TOKYO — When Tsuneo Watanabe spoke, Japan's political movers and shakers used to listen. But these days, the editor-in-chief of the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper has a hard time tweaking the ear of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
With control of a daily estimated to have circulation of over 10 million, it might appear that Mr. Koizumi ignores the 80-year-old Japanese equivalent to William Randolph Hearst at his peril. But it was precisely the overbearing presence of such media barons, along with a perceived lack of neutrality in reporting, that prompted Koizumi to overhaul the tight ties between the press and the prime minister's office.
Since Koizumi took power in 2001, there has been a quiet revolution in press relations that has significantly reduced the political influence of people like Mr. Watanabe. His voice is now almost lost among the cacophony of new media that Koizumi has welcomed into the halls of power, and now the esteemed Yomiuri has to fight with run-of-the-mill TV stations, weekly magazines, and tabloids.
Driving the shift has been Koizumi's political secretary, Isao Iijima. The low-profile Mr. Iijima has been so effective that the press corps here compares him to Karl Rove. His tactics have included suing magazines for suggesting he abuses his position.
"Most journalists are too scared to even mention him, and Mr. Watanabe probably feels the same way," says a veteran Japanese reporter close to the prime minister's office on condition of anonymity.
A longtime political confidant of Koizumi's, Iijima sent two young officials to Washington in 2001 to study public relations - a modern day echo of the young men sent abroad during the Meiji period to learn the ways of the West. Iijima was impressed by the way that the Reagan and Clinton administrations often chose to favor smaller, local news outlets.
Major newspapers were shocked when Koizumi decided to give an unprecedented interview to a group of tabloid papers after a major sumo tournament - a response to surveys showing that far more voters read sports media and TV guides than the political pages of major papers.
The tactic succeeded. "Because the tabloids had never had access to the prime minister before, they became uniformly in favor of Mr. Koizumi's political agenda and still continue to give him only good press," says the veteran reporter.
The move has been welcomed because more competition reduces the chances of reporters protecting their ties to power at the expense of the public good, as occurred in the Lockheed scandal of the 1970s.
A number of journalists assigned to former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka are said to have suspected that he was taking bribes from Lockheed Corp., but chose to stay silent out of loyalty. In the end, a freelancer broke the story.
Another factor shaping Koizumi's strategy has been the shift from print news to television. Mr. Koizumi is perhaps the first Japanese prime minister for whom TV is the preferred means of communicating with the public.
He frequently makes key announcements on TV without informing the print media first.
"As the circulation of major newspapers continues to drop, their influence as a mass communication medium also falls," says Takashi Isohata, author and editorial writer at Sankei Shimbun newspaper. "The replacement of print by the TV industry as media king is central to the issue" of how journalism has changed in Japan, he says.
Koizumi's ability to reach the public without mainstream print media has lead to some unexpected reactions.
The normally conservative Watanabe, for instance, has criticized the government along liberal lines over the last year. The Yomiuri newspaper, which supports the war in Iraq and the revision of Japan's war-renouncing constitution, has run editorials criticizing Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, and published a series examining Japan's actions in and responsibility for World War II.