by Japan Media review - Online Journalism Review :
Annenberg School for Communication at the University of
Click on the title to access the report by OJR.
Reporters have fought for decades to end the kisha club
system, which prevents foreign and non-mainstream
reporters from attending many press briefings and
getting official press releases. Now opponents of the
system have a powerful new ally: The European Union by
In 1998, David Butts made press freedom history by doing
something reporters around the word do every day: He
went to a press conference.
Butts, the former Tokyo bureau chief for Bloomberg
Business News, knew very well he wasn't invited to the
press conference, held by then Prime Minister Ryutaro
In Japan, many press conferences aren't open to just
anybody who wants to attend: Instead, every official
agency has a press club, and only reporters who are
members of each press club can attend press conferences
held by each agency.
Generally, only journalists from one of 20 or so major
domestic media outlets are admitted to most of Japan's
press clubs. If you're foreign or work for a magazine
that falls outside the mainstream, you can find yourself
cut off from official sources because they often won't
talk to non-club reporters.
Butts -- a serial gatecrasher -- often refused to play
by club rules.
In 1998, Butts walked in to the prime minister's
conference, took a seat, and soon was surrounded by
"beefy security guards ... debating whether to pick me
up." Finally, the prime minister walked in and the
guards backed away, not wanting to create a scene.
"By denying foreign correspondents first-hand access to
briefings, the (press club) system ... unfairly makes
them slower to bring information to their audience ...
the system works as a restraint on free trade in
information." -- October 2002 EU report
Butts' protest against the kisha club system was just
one battle in a years-long war -- waged by foreign
journalists, smaller domestic media outlets, press clubs
and press freedom organizations -- to bring down the
Recently, the kisha club opponents acquired a powerful
new ally: The European Union.
In their annual wish list of regulatory reforms, the EU
asked Japan last year to abolish the kisha club system,
saying that it is an unfair barrier to free trade of
"By denying foreign correspondents first-hand access to
briefings, the system acts as a de facto competitive
hindrance to foreign media organizations," states the
October 2002 EU report "Priority Proposals for
Regulatory Reform in Japan."
"It unfairly makes them slower to bring information to
their audience than domestic organizations, and, unable
to put questions on the spot, forces them to rely on
second hand information. In effect, the system works as
a restraint on free trade in information."
Japanese government officials replied that they actually
don't control the kisha clubs -- they come under the
authority of The Japanese Newspaper Publishers & Editors
Association -- known also as Nihon Shinbun Kyokai, or
The NSK writes the recommendations for kisha club
behavior, but says it doesn't actually control the
system -- the individual kisha clubs are responsible for
For now, the EU is giving Japan time respond officially,
which it has not done yet. But eventually the issue
could be brought before the World Trade Organization
where it could be judged a trade barrier.
The kisha system, which has staunchly withstood
criticism and complaint for over 50 years, has never
faced such powerful opposition.
How the System Works
The kisha system has been foiling foreign and small
domestic press for decades.
"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," veteran correspondent Sam Jameson
wrote in an essay on the press in Japan. "I was banned
from attending a press conference at which police
officers announced the results of their interrogations."
Though the few dozen press clubs that generate most of
the major economic and political news now allow foreign
correspondents -- including the prime minister's press
club -- the rest of Japan's 500 to 1,000 press clubs
still do not admit foreign journalists, which sometimes
makes it impossible to get important stories.
"Foreign media organizations, feisty weekly magazines
and freelancers can be shut out completely," Tokyo-based
journalist Jonathan Watts wrote in an article for the
UK's Guardian last year.
"In the wake of the Tokaimura nuclear accident in 1999,
I was told I could not ask questions at a kisha-club
press conference inside the science and technology
agency," Watts wrote. "When the British hostess Lucie
Blackman went missing in 2000, it was not possible to
attend briefings by detectives given at the kisha club
of the Tokyo metropolitan police. Last year, foreign
media were completely excluded from a kisha-club press
conference about the massacre at a primary school in
Watts is the vice president of the Foreign
Correspondents Club of Japan, one of the main
organizations that has been battling for improved press
The NSK updated the kisha guidelines in January 2002 to
answer criticisms; the guidelines say that "kisha clubs
should be 'open entities.' ? Kisha clubs are also open
to foreign media organizations, and in fact the number
of clubs with foreign journalists as members is
While the clubs are nominally open to any reporter who
meets the individual club standards, in practice, few
foreign reporters have been allowed full membership
Many foreign correspondents say being cut out of the
club system hasn't mattered much to them: Most of the
time, they say, they're able to get the stories they?re
after anyway. (See sidebar)
"I have not had a lot of direct experience or run-ins
with the kisha club system because our coverage is less
oriented toward the split second/breaking news genre
required by, say, a Bloomberg or other wire services,"
said Mark Magnier of the Los Angeles Times. "Instead,
we tend to look more toward what any particular
development means or the broader implications. Often
sources, or alternate sources, will give us an interview
for this sort of information."
"Most good journalism doesn't get done in kisha clubs.
They're inimical to everything that good journalism is,"
said Howard French, who has covered Japan for the New
York Times for four years. "They allow the source to
set the agenda and control the details of what gets
Even so, many journalists working in Japan are
determined to change the system.
"What we would like from Japan is very simple -- free
access to press conferences," said Hans van der Lugt,
president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan,
which held a symposium on the kisha system in March.
How Kisha Clubs Change Journalism
"The broad goal of the nation's key media players, like
that of its government leaders, is to limit access to
the central halls of power to a carefully chosen few,"
researcher Laurie Freeman, a political science professor
at UC Santa Barbara, wrote in her book "Closing the
Shop: Information Cartels and Japans Mass Media."
Freeman writes that the press clubs in Japan control the
flow of information -- often preventing the members from
publishing important details. The clubs set rules on
what can and cannot be published, and those who disobey
the rules can be kicked out of the system.
And the close relationships with sources encouraged by
the system make press club reporters less inclined to
publish negative reports. In her essay "Japan's Press
Clubs as Information Cartels," Freeman describes a day
in the life of a press club reporter:
"With the exception of a category of journalists known
as yugun, or roving reporters, the press clubs serve as
'home base' for the majority of Japanese journalists.
Typically arriving at their respective clubs early to
mid-morning, Japanese journalists begin their day by
reviewing the morning editions of rival newspapers,
checking for any missed information. This may be
followed by attendance at a regularly scheduled news
conference, a post-conference kondan or informal
briefing, a lecture on a related topic, or other
activities having to do with the reporting of current
"Most good journalism doesn't get done in kisha clubs.
They're inimical to everything that good journalism is."
--Howard French, the New York Times
"Journalists also leave the clubs to pursue stories and
conduct interviews, but even these activities are
carried out in an institutionalized fashion, and
frequently as a group. Younger journalists covering the
major political parties or the police and prosecutors'
offices, for example, often spend a considerable portion
of their day conducting morning and nightly rounds known
as asamawari and yomawari. ? From early morning until
quite late at night groups of (often neophyte)
journalists follow powerful individuals with whom they
ultimately develop very close (and at times quite
"Promising young political journalists, for example, are
often assigned to cover LDP faction bosses. These
journalists, known as ban journalists (ban kisha)
frequently start their day by going straight to the
politician's home, arriving at about 7:30 in the
morning. Together with journalists from other news
organizations they greet the politician and then follow
him or her around for most of the day, waiting for any
tidbit of news that might be offered. In addition to
gathering information, a good deal of time and effort is
spent developing friendly relations with the politician
The only way to repair what's wrong with journalism in
Japan is to abolish the press club system, Freeman
Some defenders of the system say it makes Japan the most
competitive country in the world when it comes to
domestic news, and that members are willing to run the
risk of club censure if the story is big enough.
"The kisha club system ? facilitates access to
information possessed by public institutions and other
sources," the NSK kisha guidelines say. "As a result,
fast and accurate reporting becomes possible, allowing
more in-depth news gathering and reporting.
"Kisha clubs are organizations where the 'joint force of
journalists' is demonstrated, while being based on the
individual activity of journalists," the guidelines
continue. "No kisha club should constrain the
individual activity of journalists."
The first press club was formed in 1890 to pressure the
secretive Imperial Diet to open up the corridors of
power to journalists and public scrutiny. The NSK says
they have been keeping these corridors open ever since
by having the kisha club housed in the same buildings as
their sources, whether it be the prime minister's
office, the parliamentary Diet building or even local
There is a risk that without the press club system,
access to officials and information would diminish, NSK
"By losing the press club, whose strength is observing
the government, there arises a fear of it becoming more
difficult to reach the citizens with information the
government considers inconvenient. ... Shouldn't we
take advantage of the kisha clubs as a pressure group to
urge more freedom of information?"
But even insiders sometimes chafe at the price of
membership: The NSK recently agreed to limit their
coverage of the kidnapping and recent return of Japanese
nationals by North Korea out of respect for the abducted
and their families, "assigning only a limited number of
pre-selected reporters to ask questions at joint news
But according to the group's latest newsletter,
"reporters are losing their patience. Some say they
can't ask the questions they want and therefore lack the
information they need. Others say that acquiescing to
the current restraints sets a bad precedent."
The newsletter adds, "The restrictions on coverage leave
the media with little other than bland, uniform reports,
ruling out any competitive search for the truth."
A Crack in the Wall?
The arguments for and against the kisha system have been
repeated for decades to no effect, but the fight may be
different this time for several reasons.
For one thing, this is the first time that Japan has
been put on formal notice by a major trade partner that
the clubs could be judged a trade barrier by the World
Trade Organization. If that happens, Japanese reporters
overseas could theoretically be barred from their beats
or could suffer some other sort of sanctioned
Another difference is that the foreign press has
recently gained some other new cage-rattling Japanese
allies that also want to see the clubs disappear.
A case awaiting attention from the Supreme Court could
challenge the government's right to chose to release
official information to just kisha members: After being
denied access to court materials during a case he was
covering -- materials only provided to club members --
Japanese freelance magazine journalist Terasawa Yu has
sued, lost and appealed his way to the Supreme Court.
The court has not yet decided if it will take the case,
which it has been sitting on for two years. But if it
does and finds in Yu's favor, there will be legal
pressure from Japan's highest court to at least
refashion, and possibly eliminate, the kisha club
Politicians are getting into the act too: In 2001, as
one of his first acts in office, Yasuo Tanaka, the
governor of Nagano Prefecture, kicked out the three
press clubs that covered the Nagano government, and
created one press center that was open to any journalist
from any publication.
"It is the individual journalist who must stand at the
center of all kinds of reporting activities," said
Tanaka at the time. "This is the foundation of a
society with a responsible approach to information and
Similarly, Ken Takeuchi -- the former mayor of Kamakura
City and now editor of an independent online newspaper
called JanJan -- broke up the municipal press club and
created an open media center in its place.
"Outside of Kamakura and Nagano, Japan's press club
system remains almost unchanged today," he said.
Takeuchi was the keynote speaker at the Foreign
Correspondents Club of Japan's March 15 symposium (pdf)
on the kisha system. A former reporter, Takeuchi
compared kisha club reporters to a kind of farm fed
"They don't taste as good because they don't go upriver
under their own force," he said. "They can't find their
End of quotes
NB : Until this day, no major changes, the Japanese
press remain closed and selective. An other mystery
added to Japan whose society, more and more, is lied,
betrayed and deceived by its own media. The NHK
scandals being a latest example. The Nihon shimbun
Kyokai tried in the 90's to amend but this was a short
course attempt. Its hypocritical invitations to
gatherings with foreign press, according to foreign
medias representative are nothing else than added insult
to media ethics.