Why Japan ranks poorly in press freedom

Japan ranks the lowest among the Group of Seven nations when it comes to media freedom. Journalists' vulnerability to government as well as a culture of self-censorship are to blame, say experts

Why Japan ranks poorly in press freedom (Photo: DW)
Why Japan ranks poorly in press freedom (Photo: DW)


Japan inched up three places in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index but is still a lowly 68th of the 180 countries and regions surveyed for the annual Reporters Without Borders study.

That ranks the world's third-largest economy at the bottom of the G7 nations in terms of media freedoms, and sandwiched between Lesotho and Panama on the list.

"Japan, a parliamentary democracy, upholds the principles of media and pluralism," said the study, published on May 3. "However, the weight of traditions, economic interests, political pressure and gender inequalities prevents journalists from fully exercising their role of holding the government to account."

Norway topped the Paris-based organization's index for the seventh consecutive year, with Ireland in second place. Germany was in 21st place, down from 16th spot in the previous study. North Korea was ranked last of the 180 nations, with China in 179th position, down four places from the 2022 report, while Vietnam ranked 178th in the world.

Government-backed press clubs

Japan's claims to freedom of the press are dented in particular by a system of government-approved press clubs for ministries and the tendency of the media to self-censor at the slightest pressure from the government or influential business partners, according to academics and journalists.

And that leaves it languishing behind countries such as Liberia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Burkina Faso.

"Freedom of speech is guaranteed in Japan under Article 21 of the Constitution, but there are problems — such as the press club system — which is why Japan is ranked so low on the index," said Renge Jibu, an associate professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and a member of the Japan Association of Media, Journalism and Communication studies.

"Kisha kurabu," or reporters' clubs, can be traced back to 1890 and the ban imposed by the first Imperial Diet on access to journalists. In response, journalists banded together, with the support of newspaper companies, to form the first press club and lobby for access.

These clubs generally comprise exclusively of journalists working at major Japanese media outlets. The members have exclusive access to official sources, and to maintain that access, they are required to comply with the official government line.

In spite of pressure from foreign media, the system of kisha clubs has effectively remained ever since, giving politicians and bureaucrats the power to cow journalists and media companies with the threat of being banned from briefings if they report negative or unflattering stories, said Jibu.

"The ministries will say they have limitations on space for reporters and there is the need to carry out background checks, but on the other hand the kisha clubs have just become a custom that it is now difficult to deny," she told DW.

It is not just politicians and ministries that are able to bring the media to heel with threats of exclusion, pointed out Koichi Ishiyama, formerly a journalist for the Associated Press and The Times of London before becoming a professor of media studies at Toin University of Yokohama.

Corporate pressures

"Companies can be just as bad," he said. "I once had to do an interview with a major Japanese corporation and their executives made it very clear that they would not cooperate with any request for information or comment because I had written something about the company that they thought was negative."

Large companies can exert other pressures on the media, Ishiyama said, as demonstrated by the long-running but largely overlooked scandal surrounding entertainment mogul Johnny Kitagawa.

The Shukan Bunshun weekly news magazine first reported in 1999 that Kitagawa, the founder of the Johnny & Associates talent agency, had sexually abused aspiring male pop stars.

Fearful of losing their shot at fame and fortune, none of the young men were willing to file formal complaints with the police and Kitagawa remained free to abuse more boys until his death in July 2019.

And, despite Kitagawa's activities being an open secret in Japan's showbiz world, the mainstream media glossed over the problem. The companies said they had no evidence of wrongdoing; critics say they never looked very hard.

Fears of being blacklisted

"The media here needs pop stars and 'talents' to appear on their music programs and chat shows, so they never reported about Kitagawa because they feared they would be blacklisted," said Ishiyama. "The business world here is so inter-connected that a report on Kitagawa could mean they lost advertising, sponsorship and access to stars, so they kept quiet."

An American journalist who has worked for a Japanese newspaper for 30 years noted that the Japanese media's culture of self-censorship runs deeper than simply newspapers, TV and radio stations pulling their punches on controversial topics.

"It's not the sort of official censorship that we see in China, North Korea or the other countries that are at the bottom of the list," said the reporter, who asked not to be named for fear of losing their job.

"And it's not just self-censorship, which means journalists don't ask the tough questions. It's the atmosphere of social and intellectual freedom that makes it possible for reporters to do their jobs.

"There is no atmosphere that encourages deliberation of important issues because reporters know that if they ask difficult questions they can be punished," he said.

The result is a media that reports exactly what the government and big business wants it to report based on official briefings and a pubic that is too often kept in the dark, he added. "And that, to me, means the media here is doing a great disservice to the people."

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