For the past two weeks, media outlets in Japan have been interrogating themselves over the revelation that female reporters are exposed to sexual harassment due to the nature of their work. When weekly magazine Shukan Shincho published a story alleging that Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda, who has since quit, made sexually suggestive remarks to a woman assigned by her company to the Finance Ministry press club, the situation was complicated by the circumstances of the exchange. The woman had secretly recorded Fukuda’s remarks, an act considered by some to be a violation of journalistic ethics and an aspect the Finance Ministry exploited when it responded to the accusation by asking the reporter to talk to an outside lawyer who would handle its investigation.
The reporter did not come forward, but then TV Asahi announced that the woman in question was its employee and she wanted to reveal the fact in order to bolster the credibility of her claim while remaining anonymous. At a midnight news conference on April 19, a spokesman for the broadcaster explained their actions.
The assembled reporters asked why TV Asahi did not act directly on the reporter’s complaint when she first presented the company with the recording. Although the spokesman admitted they did not react “appropriately” to the complaint, he also said she shouldn’t have brought a conversation recorded during newsgathering activities to another media outlet. (TV Asahi has since reversed this position.) The spokesman tempered these remarks with concern for the reporter’s well-being, saying that to bring the matter up publicly would have risked exposing her to secondary harm.
However, as media critic Chiki Ogiue pointed out during an analysis of the news conference on his TBS radio show, TV Asahi was dancing around the issue. Based on the spokesman’s answers, Ogiue concluded that the company’s main fear was being ostracized by the Finance Ministry press club. Otherwise, why didn’t TV Asahi report Fukuda’s remarks? Saying the reporter’s deed was inappropriate — a sentiment later echoed more assertively by former Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura — doesn’t wash because the purpose of the recording was not, in fact, news-gathering but rather to gain evidence of Fukuda’s sexual harassing tendencies, which, according to Shincho, are known among the reporters who cover him. It was obvious to everyone who attended the news conference that the reporter made the recording to protect herself, and when TV Asahi refused to pursue the matter — either by immediately lodging a complaint with the Finance Ministry or running a story about Fukuda — she took the recording to Shincho.
Ogiue’s show wasn’t the first media entity to bring up this point. Several days after Shincho published its initial article about Fukuda, daily tabloid Nikkan Gendai contended that the Finance Ministry’s purported investigation into the matter — implemented after Fukuda threatened to sue Shincho for defamation — was nothing more than “sophistry” because it knew no women reporters would expose themselves by giving testimony. The affected reporters most likely belong to the press club, which is run by the ministry, and press club reporters are not supposed to disclose details of meeting members outside of official functions, even though they do it all the time.
One former NHK reporter told Gendai that the ministry’s gambit was “definitely a threat,” because media companies, already intimidated by the current administration’s more aggressive policing of the press, wouldn’t want to risk losing access to the government’s most powerful ministry. In 2015, TV Asahi let go of regular commentator Shigeaki Koga, reportedly because of his criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The only way they could address the harassment claim and protect their interests would be if they persuaded all mainstream media outlets to protest the ministry’s response in concert, and that wasn’t going to happen. Now, of course, the cat is out of the bag, since the Finance Ministry surely knows the identity of the TV Asahi reporter.
Shincho and Gendai can make a fuss because they do not belong to the press club system. Moreover, they made their fortunes with often salacious stories, so their motivation for reporting the Fukuda matter is not necessarily one based on principle. If they see a chance to credibly discredit powerful people they will take it, but it doesn’t mean they are trying to bring down the patriarchy.
Sexual harassment is a workplace problem, regardless of occupation, but reporters can be doubly affected. Last week, Shincho, the Tokyo Shimbun and The Japan Times published anonymous stories by female journalists who’d been harassed and assaulted by sources and colleagues. Media companies also need to look at their priorities. On Tuesday, TV Asahi held another news conference where they explained that their female reporter had avoided “one-on-one meetings” with Fukuda because he made her uncomfortable, but then the Moritomo and Finance Ministry scandals heated up again, and the company wanted her to re-engage with him, so when he called her to go drinking she accepted.
During his April 20 Bunka Hoso radio show, writer and former Foreign Ministry official Masaru Sato condemned TV Asahi for its failure to follow protocol. Eventually, the broadcaster did lodge a formal complaint with the Finance Ministry, but it did not come from the president of the company and was not sent to Finance Minister Taro Aso. It was, instead, sent to Fukuda’s subordinate, thus indicating that TV Asahi still didn’t want to upset the ministry.
Sato understands what’s at stake. “When I was a bureaucrat I always leaked information to reporters,” he said. “Everyone does.”
It’s a standard ploy for advancing policies the administration may not like, but officials don’t leak to just any reporter, and so some media companies send women, he added. Male officials may be more willing to talk to them. Putting up with these men’s lewd behavior is part of the job. There’s even a name for these reporters: kunoichi, or “female ninja.”