Basic Data


Official Country Name: Japan
Region (Map name): East & South Asia
Population: 126,771,662
Language(s): Japanese
Literacy rate: 99.0%
Area: 377,835 sq km
GDP: 4,841,584 (US$ millions)
Number of Daily Newspapers: 110
Total Circulation: 71,896,000
Circulation per 1,000: 669
Newspaper Consumption (minutes per day): 28
Total Newspaper Ad Receipts: 1,247 (Yen billions)
As % of All Ad Expenditures: 27.60


Number of Television Stations: 7108
Number of Television Sets: 86,500,000
Television Sets per 1,000: 682.3
Television Consumption (minutes per day):
Number of Cable Subscribers: 18,705,060
Cable Subscribers per 1,000: 147.4
Number of Satellite Subscribers: 10,620,000
Satellite Subscribers per 1,000: 83.8
Number of Radio Stations: 305
Number of Radio Receivers: 120,500,000
Radio Receivers per 1,000: 950.5
Number of Individuals with Computers: 40,000,000
Computers per 1,000: 315.5
Number of Individuals with Internet Access: 47,080,000
Internet Access per 1,000: 371.4

Background & General Characteristics

The Japanese media presents some startling differences when compared with the press in other leading industrial countries of the world. At first glance, the condition of the Japanese press seems to be parallel to that found in the United States. There are major national daily newspapers, a prestigious financial newspaper, and many regional and local newspapers. The level of reporting is quite good. There is a vigorous and increasing use not only of television for the dissemination of news, but also of the Internet. The population is highly literate; indeed, Japan has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, at over 90 percent. The vast majority of Japanese people read at least one newspaper every day.

Just five newspapers are "national" papers, and their circulation (in both morning and evening editions) accounts for half of the country's total newspaper circulation. These are (with 1996 circulation figures in millions, combining morning and evening editions) the Asahi Shimbun (12.7), the Mainichi Shimbun (5.8), Nihon Keizai Shimbun(4.6), Sankei Shimbun (2.9), and the Yomiuri Shimbun (14.55).


A closer examination of editorial style and content shows a considerable uniformity among these newspapers. It is almost impossible to characterize one or another of them as predictably and regularly representing a specific political position, as, by way of example, the New York Times can be assumed to take a liberal standpoint, while the Wall Street Journal 's editorial page usually is conservative. Part of this uniformity in editorial posture is due, of course, to the overwhelming dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party, with its six or so internal political clans but a broad consensus on policy.

To understand this condition, it is useful to take a brief excursion into the history of Japanese journalism. Newspapers as we know them came late to Japan, and were not much present until the very end of the era of feudalism, which was precipitated by the arrival in 1853 of an American armada. Initially, they seem to have been crudely printed gossipy broadsheets ( yomiuri , literally "for sale to read"). The Shogunate made many efforts to control the dissemination of information and opinion, although with the proliferation of lending libraries it was not possible to make any tight controls effective. It was not until the modernizing reforms of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) that a formal press was permitted.

Historical Stages in the Modern Era (since 1868): An Overview

The development of this modern system has gone through several distinct phases, some of which are discussed in more detail below. Even before the early days of that 1868 revolution known as the Meiji Restoration, the transitional period between the arrival of American ships (1853) and the actual removal of the Shogunate (1868) saw the development of a number of news outlets. The first of these was the Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser, an English paper published in 1861. Since many Japanese products contained satirical comments on the crumbling central government, they were unpopular with the leading officials. But early Japanese travelers to the west, within two years of the arrival of the Americans, immediately saw the utility of accurate and widely available national news and pressed for change in Japan's newspaper policies. In response, the Shogunate reorganized the Office for Studying Barbarian Writings so as to facilitate the acquisition and dissemination of foreign news inside Japan. A further reorganization in 1863 led to the inclusion of domestic news in the mix, also ironically derived from foreign newspapers (since the Tokugawa developments in the popular development and dissemination of news had not matured to any level of reliability).

Once the Meiji Restoration was accomplished in 1868 and solidified in the next several years, the development of a national press became a priority for the national government. In the early years of the twentieth century, the "people's rights" movement gave further impetus to the growth of a professional press tradition. These positive developments were even accelerated in the period of so-called "Taisho Democracy" (1912-1926) as Japan seemed to be considering the development of a mature and liberal form of social organization. However, the descent into militarism, which accelerated after the later 1920s, put Japanese newspapers into a difficult position relative to the government and national policy from which only the end of the war and the beginning of the American Occupation was able to deliver them.

Clearly a new phase in Japanese press history began with the surrender on August 15, 1945. General MacArthur's policies mandated a free press but paradoxically controlled what could be reported about the Occupation. After a change in direction in Occupation policies caused by the emerging tensions of the Cold War ("the Reverse Course"), left-leaning publications were censored and put out of business by the Americans. By the early 1950s, however, Japan was on its own, and the current party system and press tradition entered into a phase of rapid development. Many of the restrictions put in place during the Occupation period were lifted.

The system of government that emerged after the Occupation seems at first glance to be based on the western model, but major commentators have noted that highest priority is given to consensus and cooperation. In journalism, the most salient example of this tendency is the continued existence and prominence of the press clubs. Consequently, one can look in vain in Japan for a western-style adversarial relationship between the government

and the mainstream press, between commentators in the press and corrupt businesses, and even to quite a fair degree between and among the various leading newspapers themselves.

Challenges From the Script System

The mechanical challenges of printing a daily newspaper anywhere in the world should not be underestimated. In Japan, as elsewhere, hand set moveable type was one option. Since the runs of Tokugawa broadsheets were limited to as few as dozens or the low hundreds of copies, crude materials such as rice cakes were used for inking the paper with the appropriate marks, and some publishers even resorted to the use of blocks of a hard, taffy-like sweetening material called mochi . If the Japanese newspaper world was to come of age in the Meiji period (after 1868), with high volume and multi-page runs issued daily, however, it would need to adopt modern machinery.

However, there are significant complexities in the Japanese script system that precluded the development of linotype machines in Japan until 1920. (Rotary drum presses were beginning to enter Japanese usage as early as about 1900.) The Japanese use a great number of Chinese characters ( kanji ), and to read a newspaper requires knowledge of at least 2,000 of these characters. Obviously, a keyboard is difficult to devise or to operate which would allow for these thousands of kanji .

However, since the Japanese language (unlike Chinese) is highly inflected, in order to express Japanese in writing at all a supplementary script is required ( hiragana ). Derived from stylized and simplified elements of the Chinese characters, this is a basic collection of forty-eight characters which, when combined with simple diacritical marks, allows for the representation of all 104 sounds that one can make in Japanese. A second and parallel syllabic system was later also developed, called katakana . Although the characters are similar in their essentials, this is a much more angular script in appearance than the rounded hiragana , and has been preferred in modern times for the written representation of foreign words and phrases.

Finally, it is possible to take the entire Japanese language and write it down in western style characters ( romaji ). It was briefly proposed after the Second World War that Japan be required to shift to western-style writing (as happened in Vietnam in 1906), but this idea died quickly.

In this most cumbersome of all the world's script systems, all four of these scripts are used in regular daily contexts, including in newspapers. The symbols of three of the four ( hiragana , katakana , and romaji ) tell the reader how to pronounce the word, but pronunciation of the kanji is not self-evident, and must be memorized. It is not uncommon to see a small-print pronunciation clue written above a kanji character in hiragana , and increasingly, signs in Japan are presented in two or more script systems simultaneously.

Adding additional complexity, the Japanese language is fairly "sound-poor" while nonetheless being "symbol-rich", which means that there are an extraordinary number of homonyms. For example, out of the 35 characters that can be vocally rendered by the sound rin , the meanings vary all the way from "morals" to "a female Chinese unicorn" to "luring fish with a bonfire." Finally, each character has both a classical Chinese pronunciation and a Japanese language pronunciation.

Therefore, we may come to three conclusions. It is very difficult even for native speakers to become truly and fully literate in their own language. It is a high challenge to achieve exclusive precision of meaning either in speech or in writing. It is also a major undertaking to devise a keyboard that will enable its user efficiently to write the Japanese language in the form that most closely approximates that which Japanese eyes and ears would find comfortable and familiar. As to this last problem, modern computers have helped greatly to mitigate the difficulties of typing in Japanese, since they can fairly easily supply pull-down scrolls and menus, listing options both for meanings and characters.

Economic Framework

The Convoy System

Japanese businesses, banks, and other public institutions generally have tended to utilize what has been nicknamed "the convoy system." In this approach, the entire convoy moves at the speed of the slowest ship. The penalty for deviating is vulnerability to opponents; the deficiency in the strategy is that the entire group moves very slowly. Metaphorically, it is very difficult to innovate or take any kind of financial or strategic chance when one is constrained by a strong and subtly enforced need to stick with the other "ships" in the convoy.

One effect of the "convoy approach" is to diminish forces of raw economic self-interest. Two places in the press world where one might expect that monetary forces and personal ambition would find strong expression are between and among newspapers, and in the competition between and among individual reporters.

Case Study Number One: Newspaper Holidays

Despite competition to gain circulation share, until 2002 all major newspapers in Japan cooperated in setting aside twelve days a year when they did not publish. Ostensibly, the newspapers declared these holidays, one per month, in order to give time off to the delivery personnel. Almost all daily newspapers in Japan are home delivered through a network mainly comprised of students, and about 90 percent of homes in Japan are serviced in this way. Two of the largest newspaper conglomerates, the Asahi and the Mainichi , by tradition have published on January 1 a list of twelve days during the year when they would not produce a newspaper, and other major newspapers would fall into line.

This system began to come unglued in the winter of 2002, when the smallest of the national newspapers ( Sankei Shimbun ) published on February 12, one of those pre-set holidays. The larger national papers then also broke the holiday with "special editions," explaining they were making an exception because they wanted to cover the Winter Olympics. On the following month's pre-designated holiday, the Sankei Shimbun published but restricted its distribution to newsstand sales. However, some of the other national dailies not only printed but also activated their home delivery network. In explanation, the Asahi spokesperson explained that their breach of the voluntary holiday arrangement was part of "our customer-satisfaction efforts," while Mainichi defended its shift in policy by noting that there were too many newspaper holidays ( Wall Street Journal A21).

This incident suggests that Japanese newspapers may be feeling pressure from at least three sources: (1) Increasing competition arising from inside Japan (especially web-based electronic publication); (2) Mounting broadcast pressure from outside (e.g., CNN, MSNBC, etc.); (3) Widely available print competition from newsstand publications as the International Herald Tribune and the Asian Wall Street Journal , not to mention nearby international papers of some excellence such as the South China Post . Perhaps in combination, these pressures are finally serving to break down one strand of the historically tight financial affiliations among those media conglomerates that, logically, should be at each other's throats.


Case Study Number Two: The Press Clubs

Although the very first press club was formed in 1890 by newspapermen trying to get clearance to cover the initial meeting of the new Diet, following the Meiji Constitution that was promulgated the year before, most remaining press clubs were originally formed in the waiting rooms of governmental ministries. In the period 1906-1910, two approaches emerged, associated with two prime ministers, for the influence and control of these groups of newsmen. Okuma encouraged journalists to visit his party's headquarters, and brought reporters into the stories early. Obviously, those who were physically proximate were more likely to get the "scoops." Katsura, on the other hand, used money, liquor, and women to try to influence journalists' coverage of his policies. Either of these approaches, whether Okuma's "softer" technique or Katsura's virtual bribery, served to reinforce the tendency to pass along reports issued by the government without too much addition or challenge. Journalists either did not want to cut off access, or did not want to dry up the various attractive perquisites.

There are now about one thousand clubs, with about twelve thousand members. Their internal structures privilege a few reporters, who get the hottest tips and leads. Only a foolhardy modern reporter would jeopardize his access. For example, there was highly limited coverage in the Japanese news media of some insensitive 1986 remarks by Prime Minister Nakasone. The howls of protest from America were settled only by a formal and written apology, but the matter received scant attention in the Japanese media.

Furthermore, the "lecture system" akin to a daily briefing, but without questions allowed, prevails for passing information from the government to the press. By contrast with "investigative journalism" or "question and answer" press conferences, this approach gives great control to the government's purveyors of the news. Additionally, the agencies of government establish the rules for transmitting and publishing the news beyond the familiar "off the record" approach used worldwide. The penalties for publishing remarks unauthorized for printing are administered by the Japanese Newspaper Association, but in practice reflect the interests of the agencies of government.

One result of the press club environment is that the general public is generally kept in ignorance of any political reality or view that threatens the status quo. Another result is that reporters who might be assumed to be in competition with each other are in actuality all feeding from the same trough. The term "freedom of the press" therefore has a very specific and somewhat limited meaning in Japan.


Japan's history involving press laws is unusually complex, even considering its long march toward the twenty-first century. It is most coherent to approach the topic somewhat chronologically, noting the cumulative effect from era to era.

Transition to Constitutional Monarchy (1856-1889)

In an attempt to gain some familiarity with the news of the world, the struggling Shogunate established the "Barbarian Literature Research Department" in 1856. Initially comprising fifteen men, it rather quickly grew into an academic institute, was renamed the "Development Institute" in 1863, then progressed into the kernel that finally matured as Japan's great Tokyo University.

In 1868, as the anti-Shogun revolution proceeded, the triumphant "restorationists," who were going to "re-store" the Emperor to his "rightful position" at the head of the government, banned all pro-Shogun newspapers and sent publishers to jail. Newspapers in the future must have a publication license, obviously issued by the restorationists. Consequently, one of the first acts of the new government, in February, 1869, was to issue a Newspaper Publishing Ordinance, encompassing the key provisions that there would be no prepublication censorship, that editors' names and addresses must be carried in the newspapers, and that they would be responsible personally for newspaper contents.

Under this new law, the first true daily newspaper began on December 1, 1870, as the Yokohama Mainichi Shimbun (Daily News). However, the early days of the new government were marked by considerable unrest (as many as thirty riots per year), and so in 1873, the fundamental press law was revised as the Newspaper Stipulations. To the original eight articles of the 1869 Ordinance were now added ten additional articles. Their general tendency was to make it harder to publish editorial opinion that could be construed as unsympathetic to the authorities. The very next year, however, saw a major crisis, a revolt of a conservative wing of the 1868 restorationists, and there was a significant amount of political commentary in the newspapers. This opinion could roughly be divided into a pro-government and a pro-rights section; in response, the authorities issued and withdrew the status of "newspaper by appointment" quite freely.

The revolt of the conservative samurai having been contained, on June 28, 1875, a new "Press Ordinance" was issued, consisting of 16 articles. Its most startling bias was that any form of criticism of the state could lead to fines and imprisonment. Later that same year, on July 6, a Libel Law strengthened this tendency, and a year later, on July 5, 1876, the Home Affairs ministry gained the power to enforce a press ban for disturbance of the national security.

Nonetheless, a people's rights movement continued to emerge, so that there remained a number of relatively liberal newspapers in print. This led the government to issue a new Press Ordinance in 1883. Its forty-two new provisions allowed suppression of a newspaper if its editorial approach threatened "public peace or morals." The enforcement of this ordinance was devastating to independent partisan newspapers. Finally, on December 25, 1887, the Peace Preservation Law further supported tight control of the press.

Constitutionalism and Initial Imperialism (1889-1912)

After long discussion and negotiation, the Meiji Constitution was promulgated on February 11, 1889. This fundamental document in Japanese modern history had three articles that directly impacted the press. Article Eight allowed that extraordinary imperial ordinances could override any laws. Article Twenty-nine promised the citizenry that they "shall within the confines of the law, enjoy the liberty of speech, writing, publication, assembly, and association." "The confines of the law" was not, however, defined. Article Seventy-six established that all existing press laws as well as the Law on Public Meetings and Associations were to go into effect as part of the new constitution.

What these constitutional guarantees really meant can easily be measured. Between 1892 and 1895, 490 publications were suspended. National unity apparently over-rode all other considerations, as Japan entered an era of increasingly overt expansion. However, the introduction in this period of the rotary press method of printing had the effect of radically increasing the circulation of those newspapers still allowed to print. Circulations during this period of the leading papers were up to the 75,000-90,000 range, with a top figure of 140,000.

In these major newspapers in the 1890s, the nature of imperialism was openly debated, for instance the advisability of war with Russia. However, since Japan won both of its wars in this period (against the Chinese in 1895, and the Russians in 1905), this discussion was somewhat truncated by the passage of events. Nonetheless, the compromising nature of the resolution to the war with Russia led to widespread opposition to government policy, one result of which was that most Tokyo newspapers were shut down by the government, and there was considerable consolidation among the survivors.

Yet another new Press Law dated May 5, 1909, was issued to try to control criticism of the government. Legal responsibility now was extended even to proofreaders. Half of Japan's newspapers were out of business within a year.

Liberalism and Democracy (1912-1926)

Historians frequently and energetically debate whether or not there was a period that can properly be called "Taisho Democracy." Far from being a sterile or arcane argument among academics, the debate over the nature of Taisho democracy provides a central touchstone.

Before 1912, most of the institutions of government were in the hands of a collection of non-democratic power groups, including the institution of the Emperor, the remains of the restorationists, a collection of senior statesmen, the upper house of the parliament, the Privy Council, and the military leadership. Among those who felt that there should be more democracy as an abstract goal and those who worried that Japan could never really catch up to the West unless it went beyond superficial imitation, there was much frustration.

The catastrophic personal weakness of the Taisho emperor himself opened the door to a pro-democracy effort. Yoshihito, the Taisho Emperor (1879-1926), had suffered from meningitis as an infant. He was physically frail, hyperactive, and may have had some problems with mental stability. He was never able to exert public authority on behalf of the imperial institution, and had none of his father's genius for public symbolism.

An affiliated ingredient was the continuing concern that Japan had reached a kind of glass ceiling in its efforts to be a player on the world stage. Some felt that Japan had adopted the externals of western culture without buying into its essence of individualism. They saw liberalization as key.

The old Popular Rights movement resurfaced, this time in the form of a movement to encourage the development of political parties. These reformers emphasized that the only available route for the emergence of any true democracy was to control the government and its policies through the lower House of Representatives. Then, they hoped, public opinion, expressed both through the media and through elections, could be brought to bear on policy formation and the control of the various oligarchic factions might be diminished, if not entirely broken. Hence there occurred a long struggle to see if it might be possible to set up disciplined, policy-making political parties which were responsive to the electorate. Freedom of the press had the potential to play a central role in this effort. Debate has continued as to whether the Taisho democracy was a step on the way to true democracy or a tripping point.

Freedom of the Press in the Taisho Period

During the first half of the period, the central issue was whether or not cabinets could be made responsible to the Diets. With the restoration oligarchs aging but still struggling to control politics, the editorial policies of the Osaka Asahi Shimbun (Morning Sun) emerged as a key focus for the people's rights movement. In 1918 there were major rice riots, leading to martial law and a press blackout. The Osaka Asahi Shimbun responded defiantly by publishing with blank spaces where the censored articles originally would have appeared. The government, incensed, threatened to close the paper, whereupon the paper's editorial leadership resigned. Their successors published an apology on October 14, 1918 (as quoted in de Lange, 126-127): "in recent years our arguments have greatly lacked in moderation, and we realize we have been given to favouritism." Osaka Asahi Shimbun next announced it would in future be "free from party affiliations," and the movement for constitutional government and universal suffrage thus was damaged. In a highly ironic twist, the new prime minister to emerge in this crisis period was Takashi Hara, who had been president of the rival newspaper the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun .

Surpassing even this elaborate shuffle being carried out by the two great Osaka newspapers in 1918, 1923 brought a further element of drama. The great earthquake and fire of September 1, 1923, devastated Tokyo's newspapers, opening the door for the Osaka-based Asahi and Mainichi to become national newspapers with circulations of over one million per day. But by this time, with the 1918 humiliation of the Asahi fresh in mind, neither one was likely to become a partisan opponent of the government, especially since the mildly reformist Hara was assassinated in 1921 by a rightist.

If one of the hallmarks of a free and democratic society is a free and unfettered press, it is clear that the Taisho period, while marking the emergence of Asahi and Mainichi , hardly saw the parallel development of an uncensored press. Censorship was self-imposed, unless there was a public crisis of any description, at which time the government moved in forcibly.

The Age of Militarism (1931-1945)

Although there were minor incidents earlier, most historians would date the rise of militarism from the 1931 Mukden Incident. Yomiuri Shimbun had migrated from a small-circulation literate and literary paper, through a period of post-earthquake populism, to nonetheless losing ground to Asahi and Mainichi as these two papers moved into a commanding position as the nation's serious providers of hard news. Its relative market share dropping steadily from 15 percent down to 5 percent, after the Mukden Incident Yomiuri made yet another lurch in style, still seeking to locate a viable marketplace niche. In the early 1930s, it took on an editorial stance favorable to aggressive action on the mainland, notably in Korea, Manchuria, and China. Thereby becoming a leading force for public support of aggressive militarism, it was able to increase its circulation and at the same time immunize itself from hostile government action.

After the assassination of Prime Minister Inukai and an attempted coup by militarists on May 15, 1932, the now openly military government established a formal system of "thought police," supported informally by groups of right wing extremists, and bookstores and newspapers were raided and closed across the country. In February 1936 an even more extreme set of militarists attempted a coup but failed, resulting in a massive purge of the most radical militarists, but this had little impact on freedom of the press, since that liberal entitlement had already been drastically curtailed. However, on July 7, 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident opened the China war, and on April 1, 1938, a National General Mobilization Law included articles giving sweeping powers under Article Sixteen and Twenty to limit newspaper coverage, restrict or confiscate papers, and capture original plates.

By 1940, as the crisis deepened, the government created a single national press agency. A first step was to reduce the number of newspapers nationally from about 1,500 to 300. Later that year, the information departments of all key ministries were merged, further centralizing news flow. Paper was in short supply, with the result that the number of pages per issue was reduced, columns were crowded, and print made smaller. After the formation of "The Newspaper League" in May of 1941, the number of papers continued to shrink so that by the time of Pearl Harbor, there were only fifty-four papers remaining. The contents of the surviving papers increasingly were slanted toward the prevailing military ideology, with emphasis on State Shinto, Emperor worship, the way of the warrior, and the divine origins of the Japanese race.

The war did not go well, despite the creation of a "National Spiritual Mobilization Movement" which rhapsodized on the beauty of the shattered jewel and the solidarity of one million hearts beating as one. By March 23, 1944, Mainichi Shimbun was emboldened to criticize the war plans ("Of what use are bamboo spears against airplanes?"). However, it seems actually to be the case that most of the Japanese public was uninformed about the negative progression of the war and was genuinely stunned by the surrender.

The Occupation (1945-1952) and Beyond

One of the early acts of the Occupation government was to issue a "Memorandum on Freedom of Speech and Newspapers," a Press Code, and an order removing all legal constrictions on the press. The Press Code was the most important. Its ten articles emphasized adherence to the truth, but there were limits on the coverage of the Occupation itself. Not only could the Occupation government carry out pre-publication censorship, but also there could be no reference to such activity. In fact, there was more censorship over the Occupation government than over the old militaristic ideologies.

Under the tutelage of the Occupation, a new constitution was drawn on November 3, 1946, which included an apparently absolute statement about freedom of the press (Article Twenty-one). However, as the Cold War began and then deepened, American policy toward Japan entered into a period of change ("the Reverse Course"), through which Japan increasingly would be built up as an ally against the various socialist and communist forces of the world. This meant that there would be less and finally no tolerance at all for leftist newspapers, such as Yomiuri had become, and on June 26, 1950, the day after the invasion of South Korea, a "red purge" was carried out. However, the signing of a general peace treaty on April 28, 1952, allowed the Japanese left wing press to re-emerge.

Since that time, Japan has had an ostensibly free press system. However, this openness has been severely restricted by the existence of the press club system.

State-Press Relations

Relations between the Japanese press and the state have gone through rather dramatic changes since the Occupation. As long as the economy and attendant issues of statecraft were working well, it seemed to matter very little if the Japanese media gave the government a "free pass." But it also meant that underlying difficulties in the system were not publicly debated, alternate arrangements were not explored, and corrupt practices were slow to be exposed. Superficially, this criticism might seem hard to sustain, since leading newspapers have been sharp on occasion in denunciation of a particularly inept politician. However, the underlying national economic and political system remains essentially unchallenged. In other advanced countries, the press might be expected to play a substantive role in the search for new approaches to national problems.

The Era of "The Bubble"

In the 1980s, one would have anticipated a highly laudatory attitude by the Japanese press toward the national government. Within the span of a single generation, the Liberal Democratic Party had led Japan from a condition of partial recovery from the war, to a position where Japan seemed to possess the leading economy of the world. Indeed, in the years between 1985 and 1990, Japan was emerging as the world's most dynamic country. Scholarly and popular bookstores in the western world were filled with studies predicting the consequences, presumed to be undesirable, of Japanese domination of most of the leading-edge industries of the world.

This progression from humiliation and profound defeat in 1945 to world prominence by 1985 was widely attributed to the development and implementation of a single national industrial policy. The setting of such a standard was almost universally credited to two agencies of government, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). In conjunction, these two bureaucracies set the course for successful collaboration among the Japanese government, industrial giants, and bureaucracy.

Only much later was it observed that those setting industrial and national policy would have to predict with great accuracy what would be the future needs and trends. Especially, this would be the case if market conditions were not allowed easily to correct errors of judgment (e.g., 64K DRAM computer chips, Beta VCRs, and high definition TV). One study completed in the late 1990s concluded that MITI had predicted future business opportunities in its area of expertise with an accuracy rate of barely more than 50 percent. In retrospect, it may very well be true that the lightly regulated marketplace provides efficiencies competitive with any "industrial policy" worked out at the national level by governmental agencies. However, none of this would have been heard from Japan's journalists, even after the "bubble" had burst. One could more easily go to The Wall Street Journal to read a leading Japanese thinker such as Kenichi Ohmae, and a minority voice in MITI itself, belonging to Taichi Sakaiya, found his popular audience in the west with books such as The Knowledge-Value Revolution .

Journalism and Scandals

Little in the way of constructive analysis let alone criticism appeared in Japanese popular journalism at the time, although one could argue that deeper and underlying problems in the Japanese system pointed the way of the biggest story of the period 1985-1995. Foreign journalists long based in Japan wrote such critiques, but were quickly dismissed as "Japanbashers." In a curious echo of the Tokugawa era, Dutch journalists, led by Karel van Wolferen, provided most of the initial intellectual firepower.

Among the Japanese journalists, what negative attention was given to government once again was lavished on more scandalous breaches of the public trust, similar to coverage of the Lockheed scandal in 1976 that had exposed actual bribery of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Even in those instances, however, the initial energy for investigating Tanaka's "money politics" in 1974 and the Lockheed payoff in 1976 had come from American sources. In the first instance, it was a Los Angeles Times reporter, and in the second an American Senate investigating committee that asked all the difficult early questions and pressed the issue to the level of public consciousness in Japan.

The Recruit Scandal

In the period after 1985, while the Japanese economy still seemed to be ascending, the biggest newspaper story concerned the Recruit Cosmos Company. In a complex affair involving bribery, stock trades, and influence peddling, the first symptom was that this company had tried to corrupt the deputy mayor of Yokohama. By the time the story had ended, the toll could be measured by the resignation of thirty-one leading political and business leaders, thirteen indictments, and one suicide.

Worse, it appeared as if the entire establishment at the top of government and public information services might be involved. Asahi Shimbun , whose cub reporter had initially uncovered the Yokohama angle, only tentatively dealt with the story, keeping it off the front page for quite a while and appearing to be willing to suppress the coverage. Then, one of the resignations was by a Yomiuri Shimbun vice president, while another involved the president of Nihon Keizai Shimbun . Only after careful investigation to be sure that none of its employees was directly involved, did Asahi Shimbun actually begin to press ahead with more vigorous coverage and presentation of the story.

Once Asahi decided to give prominent play to the scandalous story, its coverage quickly was removed from the original investigative team in Yokohama and turned over to the more senior Tokyo office. In the Tokyo office, Asahi 's press club reporters could more effectively manage the coverage, and limit damage to allies among the politicians, businessmen, and publishers. Then, as a fitting coda to the whole matter, the prestigious journalistic award that honored the breaking of this story went to reporters from Mainichi Shimbun . The Mainichi reporters at best had been tertiary initiators and investigators.

Corruption Involving the MOF?

In 1991, another scandal opened up the gap between independent journalism and the government when a story was leaked to the Yomiuri Shimbun to the effect that the leading securities trading houses had been manipulating stocks while guaranteeing good results to their major investors. The Ministry of Finance ordered the practice stopped, and, when it continued, someone in the middle ranks of the MOF leaked the story to the Yomiuri . Interestingly, when inquiries were made about the leak, MOF sources stated that it was the "turn" of Yomiuri . Apparently, the commentmeant that since Mainichi and Asahi had benefited from the coverage of earlier scandals, the rotational system this time led to Yomiuri .

In such a world, clearly there would strong incentives in place for reporters both to keep their "leak lines" open, and also for them to give gentler coverage to miscreants in the governmental bureaucracies in anticipation of future tips. A subsequent article in the weekly magazine Shukan Themis tried to expose the collusion of MOF in this scandal. Issues of that magazine were recalled from distributors the day prior to official publication, and the magazine then reported that it was suspending publication due to pressure from a branch of government handling taxation of magazines.

Shin Kanemaru

A last example from this "bubble" period finally resulted in the "fall of the Don," Shin Kanemaru. Kanemaru was head of several shadow political assemblages, and arguably was the most important back-door politician in Japan by the early 1990s. The accusations in this scandal involved gangland payoffs (in cash) by a delivery company to leading politicians. Although lists of the recipients and their illegal receipts had long circulated within the mainstream newspaper world, the story was broken only in July 1991 by the weekly Shukan Shincho , while the major newspapers continued merely to report the press releases of the Tokyo prosecutor's office.

No mainstream reporters investigated who received money or whether it influenced important public policy decisions. As the scandal unfolded and threatened the foundations of the most important branch of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, newspaper coverage continued to be very restrained. Kanemaru was punished with a fine of $2,000 (about $600,000,000 had been siphoned to various politicians, and he himself was found to be holding a huge quantity of cash and gold in his home, presumably for the purpose of making further unsupervised and unreported bribes). Only with public outcry over the disparity between the penalty and the violation did the mainstream newspapers begin to criticize the outcome, forcing Kane-maru to resign from the Diet.

"Revisionism" and "Japan-bashing"

These incidents show that the Japanese newspapers were not likely to be vigorous in keeping the government honest, and that their deeply ingrained system of caution and restraint served to protect the ruling factions of the government from independent scrutiny. Indeed, Japanese journalists essentially missed the biggest story of these decades. That story should have been an attempt to disclose to the Japanese public that their vaunted policy-making machinery was failing to keep pace with the incredible advances in information technology and with the emergence of a global economy.

American and European fans of Japanese industrial policy were also slow to catch on to the limitations of the Japanese economic practice and tradition. For a number of years, they continued to hold up Japan as a model for the other advanced industrial societies of the world. The name given to supporters of the Japanese approach was "revisionists," and most of them came from the world of foreign journalists observing Japan.

Revisionism got its name originally because its proponents were thought to be advocating a change in United States domestic economic and labor policy, namely toward the more managed model associated with MOF and MITI. The trouble in the United States, they seemed to be saying especially in the middle and later parts of the 1980s, was due to the laissez-faire approach associated with the policies of President Ronald Reagan. The United States needed an "industrial policy" like other grown-up nations. Revisionism furthermore depended on a view that Japan's various institutions were unique and therefore differed fundamentally from institutions in the United States. Even prevailing macro-economic theories, derived as they were from western history, would not be applicable. Consequently, as a kind of perverse byproduct, Japan's exceptional quality could be held significantly responsible for US-Japan trade friction.

In reaction, the Japanese journalistic world interpreted revisionism as if it were just another way of blaming Japan for disagreements with the United States over trade issues ("Japan bashing"). By this curious alchemy, the "big three" among the revisionists, Karel van Wolferen, Clyde Prestowitz, and James Fallows, quickly became labeled in Japan as "Japan bashers." All of them were well-informed and essentially friendly admirers of Japan. However, the counter-reaction in Japan even to their carefully researched and reasoned commentary in the days of Japan's "bubble economy" was strident as well as condescending. They were not eager to be criticized by writers they perceived as hostile observers most of whom lived in a country whose golden age they believed was in the 1950s and that now was in decline. Unfortunately, the thoughtful commentary by "the big three," supplemented by Robert Reich in many essays arguing for imitation of Japan's approach to the formulation of industrial policy, was soon pushed aside by cruder works such as Meredith Lebard's The Coming War with Japan , Bill Emmot's Japanophobia , Pat Choate's Agents of Influence, and Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun . Thus, initial Japanese sensitivity toward the original revisionist arguments could quite easily be demonstrated to be valid, as American journalists and popular writers poured out material that many thoughtful readers in America legitimately could call racist, "Japan bashing" yellow journalism.

By retreating early into victimology, the Japanese press had immunized itself against consideration of moderate reform. One cost for Japan was not that the bubble burst (as all do), but that Japan was not able to make adjustments in its political and economic system. Japan's hopes of being the leading economy of the world were lost in a full decade of off-and-on recession, in a progressive "hollowing-out" of its industries as leading corporations moved manufacturing overseas, and in the paralysis of a banking and financial structure that seems to have concealed many trillion dollars worth of bad loans. Revisionism died a fairly quiet death, increasingly ignored in the west and hated in Japan.

The Japanese Media and Its Role in Setting the National Agenda

Therefore, finally, how should we characterize the relationship between the media and the state in Japan? Harvard's Susan J. Pharr has offered an exceptionally interesting and powerful metaphor in an essay published in 1996: "Media as Trickster in Japan: A Comparative Perspective" in the book edited by she and Ellis Krauss. In this essay, and in others that fellow scholars have written for her book, evidence and argument are provided both from theoretical assessments and from case studies, leading to a mildly more hopeful view of the Japanese media.

In addition to the many occasions on which the press has over-focused on scandal and avoided alienating government "handlers," there have also been moments of achievement. Environmental pollution, a surprisingly severe problem in Japan, is on the national agenda thanks to journalistic coverage. Twice at least a ten-year period, something resembling a moment of potential political reform has surfaced (in 1993, and again with the emergence of Prime Minister Koizumi in 2001), both significantly helped along by the media. The government's weak handling of the crisis presented by the 1995 Kobe earthquake certainly also was highlighted in news coverage. Furthermore, Pharr points out that the media in Japan should not be confined to the five national papers. The weekly publications as well as anti-mainstream papers seem freer to deviate from the "press club" and "lecture" systems of gathering news. Finally, it is probable that Japanese public opinion, informed and encouraged by newspapers and other forms of media, is much more sophisticated than the national political leadership in understanding what needs to be done. This certainly is the view of a leading American observer who has lived in Japan for decades (Alex Kerr, in his two important books Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons ).

After reviewing the standard social-utility positions traditionally assigned to the media in Japan (spectator, watchdog, and servant of the state), Pharr concludes that none of these are fully satisfactory in explaining the relationship. She borrows from symbolic anthropology the notion of "stranger-outsiders" living in an "unfixed social position." Pharr approvingly cites the work of Barbara Babcock-Abrahams in interpreting the tricksters as "active mediators who are independent and both creative and destructive simultaneously, and who ultimately alter or stretch social and political boundaries and prevailing arrangements of authority" (25).

What does a "trickster" actually do? The trickster "provides release" by bringing ridicule and defiance to bear on the structures and institutions of public life. It also "evaluates," often rather harshly, with the result that the national community must confront some of its own mythologies. Third, the trickster "horrifies" by making sure that the public must look at the outlandish aspects of modern society. Additionally, the trickster "induces reflection," and finally it forces the wider community to "bond."

This application of anthropological theory to mass communications reality provides a tool for deeper understanding of the potential role of the Japanese media, and goes far beyond the surface issues raised by such terms as "liberal," "conservative," "national," "regional," "self-censorship" and "free democratic press." When studied closely in Pharr's article and accompanying essays, the notion leads toward an approach with improved texture and nuance. It also requires that we distinguish (at the very least) between the media conglomerates and their front-line practitioners, a few of whom are able and willing to "secure a measure of autonomy and space." In such a view, without denying the problems that exist, Pharr and her fellow authors find good hope that Japanese conformism will not entirely overwhelm clear and free thinking in the media about the future needs of the land and its people.

Attitude toward Foreign Media

Given the high level of readership of newspapers in Japan, the main utility of foreign and foreign-language

media is to serve the international community. Many Japanese who are involved professionally with the wider world, however, can read English well. Consequently, it is not at all unusual when using the bullet trains to see Japanese individuals reading The International Herald Tribuneor The Japan Times either to the exclusion of or in preference to Japanese language newspapers. English language versions of Asahi , MainichiYomiuri , and The Asian Wall Street Journal are also widely available.

The Japan Times mines the major international news services for articles and often reprints them whole and unedited. In this way, it serves somewhat as an anthology of world reporting, easily available inside Japan to those who can read English.

However, those five national Japanese newspapers publishing in the Japanese language and producing half of the daily copies available in the whole country rely much more heavily on their own reportage system for their information and texts. Perhaps this is why the business and intellectual leadership in Japan turns to the English-language press to the degree that it does. Just as in the 1850s, if one really wants to know what is going on in the outside world, one needs to seek information and interpretation from that world, and not rely solely on sources internal to Japan.

News Agencies

As in other areas of media history, Japan's first news agency (1871) was associated with an external power, Denmark. Mitsui established its first native agency in 1888, with the active support of the Japanese government. By 1926, there were thirty-three news agencies based in Tokyo alone. However, as the age of militarism set in, centralization took place rapidly, and by 1936, the government permitted only the Domei News Agency to exist. After the war, Domei broke into two units (Kyodo and Jiji), still the largest in Japan.

Kyodo is a cooperative, comprising sixty-three newspapers and Nippon Hoso Kyokai's radio and TV. It is linked to international news agencies, and maintains thirty foreign bureaus. Daily, it provides about 150-200 articles, of which about 75 percent originate with its own writers.

Jiji in its earlier years emphasized the delivery of news to corporations, businesses, and government agencies, but after 1959 broadened its scope to compete with Kyodo in providing general news coverage.

The Radio Press specializes in translating foreign short wave broadcast information.

The major trading conglomerates maintain their own internal news agencies. Mitsui, for example, has about 1,600 agents in over 500 overseas locations, transmitting about 65,000 bulletins of information daily. The leading foreign news agencies have also made considerable penetration in Japan, usually operating through annual contracts and set fee structures.

Broadcast Media

NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai) is the public broadcasting system of the country. TV users pay reception fees which produce 98 percent of NHK's revenues. In the mid-twenties, NHK was founded as the sole radio broadcaster, and remained so until 1945. The Broadcasting Law of 1950 allowed commercial competition, which began in the following year on radio and in 1953 on TV.

Early in the twenty-first century, NHK used two television channels, and for radio employed one FM and two AM channels. In 1987, NHK introduced twenty-four-hour satellite broadcasting, and as of 2002 was using twenty-two languages to send broadcasts around the world.

Commercial broadcasting dates from 1951, first of course on radio and after 1953 on TV as well. By 1990, there were 83 radio stations of all varieties, and 109 TV stations. Radio stations collaborate in cooperatives led by Nippon Cultural Broadcasting, Nippon Broadcasting System, and the Japan Radio Network. Prominent television networks are the Japan News Network, the Nippon News Network, the All Nippon News Network, and the Fuji News Network. One prominent station leads each of these networks.

The central enabling legislation, nicknamed "The Three Radio Wave Laws," passed in 1950, requires that broadcast media be independent of the government, but also that it maintains neutrality in politics. The same dynamic seen in other industrialized countries operates in Japan. Commercial TV news, heavy budgets for advertising, and continuous broadcasting all have given televised programming more weight in Japanese society than can now be assigned to the print media. Approximately 95 percent of Japanese people watch television daily for an average of three and one half-hours. In a country of 127 million people, there were 87 million TV sets (1997), and 121 million radios. Counting every station, Japan had 7,108 broadcasters in 1999 (CIA World Factbook).

Electronic News Media

Internet communications have surged in Japan, with about 47 million people using the Internet in 2000. There are more than seventy Internet service providers, almost all having the potential to connect with customers through telephone lines. However, wireless Internet services are growing explosively, so that at least one third of the users opt for that form of connection.

A number of the leading newspapers have now developed web capability both in English and in Japanese. English-language versions of papers such as Asahi Shimbun, Chubu WeeklyChunichi Shimbun (Nagoya) and twenty-eight other papers ranging from the national to the local are all available online. Additionally, the Nippon Television network, a leading commercial TV organization, maintains its own web site, as does a site associated with the Nikkei stock market. A simple web search, using intuitive categories, reveals a rich world of electronic media. The full impact of this new form of news dissemination remains to be seen, but it is safe to assume that over the next few years, the entire information industry will be transformed.

Education & TRAINING

In the early days of Japanese news history, the status of reporters was generally without much glamour or prestige, and lower middle class citizens filled most of the positions. Until 1950, the census grouped reporters together with dancers, clerical workers, teachers, and medical technicians. However, since the Occupation, the educational level of reporters has improved considerably, reflected since 1950 in their census classification with physicians, professors, and other professional workers.

However, perhaps because of the limited use of the Japanese language in the world as well as limits on the nature of Japanese reporting, there are no international press superstars of the sort the world has found in some other countries. The work is not particularly glamorous, the hours are long and late, the pay unspectacular, and the chances are very low for a major breakthrough story.

On television, as in many other countries, stations display newsreaders with generically attractive facial features,

often nearly Caucasian in appearance. Newsreaders on TV fairly strictly follow Japanese gender stereotypes, with the males always senior and serious, and the women submissive and assigned to handling softer topics.


Japan indeed has a complex news media industry and history. Although Japan has almost all the elements of a world-leading press, both its media history and its customs have combined to create a situation wherein its greater potential seems unlikely to be realized. In this view, Japan's media reflects most simplistic assessments of the prospects for the country as a whole.

On the other hand, Japan is open to almost all the forces lumped together under the rubric "globalization." Further, Japan has shown remarkable resilience in the past 150 years. It has a highly educated and energetic population, one of the most literate in the world despite the challenges of its language, and a long tradition of innovation and adaptation. Only the most foolhardy or willfully pessimistic would suggest that Japan has anything but a bright future, led by its public opinion and its news media. Japan will develop in its own way and on its own schedule.


The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). World Factbook 2001 . Available from www.cia.gov .

de Lange, William. A History of Japanese Journalism: Japan's Press Club as the Last Obstacle to a Mature Press . Richmond, England: Japan Library, 1998.

Frederic, Louis. Japan Encyclopedia . Cambridge: Harvard, 2002.

Huffman, James. Creating a Public: People and Press in Meiji Japan . Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1997.

——. Politics of the Meiji Press: The Life of Fukuchi Gen'ichiro . Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1980.

Japan: Profile of a Nation . Revised Edition. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1999.

Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia . Two volumes. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993.

Kasza, Gregory J. The State and the Mass Media in Japan, 1918-1945 . Berkeley: University of California, 1988.

Kerr, Alex. Lost Japan . Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet, 1996.

——. Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan . New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Landers, Peter. "Read All About It-and More Often: Japanese Newspapers Spike a Tradition." The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2002.

Pharr, Susan J. and Ellis S. Krauss, editors. Media and Politics in Japan . Honolulu: The University of Hawaii, 1996.

van Wolferen, Karel. The Enigma of Japanese Power . New York: Vintage, 1990.

Richard B. Lyman , Jr.

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