Fear is mounting within Japanese journalism circles, especially among publishers of popular weekly magazines, that their reporting may be severely constrained by the recent tendency of courts to award large compensation claims to plaintiffs in libel suits.

A case in point is the litigation against Kodansha Ltd., the publisher of the weekly Shukan Gendai magazine, by the Japan Sumo Association, the organizer of Japan’s national sport of sumo.

The plaintiff, a group of prominent sumo wrestlers, demanded that the publisher pay more than ¥700 million for defamation resulting from a series of articles in 2007 alleging that some matches had been “rigged.”

On March 26, 2009, the Tokyo District Court ordered Kodansha to pay ¥42.9 million to the plaintiff. After appeals from both sides, a final ruling was handed down in October last year: More than ¥40 million was awarded to the plaintiff. The sum was the largest ever awarded in a single libel suit and surprised the nation even though the plaintiff consisted of more than one person.

In a recent interview, a ranking official of Kodansha could not conceal his indignation. He called the ruling “ridiculous,” saying it would make it impossible for mass media to write anything. He pointed out that some of the plaintiff wrestlers admitted to their involvement in match riggings that came to light earlier this year, but had signed affidavits in the court proceedings that they had never been involved.

He added that these wrestlers have already received part of the compensatory money awarded by the court.

Why is it then that courts of law have recently started siding more closely with plaintiffs in libel suits? The answer is found in the “standards” to compute the amount of compensation in litigation against mass media, which were written about a decade ago by the Legal Training and Research Institute of the Supreme Court.

According to a journalist well versed in judicial affairs, the institute succumbed to “political pressure” in drastically raising the damages in libel cases. In the late 1990s, he recalls, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was exasperated by a broadside fired by mass media in general. Also coming under criticism at the time by some weekly magazines was Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist lay organization. Magazine reports irritated Komeito, Soka Gakkai’s political arm and a junior partner in the coalition government headed by Mori’s Liberal Democratic Party.

It was also obvious from parliamentary debates that the ruling coalition parties demanded that some measures be taken to protect people who became targets of mass media coverage.

In March 2001, for example, Justice Minister Masahiko Komura told the Upper House Judicial Affairs Committee that a large number of people had no means to combat defamatory accusations from the press. Komeito lawmakers concurred and demanded that whoever publishes a defamatory article be punished more severely.

On May 16, 2001, the director of the Supreme Court’s Civil Affairs Bureau told the same Upper House committee that he was fully aware of these arguments and that the Legal Training and Research Institute had been instructed to study “proper ways” to calculate damages.

It was against such background that the institute set “standards,” triggering a series of big-money litigations. In March 2001, the Tokyo District Court ordered Shogakukan Inc., publisher of the weekly Shukan Post magazine, to pay ¥10 million for writing a scandalous article about a professional baseball player. In October that year, the same court awarded another ¥10 million in damages to a renowned architect who had been criticized by the weekly Shukan Bunshun published by Bungeishunju Ltd.

In 2007, Fujio Mitarai, chairman of Canon Inc., a leading electronic equipment manufacturer, filed a ¥200 million suit against the Shukan Gendai, and the corporate manager of the singing group AKB-48 filed a ¥150 million libel lawsuit against Shukan Bunshun. It’s noteworthy that big-damage lawsuits have targeted weekly magazines.

According to the journalist familiar with judicial affairs, reporters for major newspapers and television stations are, by and large, timid and refrain from writing highly critical articles about leading politicians and business leaders, apparently because of traditional relations that have been built up through the exclusive press club system.

Weekly magazines, by contrast, tend to be more aggressive because they have not formed such connections with public figures, the journalist points out. The other side of the coin, he says, is that politicians and business executives have less means of controlling weekly magazines than they do newspapers and TV stations.

A former editor of a large-circulation weekly magazine laments that weekly magazines have become more timid because of the huge awards decided against them while the publishing business has suffered a serious downturn.

He adds: “Judges are consistently against us. We are always in a disadvantageous position because we cannot reveal the source of information. Shukan Gendai ultimately won the case filed by Mitarai, after the initial ruling (by Tokyo District Court) had called for payment of ¥2 million based on minuscule evidence.”

There is no denying that the “standards” for computing the amount of damages, established by the judiciary, has encouraged politicians, business leaders and other “prominent” figures to sue magazines.

Weekly magazines have the important mission of overseeing those in power. If the current tendency continues, reporting by such magazines will be exterminated and the general public will read nothing but stories written by reporters who “behave themselves” from the standpoint of those with authority and influence.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the March issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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