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Freedom of the Press Holds Little Virtue in Japan
By Brad Frischkorn

The notion of “freedom of the press,” hailed as a universal principle among journalists and news writers, may be more hype than reality in Japan. At least that appears to be the view among those aspiring to high public office.

Such was the impression made by candidates running in the Tokyo gubernatorial election. Fifteen minor candidates aiming for the open Tokyo governor’s seat packed the forum at the Tokyo the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) on Friday, July 29 to air their views on how to shape public policy at the nation’s capital.

Staged just two days before votes were cast, the event featured a gamut of diverse and political opinions ranging from the city’s role in hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics to important budget, health care, and disaster preparedness-related issues.

But the occasion also showcased an extraordinary degree of passion about press freedom, a topic that clearly tapped a nerve when JPN asked an open-ended question at the end of the 70-minute debate: what steps can or should be taken to further the cause of press freedom in Japan?

A half dozen hands immediately shot up.

“Sure, the press corps is free, if you want to call it that. And sometimes writers are even graduates of good universities,” said former Minister of Labor and Diet member Toshio Yamaguchi.

“But these people are also sensitive to ratings, which translate into sales, so they pander to the lowest common denominator among viewers. When it comes to elections, they treat voters like junior high school students who have a limited grasp of issues, which defeats their own purpose.”

Social activist and whistleblower Takashi Tachibana was more direct. “There is no ‘freedom of the press’ in Japan. Ideally, press freedom works to check the power of government, but in this country it does the opposite in affirming the power of authority. This is the main reason why NHK, Japan’s largest public broadcaster, must be broken up and completely overhauled.”

Following up on Mr. Tachibana’s point, candidate Hisao Naito said that formal laws need to be put in place to protect whistleblowers. “This is a major point that can’t be overlooked if press freedom is to be taken with any degree of seriousness. Reporters should not live in fear of daring to tell the truth.”

Yasuhiro Sekiguchi, an anti-suicide advocate, offered a historical insight on the issue. “Until the 1970s, university students and labor unions regularly engaged in demonstrations, strikes and other forms of public protest. But this began to wane as Japan’s era of high economic growth came to an end. Today, people are told that by voting, they are participating in the democratic process, but they have not been taught how to think and to formulate their own opinions, and then to transform those thoughts into political action. It's an educational crisis.”

"When it comes to elections, journalists have a duty to report the variety of voices and options that invariably surface,” opined Chozo Nakagawa, a former mayor. “But, frankly, the level of professionalism (in the industry) is low. The way that news is handled as a commodity is central to this issue. This is the reality that must be addressed before the concept of press freedom can undergo meaningful discussion.”

A few candidates made expanding liberties afforded to journalists and speech freedom central to their political planks. Former journalist and broadcaster Takashi Uesugi raised the issue of Japan’s exclusive ‘kisha club’ system throughout his campaign as a mechanism for inducing self-censorship among reporters and fostering systematic misinformation flow.

Candidate Yujiro Taniyama added visible passion to the issue. President of Japan Broadcasting.net Corp., an online news site, he wasted no time in leveling criticism at the event’s sponsors. “I thought the FCCJ endorsed freedom of speech and democracy, but what they have done in this election is suppress my own freedom of speech,” he said in near flawless English.

“The fact that the club (originally took) the same point of view as the Japanese media in restricting its debate coverage only to (former Defense Minister) Yuriko Koike and a few other candidates is something I find very biased, rigged, and undemocratic. There is big reform to be done.”

Chozo Nakagawa

"The level of professionalism (in the journalism industry) is low. The way that news is handled as a commodity is central to this issue." -- Chozo Nakagawa

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