About three years ago, Makoto Watanabe, then an investigative reporter at The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, had a "hunch," based on his experience covering the pharmaceutical industry, that an advertising agency might be paying a major news organization to write stories about certain drugs to promote companies the agency represented.

After digging around, he eventually struck gold. Documents obtained from a source showed a subsidiary of Dentsu, the world's fifth-largest ad agency, which represented the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, had made payments to a company tied to the Kyodo News agency for "public relations assistance" through its articles.

"I was stunned," said Watanabe, who quit The Asahi Shimbun in March 2016 to start the nonprofit investigative journalism outlet Waseda Chronicle, where he serves as editor-in-chief.