Asia Scope

Japan’s Fourth Estate – MIA

Before (and since) coming to power, the Democratic Party of Japan promised that policymaking would become more transparent. This was a welcome pledge, and shining a light on the cosy ties between politicians, bureaucrats and business should have myriad benefits for Japan.

But, as has been frequently noted by outsiders, these cosy ties also extend to relations between politicians and the press. As Japan expert Chalmers Johnson noted some years ago, the so-called kisha club (reporters’ club) operates ‘under an implicit agreement that, in return for access to a government agency, political party or industrial group, nothing embarrassing will be printed.’

Hardly healthy, and clearly hardly what Japanese voters need if they’re to make informed choices on how their country is run. So it was good to hear from our Tokyo correspondent Takehiko Kambayashi that Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada last week opened up press briefings at the ministry to all media outlets, including freelance journalists, as he had promised.

“Briefings were opened to only kisha club members before, that is, those who belong to Japanese major new organizations,” Takehiko told me. “Only kisha club members are basically allowed to attend news briefings at government ministries and agencies. Some critics have called this system an information cartel.”

 “Okada’s move seems to be one of his efforts to show the difference from previous administrations. He’s dubbed ‘Mr Clean’ for his straight-laced image and apparently also wanted his message conveyed. At his first news conference, Okada asserted the new government should focus in its 100 days on its assistance to Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

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But the picture is still a little mixed by the sounds of it – Takehiko added that Okada’s move came after the Prime Minister’s office denied some journalists access to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s first press conference on Sep. 16th, despite his repeated promises before taking office they would be allowed in.

Journalists are supposed to be reporters not part of the government press kit. Their failure to ask the tough questions begs the obvious question — what exactly do they think they’re there for?