Tokyo's Exclusive Media Clubs

To Japanese journalists, foreign reporters are about as welcome as American rice

THE press room at the Tokyo Stock Exchange is a cozy place. Cozy, that is, if you are Japanese and work for a big Japanese media organization.

You are entitled to a telephone, a desk, and first crack at breaking news. You are a member of a club whose rules work much like a cartel's.

When two foreign journalists recently entered the press room to demand equal access, they were booted out. Or rather shouted out. "We were told to stay in the hallway," says David Butts of Bloomberg Business, an American financial wire.

The order to leave came not from the Stock Exchange but from the Japanese journalists. The press corps here has set rules on who can cover the Exchange's news.

Almost every major institution in Japan comes with a club of journalists who keep outsiders out, and who hold great sway over the institution and each other. Foreign journalists have been as welcome as American rice.

In a profession whose commodity is information, journalists are as vulnerable as business people are to trade barriers. Japan's so-called kisha (journalists') clubs are a hidden barrier that dates back a century.

Discrimination against foreign journalists has been eroding slowly. At the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), foreign journalists have been allowed to attend briefings. But they are only observers and cannot ask questions.

Last year the United States Embassy began to complain about the unfairness of the kisha clubs to the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association. On June 10, the association issued guidelines that allow foreign journalists to join the kisha clubs, as long as they meet certain criteria.

The clubs operate "under an implicit agreement that, in return for access to a government agency, political party, or industrial group, nothing embarrassing will be printed," wrote Chalmers Johnson, Japan expert at the University of California, San Diego, in a recent column. "Until Japan relaxes these cartels of the mind, its process of internationalization is meaningless," he says.

All last year, the Japanese press agreed to censor coverage of the crown prince's search for a bride. The prince did not want the media to scare off his marriage prospects. The media wanted to ensure it had access to the wedding. The foreign press in Tokyo, however, did not agree to the coverage ban. As a result, the Washington Post scooped the Japanese press by reporting who had been chosen to be crown princess.

For Japanese beat journalists, known as ban-kisha, who cover individual politicians, such coziness with sources has serious consequences. These journalists "do not report the facts that influential politicians want ... hidden," says Raisuke Miyawaki, former public relations adviser to former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. This "unethical hiding" of such facts as bribery is the main culprit for the weak state of Japanese politics, he says. The ban-kisha have built a wall of secrecy between voters and p oliticians.

In many cases, kisha clubs have the power to punish those who err from their rules. A Japanese carmaker, for instance, recently released information about a new product to a journalist outside the kisha club that covers the industry. The club boycotted all news of that company until the chairman apologized and bowed in contrition to journalists.

Foreign journalists are ambivalent about joining a club that may go against their own journalistic standards. But that may be a price some are willing to pay for access to news sources in Japan.

At the very least, the next time foreign journalists knock on a press room in Japan, perhaps no one will shout them out.

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