Bowing to Conformity Limits Effectiveness

IF this story on Japanese newspapers had been written for a Japanese newspaper, it might have started this way: ``A new survey shows an average Japanese home receives 1.3 newspapers a day while the number of television sets per household is 3.7.''

Such an opening sentence would appear objective, reliable, uncensored by government, and even interesting to many Japanese readers. Yet, as with the Japanese language, what goes unstated often matters more than a simple surface telling of facts. Why a story is being told at all is often left out of a story.

Who paid for this survey? Why did all major newspapers report it in the same way, on the same day, often in the same position and with the same length? Were reporters guided on which statistics to highlight? Is there a campaign by the newspaper industry to change itself in order to compete with television?

Asking such questions may be second nature to the probing journalism of the West. But probing journalism has about as much place in Japan as the protruding (and proverbial) nail that sticks up, only to be hammered down.

``It's very easy for news sources to manipulate information [in Japan],'' says Keiichi Katsura, a journalism professor at Tokyo University.

Despite massive resources and an intense competition for circulation, the press has an amazing uniformity and conformity in coverage. Blame for this often goes to a journalistic system known as kisha (reporter) clubs.

A legacy from World War II, a kisha club is an informal, cozy, and exclusive group of newspaper journalists who have been assigned to cover an institution or a leading political figure. Most clubs exclude magazine or foreign journalists, and they enable officials to shape coverage by controlling access. ``Reporters have very little sense of mission. They won't risk their existence in their news organizations,'' says Hideo Takeichi, a journalism professor at Sophia University. ``Japanese reporters have become company-oriented.'' Despite a constitutional provision, ``Freedom of speech is a useless treasure in Japan,'' he adds. ``It is often tested when a news report inconveniences authority.''

Flout a kisha club's unwritten rules and a reporter may be banished. The symbiotic relationship suits both newspapers and the establishment well. ``The clubs have become a bathtub of lukewarm water that is spoiling reporters,'' says Mr. Takeichi.

As a highly literate nation of 123 million people, Japan provides a lucrative market for newspapers, with over 70 million copies printed each day. But circulation is concentrated among the five national newspapers: Yomiuri, Asahi, Mainichi, Nihon Keizai, and Sankei. Each competes to come up with scoops and appear as an adversary of government, while only rarely uncovering a scandal. ``Newspapers write about details and sacrifice what is really important,'' says Toh Lam Seng, a Tokyo University journalism professor. ``They are responsible for narrowing the perspective of the Japanese people.''

``Except in socialist countries, Japanese newspapers have more power in leading public opinion than any other country,'' he adds. If a wrongdoer is exposed (usually by a magazine), he or she is more often portrayed as having embarrassed Japan or an institution than having trespassed a basic principle.

In the past few years, newspapers have started to be more distinctive in editorial stance, says Takeichi. Such a shift, however, comes from a fear that readership may decline as more and more Japanese perceive few differences in opinion.

``Newspapers do not use technical excellence to get editorial diversity,'' says Katsura. And the advancing popularity of other media, such as television news and specialty magazines, could bring a crisis for Japanese newspapers, he warns.

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