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LONDON — “In a democracy as stagnant as Japan’s, you might expect the national newspapers to stir things up. But much of the Japanese press is adverse to change with reporters from some of the top newspapers sharing the clubby life of politicians and bureaucrats.”

This accusation was made in the Jan. 18 edition of the London Economist. This influential magazine, which is widely read in the United States, added that the European Union has included Japanese media arrangements to its annual list of economic complaints, declaring that they are a “restraint on the free trade in information.”

Are the Economist’s criticism and the European Union’s complaint justified? As someone who has observed the Japanese scene for over half a century, my response has to be that they are well grounded. Foreign journalists in Japan still find it difficult, even when they have a good knowledge of Japanese, to gain admission to press briefings because the “kisha” press clubs that hold such events take steps to deter or prevent them from attending.

The organizers of these cozy clubs make life difficult for anyone who steps out of line by pressing difficult or embarrassing questions too far. Such tiresome people may be excluded from future briefings by fellow journalists who want to maintain harmonious relations with the organizers.

The Japanese official technique of “mokusatsu” (taking no notice of someone) seems to have been made into a fine art by official organizations in Japan such as the Kunaicho. It is significant that the word is known to so many foreign observers of Japan that there is now no need for them to add a translation when speaking of this technique.

A Japanese response to these complaints is that the Japanese media, if tame, are much more responsible than the sensational journals that make up the bulk of the press in North America and Europe. In any case, they say, why should we Japanese adopt your standards? Japan is unique (as if other countries are not). We prefer our consensus approach and don’t equate democratic ways with a media “free for all.” Leave us alone to run our affairs as we think right.

Perhaps so. But foreign newspapers frustrated by Japanese exclusiveness have reduced their presence in Japan, and reporting of Japanese affairs in the media abroad has declined both in quantity and quality. Inevitably, the stories that do appear about Japan tend to be sensational and unhelpful to Japan’s image.

Some Japanese may say: “So be it. We don’t care what other peoples think about we Japanese.” But this is not true. In my experience, Japanese do care much more than, say, the British, another insular people, do about foreign opinions. (The British and the Japanese both unfortunately share a contempt for foreigners.)

Moreover, foreign views of Japan can damage Japan’s national interests. Japan wants to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and to be respected and influential in international organizations. Foreign ignorance about modern Japan and its institutions can also damage Japan’s commercial interests. Most suspicions are fed by a lack of knowledge.

Personally I have never subscribed to the various conspiracy theories about Japanese intentions. One reason why I scorn conspiracy theories is that in my view they attribute too much intelligence and ability to the alleged plotters.

In the case of Japan, I doubt if any Japanese would think that any of the present lot of Japanese politicians is capable of conducting a successful conspiracy about anything, except, of course, a conspiracy to put money into the pockets of construction companies and political factions. But in the absence of fair reporting of Japanese events and attitudes, some people will still cherish all sorts of silly suspicions about Japan and its intentions.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi presumably thought that his ill-judged recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine would benefit him in the forthcoming Liberal Democratic Party presidential election and, at the least, would not harm him or the LDP in the next general election. Perhaps he did expect sharp reactions from Seoul and Beijing and simply decided that he could afford to ignore them. But he could hardly have chosen a a worse time for the visit in terms of Japanese foreign policy.

The threat from North Korea is growing and the dangers to peace in East Asia are increasing. It must surely be in Japan’s national interest to try to work with both South Korea and China, as well as the U.S., to contain the threat from North Korea.

Did Koizumi think through all the implications of what he was doing? Did he consider how he was going to explain his action to foreigners who fear that Japan may still be wedded to the militarist philosophy behind the exhibits in the museum at Yasukuni Shrine? Were Japanese embassies abroad forewarned and briefed on how to respond to foreign critics?

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