RIGHTS CONSIDERED BY LAWSUIT-WARY PRESS

Media now gun-shy in Miura reportage

by Reiji Yoshida and Akemi Nakamura

Ryo Sakamoto, a former editor of the major tabloid newspaper Tokyo-Sports, remembers the media frenzy in the 1980s over the case of Kazuyoshi Miura.

Miura was arrested in Saipan last month on suspicion of conspiring to murder his wife, Kazumi, who was shot in Los Angeles in November 1981 and died from her head wound about a year later in Japan.

The sudden start of the U.S. judicial procedure stunned many Japanese, including Sakamoto, because the 60-year-old businessman in 2003 was cleared by the Supreme Court in Japan.

“I was very surprised. At first I thought this must be a mistake or something,” Sakamoto said.

Now dozens of reporters have flocked to Saipan and L.A. and started reporting the case as intensely as they did 24 years ago when the Miura media blitz hit.

Recalling the impact of the case on rampant gossip journalism in the 1980s, Sakamoto noted it served as the template for a new type of news coverage and later prompted the media to pay more respect to the human rights of crime suspects and victims.

Miura was in the media spotlight in the mid-1980s, first portrayed as a tragic husband whose wife was fatally shot in the mean streets of Los Angeles.

But then in January 1984 the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun began running articles saying Miura might have been involved in three criminal cases — the 1979 disappearance of his 34-year-old lover, whose body was later found in L.A.; another girlfriend’s attempt to kill his wife in an L.A. hotel room in August 1981; and the November 1981 shooting of his wife in a parking lot in the same city. She was shot in the head, flown back in a coma to Japan, and died later in 1982. Miura sustained a minor leg wound in the attack.

Following the magazine reports based on a three-month-long investigation, broadcasters, other magazines and tabloids started aggressively reporting not only about these incidents but also about Miura’s private life, including his upbringing and love affairs.

At the time, a media scrum — criticized by some as a violation of privacy — took place every day in front of Miura’s house in Tokyo.

“We tried to watch and report everything Miura did those days,” said Masaru Nashimoto, a popular TV reporter who used to go to Miura’s house every day for a TV program in the 1980s. “It was the time when viewer ratings for a TV program would jump when there was mention of Miura in (newspaper) schedules.”

The Weekly Bunshun ran Miura-related features for seven consecutive weeks, selling roughly 600,000 copies each week, some 100,000 to 150,000 up from its average weekly circulation.

“We first planned to run a series (on the Miura cases) for about three weeks,” said Akihiko Hada, a former Bunshun reporter who investigated the case over three months from mid-October 1983.

But the series was extended to seven weeks because its first report received a great response from readers and other media also began to intensely report on Miura, said Hada, now manager of product control at Bungeishunju Ltd., which publishes the weekly.

“We investigated his upbringing . . . and reported” part of it, he said. “We thought over (whether we should run a story about it) . . . (and) we kept our reports in check (unlike many other media that followed our Miura reports),” as the weekly has always been wary of lawsuits, Hada said.

In the 1980s, the media had loose standards regarding the privacy of celebrities and people involved in crimes like Miura, said Hiroyuki Shinoda, editor in chief of Tsukuru, a monthly media critic magazine.

“The public was also entertained (by peering into the private lives of such people) and . . . encouraged (the media) to go further,” Shinoda said.

Miura’s circumstances and personality particularly attracted the media and viewers and readers. For instance, one of his aunts was a famous actress.

Miura, who ran an import business in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, was often willing to be featured on television, in magazines or tabloids to publicize his confessions and proclaim his innocence.

The public enjoyed daily updates of the news in real time as if they were watching a movie or TV drama, said Sakamoto, now head of the legal and public relations affairs section of Tokyo-Sports, describing it as the beginning of news as theater, now the common style of coverage by gossip TV programs and tabloids.

Miura was arrested in Japan in September 1985 for the August 1981 hotel room attempt on his wife’s life, then charged with her murder in 1988. By that time, the media frenzy surrounding him had cooled.

The Miura case became a starting point for the media to consider the rights of crime suspects, media insiders said.

For instance, the media now blur out images of the hands of people in handcuffs and are more careful about reporting crime cases that police have yet to investigate, they said.

One reason for the change was that Miura filed about 530 damages suits against media firms, including many powerful leading newspapers and broadcasters, claiming their reports implicated him as the mastermind behind his wife’s slaying and his rights had been damaged by their prying into his personal life.

Miura once told a news conference that he won 80 percent of some 200 cases in which rulings had been made. In 476 of the some 530 lawsuits, Miura fought all the court battles by himself.

His extremely high success rate in the courts shocked media companies, prompting them to draw up new internal guidelines to pay more heed to the rights of a suspect in crime reporting.

The Supreme Court in 2003 cleared Miura of involvement in his wife’s slaying, but his six-year prison term for the attempted murder in the hotel room, for which his actress-girlfriend was also sent up, was finalized in 1998.

Now 24 years after the frenzy started, Japanese media are again jumping on the Miura bandwagon.

“As people who had reported the Miura case in the 1980s are now editors, they are excited about the arrest and have sent their reporters to cover it,” Tsukuru’s Shinoda said.

But their approach is more cautious, he said.

“The media call him the ‘former president’ (of the import goods firm), which I think is a way to show they do not (automatically) see him as a criminal,” Shinoda said. The media previously used to refer to crime suspects without titles. “His wife, who was frequently covered by the media in the 1980s, is hardly reported on now.”

On the other hand, Sakamoto of Tokyo-Sports thinks media reports still go over the top in some cases, despite their lip service to paying more heed to the rights of people under suspicion.

“It depends on the case. In some cases, we are calmer and more objective than before, but in other cases, we still can’t say we are so (restrained),” Sakamoto said.