Japan’s Media Blow a Clarion for Change : Journalism: Reporters and editors were once derided as Establishment mouthpieces. Now they take on taboos.


Last month, 10 million readers of Japan’s largest newspaper woke up to shocking headlines: The Yomiuri Shimbun was breaking a 50-year taboo and urging a revision of the nation’s pacifist constitution.

Before that, viewers of TV Asahi’s top-rated political talk show watched host Soichiro Tahara goad a finance bureaucrat and Liberal Democratic politician into verbal fireworks over who should run Japan--an exchange unprecedented on live television.

And before that, readers of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun saw the underside of Japan’s bureaucracy and how it effectively controls everything from prices to market access, in the mass media’s first extensive look at the subject.


What’s going on? Long criticized as mere mouthpieces for the Establishment, Japan’s media are singing their own tunes. They are emerging, analysts say, as Japan’s loudest voice for change.

Just as the end of the Cold War liberated Japan’s politicians to form new alliances regardless of past ideological stripes, journalists say they’ve also been freed to take on taboos. Attacking the Establishment was one of them: They no longer had to worry that aggressive reporting would bring down the Liberal Democratic Party and usher in a Soviet-aligned Socialist government.

The liberal Asahi Shimbun led the charge. Last year, it broke a series of stories on political corruption in the construction industry. The stories followed earlier exclusives on the Recruit Co. bribery scandal and helped create a public revulsion toward the LDP that eventually led to its loss of power the summer before last.

Meanwhile, Tahara had started “Sunday Project,” the nation’s first political news show, on Asahi’s affiliated television network. An intense man with the pit-bull personality of American newscaster Sam Donaldson, Tahara says Japanese politicians “needed no words” during the Cold War because they merely followed the American line.

But after the Cold War, he said, they had to learn to articulate their own ideas--the main reason he decided to start the show.

TV Asahi was so aggressive that executive Sadayoshi Tsubaki resigned for inviting suspicions that he actively encouraged anti-LDP reporting. The company subsequently cleared him but still accepted his resignation.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the conservative Yomiuri set off a storm by calling for an end to the constitutional ban on military forces--although it reaffirmed their use for defensive purposes only.

“Bureaucrats don’t want to change anything, and politicians don’t know what to do,” said one senior Yomiuri editor. “Therefore, the only ones urging people to think about this taboo are the mass media.”

The Nihon Keizai series on bureaucrats won the top prize in Japan’s National Press Club awards this year. The work reflected the newspaper’s feeling that, perhaps, bureaucrats had grown too strong, said Kenji Nagano, who headed the project and now is deputy editor for Nikkei Business magazine. They also felt bureaucrats were impeding Japan from introducing a clearer, more open market in line with global standards, he said.

The collapse of Japan’s “bubble economy"--a period in which everything the Japanese touched seemed to make them richer and more powerful--was changing industry, and the Cold War’s end was transforming politics.

“The only place not changing was the bureaucracy,” Nagano said.

He confessed that the series provoked sharp criticism, with some asserting that the media ought to investigate themselves as a fourth element--along with politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen--of Japan’s conspiratorial elite.

But now they are beginning to do even that. A new book by Nikkei journalist Yasuhiro Tase attacks himself and his colleagues for protecting the interests of political sources over the public good. The book, “Sin and Punishment of Political Journalism,” ran through eight printings in three months after it hit the stores in March.