"Closing the Shop" by Laurie Anne Freeman

Wednesday, November 09 2005 @ 04:15 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

The Preface of Closing the Shop (Princeton University Press, 2000) is already quite revealing of the truth about the Japanese press. The author tells here how she could sneak into kisha (press) clubs attached to the Liberal Democratic Party, the Diet, the Prime Minister's office and other ministries. Some journalists at the Asahi Shimbun, who understandably wanted to remain anonymous throughout the book, helped Freeman get into these exclusive clubs as a "participant observer."

In fact it wasn't that simple. But Freeman was smart enough to find the smallest crevice through which to infiltrate these clubs. First, she took advantage of the trait of her sponsors at the Asahi. Just like anyone else in this nation, her Asahi friends showed her their utmost hospitality which is strictly reserved for foreigners, especially Westerners. If she were a Japanese writer, the Asahi would never have done her the same favor. Secondly, one of her conspirators could "cash in on a debt [the LDP politician] owed him." As Freeman observes, cozy relationships between journalists and politicians have always been governed by the principle of reciprocity since the birth of the first kisha club in 1890.

That's how she finally obtained a special ID card. Freeman writes: "The solution the Asahi political journalists devised in order to get me past the guards and the reception areas ... was as ingenious as it was illuminating." Admittedly her revelation of the status quo with the Japanese press comes as no surprise. But to the best of my knowledge this book is the first-ever account given first-hand by an independent witness of the devils' abode from which no one has ever come back alive, so to speak.

History of Japanese Press

In the chapter entitled "Press, Politics, and the Public in Historical Perspective" she scrutinizes the entire history of the "fourth estate" in Japan -- how the collusive relations between the state and the media have started and how they could keep the same modi operandi basically intact throughout these stormy 130 years. Normally you can expect little more than an utter boredom from any historical account. But Closing the Shop is quite an exception in that respect simply because the history of the Japanese press isn't past yet.

The author points out that you can find the first ban on printed materials in 1630 when the Tokugawa bakufu, or shogunate government, prohibited the publication of books on Christianity. More than two centuries later, the Meiji government had to loosen the censorship just for its name's sake. ("Meiji" literally means rule by enlightenment.) Hence, in early years of that era, they could enjoy a limited amount of freedom of speech. It was against this backdrop that newspapers started mushrooming, 150 years after Americans had seen a thing called newspaper for the first time. (England was even earlier.)

Even so it didn't take long for the government to realize press freedom did more harm than it did good to the nation's primary goal of fukoku kyohei (wealthy country and strong army) -- the slogan that reflected the nation's aspiration and resolve to become able to renegotiate the unequal treaties its predecessor government had been forced to sign with America a couple of decades earlier. As Freeman points out the Meiji government took various measures to kill, or tame, the budding journalism, which all came down to the following three points:
- Providing for financial stability (subsidies, etc.)
- Legal and extralegal means of controlling the press
- Sharing beliefs and goals between the state and the press.

Newspapers that came into being during this early developmental stage of Japanese press fell on either of the following categories:
- Patronage Press, or goyo shimbun
- Political Press, or seiron shimbun
- "Independent" Press, or dokuritsu shimbun (The quotation marks are Freeman's.)
- Commercial Press, or taishu shimbun.
It's noteworthy, however, the first two lost their raison d'etre as soon as the Meiji Constitution was promulgated and the Diet was established by a limited suffrage, both in 1890, because these goals were what they had been advocating themselves. The "independent" press upheld an editorial policy known as "fuhen futo" (impartiality and nonpartisanship).

As to the fuhen futo policy, Freeman suspects it did not imply real neutrality. She writes: "On the surface, fuhen futo appeared relatively harmless. [But] quite the contrary ... in adopting a policy espousing impartiality and nonparty affiliation, the progovernment Nichi Nichi [daily] was able to continue to avoid the heavy hand of the state, increase its circulation, and most importantly, gain an ideological vantage point from which to challenge the antigovernment newspapers." No one could deny that the notion of fuhen futo always involved a transparent hypocrisy.

And that's where the last category kicked in. For instance Osaka Asahi Shimbun, the precursor of the today's Asahi Shimbun, which came into existence in 1879, and Yomiuri Shimbun, too, in 1874, fell on this category. In a clear departure from short-lived opinion journals, they established themselves and quickly grew as more news-oriented, or sometimes entertainment-oriented businesses.

Like independent press organizations, they tried to look as though they were distancing themselves from politically divisive issues, but it was evident that they were, and still remain today, backed by the government, financially or otherwise. Freeman quotes one of her Japanese partners, Teruo Ariyama, as saying when Osaka Asahi considered to set up a sister organization in Tokyo (Tokyo Asahi) in 1887, the government extended a helping hand by closing down an unfavorable paper in Tokyo by the name of Mezamashi, and even subsidizing the Asahi's bid for the buyout of the defunct organization. (The name of the paper taken over by the Asahi signifies a wakeup call.)

Worse, unlike the other types whose founders were predominantly former samurai, the newspapers that fell on the fourth category were all started by businessmen. So they had cozy relations with businesses, as well. Just for instance, Freeman quotes Harry Emerson Wildes, author of "Press Freedom in Japan" (American Journal of Sociology, 1927), as revealing that when Tokyo Gas Company was embroiled in a scandal in 1921, investigators discovered it had paid out a silence money in the amount of 88,000 yen to journalists stationed at the headquarters of the utility company. Although Freeman stops short of saying that, the case where the journalists acted like the contemporary sokai-ya (corporate racketeers) must have been just the tip of the iceberg.

Press Clubs in Prewar Days

Freeman also depicts the history of the "collegial" institutions particular to Japan -- kisha clubs. According to her, the first-ever kisha club we had here was the group of journalists who called themselves "the Group of Journalists for Diet Access" (Gikai Deiri Kishadan). It was set up in the fall of 1890, soon after the Diet was established by a limited suffrage. Its primary goal was, as is true with today's press clubs, already to "cartelize" information, in exchange for favorable coverages of government's policies.

Freeman goes on: "By 1925 the press clubs had become an integral part of newsgathering in Japan. That year, there were twenty-seven clubs in Tokyo and many more in the prefectures." But in early days of kisha clubs, they caused some repercussions from those who were barred from the cartels. For instance, an article run by Shin-Koron, an influential magazine, read like this: "All the 'journalistic vassals' attached to any one ministry are given exactly the same news materials, which makes it impossible for one reporter to scoop another. Now any idiot can join a press club."

The author ascribes the revamp of these institutions from the temporary setback they suffered in early years of the kisha club history to the skills of then Prime Minister Taro Katsura. "Katsura had experienced firsthand the unrestrained power of the press. A series of newspaper articles critical of the treaty he signed at Portsmouth at the end of the Russo-Japanese War resulted in a riot [across the nation], and, the collapse of his first cabinet. .... By the time Katsura established his second cabinet, he recognized the opportunity the press clubs offered for controlling what news was reported, who reported it, and how. .... Consequently , government agencies under his administration began a coordinated effort to embrace journalists [in various ways]. In addition to being supplied with information, journalists were also furnished with money, liquor, and women." And by the end of the prewar period, press clubs became "a key part of a governmental system of information control."

As press clubs became more and more independent of the management of the newspaper publishers they were from, they also started to act like labor unions. To that end they formed an umbrella organization representing all of the kisha clubs and named it the "Newspaper and Wire Journalists' Press Club League". It was this NWJPCL that expelled the Kokumin Shimbun from all of the clubs in 1936 when the newspaper publisher laid off 45 employees. The sanction lasted until the fired journalists were reinstated. The NWJPCL was always on the winning side because it could count on the government to step in to mediate a labor dispute in its favor.

Wartime Press

Reading the wartime history as Freeman depicts of the Japanese press and press clubs, you will be struck by the absence of significant changes in the media community during that period, especially if you have taken it at face value when the media people tell their false story about the hardships they had to go through in the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s. In reality, the government and the military did not have to further step up their repression of the press when getting prepared for the war because the press had already been fully prepared, on its own, for the pursuit of the "national mission of the newspaper industry".

If there were some noteworthy developments during that period, aside from sporadic crackdown on journalists, they will be summarized like this:
- The government set up a formal institution named the Cabinet Information Bureau (CIB), or Naikaku Joho Kyoku, to unify and strengthen its control over information (1936).
- To resonate with this, managers and editors of the major national newspapers formed the Japan Newspaper Union (JNU), or Nihon Shimbun Renmei (1941), soon to be renamed as the Japan Newspaper Association -- the precursor of the today's Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association. The major goal for the JNU was twofold. On the one hand, by offering to carry out the "national mission", it could, in return, induce the government to close down smaller organizations on an obscure principle of "one-paper-per-prefecture", so it could enjoy a higher degree of oligopoly. On the other, it could lead the state to help it regain control over press clubs, which had by then gained a full autonomy from the management of newspaper companies, if not from the state.

Actually these "reforms" did not make any difference to the mechanism for information control as the CIB and the JNA just took over from their respective precursors the important role to be played "in providing the wartime Japanese public with a standardized, homogenized, and sanitized version of the news" until the end of the Pacific War. Now it looked as though they were just working on the business-as-usual, though in the emergency situation.

Freeman's citation from William J. Coughlin's book titled "The MacArthur Era in Japanese Journalism" (Pacific Books, 1952) is another interesting revelation. She writes: "According to Coughlin, 'control of the Java press was assigned to Asahi, the Philippines to Mainichi, and Burma to Yomiuri." I think it's quite something that even at the height of Japanese militarism, these journalists could demonstrate this much of spontaneity that these overseas assignments must have taken.

Postwar Resurrection of Old Systems

Admittedly various measures General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied (Occupation) Powers (SCAP), took after the war should not be belittled. But obviously the SCAP made two fatal mistakes:
- He left the Imperial Institution intact on the misguided assumption that demoting the Emperor from deity to the "symbol of national unity" would be enough for Japan's democratization. (Freeman doesn't touch on this just because it's out of the scope of her research.)
- He kept the media organizations and press clubs basically intact on the wrong assumption that just abolishing gag laws, including the major one enacted in 1909, would be enough to exterminate the "Information Cartels" which had led the nation to the ruin.

Maybe MacArthur and his aides opted to treat these potential Class-A war criminals with utmost leniency just out of pragmatic considerations, such as the idea that they would be much better off using the existing, homegrown mechanisms when imposing their own censorship. But I suspect his occupation policy would have been quite different if the SCAP had read Closing the Shop which stresses, among other things, that what really matters in governing this nation are informal arrangements and tacit/extralegal agreements, and not formal rules or laws.

As a result these obscurantists could all survive the war defeat. They could even come off the war more prosperous and influential. Legendary Matsutaro Shoriki, the seventh president of the Yomiuri, was just one of those who could prove the fittest in this peculiar climate. His family members and cronies have still remained to date at the helm of the Yomiuri media empire.

In concluding the chapter devoted to the media's history, Freeman looks back on the entire trajectories the state-press-public relationships have taken since the press was first imported from the West in the 1860s. As she argues, the emergence of the press coincided with the rise of civil society in Britain and America. The Western press, thus, played a pivotal role in expediting "the transition from subject to citizen". But the way the Meiji government imported it after the 250 years of seclusion under the Tokugawa shogunate government hindered, rather than promoted, that transition simply because these obscurantists wanted their people to remain subjects, while at the same time, though, they could somehow achieve the world's highest literacy levels here.

The author summarizes her argument here this way: "In short, institutions anywhere develop along 'path-dependent' trajectories." She lets Public Policy professor of Harvard Robert D. Putnam elaborate on her notion: "Where you can get to depends on where you're coming from, and some destinations you simply cannot get to from here." Maybe this is her way of euphemism. Simply put, she just wanted to say the situation in this country is so helpless that we just have to try to live with it until something really disruptive (e.g., a third A-bomb, or a sudden extinction of conventional journalism in the face of an explosion of web journalism) dramatically changes our path.

Other Perspectives

The rest of the Freeman's book deals with the same issues more in detail. Among other things, her argument is especially intriguing when she compares the cartelization of information in Japan to the ways Western journalists cooperate among each other.

She points out that despite the dissemination of such notions as "marketplace of ideas [or news]", there is no such thing as genuinely competition-driven journalism. In the U.K., for instance, a journalist has to be admitted into a proprietary news-gathering association known as the "Westminster Lobby" to gain a direct access to the Parliament. Even in the U.S., there are a variety of cooperative practices such as "blacksheeting" (i.e., handing out carbon copies of one's dispatch to other reporters, in pre-computer days), "pool reporting", "[collective] partisan gadfly[ing]" or "pack journalism".

These institutions bear some ostensible resemblances to kisha clubs. Nevertheless, these practices are "the exceptions and not the norms," as Freeman observes. Because of the social milieu in the West that always encourages competition and differentiation, British and American journalists only resort to these methods, as a temporary expedient or bypath, while keeping in mind they are running a risk inherent to them.

It seems to me these comparisons eloquently explain the wretched quality of news stories, commentaries, and editorials written by Japanese journalists. Furthermore I suspect the lack of competition also explains the Japan-particular "newspaper holidays." There are ten of them every year on the funny pretext that they are well-deserved to newspaper "boys". But the fact is, any news can wait an extra 24 hours in Japan when it crops up a day before a newspaper holiday.

[NOTE] I am aware that you may think this piece doesn't look like a book review in the normal sense of the words. But that's not what this is meant to be. I am not in a book review business. Unlike a professional book reviewer who is supposed to influence potential readers of the book he takes up, I am just telling my owm views while intensively referring to the author's findings.

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