On The Media on Kisha-clubs

National Public Radio’s always-excellent weekly show On The Media just did a great 20 minute segment on Japan’s unique press club system. The best part of the entire piece: when segment producer Mark Phillips brought up the way in which reporters and the politician or other figure they cover often exchange questions and answers making “the actual-” and this is where I quite literally braced myself to hear the word “kabuki” but instead heard “-a mere formality.” What a relief!

24 thoughts on “On The Media on Kisha-clubs”

  1. Yeah, I listened to this yesterday expecting something pretty lame, but it was surprisingly good.

    I think we cynical long-term Japan people tend to discount the kisha club system as not being that big of a deal, but if you really think about it, it’s a pretty gigantic structural barrier towards transparency and democracy.

  2. The best part of the piece was actually the discussion of the interplay between Kisha-club regulated daily newspapers and non-Kisa club weekly magazines, and how Kisha-club reporters leak information to rival publications specifically so that they can then publish it themselves as “publicly available knowledge.” This is a hard to grasp subtlety that I cannot recall ever being explained well in a general audience English media.

  3. A friend of mine who works in financial research is always combing the shukanshi (the weekly magazines) because they regularly have information that comes out much later in the main dailies. If there was an English translation of the ‘interesting’ parts of the weeklies (i.e. not the obviously outrageous Weekly World News crap) it would make for some great reading.

  4. I guess that was the original idea of Waiwai.And we all know how it turned out.

    Guys at kishya club,especially those following around politicians at diet are in mid 30’s and considered as foot soldiers in politics department of media outlet.The “desks” collect the info from these guys and pass them onto editors and op-ed writers.So Kisha club isn’t exactly the place for the high end journalists,it’s just a tool.

  5. “So Kisha club isn’t exactly the place for the high end journalists,it’s just a tool.”

    It certainly looks shady, but (as we’ve been through many times) what do the editorials, the features, and the pop sociology books published by the newspapers end up looking like? Some good, some bad, as elsewhere. The real study of the Kisha Clubs in English is Freeman’s “Closing the Shop”, which takes the most common approach to criticizing the Kisha Clubs – “here are the clubs, this is what they are like, isn’t it horrible!?” There is no discussion of the end product.

    I, for one, feel that by reading the Asahi and the Yomiuri (and a dozen paperbacks that they put out a year), that I would be as “up” on big, critical Japan issues as if I only read English language scholarship and the blogs.

    You could cut and paste Asahi articles from the past decade and build a version of “Dogs and Demons” (that is better written and more insightful) if you wanted to.

  6. This OTM piece does not only focus on the structure of the clubs themselves. It looks at the conflict that resulted in the recent reforms, lays out the clear conflicts of interest, and notes the (well documented and understood) distortions that it produces in the news production process. Just because the major media institutions put out reasonably informed content that manages to take a critical line, that doesn’t cancel out the negative effects of this system.

    Most basically, when the major media refuses to print the facts there is something seriously wrong. Even in the best of times, this system makes it even easier than usual for the media cartels to maintain their backscratching, extortion-based relationship with those they cover. In return for a certain level of predictability (“protection” if you will), the government gives preferred access. Any attempt at reform is met with fierce resistance by the media, except when that becomes impossible as happened a few years ago.

    There are lots of other problems with having massive intermedia collusion that the OTM piece picks up on, but I have to say it’s the gross extortion that strikes me as most outrageous.

    Ever since the wartime government shut down most of the newspaper industry, the surviving papers and the mostly newspaper-owned TV broadcasters that came later have enjoyed a cozy oligopoly on respectable journalism. More than anything, the kisha clubs are a way of protecting that entrenched interest.

    And this problem won’t be solved merely by rearranging the chairs in the kisha clubs; collusion among reporters and with sources is a natural problem wherever you have any commercial media. The kisha clubs are just a visible and highly egregious manifestation. I would not that it’s not necessarily in the government’s interest to have information controlled by a small media elite (you can see in the mass e-Government initiative that they’d probably like a way around them), but it is definitely in the media’s interest to feed off that access.

    Like many businesses, newspapers have a history of profiting from the privileges they have taken as the official arbiters of information. For example, for decades a major source of revenue for the Nikkei was the legal requirement for companies to post their financial results in at least one newspaper. Back in the day, many of the newspapers started baseball teams to create something for people to follow. Similarly, preferential access is one of THE key reasons to buy a copy of the newspaper because only there can you get the scoop on what Yoshiro Mori said this time.

    This fact is well understood by people like Yomiuri President Tsuneo Watanabe, who came up as a political reporter closely tied to the likes of ex-PM Yasuhiro Nakasone. He made his career piling up scoop after scoop thanks to his success at snuggling up to politicians. He is in his 80s now, but you can bet whoever takes over has come up as a Watanabe crony.

    Working to access newsworthy individuals and organizations is not bad in and of itself. Even if Larry King is accused of asking softball questions, often there is value in having a high-profile individual come on and tell his or her story. It’s using extortion and collusion to achieve that goal that’s the problem. I have to believe that a respect for basic ethics and arms-length treatment is not too much to ask.

  7. Cut and paste and build a version of “Dogs& Demons”has already been done by Gavan McCormack.Try “The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence”,especially the foreword by Norma Field saying something like”This isn’t Japan bashing book,because everything written here are basically a quote from Japanese authors”…..

    I don’t think we will see the crony of Watanabe Tsuneo climbing the top pyramid of the big media in 21st century,Because Watanabe is the product of very special circumstances.
    Nowadays,you don’t find the equivalent of Nakasone Yasuhiro,nor strong fraction with in LDP that you can get the profit by being royal to.

  8. Note that I said “Watanabe crony” not “Watanabe clone”. So far as I can see, he has sucked all the creative oxygen out of that company so that in addition to those external factors you mentioned, a Watanabe clone probably would be too independent-minded to survive under Watanabe himself.

    It’s quite possible that Watanabe’s successor will preside over the destruction of the system of power-brokering that Watanabe built, but that is a topic I am not willing to touch at this point.

  9. Who do we think will replace Rupert Murdoch? He has a succession plan in mind just as Watanabe does but it is likely that the vision they both have will be overtaken by events. They both see the future as if they are part of it.

    Japanese business literature often talks about managers in terms of which character gets that damned bird to sing but I’ve often found white collar managers draw their lessons from “The Godfather” instead. As businesses stopped growing and promotions became hard to come by, most managers looked at their bosses and recalled the words of Michael Corleone speaking about Hyman Roth: “He acts like I’m his son, his successor, but he thinks he’s gonna live forever.”

  10. “Just because the major media institutions put out reasonably informed content that manages to take a critical line, that doesn’t cancel out the negative effects of this system.”

    No, but another point that can be raised is that nobody has ever demonstrated comparatively that the Japanese Kisha Clubs restrict the circulation of facts any more than the White House Press Corps – and we’ve seen some shocking stuff during the Bush years – plants, lies going unquestioned, etc.

    Are the Japanese failings BECAUSE OF the Kisha Clubs? Or are they due to a lack of editorial will that speaks to problems outside of the Kisha Club system? This lack of editorial will can be overcome sometimes. Why those times and not others? I think that a lot of this gets left out of the Kisha Club discussion.

    I think that you raise a good point – it is the media that is really making hay with this. This is one of the points that I frequently raise as well. I fear, however, that the “Kisha Clubs protect (whoever) and don’t let critical material out” narrative that dominates in English misses the fact that the Japanese press go hard sometimes and not others. Very little nuance on this in the NPR sequence and elsewhere.

    We also have the issue of the newspapers sidelining some things… and turning right around and putting it into the widely-read Shukanshi (and we should differentiate between Shukan Playboy and Shukan Asahi)… or into $5.00 paperbacks that they sell at train stations. So while Kisha Clubs obviously have an impact on newspapers – when? and what about the alternatives? are my questions.

    Who did “the best” in the US on Iraq? It was probably “The New Yorker”, which did a fantastic job from 2004. But this would be missed in a TV/Newspaper centered discussion. We need a more “holistic” way of looking at Japanese media as well. Japan, after all, has no shortage of radical alternatives. Japan has a Communist Party Newspaper with a larger circulation than the New York Times…. Shouldn’t that shock the whole discussion?

  11. M-Bone: As you say, and as the OTM segment explains, the information does get out eventually. The Kisha club doesn’t act to stop it from being published altogether. When kisha club reporters find out some information they want to publish but aren’t allowed to they leak it to a magazine, let them publish it, and then they can go back to their newspaper and say “as reported in xxx Weekly.” So the problem isn’t a lack of publication per-se.

    I think the problem this creates is more a lack of acknowledged sourcing. Japanese magazines almost never acknowledge sources; everything is anonymous. When you sit down and read a magazine and pretty much every article is nothing but anonymous sources, it makes you seriously wonder how much, if any of it, is real. And then the newspapers report it second-hand, or third-hand based on the anonymous reportage in the magazines, and by then there are so many layers of protection that the target of the piece can claim the story is nothing more than innuendo. The lack of sourcing also means a lack of accountability if stories are utterly false.

    And the weeklies are also full of stories that really ARE nothing but pure innuendo and gossip, and due to them often being sourced in exactly the same shady fashion as the legit investigation, it can be hard to distinguish the two. For example, a few weeks ago in either Asahi or Shincho-one of the serious ones, not Playboy-I saw a story on “the 7 dirty secrets of Obama” which included at least one (rumors of an affair with a “black woman on his staff”, they had to toss “black” in the heading for some reason) that in two years of reading American campaign coverage full of every piece of dirt they could find I never once heard. This completely made-up claim was simply sourced to another anonymous reporter. When obviously false stories appear in the same magazine, using the same method of attribution, how can they be distinguished?

    “Japan has a Communist Party Newspaper with a larger circulation than the New York Times…. Shouldn’t that shock the whole discussion?”
    Well, it’s also only 16 pages… And btw, why does Akahata write everything in normal “desu/masu-form” sentences and eschew newspaper writing style entirely? I remember I used to have one Japanese teacher who would give us (fairly apolitical) articles from it because it was just easier to read than mainstream papers. I guess I’ve pretty much answered my own question there.

  12. “Well, it’s also only 16 pages…”

    Honestly, (and this goes for NYT, Asahi, all of em) if you lose the sports and the celebrities and the features on the what new car lineup is going to look like or what neighbourhood has been gentrified lately, isn’t every newspaper only about 16 pages of guts? If that?

    “I guess I’ve pretty much answered my own question there.”

    They likes to get familiar with their comrades. I don’t think that losing the Japanese newspaper “voice of god” approach is a bad thing at all.

    I think that the lack of sourcing is an important issue, but this strikes me as a LEGAL one (people don’t want to get sued) rather than something that should be pinned purely on the Kisha Clubs. Is it even a majority KC issue? I have doubts.

    We’ve also seen some big failures in other contexts – PDiddy killed Tupac and didn’t McCain have sex with a bunch of hookers or something? Who knows. These blow away anything that I have seen from Japan this year. Yes, they were outed, but trust for the press is now at rock bottom because of stuff like this. In some ways, Japan keeps a tighter lid. We get this nonsense without Kisha Clubs too.

    From the point of view of a committed lefty, I’ve also seen the Japanese press use this to their advantage – some of the stuff that we suspect is made up is actually highly critical of the state, etc. So is this a source of HYPER-criticism instead of a block? Needs to be part of the conversation as well.

    Now the Obama example that you mention (doesn’t sound like Asahi to me unless you are talking about the Asahi Geino one that is not related to the Asahi shimbun) is bad (although McCain got the same treatment in the NYT which gives Coulter and friends another chance to tee off on the left), but they go that far because it is a foreign story – which is a whole other issue. In the Japanese news, the rest of the world is a scary, scary place, but once again, that is due to factors other than Kisha Clubs.

  13. “Honestly, (and this goes for NYT, Asahi, all of em) if you lose the sports and the celebrities and the features on the what new car lineup is going to look like or what neighbourhood has been gentrified lately, isn’t every newspaper only about 16 pages of guts? If that?”

    The Obama story is 11.20 Shukan Shincho.

  14. “Touche.”

    Although, I admit I wouldn’t mind seeing what the JCP has to say about Koda Kumi’s dress.

    “Shukan Shincho”

    As Aceface hit me with a while back – those guys are far right, in fact, they may be even more far to the right than the “Asshole” weeklies that Marxy has identified.

    If we want to doubt the weeklies (and we should), I can also bring up the monthlies as being generally better in quality and better sourced (and finding a way to keep themselves relevant).

    BTW, I’m not saying that the Japanese press doesn’t have its flaws – I just think that the Kisha Club hang-up may be shifting the focus away from the worst stuff. The big problem in my mind is the “jiken” focus – we hear about a crime of passion for weeks on end instead of the social problem that we should be hearing about. Japan needs a dramatic decrease in trivial crime reportage (of course, lots of call for this in Japan as well that I am only parroting, but who is willing to take the sales or ratings hit to start the ball rolling in the right direction)?

  15. “The big problem in my mind is the “jiken” focus”
    But that’s a problem with the media in basically every country. The kisha club is at least a system that only exists (at least in such a conspicuous and institutionalized form) in Japan, so it really does make sense to try and figure out what effects this unique system, as opposed to problems inherent in all commercial media, has.

  16. “so it really does make sense to try and figure out what effects this unique system”

    It does. But this brings me back to one of my original points – often the end product does not differ so do we have an example of a unique system simply replicating the problems that exist all over?

    I also think that Japan takes the jiken thing a bit far and that it has gotten worse and worse over the last decade (along with the “youth crime” obsession, etc.). Japan may look worse in international comparison in this area. Who knows? We don’t see enough comparison because of other hang-ups.

  17. I don’t know. Some blond sorority girl gets abducted in the Caribbean and it’s the lead story every day on every US news show for a month, and they don’t even cover a military coup happening the next island over. I don’t see anything particularly special about the Japanese media’s obsession with “cases.” I do feel like US media has gotten even more obsessed with celebrities though, and the proliferation of celebs who are famous for no discernible reason, or due to “reality” shows, had brought the American media landscape a lot closer to where Japan has been for ages.

  18. Why must we get caught up in wondering which country is better or worse? Isn’t it enough to know that we have well-established ethics that are currently being grossly violated? If the people of Japan are being done a disservice we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders and start making excuses about how awful CNN is.

  19. Why we focus on “cases”?
    Because newsroom is divided vertically into divisions and usually either “politics” or “society”guys get the front page.We probably won’t see any decrease of trivial crime reportage,because a)most of the reporters start their career by doing round-the-clockサツ廻り Satsu-Mawari(Cop-cruisin’).Trivial crime reportage is the only way for twenty-somethings to make their career and get a ticket to the head office in Tokyo.

    “Who did “the best” in the US on Iraq? It was probably “The New Yorker”, which did a fantastic job from 2004. ”

    And the most of the credit goes to the one and only Seymore Harsh.Problem is,we have no ways to prove how credible the article is because many of his sources are anonymous.All we have to do is to believe in the brand called “Seymore Harsh”.
    And only “Seymore Harsh” can do such investigative report because
    a) He is American and dwells around Washington for decades,thus possess access to the “insiders”.
    b)American democracy allows to make the bureaucracy,a revolving door which enables many current and ex-policy makers making confessions to the journalist motivated by either self or public interest.(This doesn’t happen in Japan or France where elites are locked into the system.)
    c)Most of the american medias only publish signed articles,while in Japan,many are anonymous.Which means you can’t establish yourself as reliable journalist without your corporate namecards.There are exceptions,though.That’s why we see so many Uesugi Takashi writing political column in almost every major Shukanshi.

    There are two types in Shukanshis.One is “出版社系publisher”type,which is Shukan Shincho,Bunshun,Post and Gendai.They are all published by big publihshing house and hires many freelance journalist on contract.These free-lancers works with “data-man”(some of them are women universally called in this name,but,hey.This is Japan…)Data-man do the fact checking and collecting information by the request of free-lancers.

    Another is “新聞社系News Paper”type owned by national dailies.Which are AERA,Shukan Asahi,Yomiuri Weekly and Sunday Mainichi.(Sankei used to have Shukan Sankei,which was renamed and drastically changed as SPA!,Nikkei has it’s own army of weekly magazine and Established it’s own publishing branch called NIKKEI BP).
    They are more reliable and sometimes use the columinist or senior editors of the mother company.But because of the nature of these magazines,they don’t recieve the leak from Kisha club.

    One of the argument comes from Shukanshi people,especially from “publisher”type,is kisha club cultivates cozy relationship between the political leaders and the journalists.But that happens to “Publisher” shukanshis too.Watanabe Kensuke,the editor-in-chief of Shukan Post(Shueisha)was once very close to Ozawa Ichiro and the mag was literally the mouth-piece for the man.

    “why does Akahata write everything in normal “desu/masu-form” sentences and eschew newspaper writing style entirely? ”

    Sometime in the 80’s,JCP leadership decided that JCP speak is too authoritative and it alienates none card carrying member among the readership.They thought “desu-masu” would change that.

  20. “I don’t know. Some blond sorority girl gets abducted in the Caribbean and it’s the lead story every day on every US news show for a month, and they don’t even cover a military coup happening the next island over.”

    Oh yeah, that’s the worst example ever…

    “If the people of Japan are being done a disservice we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders and start making excuses about how awful CNN is.”

    It is the frequent statement that Japan is unique in this way that means comparisons MUST be brought up if there is going to be any problematization of the way that Kisha Clubs are talked about.

    Notice I also asked about the White House Pres Corps which seems to act exactly as the same type of press limiting organ. Do journalists get together in the same way in the US? Who knows? In the US we also have the example of the parties or affiliate organizations bleeding money into thinktanks who pass on all sorts of stuff to “preferred” columnists and feature writers… is this like Kisha Clubs? They just don’t have a name for it in the USA.

    We see the same thing in discussions of Karoushi – the Japanese have a word for it so we see some people acting like it is some kind of Japanese-only thing. Do lawyers who work 18 hour days not have heart attacks in Germany?

    Making excuses is not what I’m trying to do at all. I just think that something approaching scientific empiricism should be applied to the Kisha Clubs. Let’s say we have person A Japan who does something odd (Kisha Clubs or, say, lots of drinking) and person B America who does something odd (Press Corps, runs 40 miles a day) and both get cancer… in that case, wouldn’t focusing on the drinking or the running (Kisha clubs, etc.) perhaps be a form of esoterica that gets in the way of considering final results? Most Kisha Club discussions focus nearly totally on the club without referencing the journalism produced. The assumption is that Kisha Clubs ESSENTIALLY make for a bad/worse end product, but this is seldom subjected to A – scrutiny or B – comparison. Kisha Clubs strike me as being a stopgap in discussions of the Japanese media – we sledom get on to the level of actually talking about some things that matter big – like what, exactly, did most Japanese end up reading about their government this year? What didn’t they end up reading? Too much for an NRP segment, maybe, but VITAL. It could be that this type of approach would go far, far beyond the types of criticisims that a Kisha Club-centric appraoch would offer.

    Ace – Jiken reporting is easy to understand, but did you see the numerous “gomi yashiki” features on over the past two days? Japanese viewers deserve better, even from Fuji and NTV (Asahi and NHK always do better, but….).

    “All we have to do is to believe in the brand called “Seymore Harsh”.”

    Yeah and all of the Kisha Club discussion ignores Japanese big guns like Tahara Soichiro. The Kisha Clubs grind out a lame information product and as Ace mentioned above, it is up to the “real” reporters who decide what to do with that project or when to bypass the clubs. Now, we know that Tahara has had an Asahi affiliation that gets him in the door (this is BIG MEDIA we are talking about) but he works on a different level of journalism – he asks questions (usually) without fear of Kisha Club ramifications and writes features that deal well with structural problems. Kisha Clubs are a chummy clique of journalists that pass along press releases, but they aren’t all or even most of Japanese reportage.

  21. Gawd, longwindedasspost of mine. A thought – if we got rid of the KC, wouldn’t we see the rise of a decentralized system that duplicates the KC process like those that exist elsewhere? So if KC are a symptom of a larger problem, not the cause, what to do? Is the real cause a lack of will or the contradictions inherent in the evolution of news into an entertainment product? Comparisons may be good if we can isolate a media environment more successful than Japan’s. I don’t see the English-speaking world doing much better. Finland?

  22. Hi ! Stumbled upon your site when I was searching for a definition of Kabuki metaphor. I actually haven’t found any yet (webster etc.). It seems you are implying that the regular use of kabuki (as cited in your examples) is wrong. Can you give me the correct definition ?

  23. I cannot speak for Roy, but the general feeling is that it is over-used to refer to any public event that is either carefully choreographed or a mere formality following back-channel negotiations. I actually don’t know if it is “wrong” in the sense that kabuki isn’t really like that.

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