- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2005

Kenichi Asano, a professor of journalism at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, spoke with Washington Times reporter Takehiko Kambayashi about current issues in Japanese journalism. A former reporter for Kyodo News Service who served as its bureau chief in Jakarta, Indonesia, from 1989 to 1992, Mr. Asano has written several books on journalism.

Question: Japan’s mainstream media wield enormous influence in society. Yet there are few opportunities for journalism education in Japan. How and where are Japanese journalists trained?

Answer: To get a journalism job, university students have to take the entrance exam of a news organization, which is similar to a civil-service exam — a paper test and an interview. Those who have journalistic experience or have learned journalism probably make up less than 1 percent of total applicants.

Few universities offer journalism classes, and only a few scholars teach media ethics and journalism. Many of the small number of such scholars, however, befriend the major media. To do this, they avoid criticizing the major media.

There are some professors who used to work for a major news organization. Their influence, not scholarly publications or studies, helped them get the position, which are thus a considered “amakudari” [literally, “descent from heaven,” meaning easy work for retired professionals].

Speaking of training for a reporter: They are taught how to write an article or take photos during about two weeks. It’s just token training. In effect, it is a process of indirectly telling them to devote themselves to their company for 24 hours a day. After that, each reporter is assigned to a regional office. At first, most reporters start on the police beat. They write stories using information provided by police. In Japan, reporters cannot meet with or call those arrested. Moreover, they very often write articles by getting information from the police in private, not at a news conference. Then, reporters who have written “exclusives” are promoted to a political, international or business desk.

The same practices of information gathering are seen not just on the police beat but other beats as well. Whether they cover the prime minister’s office, bureaucrats, political parties or powerful business groups, reporters try to get along with those in power in order to obtain information and write stories.

They rely too much on such information. That has aggravated the objectivity of journalism in this country.

Q: What about their watchdog role?

A: Unlike some of the foreign media, Japan’s mainstream media hardly check on authorities or disclose what is hidden there. In that sense, I would have to say the mainstream media are almost dead. So they should be resuscitated before it is too late. Japanese journalism has become worse, and I have never seen improvements since I first became a reporter in 1972.

Moreover, the Japanese media totally lack diversity. While most reporters and editors are male and graduates of major universities, women are still a small minority and handicapped people or ethnic Koreans [born in Japan] are very few.

Ageism is also rampant.

Q: Do you see any self-criticism in the media?

A: No. In Japan, the major media fail to make news gathering and dissemination an issue and they are not open to criticism. While we have seen improvements in government and corporations, Japanese universities and journalism are lagging behind. Although some local newspapers such as the ones in Okinawa and Hokkaido are relatively committed, major newspapers in Tokyo are continuing to decline.

Q: How can Japanese journalism be improved?

A: First, journalists themselves, especially young ones, have to begin the reform of journalism. There are still some journalists who have a sense of mission, and they should continue their efforts, criticize their bosses and displace them.

The introduction of foreign capital could be helpful. I would like foreign news organizations to start publishing newspapers in Japanese.

In addition, we need the development of alternative media such as online media, reporting what the mainstream media fail to cover.

Journalism should be also taught at high schools and greatly expanded at universities. Students should learn important matters such as freedom of speech and the watchdog roles of journalism, counterbalancing the influence of government and big business.

I understand there are also various problems in the U.S. media. Still, we can learn a great deal from American journalism.

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