Lurid news coverage is raising issue of right to privacy in Japan

Press and television coverage of a sensational murder case has raised fundamental questions about individual rights to privacy and a fair trial in Japan.

The case, which is still officially unsolved, has become a classic example of how the Japanese news media marshal vast financial and organizational resources to pursue a story, particularly of a scandalous nature, without the restraint of strict libel laws or concern for those involved.

Kazuyoshi Miura, the president of a trading company, gained national sympathy when his third wife, Kazumi, was shot during an alleged robbery attempt while the couple was vacationing in Los Angeles in 1981. She died a year later.

But public opinion took a 180-degree turn after a weekly magazine, Shukan Bunshun, began a series of articles last January revealing lurid details of Mr. Miura's colorful past and suggesting he was not the innocent victim he claimed.

A veritable media witch hunt began in March after Los Angeles police identified a body found in 1979 as Chizuko Shiraishi, a female acquaintance of Miura. No charges have been filed, but the bulk of the media displays no doubt about guilt.

Scandals are the staple diet in a plethora of daily tabloids and look-alike weekly magazines that are locked in as vicious a circulation war as any ever witnessed in the United States.

And most commercial TV channels have daytime shows that almost daily reconstruct crimes, usually anticipating any judicial verdict. Since February, for example, there have been an average of 110 programs a month devoted to the Miura case, many with ''hotlines'' established so the businessman could call in and ''confess.'' He didn't.

His home and office were besieged around the clock and he had to run the gantlet of hundreds of baying reporters and photographers whenever he ventured outside. One reporter wrote how he tried to attract Miura's attention in a second-floor bedroom by holding up a board on a pole with the following message written on it: ''Please state whether you (1)killed, (2)did not kill, or (3 )cannot speak on the deaths of Kazumi and Chizuko.''

In early May, Miura finally left for London with his fourth wife and two children, but hundreds of Japanese journalists followed him to continue the siege.

Such behavior is starting to make some Japanese uneasy and ready to question the propriety of the excessive coverage. Tetsuya Chikashi, editor of the conservative Asahi Journal, asks: ''Does the howling of 100 dogs after one dog howls deserve to be called investigative journalism?''

Media analyst Ichiro Kawamura says: ''This isn't news journalism, but sheer entertainment to boost circulations and ratings. And the fact it has succeeded indicates the public enjoys it. Yet I wonder if people realize how easily it could be they in Miura's place?''

The All-Japan Federation of Private Broadcasting Unions, noting that no charges have been filed, is about to investigate what an official called a ''clear invasion of privacy.''

Miura has filed a defamation of character suit against the Shukan Bunshun, but some legal experts doubt it will succeed. In the past public figures in Japan have been judged to have fewer rights of privacy. And with no juries to be influenced, it may be harder to argue that the media campaign makes a fair trial impossible.

Japanese libel laws are weak, and, in a society that traditionally emphasizes the good of the group over the individual, personal rights are less clearly defined than in the US.

This can be seen in press coverage of crimes where there is a tendency to assume that if someone has been arrested, he must be guilty. Thus, he is already ''beyond the pale'' and no longer deserving of the honorific ''san'' after the family name.

Some media critics feel the Miura case has become a symbol in the constant fight between press freedom and individual rights and hope it will lead to some form of redress in this trend of ''guilty until proven innocent'' news coverage.

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