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Are Japanese News Media Asking Tough Questions About Nuclear Crisis?

Japan's Reporters & Bureaucrats Have Been Cozy in the Past, but that's Changing

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Are Japanese News Media Asking Tough Questions About Nuclear Crisis?

SENDAI, JAPAN - Local residents walk through an area damaged by a tsunami after a 9.0 magnitude strong earthquake struck on March 11 off the coast of north-eastern Japan.

Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

With the nuclear crisis in Japan growing seemingly worse everyday, some are asking whether the government there is being entirely forthcoming about things like radiation levels and safety zones and, by extension, whether Japanese journalists are asking tough questions of the government.

For many decades, Japan's government and media have had a cozy relationship, says Fabienne Darling-Wolf, a professor at Temple University's journalism school who has studied Japanese media.

Five big daily papers - Yomiuri Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, Nihon Keizai Shimbun and Sankai Shimbun (shimbun means newspaper in Japanese) - control much of the country's media market and have close ties with Japan's major TV networks.

The Japanese press relies on a system of press organizations, known as kisha clubs, "which only reporters from the largest mainstream news organization are allowed to join," she says. "Most reporting is done from the press clubs of different organizations - including governmental organizations... Political reporters often develop close relationships with the politicians they cover."

The result? "Historically, the mainstream press has not been particularly aggressive in its role of watchdog of government..." she says.

Freelance journalist Takashi Uesugi has written a book called "The Collapse of Journalism" in which he details his frustrations with what he calls Japan's "bureaucracy-media complex." He says reporting in Japan involves conventions that would be unheard-of in most Western countries.

One example: In an interview with the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, Uesugi said that when Japanese journalists are attending a press conference, "they must tell the secretary of the politician, let's say the prime minister, what exactly they are going to ask beforehand through the press club. The secretary decides which questions are OK to ask and which are not.

"If the secretary says, 'Oh, no, you are not going ask about that, the prime minister will be angry,' then you are not going to ask that question. It allows the prime minister to prepare the answers, because he knows the questions," he adds.

But Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, thinks the Japanese press has become more aggressive in recent years, especially since 2009, when the end of 54 years of Liberal Democratic Party rule shattered many of the clubby relationships between the ruling elite and the big media outlets.

"The change of political parties several years ago brought with it significant change in the government-press relationship," Sneider says. "The big media liked the old system that gave them restricted access to the government, so if anything there's a pretty hostile atmosphere between the media and the current government."

Sneider says he's been monitoring Japan's big daily papers as well as the feed from the country's NHK TV network since the crisis began. "I see plenty of evidence that they're pursuing these stories as reporters would anywhere," he says. "The government says one thing, the utility that owns the nuclear plant says another, but there's a questioning of both."

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