Japan’s media system has long been criticized for not being very transparent. Starting in the 1990’s and continuing in the 2000’s this criticism has come from both independent journalists in Japan and the foreign press, as many claim that the Kisha Clubs block them from press conferences and gathering information. This has also led a lot of journalists to believe that they can’t get any information if they are not in a Kisha Club. While this criticism hurts the image of Japan’s media systems in the eyes of foreign countries, it is important to realize that their methods of gathering information are not all that different from our own, and that this criticism may not be entirely warranted.
In order to understand why Kisha Clubs are used by journalists to gain information, where they get their power from needs to be explained. In Japan newspapers are still a huge way of getting information, and several of these nationally circulated newspapers are affiliated with major TV stations. This is different from how the United States operates, with local papers being circulated more. Administrative organizations, investigative organizations, big companies, and other economic organizations (like sports groups) make their system of private clubs that give access to these newspapers which in turn go to the TV networks. These clubs are the Kisha Clubs.
Kazuhiro Sekine, a staff writer for The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, says that Kisha Clubs were believed to be created around the 1890’s when the Japanese Imperial Diet prohibited journalists from covering their sessions.
“Media groups made the Kisha Clubs to put pressure on the Diet in order to gain the freedom to cover their sessions,” Sekine said. “The Japanese government controlled these clubs during World War 2, but after the war was over the clubs remained as a way to put pressure on public organizations and promote a disclosure of information.”
Sekine goes on to say that these government organizations and big companies benefit from the persistence of the Kisha Clubs, as they are an efficient and controlled way of relaying what information comes out. It also brings the conflict between journalists wanting access to this information and the sources that want to control who gets it.
Although it seems like these clubs aren’t fair ways of getting information due to the amount that they control, this style isn’t limited to Japan.
Takashi Arimoto was a correspondent for the Washington branch of the Sankei Shimbun newspaper when he was covering the United States presidential election in 2008. During the elections he was not given the chance to interview the candidates because he was a foreigner. He believed that to be only natural however, because as a member of the foreign press he had no influence over American citizens.
“Presidential candidates and in general governments everywhere, tend to reveal their intentions to the media in order to reach out to their citizens in time for election-day or other deadlines,” Arimoto said. “As such, they may believe that it is not as important to divulge certain pieces of information to members of foreign agencies as it is to do so for members of domestic press agencies.”
According to Arimoto, most foreign press agencies that work in Japan print only in foreign languages which do not affect Japanese citizens as Japanese agencies do. This might be a reason why Japan’s press system seems closed to foreign media. He also says that Japan’s government is aware of this issue and has been addressing it by choosing members of foreign agencies in press conferences to ask questions. In addition, the Wall Street Journal and Reuters are two foreign newspapers that actually have Japanese versions and are attempting to open new markets in Japan. Arimoto states that the Japanese government recognizes the two sources to be Japanese (even though they are really foreign) and treats them as such.
It isn’t like foreigners don’t get into Kisha Clubs while Japanese do. Other foreign agencies like the Associated Press get into the clubs regularly, while there are plenty of Japanese reporters that never get the chance. Yuri Kageyama, a US correspondent with the Associated Press but born in Japan, says that each club has a certain criteria to let reporters in or not.
“We’re the AP so we get in, but let’s say if you’re Japanese and you’re a blogger or writing for some start up newspaper,” Kageyama said. “They might not get in because each criteria differs. Some companies are a lot more lenient than others though.”
If a reporter wants the Kisha Club material and he or she is not a member that is a problem. That’s why there’s this widespread criticism among journalists about how they can’t get in. A lot of the stuff that is given out is available on websites but it’s a one way street. One thing about being there as a reporter is that you get to ask questions but you can’t do that if you can’t get into the clubs.
Journalists in japan don’t just rely on what they get through Kisha Clubs however, which was something that Kageyama wanted to point out. In fact, she doesn’t rely on them at all for information. Instead she uses sources like Twitter, which has become big in Japan as an alternative way for finding sources.
“I think they get the bad image that all they do is sit around these clubs and rewrite what is being fed to them,” Kageyama said. “That’s not true. The Japanese newspapers have reporters who are aggressively pursuing other sources and doing their own reporting by talking to people, going out on the streets and going door to door. These press clubs are just a system that has existed for a long time.”
Japan’s media system has an image problem, with journalists criticizing the non-transparent nature of it. The truth is however that the Japanese media is no less transparent than the media in any other developed country, and it’s closer to the United States’ than many realize.