Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hatoyama and the Japanese media courtship of officials sources

Communication is the "Achiless' heel" of Japanese
interaction with the outside world.

Interesting event we held at my press club the other
day, about the Kisha Club system and what it means for
foreign media.

Not so many people attended, sign that there are less
and less foreign journalists in Japan, but I was much
curious to listen to the debates since I share the co -
chairmanship of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of
Japan Freedom of the Press Committee.

The end of the Kisha Club system in Japan? Not really
I say. The censorship continues and it remains a
challenge to exercise the job of journalist in Japan.
Why? For decades, institutions here in Japan,
government, ministries, agencies, corporations
entertained a cosy system of relations between the
speakers and the press.

Half a dozen of national dailies and same amount of
TVs, including the national state channels, maintained
a biased influence to control the knowledge of the
public, through the vernacular and the foreign media.
Kisha clubs were the only ones allowed to say what
Japanese and foreigners have to know about Japan.

Sometimes, it went very far as the DPJ recently
clarified. Japanese Foreign Minister Okada
demonstrated how authorities could disguise truth and
cheated their own fellow countrymen for years as we saw
with the Japan US nuclear secret pact story.

Needless to say that it is still extremely difficult
for the foreign media to find their way into this
labyrinth and it would be necessary to implement new
measures for setting or reinforcing such organizations
whose mission is to help the foreign media. Reporting
in Japan is tough : language and customs barrier, lack
of communication, lack of rational explanation,
hardship in getting an interview with facts rather than
emotional statements, hardship to build a journey in
Japan to get appointments (people refuse if you are a
foreigner) etc. In a world where a journalist office
consist into 1 person nowadays, what is needed is an
interface. I have one here, very efficient :

The interesting professional structure is the Foreign
Press Center of Japan which I know well and used for a
decade to work daily on common issues and to access to
interviews or to the highest level of power in the
archipelago. Located in the press center building in
Kasumigaseki. Foreign Press Center :

Access to information is the main issue in Japan

In 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan came to power
after half a century of conservatives rules. The prime
minister Hatoyama and his close allies, Okada and Kan,
pledged to remove any barrier to access to information
for all journalists. In fact, it failed as an overall
reform yet. Here is a description by the New York
Times reporter in Japan :

"Japan’s new government is challenging one of the
nation’s most powerful interest groups, the press
clubs, a century-old, cartel-like arrangement in which
reporters from major news media outlets are stationed
inside government offices and enjoy close, constant
access to officials.

The system has long been criticized as antidemocratic
by both foreign and Japanese analysts, who charge that
it has produced a relatively spineless press that feels
more accountable to its official sources than to the
public. In their apparent reluctance to criticize the
government, the critics say, the news media fail to
serve as an effective check on authority.

The assault on the exclusive access the press clubs’
members have long enjoyed is part of the new
government’s drive to end the news media’s cozy ties
with authorities, and particularly with Tokyo’s
powerful central ministries."

Still, private firms do not show any strong commitment
to transparency and adhere to new policies, and keep
the curtain closed on free media access or even worst
as it was said at FCCJ press panel on the Kisha Club by
Tetsuo Jimbo, Editor in Chief of : "firms
choose who they will inform and select to release the

" Tetsuo Jimbo, the founder of an online media company,
Video News Network, praised the new government’s
efforts. But he said most news conferences remained
closed to outside journalists like himself. He noted
that the Democrats had opened the proceedings at only
four ministries and major agencies, and had failed to
fulfill a campaign promise to open the prime minister’s
news conferences."

Who are you?

An other trick to avoid the access to all media to
events is to set rules that are not fairly played. At
Obama recent press conference at the prime minister
office in Tokyo (Kantei), the Japanese media and the
foreign media were offered 2 questions each to the VIPs
Obama and Hatoyama.

But the Japanese press "Kisha Club Captain" (Japanese
press club front man) who works with Fuji TV asked 6
questions in allocated time. Irritating for all media

When players forget to play by the book, there is
something unhealthy and the betrayed are not only the
foreign media and the companies that are not present
"in the first circle", the main victims are readers,
listeners, viewers, deprived from a variety of free
access to information. Japan has still a long way to
go to resolve problems related to freedom of the press.

It requires increased assistance to foreign media and
expertise in handling international communication with
genuine experienced people.

Also new technologies will explode the blockade set by
punchers to freedom of the press, in power since "the
postwar Japan’s “iron triangle” of Liberal Democrats,
bureaucrats and big corporations."

21st Century & "Japan communication?

We can broadcast, twitt, blog live nowadays... Still,
Japan, claiming it is a genuine democracy and often
makes this distinction with other Asian nations, does
not see that the main issue remains about freeing
access to news sources and end the "Iron-Curtain"

Japanese politicians and stubborn bureaucrats &
officials should do their homework, they should
understand how world media work. They should
understand what ethics mean, they should offer the
information in a professional formula that guarantees
equality of distribution, accountability, fairness and
honesty. Especially because the information (not the
'infotainment' or the ads pledged to the PR industry)
is spreading fast, reaching quasi instantly your
hand-phone, palm, whatever screen.

Beyond the "communication boom", it is primordial to
strengthen the role of qualified and 'public interest
orientated people' who know how to design, dispatch and
distribute verified and balanced news for the foreign
media. In this regard Japanese authorities have yet to
analyze their media strategies and offer more
incentives and funding. Otherwise? Foreign media will
look at China to open their office, Hong Kong,
Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul. Japan will remain an
isolated aging invisible archipelago lost on the

But it takes experience, knowledge and strategies to
attract foreign media journalists and writers. Knowing
or discovering Japan arcane reality is not just a
journey to Kyoto or Hokkaido, it takes much more, it
takes content and information, more than a snap-shot to
be lost on a hard disk of a computer. To achieve this,
some people, as I said before, have recipes. It is not
just a matter of subsidies, or being cheap on budgets,
it is a matter of talent in organizing and operating
press communication for most 'informative' and precise

Maybe the Japanese Kisha Clubs lost some of their
censoring power, but it is up to the Japanese political
authorities to show where Tokyo stands from now on.
Especially in a nation, Japan, where communication is
not necessarily verbal, clear sign that communication
is the "Achiless heel" of Japanese interaction with the
outside world.

This is my experience after 2 decades in EU and the Far
East media world, anchoring and moderating events and

Foreign Press Center :

Illustrations from Ebina Mitsuru and Kang Kong (CCLPM)

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