There is no doubt that Japan has produced its share of top-notch journalists: noted political writer Takashi Tachibana, war photographer Ryuichi Hirokawa and videographer Kenji Nagai, who was shot dead in September while reporting close up on the unrest in Myanmar, to cite but a few.
Be that as it may, scholars and media professionals say that, across the board, Japan’s news industry is in need of some big fixes. With shortcomings at every stage of the journalism process, the result is news coverage so uncritical and dull that it fails to meet the needs of a democratic citizenry.
Waseda University in Tokyo wants to answer the call. In April, it will launch what it bills as Japan’s “first genuine journalism graduate school,” a fully accredited two-year program it hopes will fill the country’s newsrooms with a new breed of reporter.
“It will happen in stepwise fashion. As reporters equipped with the necessary skills go out one by one, we hope they will change the system from the inside,” said Seishi Sato, dean of Waseda’s political science graduate school and one of the founders of the journalism program.
Ask media critics exactly what needs mending and you get a laundry list.
News outlets, they say, frequently pack reports with lots of data but too little context, overwhelming citizens with facts without connecting the dots. Story angles that stray too far from accepted norms are smothered at birth, sometimes by journalists themselves afraid of standing out from the crowd.
The litany continues: A foreign journalist complained that news stories in the Japanese press tend to lack focus and structure, while other readers call them too formulaic and dry. One midcareer Japanese journalist said he wants television stations to pursue more undercover exposes.
And whether their work shows up in print or on the air, reporters from all mainstream media show a worrisome tendency to bow to authority when they should challenge it, according to observers like Waseda’s Sato.
“In Japan, the press club system is mighty,” he said, referring to the arrangement at agencies and political parties in which power-holders parcel information to journalists on the unwritten agreement that the press toes the line. “Reporting is done within certain limits, with an eye to the relationships maintained within the clubs.”
Putting it more bluntly is longtime Japan correspondent Henry Scott Stokes, a native of England who over the years has followed domestic news as Tokyo bureau chief for The Financial Times, The Times of London and The New York Times. He frequently marvels, he said, at how reluctant media outlets have been to do tough reporting.
“The great issue is how on earth to teach people to ask questions, because this demands a complete revolution in the way of thinking here,” said Scott Stokes, 69, who currently writes for Economist.com and Institutional Investor.
Waseda wants that revolution to begin inside its “J-school” classes.
The outgrowth of a pre-existing training program in Waseda’s political science department that focuses on science and technology reporting, Waseda’s new program also draws inspiration from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York and graduate-level media programs at Imperial College London and The Australian National University, among several other overseas journalism schools.
High standards will be kept, Sato said. Media instructors — veteran journalists from Japan’s top media organs who presumably harbor the same dissatisfaction with the status quo as the critics — will be expected to press students to polish and repolish their work until it is suitably informative and well-composed, whether the project be a lengthy print article or video documentary.
The program will also offer lectures by Waseda professors on the history of the press, media and the Constitution, crime, the environment, public welfare, economics, foreign relations, political science and many other topics aimed at firing up students with a sense of civic mission and providing the basic knowledge to carry it out.
Some classes will be taught in English to foster international exchanges with foreign students and to prepare Japanese students for the global workplace.
The inaugural class will consist of 40 students mostly chosen by an exam last September, in which applicants were required to demonstrate English proficiency and a knowledge of media issues, according to Sato, adding that a followup exam will be given in February for special applicants.
New graduates will account for about two-thirds of the class, with the remainder professionals in midcareer. Graduates who complete a thesis will receive a master’s degree.
A journalism graduate degree doesn’t come cheap: The 9 1/2-month program at Columbia’s J-School, for example, costs $37,600.
Tuition for the Waseda J-school program is far less expensive at ¥860,000 for the first year and ¥600,500 for the second, but cash-strapped twentysomethings might wonder whether on-the-job training is the more affordable choice.
Yasuomi Sawa, a 17-year Kyodo News staff reporter, however, sees an important role for Waseda’s J-School.
As a member of the Reporting and Communications Discussion Group, comprising journalists from top Japanese news organizations seeking ways to improve their industry, Sawa has closely followed the development of Waseda’s program and considers it a means of injecting needed elements of journalism from around the world into Japan.
Sawa recently spent nine months as a Reuters journalism fellow at Oxford University, where he concluded that British media were far more willing to ruffle feathers — a quality he felt fueled a healthy public dialogue.
“Someone over there said to me, ‘What is the role of journalism? It is to provoke an argument.’ I thought that was impressive,” Sawa said.
Waseda’s journalism school, he suggested, should be a laboratory allowing Japan to develop a similarly aggressive brand of journalism for itself.
“I don’t think a J-school can do it all, but the opportunities are there,” he said.
Scott Stokes was also optimistic about the Waseda J-School’s prospects, but cautiously so.
“I think it can make a tremendous contribution. But I also think it can take 50 years to build a respected institution,” he said. “It’s not something they should set out to accomplish overnight.”