Anyone who is studying “Japan” including language, culture, and society etc., will find an unusual word -- “Kisha club,” “press club”. Kisha club was historically established in 1890, originating from a small number of reporters who formed a group demanding the Imperial Diet to allow them to sit in on session.
Today, Kisha club is mainly attached to government ministries and industries, and their members generally belong to major Japanese newspapers, broadcasters, and wire services. But, here is one of main differences from the Western press club. The membership of the Kisha club is limited to major Japanese news organizations and excludes foreign press, magazine reporters, and freelance journalists etc., who might be triggered criticism.
In other words, like typical Japanese “iron-triangles,” The Kisha club embraces a cozy relationship between politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats, and academic scholars. In fact, Katsumata Tsunehisa admitted in a news conference on January 30, that the Chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), was entertaining retired Japanese journalists in Beijing on March 11, 2011 as Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake.
That may be why no Japanese journalists from the Kisha club has asked crucial questions during any press conferences held by Tepco, the Safety Agency, or the prime minister’s office.
According to the annual PressFreedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders, the level of press freedom in Japan has continued the decline it started back in 2012. Falling from a respectable 22 in the 2012 index to 53 the following year, due in large part due to the government censorship of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan declined another five points to 59 in the 2014 ranking. Although this new ranking is slightly worse than its neighbor South Korea, which is ranked 57th in the 2014 index, Japan now ranks lower than Taiwan (50), Serbia (54) Haiti (47), and even surprisingly the African country of Botswana (41). Japan is now only slightly better than Hong Kong (61), Senegal (62) and Tanzania (69).
While the 2014 annual report by Reporters Without Borders highlights the censorship of Fukushima nuclear disaster as one of the primary reasons for the decline in the press freedom ranking, another important factor in the continuing decline of press freedom in Japan is related to reporter clubs that Japanese journalists belong to and how these interconnected clubs form an information cartel in Japan.
Originally established in the late 1890s, Kisha (記者) or “reporter” clubs were meant to establish rules and behavior between journalists in Japan that belong to these press clubs as well as the relationship the kisha clubs have with news sources. Over the last 100 years since their creation, these clubs have been the most important factor in creating an information cartel in Japan by defining the basic relationship that exists between journalists and their news sources-bureaucrats, politicians, business leaders, the police, interest groups and consumer groups. The rigid rules of access and conduct established by the clubs impose powerful constraints on the impact, content, and slant of the media’s message.
While some have politely called kisha clubs lapdogs for the government agencies and other institutions and industries they cover, a more astute analysis is that kisha clubs are nothing more than information cartels that prop up the state and insulate the elite from sustained critical oversight. In a column written by Chalmers Johnson back in 1993, who was an expert on Japan and a professor at the University of California, San Diego, Johnson wrote that the clubs operate "under an implicit agreement that, in return for access to a government agency, political party, or industrial group, nothing embarrassing will be printed. Johnson further states that “until Japan relaxes these cartels of the mind, its process of internationalization is meaningless". It was not until 1993, that foreign journalists managed to gain access to a limited number of clubs and official press conferences albeit with restrictions as “nonregular members”.
As far back as the 2002, Reporters Without Borders has identified the Kisha system of clubs in Japan as a problem and released a press statement, entitled “REFORM OF KISHA CLUBS DEMANDED TO END PRESS FREEDOM THREAT”.
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) today reiterated its call for the Japanese government to reform the country’s system of exclusive press clubs (kisha clubs), saying they were a "serious threat to the free flow of information". The organization was backing a similar request on 3 December by the European Union (EU) to allow foreign journalists the same access to information as the country’s major media outlets.
Reporters Without Borders in its 2008 annual, continued to bring up the issue of kisha clubs in Japan by writing;
The government, the media and financial circles kept in place the system of kisha clubs, which prevent independent and foreign journalists from getting access to some categories of news. Officially, Japan has 800 of these kisha clubs but some sources put it as high as 1,500. Most of them are linked to public bodies such as ministries and provincial governments, large companies, political parties and the Imperial Household Agency.
Members of kisha clubs in Japan also follow a practice known as blackboard agreements. It derives its name from members of a kisha club literally writing on a blackboard, news items or topics that the kisha members will not report on till a later date. These blackboard agreements are meant to maintain equality and standardization among the cartel members and limit the “scoop” factor between journalists and media outlets.
An interesting and noteworthy event related to a blackboard agreement occurred in 1992, while the crown prince of the Emperor’s family looked for a bride. In an agreement with the Imperial House Agency, the Japanese press agreed to censor coverage of the crown prince's search for a bride, because the prince did not want the media to scare off his marriage prospects, and the media wanted to ensure it had access to the wedding. Interestingly though, since the foreign press in Tokyo was excluded from joining or participating in kisha clubs prior to 1993, they did not agree to the coverage ban. As a result, the Washington Post scooped the Japanese press by reporting who had been chosen to be crown princess. When it became clear to the Japanese press that CNN would be broadcasting the news, the Japanese press decided to amend the agreement and to announce the news. Since the journalist from the Washington Post was not a member of a kisha club, the golden rule of not scooping your fellow club member even if they are from a competing media outlet was not violated, which is completely counter to how journalism is supposed to work.
While the passing of the State Secrets Law in 2013 contributed to the decline of press freedom in Japan in the Reporters Without Borders 2014 Press Freedom Index, the kisha club system has long damaged press freedom in Japan. Some would say that the kisha club system has transformed the media in Japan into co-conspirators while in the process, dumbing down public debate and stifled independent thinking.
Supplied with a better understanding of the kisha club system, it is evident that until the kisha club system is eliminated or extensively changed, the level of press freedom in Japan will continue to decline.
The best-behaved reporters at the Kisha Club are the first to get information. All they can do is hang out with the authority, drinking sake and having fun, trying to please them.
But the bond between reporter and official runs deeper than the booze, the cigarette breaks and the office space they share. Their whole careers are intertwined.
Strangely enough, if a reporter started out covering Mr. Aso when he was Foreign Minister, basically the same reporter follows Mr. Aso for the rest of his life. As your pet politician rises up the food chain, so does the reporter who follows him. In this setup, reporters play the role of protector, not investigator.
If the reporter gets some information about this politician’s rival scheming or something, he would warn him. You see? If your politician has a big downfall caused by a scandal, you have a downfall too, maybe getting assigned to some remote area. Then you can't write anything. You get black balled by the Kisha Club as being "a trouble maker".
Kisha Club reporters also give their politicians a heads-up on what questions will be asked at the press conferences. Sometimes the answers are even typed up and given to reporters in advance, making the actual event - a mere formality.
All reporters get a taste of that at the Japanese Newspaper Association, which oversees and makes guidelines for the Kisha Clubs. They submit questions in advance, and when they arrived, seven stern-looking men are waiting for them at a long table. With harsh lights and sweaty foreheads, it feels like an interrogation scene from the movies. One of the men reaches across the table, hands them a printout of the questions they are allowed to ask and nothing else.
Thanks to: On the Media Org, Unryu Suganuma, Pinione