Olympus isn’t the only story that has been or is being ignored or squashed by powerful forces in Japan. Here are three more gems from that rich vein.
In 1971, Takichi Nishiyama reported for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper that Tokyo had agreed to secretly absorb substantial costs of the reversion of Okinawa from U.S. to Japanese rule in 1972, including $4 million to restore farmland that was requisitioned for bases.
Nishiyama’s remarkable journalistic scoop created a sensation but resulted in his public and professional humiliation.
The young journalist was convicted of handling state secrets after revealing his source, a married Foreign Ministry clerk with whom he was having an affair.
The government and sections of the press hounded both from their jobs. The secretary subsequently divorced; Nishiyama left journalism to work in his parents’ business — and the story continued to be ignored by the media.
In 2000 and 2002, however, declassified U.S. diplomatic documents from the National Archives and Records Administration proved beyond all doubt that the pact existed. A senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official later concurred.
The Democratic Party of Japan announced when it came to power in 2009 that it would search for evidence of the pact at the foreign and finance ministries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the search failed to uncover the legal smoking gun.
On Sept. 29, 2011, the Tokyo High Court concluded that the government probably disposed of such documents related to the reversion of Okinawa — including a secret pact for Japan to shoulder part of the U.S. costs for Okinawa’s reversion.
Nishiyama and 22 other plaintiffs in the case have appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, but in view of how long that body often takes to consider cases before it, all Nishiyama, who’s now 80, may have to look forward to is a posthumous settling of scores in his 40-year struggle to win a vindication, and a long-deserved journalistic award.
Nonetheless, Nishiyama reserves some of his bitterest criticism not for the state, but for other journalists.
“The Japanese media is sucking the life out of democracy and keeping the public in the dark,” he said recently. “They protect the powerful instead of reporting on them.”
Punishment of investigative journalists is not limited to print media.
In 1991, Katsurou Kawabe ran a landmark TBS Television probe into the trucking company Sagawa Kyubin that eventually led to corruption charges against political kingmaker Shin Kanemaru. Millions of Japanese still remember the eye-popping discovery of gold bars and $50 million in cash and securities after prosecutors raided Kanemaru’s home.
But in 1996, Kawabe was demoted to the accounts department of TBS, and eventually he quit to become a freelance journalist.
“Many journalists have become like salarymen,” Kawabe is quoted as saying in Alex Kerr’s renowned 2001 book “Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan.”
“They want to avoid the difficult cases that will cause trouble.”
For years, a bride-hunting committee of the Imperial Household Agency (IHA) had been searching for someone to share the world’s oldest inherited job with Crown Prince Naruhito. Close to 100 women were reportedly introduced to the shy, guppy-loving prince, but it was Masako Okawa who caught his eye.
For reasons that have since become obvious, the Oxford-educated diplomat was in no rush to scrap her career and walk three steps behind the prince for the rest of her life.
Indeed, they had met as early as 1986, but she is said to have repeatedly spurned his approaches before relenting in December 1992, reportedly after pressure from both her diplomat father and even Empress Michiko.
The wedding was scheduled for June 1993, but how was it to be kept secret? No problem — the IHA demanded and got a vow of silence from the massed ranks of the big Japanese media.
So, although the story was an open secret among journalists in Tokyo, it was not until early 1993 that it was “scooped” in the media — by T.R. Reid of The Washington Post.
A decade later, rumors began to circulate about Princess Masako’s mental well-being.
With the Imperial taboo fading, Japanese magazines carried anonymously sourced articles that even suggested she had suffered a nervous breakdown and wanted out of her marriage. But those journalists officially accredited to cover the IHA, who had heard rumors that she was being treated for depression, steered clear.
In May 2004, when The Times (London) newspaper ran a story headlined “The Depression of a Princess,” it was initially condemned, then accepted, by royal watchers in the Japanese media.
As Richard Lloyd Parry, the paper’s Tokyo-based Asia Editor who wrote that story, said at the time: “Japanese journalists knew all about (Princess) Masako’s illness and it didn’t surprise any of them when I spoke to them.”
Many also suspected that the princess had received fertility treatment to conceive the now 10-year-old Princess Aiko. However, that story too — despite having been published in many foreign news outlets — was off-limits, and Japan’s media was happy to accept the IHA’s denials that that was the case.
“Journalists who inquired about the rumor to the IHA were told to expect trouble if they ran it,” recalls Yasunori Okadome, editor of the now-defunct magazine Uwasa no Shinso.
The most famous political scandal in Japan’s postwar history also reveals the Achilles’ heel of the Japanese media: its press clubs.
Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was forced to quit in 1974, less than 2½ years after taking office in July 1972, after it was revealed that he had enriched himself through illegal land schemes.
That story was broken not by the 100 or so highly paid and officially accredited journalists hanging on Tanaka’s every word in the Prime Minister’s Office press club, but by a freelancer named Takashi Tachibana who was working for the magazine Bungei Shunju.
Two years later, the Japanese public learned that Tanaka had also taken millions in bribes from the U.S. aircraft-maker Lockheed to help it sell its TriStar planes in Japan. But they learned it first from a probe by the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission — not their own media.
“We all knew that Prime Minister Tanaka was corrupt. We all knew it,” Ken Takeuchi, one of the journalists in the press club later admitted to Adam Gamble and Takesato Watanabe, the authors of a book titled “A Public Betrayed: An Inside Look at Japanese Media Atrocities and their Warnings to the West.”
“All the information that Takashi Tachibana used in his Bungei Shunju scoop was public information. He just analyzed it and put it together in a way that we did not have to as members of the press club,” Takeuchi said.
The Tanaka scandal sparked much soul-searching on the state of the media in Japan — and of the press clubs that have since been subject to sometimes withering criticism in a string of books.
Has anything changed? Nishiyama doesn’t think so.
“There are cases where the media has uncovered wrongdoing, but generally journalists see it as their job to project and legitimize authority, not question it.”