Mass media in Japan Essay

Mass Media in Japan


. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter’, so spoke Thomas Jefferson in l787 before becoming third President of the United States (cited in “Message from the”).” These words of Thomas Jefferson in today’s information age are more than significant in a democratic society. The keystone of American democracy, enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is free and independent media (“Message from the”).

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It has been argued that the end of the Cold War and globalization has made Western-style liberal press system as a universal model and no nation can free itself from the powerful influence of its universal value.  It is important however to consider that press freedom is a creature of politics.  It has no relation whatsoever to the so-called sets of Asian values which are founded on Asia’s major philosophies and religion, neither as a  standard of measure for comparison. . Corrupting the role of the mass media as a Western-liberal value will not inevitably bring stability to nations in the end. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides the framework for boosting a socially creditworthy press in Asia and the world. It is important that the media system of a country is more consistent with universal human values. Press freedom is synonymous with democracy.  Where there is press freedom, there is democracy

After the cold war and the so-called democratization of Russia, some Russians view the limited experiment with American-style democracy as a failure.  It is explained as the failure of the Western-style freedom of the press because of the oligarchs buying off the press to accomplish their political aims and protect their own interests.  One Kremlin official, who predicted that freedom of the press will soon end, said: “it wasn’t really free at all (Lewis, D., 2005)”.

“Gunaratne [1993] wrote: ‘Democracy requires the press to point fingers and hurl

accusations through thorough investigation. In the process, errors will inevitably occur’ (p. 180). Gunaratne [1978] argued that ‘the democratic Third World governments could promote developmental journalism better through fostering a socially responsible independent press rather than through media subservience’ [p. 6]. (Cited in Gunaratne, S.A., 2001).”


Japan has a political system that is contrary to its Buddhist-Shinto philosophy and religion.  Along with other Asian countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Thailand, Japan has a more liberal press than in the rest of Asia (Guranatne, 2001). Censorship issues that incrust most of Asia is not Japan’s most important concern, instead it is more occupied on newspaper maintenance system and broadcasting digitalization (Lyman, R.B.).

Japan, one of the few developed nations in Asia and the world’s second largest economy is considered a liberal democracy with a constitutional monarchy type of government and citizens maintain all their civil rights. It is run under a one-party rule, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).  No real challenge to the LDP was able to sustain itself despite the decrease in its popularity since the economic inactivity in l990s and corruption scandals. For decades, Japan has not experience a change in political administration. Japan is a democracy without a competition. One may wonder how this could be possible when democracy is founded on competition (Scheiner, E. 2005).  A Tokyo-based political analyst, Minoru Morita said: ‘For a long period of time, the major media have been serving at the LDP’s discretion.  That is one of the secrets of the LDP’s long-term rule (Cited in “Japan’s freedom from,” 2007).’

The condition of the Japanese press seems to be, at first sight, analog to that established in the West. There are major daily newspapers with huge bulk of people reading at least one newspaper everyday. The degree of reporting is adept.  Dissemination of news is vigorous not only through newspapers but also the television and the internet. There are only five national newspaper which accounts for half of the country’s total circulation, Asahi Shim bun, the Mainichi Shimbun, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Sankei Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun. A scrutiny of the contents, however, reveals a uniformity of editorial style among these newspapers.  It is hard if not impossible to characterize one or another as representing a specific political attitude as one can find in New York Times’ liberal standpoint and in conservative editorial page of Wall Street Journal. When compared with the press in other leading industrial countries in the world, Japan is so remarkably different in media. This is primarily due to the deluging control of the Liberal Democratic Party over the mainstream media with the Kisha clubs system as its mouthpiece (Lyman, R. B., Jr.).

Brief History of Japanese Journalism

It is of course important to take a short jaunt to the history of Japanese journalism.  The arrival of the American fleet in l853 precipitated the presence of newspaper in Japan. At its initial stage, they were crudely printed in newsy broadsheets.  It was only during the Meiji Restoration (l868-1912) that a formal press was allowed. This restoration marked the change from feudalism to modernism which heightened the egression of newspapers.  To control the press, the Mejia government sustained its press relations with financial supports to reporters and editors. Early newspapers were servants of the government (Nomura, T., 2003)

Two years after the arrival of the Americans, Japanese who traveled to the west saw the importance and usefulness of accurate and availability of national news and agitated for change in media policies. In the early years of the 20th century, positive developments in professional press tradition were made and even speeded up during the period of “Taisho Democracy” (1912-1926).  However accelerated militarism placed the newspaper into difficult position in relation to the government and national policy until the end of World War II and the beginning of American occupation (Lyman, R., J.).

A new phase in Japanese history began after the surrender on August 15, l945.

American policies mandated for a free press but controlled on reports about the occupation. The emergence of the cold war brought a reverse course in the occupation policies. Censorship became the policy on left-wing publications and put the publishers out of business. Japan was on its own by the early l950s.  Restrictions were lifted and Japan with its party system and press tradition entered a new phase of development.  Highest priority is given to consensus and cooperation as noted in the continued existence and protuberance of the press clubs.  Accordingly, the expected adversarial Western-style relationship between the government and the mainstream press was not obtainable. There was indeed mutual agreement and cooperation (Lyman).

The first three decades of the 20th century, the press was controlled through self-censorship. Obnoxious events, no matter how significant received no attention if they could adversely affect the interest of the ruling party.  The development of communist party was also a forbidden subject.  Media corporations of today already existed and were dominant during the military period of strict censorship from l930 until the end of World War II.  Susan J. Pharr, a media scholar wrote: “Examining Japan’s prewar legacy in relation to various interpretations of the media’s role today, what stands out is dual traditions. Given the powerful roles exercised by the state with regard to the media over the era from 1868 to 1945, the ‘servant’ tradition is obviously strong (Nomura, T., 2003).”

The Role Played by Media under a Single-Party Rule

Access to information of Japan’s mainstream media is under the monopoly of the ill-

refute Kisha (reporters) club systems.  These clubs are attached to the government’s major institutions including the police.  Foreign press, freelance journalists and magazines find it difficult to get access to important information.  However, there were significant scandals uncovered by journalists working outside the system despite difficulties. Most of the scandals were uncovered by Japanese magazines in the late 2000.  One of these is the scandal which led to the resignation of a Cabinet Secretary, Hidenao Nakagawa, a top aide of Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori.  There was a sharp contrast between the reports of the outside press and those of the major newspapers. The major newspapers reported differently from those covered and reported by Japanese magazines. The major papers allowed themselves to be manipulated by the ruling LDP.  Japanese press does not lead but follow. This is one of the most serious issues in Japanese journalism – failure to keep those in power accountable. They cover the scandal only after it has already been uncovered. A correspondent who has spent almost thirty years of his life in Japan as a cultural diplomat and professor, Ivan P. Hall, says: “As an integral part of Japan’s powerful administrative state, the clubs, with their mutual back scratching between reporters and sources, serve as a brake on the healthy development of Japanese democracy (Nomura, T., 2003). “

             Publisher, Matsuoka Toshiyasu was arrested in July 2007 and imprisoned for 192 days on suspicion of defamation which is a violation of the free speech clause of the constitution.  The arrest and imprisonment was ignored by the Japanese media. The publisher was accused for defaming the executives of Aruze Corporation, maker of gambling and slot machines for tax evasion and unethical business practices.  Before his arrest, Matsuoka has published forbidden topics in Japan like financial scandals and reports on Abe Shinzo, now Japan’s Prime Minister.  He said that he had been sued before, but he did not expect that he will be arrested and that it was unprecedented. The case has been decided against his favor and he was issued a sentence of one year and two months imprisonment. Matsuoka did not get the support of Japanese journalists.  In an interview with the ex-editor of the defunct scandal magazine Uwasa no Shinso said on the arrest: ‘If we casually permit a member of the media to be arrested on suspicion of defamation,’ he said, ‘it is the same as if freedom of speech had died (Cited in McNicol, T. ; McNeil, D., 2007)’

            The latest freelance writer to feel the heat is Ugaya Hiro, a music journalist who is faced with a  ¥50 million libel suit for his brief comments in a telephone interview doubting the accuracy of the Oricon charts (Oricon is a company that publishes Japan’s pop music charts). Both cases are disturbing indications for Japan’s press freedom, according to Asano Kenichi, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at Doshisha University; that the arrest of Matsuoka has a scarey effect.  The mainstream journalists say it does not affect them as he is a scandal magazine journalist, however, he continued, that looking back at the history of Japanese journalism as what had happened in the l930s, the police always start with extreme case.  Ugaya’s lawyer commented: ‘It is unprecedented to sue a person who has not written the article but merely answered questions on the phone (Cited in 2007)’, explaining further that who would now answer questions from journalists if interviewees think the risk of being sued? He believes that the libel law was designed to protect individual rights but he said that it seems that lawsuits are being used by oligarchs to forestall and hush critiques (2007). The decline of Japan’s mainstream media to discuss the issues and offered no support or solidarity for their plights is a signal to the world that the world’ second largest economy is not truly responsive to the Western liberal ideas.

The Dilemma of Freelance Journalists

            Responding to the pressure from European Union (EU), Japan’s Kisha Clubs open its doors to foreign news writers. However, Japanese freelance journalists are still excluded. Terasawa, a freelance investigative journalist, like other journalists in the world, has to access information to do his job, but he was cut off from information reserved for Kisha Clubs members. He said that it is easier for foreign correspondents from America and Europe to gather news information than Japanese freelancers because Japan has to show to the Western world that it is an open country with equal standards. The EU was not successful as far as the Asian and Japanese correspondents are concerned.  They are still being discriminated. Terasawa said that freelance journalists are regarded by the Japanese public and mainstream media in a totally different way than in the West. He said it is just the same way as saying you are unemployed if you are a freelance writer (McNicol, T, 2004).

            Terasawa, one of Japan’s best investigative reporters has launched a court action against the government and the Kisha club system for obstructing the work of a freelance journalist.  He argues that the collaboration between journalists and press clubs boosts indolent journalism and assists enthroned interests.  In July 2004, he was refused a seat in court and copy of the verdict primarily because he is not a member of the press club. It was the second time that he was denied a seat in court.  The first one was when he was trying to cover a police corruption case in April 2003.  He argues that the government violated the constitution that guarantees press freedom and equality.  This is his second attack on the press club system.  The first case he begun reached the Supreme Court but he lost.  Nonetheless he did not lose hope believing that the fact that it reached the highest court is a positive indication that the judiciary is cognizant of the seriousness of the issue. Terasawa is aware that he is actually asking the court to acknowledge its own mistakes; however, he is determined to fight no matter how difficult it is for the sake of press freedom (2004).

Role of Media to the World

            Press freedom has positioned itself as a very important factor in a democratic system.  Admittedly however, it can be a two-sided blade. On one side, it is the fulfillment of freedom of communication, freedom of speech, creativity, control, education, etc.  On the other side, it can be the evil that destroys harmony, which creates hatred and dissatisfaction, a tool for defamation and lies, the threat to stability and progress and worst threaten the pillars of democracy (Winarta, F., 2006).

Press freedom is a vital component of democratization and globalization, Japan and other Asian countries however, are not open societies.  It is not easy to shift from quasi-authoritarianism to true democracy. Japan is a signatory to the World Trade Organization (WTO), as such, it must be ready to grimace future developments such as press freedom and matters directly or indirectly affecting globalization

The role of media is essential to carry out the objectives of globalization.  Foreign investments are necessary in nation-building. Foreign media must not be denied information regarding the economic stability of a country. To be globally competitive, access to information is of paramount importance. In business, advertisements, largely carried by commercial news media generated increase demands for product, thereby increasing exchanges in commerce. Since market is wholly dependent on market price and free flow of data, the role of media need not be overlooked. The press is the bridge that could fill the gap between countries and its people. Media provides a link to the world.

            Today’s age of terrorism where the forces of evils are at work, media could vitally function as a tool to assist society in combating these forces. Terrorism has been a major issue not only in the Asean regions but the concern of the whole world as well.  Terrorism is everywhere.  Nobody knows when and where it would attack. It would be easier for countries to combat terrorism if there is mutual cooperation.  Exchange of information through the press and the media may support preventives measures in dealing with the problem.

            When natural calamities strike, media plays an important role.  Radio stations prove to be instrumental in relief efforts and operations. By listening to radios, people can avoid further disasters and preventive measures could be undertaken immediately.  Studies prove that the higher newspaper circulations, the higher the public distribution of relief supplies and materials.  Studies also proved that countries are more active in protecting the people where there is a higher level of media development.


            The worst characteristic of the so-called “liberal press system” in Japan is the existence of kishi clubs. It has subsisted since the pre-war period but continues mostly unreformed today. Members of the press clubs enjoy privileges and exclusive access to sources of information. News items are spoonfed without conducting verification or investigation before being released to the public.  Press is controlled through self-censorship. Responding to the pressures from EU, Japan has opened its doors to foreign correspondents, however, Asian and local freelance journalists remain cut off from access to information.

Japan is a constitutional monarchy, a liberal democracy. It does not mean however, that the government of such democracy must follow the political ideology of liberalism. Liberal democracies feature constitutional protections of individual rights against the powers of the government. Freedom of expression is fundamentally a human right, a right protected not only by the constitution but recognized under international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights where Japan is a signatory provides the framework for promoting a socially responsible press in Asia and the world.  Freedom of expression cannot be disintegrated from press freedom. It is necessary for the press to assert freedom of expression to accomplish it mission and duties to the world.

Japan’s press system lacks independence. Its manipulation of the press does not only weaken democracy but also subverts press freedom globally. “Indeed, the west’s recent reporting scandal suggests that its media are drifting more towards the Japanese model than the other way round. While the European Union protests against Japan’s press club system, the Bush administration lauds Japan as a success story of democratic nation building (Gamble, A. & Watanabe, T., 2005).”


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