In May 1993, David Butts, then Tokyo bureau chief of Bloomberg Business News, was fed up. After years of unsuccessful efforts to penetrate Japan’s press clubs through polite negotiation, the tall Texan chose a more direct approach. On the day annual company reports were released, Butts, with other foreign media recording the event, marched into the Tokyo Stock Exchange press club and demanded that he be received at the same time as the club members, rather than 15 minutes later that had been the practice.

The press-club members were shocked that their clubhouse had been so publicly invaded. Others were quite happy. Butts’ aggressiveness was applauded by the foreign media, some Japanese politicians and businessmen, and even sympathetic Japanese reporters, who ran stories the next day on the problems of the press club system.

But the sight of Japanese journalists attempting to block their foreign colleague was a major embarrassment for the Japan Newspaper Publishers Association. Coming a few months after the Washington Post scoop that announced Masako Owada would marry the Crown Prince, a fact the Japanese media knew but didn’t tell because of a promise to the Imperial Household Agency, Butts’ action was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. After years of foot dragging, the association could no longer ignore heated public criticism of the closed nature of the press clubs. In the summer of 1993, it adopted a new policy that opened up a few clubs to foreign media firms, including Bloomberg.

The Washington Post scoop and Bloomberg’s aggressive tactics did something else, however. They shed international attention on another closed Japanese market, one little understood outside Japan. In the 1980s, international attention on Japan’s closed markets in everything from beef and oranges to automobiles to ski equipment had been extensive. By contrast, the exclusionary practices of Japan’s mass media received scant public analysis.

Since 1993, however, several works, notably Ofer Feldman’s groundbreaking study, “Politics and the News Media in Japan,” have appeared that examine how mainstream reporters, especially those who cover politics, do their job. On a more general level, “Cartels of the Mind,” published in 1998 by scholar Ivan Hall, demonstrated the negative affects of an exclusive, docile mainstream press to Japanese society and its relations with the rest of the world.

Now comes U.C. Santa Barbara professor Laurie Ann Freeman’s “Closing the Shop,” which builds on the Feldman study and offers the broader perspective of the Hall work. In the late 1980s, it was said Japan didn’t want to do any work involving the three “k’s,” (“kitsui,” “kitanai” and “kiken,” or hard, dirty and dangerous). In “Closing the Shop,” Freeman argues a prosperous Japanese media doesn’t want to do any work upsetting three different k’s: kisha clubs, “kyokai” (the Japan Newspaper Association) and “keiretsu.”

The problem begins with the first k, the kisha club. For a long time, the very definition of a press club was a matter of contentious debate. Japanese government and media officials insisted the press clubs were merely voluntary social organizations.

This explanation served two purposes. First, it allowed club members — a few select media conglomerates — to maintain the facade of being independent from their sources. Second, it created a Catch-22 situation for those deemed as threatening to the interests of the conglomerates. They were told no official permission to join the press clubs could be given because they were “voluntary,” in nature, but that only “qualified” members of the Japan Newspaper Association would be allowed to “volunteer” to join them.

This was the official line until 1978, when the association admitted the purpose of the clubs was to aid news gathering activities. As Freeman proves, the real reason for the closed nature of the press clubs was to prevent, in MITI’s favorite phrase, “excessive competition.”

Those left out of the press clubs included not only foreign media but also smaller newspapers, trade publications and media organs connected to political and religious organizations. Most importantly, Japanese magazine and freelance journalists were forbidden to join. Traditionally, magazines, whether the racy tabloids or the serious intellectual journals, have been the most aggressive media organs in ferreting out scandals and delving into controversial topics the newspapers won’t touch.

The Japan Newspaper Association, the second of Freeman’s three k’s, went out of its way to insure magazines, even those published by member media conglomerates, were excluded from the press clubs. This guaranteed only a few select newspaper and television reporters would get to attend both the press conferences and the far more important informal briefings and background discussions with top officials.

Freeman demonstrates how such exclusivity came at the sacrifice of open debate. Increased access didn’t lead to more quality reporting but less. Cooperation, not confrontation, between club members and their government sources was the result. Meanwhile, those who criticized, or delved into politically incorrect subjects, were ostracized by sources and colleagues and faced a variety of punishments from a simple warning to expulsion.

Among some writers, there is a tendency at this point in the narrative to present cultural explanations for what is being observed. But, being a political scientist rather than an Asian scholar, Freeman stays away from the familiar arguments about Japanese preference for group harmony, avoidance of open conflict, etc. She does offer a good, general history of the development of the mainstream media, but provides a far more convincing explanation for the current state of affairs: money.

There is a practical reason why many Japanese weekly tabloid magazines are often accurate about a controversial story ignored or downplayed by the mainstream press. It’s because the information is provided by anonymous mainstream journalists who are chummy with their sources by day when writing for their newspaper, and then, after the daily deadline has passed, sell what they can’t write for their own publications to the tabloids.

In researching Japan’s media, Freeman was granted unusual access to the press clubs, especially those of Nagata-cho. The information she gathered on the day-to-day workings of Japanese journalists shows just how formalized the rules of procedure between the press and officialdom have become.

Much of the information she provides has rarely been available in English. For example, readers of Japanese newspapers will be especially pleased to note the detailed section, translated from a 1990 book by Sumie Kawakami called “Shimbun no Himitsu”, on what, exactly, reporters mean when they refer to “government heads,” “government sources,” “LDP sources,” etc.

This firsthand account of how the press clubs operate, how they punish members who break the rules, written and unwritten, and how they reward and are rewarded by sources makes for fascinating, and chilling, reading. In Japan, it seems, political journalists don’t just interview their sources. They visit their homes, walk their dogs, do their laundry, chat up their wives and daughters, accept money, gifts, golf outings and invitations to hot springs far more frequently than is popularly imagined or understood. Meanwhile unofficial, dissenting voices are downplayed, ignored or dismissed as unreliable or not sufficiently knowledgeable.

Such control of the information flow is possible because of what Freeman identifies as the third example of the closed shop, the media’s keiretsu system. Like the industrial and financial sectors, the media keiretsu system consists of an interlocking series of companies that maintains the status quo. The keiretsu centers around the newspaper company, which, in turn, owns television and radio stations, magazines and a host of non-media related businesses.

The result of the Japanese media’s three k’s is not a press that is censored by the government, but one that, out of self-interest, censors itself. “Closing the Shop” shows how, by resisting outside competition, the cartels homogenize the news, marginalize alternative media and suspend their role as watchdog of the people, thus aiding and abetting those fighting to prevent a more open society.

Uncovering the relationships between the Japanese media and their sources, especially the newspapers’ relationships through the press clubs, remains the key to understanding how the Japanese media operates and only recently have newspapers begun to address this issue more openly. For the record, The Japan Times has reporters stationed at the Prime Minister’s Office, major national government ministry clubs and a few business organizations, as well as some press clubs in the Kansai region. But we are not members of the police press clubs or some clubs at the smaller government ministries.

As Freeman indicates, despite growing public distrust, newspapers remain the news medium of choice for Japan. Thus, how they and their broadcast partners cover the news and disclose relationships with their sources has a major impact on Japan’s political, economic, and social development. This has been a major topic of debate within Japan for many years, and now with “Closing the Shop,” the debate is likely to expand outside the country.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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