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A citizens’ group has filed a criminal complaint against former head Tokyo prosecutor Hiromu Kurokawa, who resigned after a weekly magazine reported he had played mahjong for money, which is an illegal act. Moreover, the group pointed out that Kurokawa and his three mahjong companions had violated social distancing requests made by the authorities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Others are also demanding he be prosecuted, including Takeshi Okano, an attorney who runs the YouTube channel Takeshi Bengoshi. In a May 25 video, Okano explains why Kurokawa should be arrested and why he probably won’t be.

Okano says police would first need an arrest warrant and that requires the approval of a judge, who is effectively lower in position than a prosecutor, even a former one. The police could do their own investigation, but if they suspect prosecutors won’t indict one of their own, they’ll think it’s a waste of time. Gambling is technically a victimless crime, so prosecutors usually only proceed with a prosecution based on third-party petitions. Kurokawa’s de facto immunity was comically referenced last month when pranksters set up a table on the sidewalk in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Tokyo in order to hold the first Kurokawa Cup mahjong tournament. The police, unamused, shut them down.

The media has already gotten past the story and doesn’t seem interested in pursuing it further, which isn’t surprising since Kurokawa’s mahjong companions were two reporters and one former reporter.

In his May 29 column for the Asahi Shimbun, current affairs “explainer” Akira Ikegami pondered this aspect. As a former NHK reporter who covered the police, Ikegami has complicated feelings about the case. The two reporters worked for the Sankei Shimbun and the ex-reporter still works for the Asahi Shimbun in another capacity. These two newspapers, says Ikegami, are considered adversaries in terms of editorial ideology — Sankei leans to the right, Asahi to the left — but, practically speaking, there is little difference between the two. They were gambling with Kurokawa for reasons that went beyond recreation, hoping to pick up something in passing that would make for an exclusive story, even if the intelligence was most likely obtained improperly.

Ikegami seems impressed by their initiative, since he was never able to get as close to his sources when he worked for NHK. He left the police beat after two years without ever having scored an exclusive, a matter of great disappointment to him. What’s interesting about his analysis is that he implies such methods are the only way to get a scoop, which is arguably what it’s all about.

This is a narrow view of the profession but common among journalists who cover public organs through Japan’s press club system. Press clubs, dedicated groups of reporters from various mass media outlets, are designed to make the job of disseminating official information easier for both sides of the newsgathering transaction, but they mainly benefit the interests of the officials who provide the information. Since all reporters who belong to the clubs receive the same information, their reporting on related matters is, for all intents and purposes, identical. In order to stand out, a reporter has to get information that isn’t available to fellow members, and the only way to do that is through leaks from insiders.

A veteran reporter who writes regularly for Diamond Online recently recalled his time covering various public officials for an unnamed national newspaper. He admits to playing mahjong with them and, like the Sankei reporters in the Kurokawa affair, providing them with hired cars paid for by his employer. He would get up early and go to an official’s house and hang around outside (sometimes dressed as a jogger) in order to run into the official as he was leaving to go to work. Along the way they would chat, and with any luck the official would spill something.

That almost never happened, because government officials are not allowed to discuss their work with people outside their offices. That’s why after-hours activities, like mahjong and drinking sessions, are so important. The idea is to forge an amicable relationship with the official in hopes that once they let their guard down, the information you need will come out. The reporter even suggests that female reporters have an edge in this regard.

The intelligence secured via this methodology is invariably off the record, so while it may be “true” in that the official actually said it, the reporter conveys it as being from an anonymous source. This is standard operating procedure for all press club reporters. The work is either stenography — just relaying official statements — or tabloid-style subterfuge journalism, which is by definition unreliable. Ironically, it is actual tabloids and weekly magazines, which are not invited to join press clubs, that almost always get the scoops, as in the case of the Kurokawa mahjong scandal.

In this light, former New York Times reporter Takashi Uesugi has called for the three men who played mahjong with Kurokawa to be arrested as well. Uesugi has identified them publicly and demanded that the Sankei Shimbun, which has said almost nothing about the matter, carry out an in-house investigation. Otherwise, they are simply covering up a crime. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that any major media outlet will change its ways regarding official access.

This reality is apparent in a recent article in Harbor Business Online about a reporter’s question to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the latter’s April 17 special coronavirus news conference, which was open to all press. The reporter, usually shunned from such events because he’s a freelancer, asked Abe about the press club system, and Abe answered that it was something the media must discuss themselves. Harbor Business, following up the freelancer’s question, discovered that however sincere Abe was in charging the media with addressing the matter itself, no member of the press club assigned to the Prime Minister’s Office, at least, had any intention of doing so.

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