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Japan ranks 42nd in press freedom; What a compliment!

On October 26 Reporters without Borders , a Paris-based independent group of journalists, released the results of its third annual survey on press freedom in 167 countries, accompanied by a worldwide ranking based on its press freedom index. According to the survey, Japan ranked at the bottom of the Group of Seven industrialized nations.

This comparison among the G-7 must be fairly representative of how the Japan's printed media actually fared relative to the other six countries. But Japan came as high as 42nd among 167 countries surveyed, sharing the same position with Chile, Namibia and Uruguay. What a compliment!

Needless to say it's extremely hard to quantify various factors involved there to make press freedom measurable and comparable. But obviously the independent watchdog of press freedom failed to put Japan very close to Russia (140th) or even China (162nd) because of an oversight of a more important factor than "Kisha Kurabu" it cited as the reason for Japan's relatively poor showing.

According to Jiji Press, the organization attributed the lowest index among the G-7 to the fact that Japanese newspapers are revolving around a bizarre system called " Kisha Kurabu", or Reporters Club. In this country you've got to become a member of the exclusive Club to have direct access to news sources as far as local news are concerned. A rule that governs in the Club says that freelance journalists and foreign reporters are denied a full membership. In other words you are eligible for the membership only when you are employed by one of the Japan's major media organizations. And it's next to impossible for a self-reliant journalist with his own way of viewing things to become employed by one of those Big 4 media giants.

Another rule applied there in the Club is that at a press conference every question a member journalist wants to ask has to be told beforehand to the government official to take the podium, either explicitly or implicitly. That means there is a censorship mechanism already at work at the question screening stage. Worse, a good part of the questions are subtly planted in advance. It's not only that the answerer knows the question beforehand but the questioner somehow knows the answer in advance like in a push-poll. In short Kisha Kurabu is a mechanism in which to ensure nothing unprepared for, or unpredictable, will crop up in a press conference.

In fact it was an integral part of the 1955 system up until recently. But like in China, the effectiveness of the Japan's censorship mechanism has been increasingly eroded by the permeation of the Net. My observation in that respect is that in the wake of the proliferation of the web journalism, Japan's media, and the government for that matter, are more and more relying on something else than the outdated Kisha Kurabu system for gagging news reporters. Actually the system to cope with the era of the Net is nothing new except that it now depends more on the intra-organizational self-censorship mechanism than it did in the past.

More specifically, the way the today's media organizations in Japan suppress harmful heresies is twofold: 1) Company-wide drive for subscription and advertisement revenues and 2) A full reliance on the traditional way of forming the "public opinion".

Reliable data concerning circulations of Japan's major dailies are relatively scarce. But one interesting source of data is the USC (University of Southern California) website "Japan Media Review". In his piece captioned "How the Japanese press became lapdogs instead of watchdogs", which also touches on the "infamous Kisha Kurabu systems", a Japanese contributor by the name of Takehiko Nomura estimates the circulation of the Yomiuri Shimbun daily at a world-largest 10.3 million. The Asahi Shimbun comes 2nd with a 8.3 million circulation. It goes without saying these enormous figures couldn't have been achieved at no cost. Some maintain a polarization in terms of editorial views is going on among the Big 4 dailies in Japan. But the fact is that with some exceptions of opeds they run, you would be surprised to know the editorial views and news selection criteria of the Sankei Shimbun known to have a right-wing tilt are almost identical to those of the Asahi Shimbun known to be tilted leftward. You cannot afford to take sides, by telling the truth, when your company prioritizes the revenue growth over the cause of journalism. Incidentally that's also why Japanese newspapers seldom carry a news story signed by its writer. It doesn't matter at all who writes what.

When it comes to the Japanese way of forming yoron, or public opinion, you can liken it to the way an important decision is taken in Corporate Japan or in the government. The decision never comes down from the top. This is where American businessmen or politicians have difficulty understanding the Japanese way of decision-making because they are so used to the top-down style back home. After the initial bewilderment they start to think that the decision-making process is bottom-up here. And yet this assumption does not really add up most of the time. In fact a critical decision is neither taken at the top, nor at the bottom here. It's sort of brewed somewhere in between as if in a time-consuming fermentation process. And the myth of homogeneity always serves as the catalyst in this magical decision-brewing process.

In our book review, "The Coming Collapse of China" , we have already discussed Japanese leaders' inability to make decisions. Since the 13th century, or at least since the early-1940s, they have tended to let things drift until the problem solved itself.

By the same token, yoron is neither formed on the part of the press or the government, nor on the part of the recipients of information from the media or the government. Yoron is slowly bred in the middle with neither end taking the lead. In this peculiar social climate, it's a breeze for the media to misguide the general public in any direction without particularly falsifying or distorting the news stories or editorial views.

Maybe Japan is not really comparable with other countries in terms of press freedom. But if Reporters without Borders somehow found it necessary to apply the same yardstick to this "unique" nation in its press freedom survey, it should have listed Japan somewhere between Russia and China because press freedom is virtually non-existent here. It's only that the mechanism in which to suppress press freedom in Japan takes a state-of-the-art form which is almost indiscernible as such. And also the international watchdog of press freedom shouldn't have attached too much importance to the hindrances caused by Kisha Kurabu because it's now becoming obsolete.

Imprisonment of journalists is not the only way of cracking down on the media that dare to tell the whole truth.

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