Japan’s Newspapers’ Structure: An Imperfect Freedom of Press?

In the Western world, the voice of media has an unmatched echo compared to other parts worldwide. One quote from the NY Times describes it suitably: All the news without fear or favor”, providing information at any cost from any background. Since its post-WWII industrialized development, Japan embraces many features of modern democracies, and it thus considered part of the Western world. Nevertheless, Japanese culture completely differs from the West, mirrored by Japan’s emphasis on the nation’s unity and importance of image. As such, the representation of the media might not be the same as in Europe or the United States.

While the era of digitalization brought an increase of online consultancy around media with a decrease of print newspapers this presence of newspapers is still an important player in the mainstream press with high circulation compared to other places worldwide. This can be explained by the high efficiency of the housing distribution system, along with an elderly population, familiar with paper in hands. From Yomiuri, the most sold newspaper, to Asahi Shimbun, more critical regarding the current government actions, without mentioning unusual editorials as Akahata (Communist Party organ) or Seikyo Shimbun, newspapers in Japan are omnipotent[1]. Despite the variety of newspapers, how can we explain Japan was only rated 66th in 2020 for media freedom by Reporters without Borders? One interesting phenomenon is the singular approach regarding subjects, especially around controversial topics.

One of the media cornerstones in Japan is the neutrality principle. This neutrality encompasses, according to the Jiminto or Liberal Democratic Party (LDP, the party of current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga), “an equal information treatment, not highlighting polemical subjects, while not presenting one unique point of view”[2]. As such, while newspapers can have their thoughts, they avoid strong polemics or positions.

Granted by Article 21 of the Constitution, freedom of the press is a reality but shaped by self-censorship through the existence of “press clubs”, a system where ministry offices guarantee information access while controlling the diffusion. Contrary to the West, this system protects newspapers from political organs and foreign challenges at the expense of any strong alternative discourse. As the main party, the LDP has its accredited journalists often receiving a prewritten information while choosing journalists who are allowed to speak at press conferences. Breaking “press club” rules often comes with sanctions which can lead to exclusions closing at the same time all your information resources. Finally, the last aspect of this political control involves the State Secrets Law where certain information concerning diplomacy, defence, or any dangerous activity must not be published, risking a 10-year jail sentence. Investigation and whistle-blowers are certainly not favored.

Along with the role of the press club, most newspapers are based on holdings that are dependent on their newspaper reputation. As such, it leads to less risking journalism and in a country favoring homogeneity a behavior “outside of the box” disturbs the national cohesion. In a country where most people are very respectful towards privacy and hierarchy revealing difficult news constantly is a disturbing factor. Importantly, the core of the info does not matter without a certain context, there is a reluctance of publishing any information if it does not fit the timing or the moment.

Nevertheless, the role of tabloids as the only sources of controversial information also pursues its purpose. Those media can tackle topics that disturb the national tranquility, mostly by tackling scandals involving political figures. Lastly, those tabloids have been strong actors for societal evolutions, especially around the role of women in a patriarchal society.[3]

The land of the rising sun marks a democracy with its specificities. The homogeneity of the population’s living is reflected through its media where a whole system takes place to fulfill national unity and serenity without disturbing to a great extent this homogeneity. Is this the secret of strong social cohesion?

[1] Bouissou, J., 2019. Les Leçons Du Japon: Un Pays Très Incorrect. Fayard.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Niquet-Cabestan, V., 2020. Le Japon En 100 Questions: Un Modèle En Déclin?. Tallandier.

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