Why investigative journalism is necessary in Japan

Waseda Chronicle once held a panel discussion about the intersection of investigative journalism and reggae music at a club in Tokyo’s Nogizaka neighborhood. One of the panelists, a DJ who goes by the name of Moofire, raised the following question.

“I feel that Japan’s media just repeats the government’s statements. It’s like nothing’s changed since World War II. Why is that the case?”

The answer is closely tied to why Japan needs investigative journalism.

Half-truths

Moofire’s invocation of wartime Japan was in reference to how the emperor and military leaders lied to the public that the war was going well, when in reality Japan was losing. Newspapers and other mass media, which simply repeated the official announcements, were complicit in this national deception. But as Moofire said, the Japanese media’s approach to reporting isn’t all that different even 75 years later.

She’s not the only one who feels this way: Much of the public is dissatisfied with the coverage provided by Japan’s mass media. Even though the news doesn’t contain blatant lies, people still suspect that neither does it contain the whole truth, due to the media’s deference to the government and major corporations. Maybe you, the reader, feel the same.

Boasting of dinner with the prime minister

I believe the press club system, and its approach to gathering information, is main reason that the ghost of Japan’s wartime media still haunts the country. Press clubs exist not just in national government offices in Tokyo but in municipalities and police stations throughout Japan. Through press club membership, reporters from mass media organizations such as newspapers and TV stations receive various benefits from the authorities. Along with a room in government office buildings from which to work, the authorities provide their press clubs with press releases, (carefully selected) documents, and information sessions.

Press club reporters’ principal concern is whose outlet can report the authorities’ announcements the fastest. There’s even a special word, toku-ochi, for when one’s outlet is the only media not to have covered a given story. Toku-ochi will result in a reprimand from the unfortunate reporter’s superiors.

This competition between outlets is intense. It spills outside the comfortable press club rooms, with reporters visiting government leaders’ houses in the early morning or late at night in search of a scoop. Reporters will go to great lengths to get close to those in power. Top management at media organizations will even brag about having dinner with the prime minister. This culture of valuing proximity to power is fostered from a reporter’s first day in the press clubs.

But what about independent verification of the facts? If, in their efforts to publish first and gain access to the powerful, the media reports incorrect or incomplete information, aren’t they failing in their duty to the public?

In fact, it does happen, with potentially dangerous consequences. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and the 2020 Covid pandemic, during which the media failed to adequately question official statements as disaster unfolded, are both recent proof that Japan’s current media environment isn’t up to the task of holding the powerful to account.

Exposing wrongdoing to serve the public

Japan needs investigative journalism precisely because it is antithetical to the press club system. Rather than competing for who will be first to “break” news that within 24 hours everyone will have covered, investigative journalism aims to report critical stories that would otherwise have stayed buried. It exposes facts that the powerful would rather keep hidden.

In Japan, some wonder whether the path to becoming an investigative journalist is by building personal connections and specialized knowledge through the press clubs. Throughout my own career as an investigative journalist, I have often been asked questions of this sort by fellow reporters. And in fact, during my time at The Asahi Shimbun, my own supervisor told me that I wouldn’t be able to succeed at investigative journalism without first “establishing a foothold” through the press clubs.

But I have to disagree: Investigative journalism is possible outside the press club system. What the journalist needs is professional skills and know-how, not connections with the powerful. Although inside sources are indispensable when investigating wrongdoing by the government or corporations, relationships with these sources don’t need to be built through the press clubs. Investigative journalists know other ways. 

Unlike the relative comfort of the press clubs, investigative journalism requires time and effort and carries significant risks. A veteran investigative journalist once told me to “write articles that really cut deep”; but, conversely, this kind of work can take a toll on the reporters themselves.   

Nevertheless, despite the effort and risks, investigative journalism carries enormous value. In order to serve the public and restore its faith in the media, Japan needs investigative journalism.