The relationship between the government and the press in Japan has, during the past 50 years, been a volatile one of give and take: The government gives the press what it wants it to know, and the press gladly takes it. But this has not always been the case.

Consider a series of incidents that took place in August 1918.

The government of Prime Minister Masatake Terauchi had sent some 70,000 troops to northern Manchuria and Siberia in order to reverse the fortunes of the Bolsheviks and seize control of the Trans-Siberian Railway for Japan.

A group of 180 journalists met at a hotel in Osaka to devise ways of overthrowing the Terauchi government and bringing the troops home. Among the prime movers of the plan was the highly respected Ryohei Murayama — founder, in 1879, of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

The Osaka Asahi ran an article criticizing the government, and the authorities responded by banning the issue it was in. Thugs broke into the Asahi offices. They dragged Murayama into Nakanoshima Park, stripped and beat him, then tied him to a stone lantern with a sign hanging around his neck that read “TRAITOR!”

However, the Terauchi government was brought down a month later — though rioting over rice shortages was the chief cause, not the Asahi episode.

I bring this up because it does demonstrate the independence and power of the press in Japan, albeit in the distant past (and the power of the government to oppose it).

After World War II, it was the American and other Allied occupiers who controlled the media in Japan, censoring information that was in any way critical of Occupation policy. When the Occupation ended in April 1952, Japan’s postwar powers-that-be had been taught a vital lesson: Those who control the media, control the people.

During the half-century of Liberal Democratic Party rule that ended with the election of Aug. 30, control of the media was a major concern of the nation’s power elites. The idea was to protect the public from truths that might sway them to alter the fixed locus of power in Japan — the locus binding the politicians in power, the top echelons in the bureaucracy and the media, forming an almost perfectly closed circle.

But the Aug. 30 elections changed everything . . . or did they?

In The Japan Times on Oct. 7, Jun Hongo reported that, on Sept. 29, upon his return from the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada announced a change in the old exclusive press-club system, according to which only major Japanese news organs accredited by ministries could attend their press conferences. He would henceforth allow other media representatives, online journalists and freelance reporters into Foreign Ministry press conferences.

“This is a matter of the public’s right to know,” said Okada.

The right to know has been a gossamer right in Japan until now. Even the phrase in Japanese, shiru kenri, sounds awkward and forced. The sole right upheld through the exclusive press-club system is shiraseru kenri, the “right to let know.”

What that system means in practice is that established journalists, whether from the print media, radio or television, are, in effect, embedded. They are like suckerfish hovering around the mouths of leading politicians and bureaucrats, waiting for a morsel of information to fall from rows of bared teeth.

The flow of information to the public has thus been controlled by an exclusive arrangement: If you want your morsels, you have to line up and suck.

Over the years, this created a very cozy symbiotic relationship between the established press, the overarching ministerial bureaucracy and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Loyalty is a key virtue in any relationship, but Japanese people have been known to take it to extremes. The media in Japan, with few exceptions, felt loyal to the LDP and their mentors in the bureaucracy because this loyalty fed their need for a regular diet of stories. Even if what they got was slanted, it would still fill pages with print, and hours of news programming. Job done, let’s go home.

People in the media should have been cultivating close ties all along with leading members of the opposition, but, curiously, hardly any did. To do so would have been to be disloyal to the very system that had been their sustenance for more than 50 years.

Writing in the evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun on Oct. 5, Akira Ikegami, a former newscaster at national broadcaster NHK, said, “Because (the reporters) have built a relationship of trust with people in the higher echelons of the LDP, they somehow feel ashamed to switch to covering the opposing party.”

You would think that the change of government would give rise to a new symbiosis, or indeed to an across- the-board expansion of the parameters confining news coverage in Japan. But this has not been the case.

For one thing, as Ikegami pointed out, the reporters themselves are reluctant to be “disloyal,” even to a former master, the LDP, whose ship is now in the doldrums. (Perhaps they have one eye on the possibility of the LDP cruising back into power and punishing “mutinous” members of their old loyal media crew.)

For another thing, the new government is by no means totally committed, at least not in public, to the breakdown of the old buddy-buddy press-club system. If it served the LDP well, it might serve them, the DPJ. Does Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama really want to encourage the development of an independent press?

Unlike Foreign Minister Okada, the prime minister has yet to welcome nonmember media representatives to his press conferences held at the Official Residence. The issue of security has been raised. After all, what if some ranting blogger got in and caused an incident? I have been there a number of times, and the security procedures certainly seem adequate. However, if appearances are deceiving and those procedures aren’t deemed sufficient, then they should be strengthened so that any bona fide journalist can ask the prime minister any bona fide question in full view of the world.

Asahi founder Ryohei Murayama died in 1933, age 83. His life is commemorated at the Ryohei Murayama Memorial Hall in his hometown of Tamaki in Mie Prefecture. Not every journalist can be so influential as to aspire to plan the downfall of a prime minister. But perhaps there are lessons in this for Japan today, as the nation goes about redefining the crucial relationship between its power elites and the media.

And that lesson should read: Both the government and the media are on the same side — the side of the public’s right to know. The Japanese public didn’t only vote in a new regime last August. They voted the old regime out.

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