of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Powerful But Inward-Looking
Japanese newspapers boasts the world's greatest circulation in absolute numbers: 72 million versus 59 million daily in the United States, according to the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association. Despite a vast expansion of TV news, newspaper circulation continues to grow even as it continues to decline in the United States. Incredibly, overall newspaper circulation has doubled in Japan since 1959, while the population grew by only 35%. Although evening circulation has dropped 6.6% in the last six years, the average household still subscribes to more than one newspaper a day. By contrast, more and more households in the United States rely entirely on TV and radio for whatever news they get. In 1995, in Japan, 580 newspaper copies circulated daily for each 1,000 people, whereas in the U.S. 226 circulated per 1,000-down from 249 in 1990.
In Japan both TV and newspapers assign dozens of reporters and cameramen to
cover news events to which media from other countries can assign no more than
one or two reporters. Overseas correspondents of Japanese media often outnumber
correspondents working for American and European wires services. Yet, virtually
no international market exists for Japan-produced news. "Japanese
journalism is too inward-looking," says Toshihiko Uji, deputy editor of
the Tokyo Shimbun. It also has failed to win trust abroad-and the problem runs a lot deeper than memories of wartime aggression against Asia (although that is a factor in the lack of trust in Asia.)
The Japanese style of writing in which sources are kept secret does not
inspire credibility. Attributions like hara ga katamatta yo de aru
("It appears that the stomach has hardened"-meaning that a person
seems to be in the process of making up his mind) strike an international
audience as ridiculous. That kind of writing comes from what Japanese
journalists call the nari-chu-genko (nan to ka narimasu kara, chui
shimasho genko), or the "I-don't-know-what-but-something-is-going-to-happen-so-let's-pay-attention"
story. "Japanese journalism just communicates an atmosphere," says
Yasuhiro Tase, a Nihon Keizai Shimbun reporter and author of the book, Crime and Punishment of Political Reporting (Seiji Jyanarizumu no Tsumi to Batsu). Yoshiyuki Wada, director of editorial affairs of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association agrees. "There are an awful lot of unclear articles in Japanese newspapers." In addition, he notes, "newspapers don't write editorials with enough punch to attract international attention."
In 1991, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu actually resigned without ever once saying in public that he was going to resign. Without identifying sources, Japanese media first reported that Kaifu was threatening to resign, and then that he had resigned. So much had been reported unofficially that by the time he finally gave a news conference, Kaifu spoke knowing that everyone knew he was quitting. So he never bothered to announce that fact himself.
Form (the full sweep of a bow captured by TV film, for example) is too often emphasized over substance (the reason why the bow is being made). Tase reported that 95 Japanese media sent 399 reporters to the 1992 Munich G-7 economic summit. But, according to Tase, they produced no significant articles not seen elsewhere. Instead, untold energy is expended trying to obtain exclusively documents such as the joint communique, even when it contains no significant news. "Japanese journalism is a low- level journalism," Tase argues. "Competition is just to sell the most newspapers-to get tomorrow's news today."
Staged (yarase) TV scenes, photos set up by photographers for the newspapers, payments for interviews, withholding information from publication at the request of news sources, and reporters who leak rumors of scandal to weekly magazines rather than writing exposes for their own newspapers all detract from the reputation of Japanese journalism. So, too, does the Japanese penchant for avoiding sensitive issues and quarrels with organizations, groups, or even countries that have proven themselves troublesome.
In his book, Toward a More Contentious Television, (Tatakau
Terebi-ron) Soichiro Tahara complains that TV networks are more interested in
avoiding trouble than in meaningful investigative reporting. Discrimination
against burakumin (Japan's so-called "untouchables"), crimes
committed by gangsters and sokaiya (extortionists preying on stockholders' meetings), and incidents involving the Soka Gakkai (Value Creating Society, a Buddhist laymen's group) or North Koreans in Japan remain virtual taboos-not to mention unauthorized reporting about anything involving the Imperial Family or the emperor system. The deference the Japanese media have displayed over the years toward China also casts a shadow over the credibility of Japanese reporting on both China and Taiwan.
Even today, few Japanese are aware that in 1964 most major Japanese
newspapers and TV stations accepted China's so-called "three political
principles" as the price for sending correspondents to Beijing. Those
principles were to refrain from adopting a hostile attitude toward China, to
oppose any two-China policy, and to support the establishment of diplomatic
relations with the Beijing government. The initial upshot was that the Japanese
media withdrew all correspondents from Taiwan, stopped reporting events in
Taiwan, and withheld any criticism of Beijing. No Japanese reporting medium
informed its viewers or readers that it was taking these actions. Although the
agreement no longer exists officially, major media companies still refrain from
stationing correspondents in Taiwan because they fear trouble with the Beijing
government. The Sankei Shimbun, which refused to swallow the Chinese demands and ultimately lost the opportunity to station reporters on the Chinese mainland, is the only major company that stations a correspondent in Taiwan today. Other newspapers and TV stations send correspondents there on visits or secretly receive reports from Taiwan "stringers." Most Japanese editors cite Japan's past history of aggression to justify their special treatment of Beijing.
In its report on freedom of the press for 1996, Freedom House, the non-profit research institute in the United States, rated Japan's biggest problems as "political pressure" on both the print and broadcast media and "economic influence" over the content of print media. Freedom House gave 33 countries better scores than Japan in overall "press freedom." By comparison, 16 scored better than the United States. South Korea, with a history of only 10 years of freedom of the press, was rated only one point lower than Japan. At the top of the list was Norway. North Korea and Iraq tied for the most complete lack of freedom of the press, with Algeria-and its killings of 26 journalists in 1996-only a step above the bottom.
The institute said nothing about public trust of the mass media in the 187
countries that it surveyed. But despite criticism of the media and occasional
violent attacks by rightists against media organizations, particularly the Asahi Shimbun, the general public in Japan appears to give mainstream newspapers and TV a high degree of respect and trust-probably more than the American public now accords U.S. mainstream journalism.
Whereas quality and "yellow journalism" can be found among both daily newspapers and magazines in the United States, Japan has somehow swept most of its rumor mills, sex, and fluff into its weekly magazines. The weeklies are far more interesting to read than the mainstream dailies-but largely because they are wildly irresponsible.
Critics also fault Japanese journalism for its uniformity. Three years ago,
the Tokyo Shimbun prepared an advertising flier that was inserted into
copies of the Asahi Shimbun. In it, the Tokyo Shimbun declared:
"All newspapers rely on the same news sources, so whatever newspaper you
read contains virtually the same news as any other newspaper. Why not read the Tokyo Shimbun and save nearly 10,000 yen a year?" Shocked editors of the Tokyo Shimbun-which does, indeed, charge less for its subscriptions than other
newspapers-ordered the advertisements withdrawn. They did so, however, only
after the fliers had already been delivered in parts of Tokyo. The Asahi reported the incident.
Editors recognize the image of uniformity that characterizes Japanese
newspapers. The Sankei, for example, has used the slogan, "there is
a difference," in its TV advertising to try to stress its somewhat
non-conformist approach to news coverage. A significant increase in special
features, analyses, and article-series examining specific issues has also added
distinctive reporting to some media-and a depth and breadth to journalism as a
whole-that was lacking in the past. Bylines, once totally absent from newspapers,
are now used more frequently. "With their name on a story, reporters are
less likely to puff up the political leader they cover," Tokyo Shimbun's Uji says.
Political analyst Morita is correct when he says that Japanese
"reporters are extreme in hating to be criticized, and hate those who
criticize them." For that reason, the launching of "media pages"
in major newspapers must be called one of the biggest improvements in
journalism in recent years. These special pages display a breath-taking
tolerance of criticism. The Asahi Shimbun, for example, launched a
series of interviews with prominent Japanese from whom it sought criticism with
an interview of Tsuneo Watanabe, president of the Yomiuri Shimbun.
Watanabe's opening words were: "I hate the Asahi Shimbun." His denunciations spiraled upward from there.
Most important, newspapers have come out with conflicting and contrasting
editorial policies. The Yomiuri's stand in favor of constitutional
revision and a greater role for Japan in defense and the Asahi's insistence on preserving the Constitution in its present form and adhering to strict pacifism has provided newspaper readers with a basis for a real debate. Grinding uniformity, however, continues in terms of live, daily news coverage.
The Press Club System
A major reason for this is the press club system through which mainstream media cover Japanese government, politics, business, labor and even crime. Japan's "press clubs" share nothing in common with press clubs in the United States, where reporters eat, drink, talk, and occasionally listen to guest speakers. In Japan, the press clubs at government ministries, business organizations, labor federations, sports teams, and even police stations throughout the country provide an exclusive venue for news to be announced; and they designate the reporters eligible to cover the announcements.
The designated reporters are the members of the clubs. News organizations whose reporters are entitled to membership run the clubs, and those who don't belong-such as all reporters for all of the magazines in Japan-cannot attend press conferences. Japanese reporters, not government officials or businessmen who give news conferences to the press clubs, determine who can and cannot attend.
Well into the 1960s, the system stood as a total barrier to foreign correspondents covering live news. I personally will never forget going to the police station at which the suspect accused of stabbing Ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer in the right leg was being questioned. I was banned from attending a press conference at which police officers announced the results of their interrogations. Even the police recognized the legitimacy of an American reporter seeking information about the stabbing of his country's ambassador, and the officers who briefed Japanese reporters met me privately to repeat once again what Japanese reporters had prevented me from hearing at the official press conference.
Now, barriers against foreigners have been removed at many of the 20 or so press clubs where the major political and economic news of Japan originates. But every once in a while, the barriers pop up unexpectedly. For example, Sony's 1989 purchase of Columbia Pictures wound up being announced at a no-foreigners-allowed press conference. None of the barriers to Japanese reporters who are not members of the press clubs have been removed, however. On July 10, 1997, the Japan Publishers and Editors Association issued a recommendation that the press clubs stop pretending to be "social organizations," recognize their existence as "bases" for covering the news and allow greater participation in news gathering. The recommendation, unfortunately, is non-binding.
Members of the press clubs obtain all of the news of the day from their
"beat" in a series of press conferences held exclusively for their
benefit. Individual reporters are free to seek out additional detail on their
own, but often they are too busy. Or they simply write up the details that
officials have given them. Anywhere a group of Japanese journalists gathers, a
press club is formed. The inevitable result is uniformity in the content of
live news-whether it comes from Washington, Lima or from Nagata-cho (the
section of Tokyo in which Parliament and politicians' offices are located).
Press clubs breed "pack journalism" in which the individual reporter
subsists off the work of the group as a whole. A prime example is the list of
questions that Kantei Kurabu (Prime Minister's Press Club) reporters prepare
and submit in advance to the prime minister before a televised news conference.
Not only do the questions focus on the tatemae (the surface), rather
than the honne (the reality). Individual reporters don't seem able to ask spontaneous follow-up questions, and news conferences often end with obvious, even urgent, questions not being asked.
The extension of the press club system called the yo-mawari- going around at night to check on news, including visits to the homes of political big shots and business executives at around 11 p.m.-continues even now despite stories about the waning diligence of young reporters. (In the United States, politicians, businessmen or government officials visited at 11 p.m. at home by a reporter would probably call the police.) Veteran reporters and editors defend the practice, however little it appears to contribute to the flow of news. Politicians, they say, are busy during the daytime. They also meet other politicians in the evening, and late-night interviews enable reporters to catch up with what a politician may have said to another politician over dinner. Politicians are also more relaxed at night, especially after some drinks, and speak more frankly. The same reasoning is applied to late night visits to businessmen's homes.
While waiting for yo-mawari interviewees to get home, reporters spend
their early evening hours at leisure, dining with friends or taking a nap on a
couch at the press club to which they belong. "If only to give reporters a
place to catch a nap in the middle of a work day that begins at 10 a.m. and
won't end until midnight-after getting home the night before at 1 a.m.-the
press clubs are needed," says Takamitsu Kumasaka, deputy managing editor
of the Sankei Shimbun.
The results of such exhaustive reporting appear very sparse. The most
frequent scoops are stories that appear in one newspaper or TV station before
they appear in the others. Most contain news that would be announced and
reported even if no special effort were made to obtain it. Just last year, as
its candidate for the annual prize of the Newspaper Publishers and Editors
Association, the Mainichi Shimbun submitted an early-edition "scoop" it had published on Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's decision to resign-even though all the other newspapers had printed the same story by their final editions the same day.
One reason for the traditional paucity of scoops appears to lie in the perception of the average Japanese journalist that he is a participant in-and not just an observer of-the news he covers. When reporters obtain valuable information, they too often seem satisfied with merely knowing the information, and not necessarily with publishing it. Over the nearly 37 years that I have lived and worked in Japan, I have repeatedly gotten the impression that if the number 10 represents total knowledge of what a government is doing, Washington reporters probably know 7 and write 6 of it. In Tokyo, Japanese reporters probably know 8 and write 5. Glen Fukushima, a former deputy U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and now vice president of AT&T in Japan, is even more harsh: "Based on my experience at USTR, I would put the ratios at closer to 9:4 for Japanese journalists and 8:7 for American journalists."
In other words, Japanese reporters may actually know more than their Washington counterparts but publish less. Japanese journalist friends have confirmed to me privately that their tendency to print much less than they know is strong. "You don't want to ruin your personal relationship with the news source," one political reporter said. Journalists' self-perception of their role as participants who are "entitled" to use the information they obtain to influence events is an even bigger factor-as the "Nishiyama incident" of 1972 showed.
Takichi Nishiyama, a Foreign Ministry Kasumi Club reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun, seduced a secretary of the deputy vice foreign minister to persuade her to give him secret documents concerning the agreement by which the United States returned Okinawa to Japan. Nishiyama, however, wrote nothing definitive about the secret agreement for 10 months. Picking a moment at which he felt Prime Minister Eisaku Sato was losing his grip on power and a point at which Okinawa's reversion to Japan could not be endangered, he handed the documents over to a Socialist politician. Then he covered the Socialist's interrogation of Sato in Parliament. An enraged Sato had Nishiyama arrested on a charge of inducing a public servant to divulge state secrets.
The documents obtained by Nishiyama showed that the Japanese government had
secretly agreed to pay the United States under the table compensation that, on
paper, the United States was supposed to pay Okinawan landowners. Sato earlier
had told Parliament that no such secret agreement existed. In his trial,
Nishiyama denied that he had any political motive in passing the secret
documents to the Socialist. He insisted that he had acted on the basis of
"the people's right to know." His lawyers tried to make his defense a
cause célèbre for "freedom of news coverage (shuzai no jiyu)."
Colleagues, however, knew that Nishiyama was a conservative who disliked Sato and wanted to drive him out of office. That-not the "people's right to know"-was Nishiyama's motive. His act, moreover, was that of a person who considered himself a legitimate participant in politics, and thus "entitled" to make such judgments. The sexual seduction Nishiyama used to obtain the documents overwhelmed the "freedom of information" issues, and Nishiyama was eventually found guilty of inducing a public servant to divulge a state secret. Even today, however, Japanese editors cite the case as a lesson that media companies must report scoops on their own authority and not hide behind someone else. Thus, in a roundabout way, the Nishiyama case advanced the cause of responsible journalism in Japan.
Changes in the Japanese Media
Today, more real scoops are appearing in Japanese journalism than ever
before. The new trend started with the Asahi Shimbun uncovering the roots of the Recruit scandal in Kawasaki, an off-the-political-beat beginning similar to the origins of the Watergate scandal in the United States. It was the first time a Japanese newspaper published on its own authority information that uncorked a major scandal.
One only has to recall the Lockheed case to see the difference. The Lockheed scandal came to light only because a U.S. congressional subcommittee made the revelations in Washington. And whereas essentially all of the information made public about Lockheed came out on the first day, Recruit revelations continued breaking for a year until finally even the prime minister, Noboru Takeshita, was engulfed.
The emergence of ombudsmen, right-to-information laws, stockholders' suits and insider leaks have all spurred an opening of long-locked closets. Even prosecutors appear to have become more willing to leak information. Still, many front-line journalists engage in "moonlighting exposés" anonymously for weekly magazines, just as they used to in the days of Yonosuke Narazaki, a Socialist representative who built a reputation for airing exposés in Parliamentary interpolations. Narazaki obtained nearly all of his "bombshells" from mainstream journalists.
Japanese TV news has gained tremendous influence, partly because newspapers'
political reporting is so boring, critics say. Hisanori Isomura made Japanese
journalistic history by pioneering the one-hour prime-time 9 p.m. news show on
NHK. Hiroshi Kume and Tetsuya Chikushi made the late night news show with
commentary a permanent feature of TV. Other notable innovations included
Soichiro Tawara's "All Night Debate" (once a month from 1 to 5 a.m.
Saturday)* and his probing interviews on TV Asahi's "Sunday Project."
The new commentary-focused TV news programs, however, have strengthened the
tendency of TV to inject opinion into news broadcasts. Meanwhile, such
stalwarts of tatemae journalism as NHK's Sunday "Political Debate" persist.
Japanese TV viewers used to be able to see news for only 90 minutes during an entire evening. Now, news shows begin at 5 p.m. and, except for the single hour of 8 to 9 p.m., run on without a break until after midnight on one channel or another. Even bigger changes may lie ahead for Japanese TV, which is about to face competition from cable and satellite TV from which, so far, it has been immune. So far, TV news in Japan has avoided the visually-focused "info-tainment" approach that has come to dominate many TV news shows in the United States. Saturation of Japanese TV with all-day news channels (such as CNN), however, could force evening news shows to focus more on establishing their own "identity," one veteran American TV producer predicts.
Part of Japanese journalism's failure to live up to its potential is structural. Japanese newspapers waste an immense amount of experienced talent by forcing nearly all front-line reporters to "retire" to desk jobs at age 40. Reporters who cover the prime minister in Japan are in their late 20s or early 30s, compared with a White House press corps in the 40s and 50s. Several times when I joined the Japanese press accompanying a prime minister on trips to the United States, I discovered that not only was I the oldest reporter; I was also the only reporter who had ever made a trip with a prime minister to the United States.
Moreover, with every reporter assigned to "desks" or "sections"-the political section, the city news section, the foreign news section, etc.-there is no one around who can take a look at all aspects of a single problem. Another serious lack is a scarcity of investigative, explanatory reporting, although this kind of reporting is increasing. During the bubble economy of the late 1980s, nowhere in the media was there any criticism or even awareness that trouble was brewing. Indeed, the word "bubble" did not appear in the mass media until after the bubble had burst. Similarly, reporting on the bad loans that are now crippling Japanese banks and other financial institutions has been sparse and sporadic.
Reporting is often so "future-oriented" that daily news gets distorted. In April 1994, for example, after Prime Minister Hosokawa had resigned and the non-Liberal Democratic Party coalition was moving to choose a successor, these headlines appeared one day after another:
Wednesday: "Hata a Certainty." (Hata Kakujitsu)
Thursday: "Adjustments Toward Hata Under Way."(Hata e no Chosei ga Hajimaru)
Friday: "No Movement on Consultations Toward a Successor." (Kokeisha e no Hanashi-ai no Shinten ga nai)
Saturday: "Moves to Name Hata Begin." (Hata o ninmei suru ugoki ga Hajimaru)
Sunday: "Agreement in Broad Principle on Important Policies." (Juyo na Seisaku, Osuji no Goi)
Nikkei's Tase complains that Japanese journalism spends too much time reporting "Nagata-cho gossip," rather than real politics. Politics, he argues, involves the debate and formation of policies and the enactment of laws to implement them. But such spectacles as the "tent circus" that performs outside the prime minister's office when a cabinet is being formed don't even pretend to discuss policies: it's just about what post is going to whom from what faction. (TV broadcast centers set up tents in the parking lot in front of the Prime Minister's official residence.) Items like the late Shin Kanemaru's personal fortune of more than 6 billion yen (and how he acquired it) somehow never get uncovered by reporters.
Sensationalism and Irresponsibility
Perhaps the most serious problem among Japanese reporters is a proclivity to ignore basic human sensitivities. The problem has been around for decades. In the spring of 1996, news that TBS allowed Aum Shinrikyo cult leaders to view its TV interview of anti-Aum Lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto was surprising. Word that TBS withdrew the Sakamoto interview after Aum complained was shocking. But it was truly unbelievable that TBS never informed the police of the incident after Sakamoto and his family disappeared (they were abducted and murdered by Aum ).
The entire mass media also staged a "witch hunt" against Yoshiyuki Kono, who was a victim of the 1994 Aum sarin gas attack in Matsumoto but whom the police suspected of being a perpetrator. Not until after Aum followers were arrested for staging a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 11 persons did the media finally apologize to Kono.
Most shocking of all, however, was the Toyota Shoji incident of June 18, 1985, when Kazuo Nagano, 32, the founder of a company that embezzled money from old people on the pretext of selling them gold bars, was stabbed to death in front of TV cameras in Osaka. About 40 photographers and TV cameramen had staked out Nagano's apartment and calmly watched as two hoodlums tore iron bars from the windows, smashed the glass, and broke in. They then photographed the hoodlums as they slashed Nagano to death with bayonets, and showed the film on TV as if it were footage of a news conference.
TBS had, in effect, helped Aum conceal the murder of the Sakamoto family, but the 40 photographers who filmed the stabbing of Nagano were accomplices to the murder itself. Going back even further, to 1968, reporters on five different occasions interviewed a criminal they dubbed "Rifle Man" Kim, who had seized dozens of hostages at an inn after fleeing a cabaret where he killed two gangsters. Kim also gave interviews by telephone to a "morning show" on NHK-TV. During one of the interviews, photographers took a photo of Kim standing with both hands in his pockets and surrounded by seven reporters, all of them taking notes. The photo was removed from the evening editions of newspapers after the first edition when an editor finally realized that the photo revealed reporters were more interested in the "sensation" of talking to a killer than in the safety of the hostages whose lives he was threatening.
The problem is, of course, not limited to Japan. One thinks of the American journalists who shot film of a Buddhist monk setting himself afire to protest actions of the South Vietnamese government in the middle of the Vietnam War rather than intervening to stop his suicide. American TV today has become so sensationalist-minded that TV producers have developed a new rule of thumb for judging something newsworthy: "If it bleeds, it leads."
Media in Japan appear unable to grow out of a "Peeping Tom" tendency that pervades the weekly magazines and late-night TV talk shows, occasionally trickling over into the mainstream newspapers. Every time a bizarre or gruesome incident occurs, the media goes into a frenzy, assigning dozens of reporters and photographers to produce an ever-escalating daily diet of speculation, rumor and "social commentary." The terrorist hostage-taking at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Peru and the accusation that a 14-year-old ninth grader in Kobe strangled and decapitated an 11-year-old boy and placed the severed head into front of the junior high school he attended were only the most recent examples.
During a "media frenzy," a "report now-check later"
mentality envelops newspapers, magazines and TV, numbing human sensitivities
and producing reporting and photography in which the only standard is
"anything goes." In Peru, one Japanese reporter endangered the lives
of 72 hostages by entering the besieged ambassadorial residence to interview
the terrorists. In Kobe, media reports helped stir up widespread alarm among the
shocked public before police apprehended the suspect. Anyone wondering what
might have happened if a photographer had captured a picture of the 11-year-old
boy's head in front of the school gate need only recall that when author Yukio
Mishima committed seppuku and had one of his followers behead him with a
sword, the Asahi Shimbun ran a photo showing the severed head in its first edition.
*This was the program on which Richard Samuels's MIT-organized 'international
game' aired. See JPRI Critique, Vol IV, No. 6 (August 1997).
SAM JAMESON is the dean of American journalists in Japan, where he has lived and worked for nearly 37 years. A former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (July 1973-June 1974) and a member of the Fulbright Commission in Japan (1971-1981), he was Tokyo Bureau Chief for both the Chicago Tribune (1963-1971) and the Los Angeles Times (1971-1996). He is now writing a book on Japan while working as a correspondent for Asian Business magazine and a columnist for the Sankei Shimbun.
This essay first appeared in Japanese in the fall, 1997, issue of Asuteion.