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Media : The Coziness of the Japanese Press : Aggressive reporting is the exception in the Land of the Rising Trial Balloon. Many reporters routinely protect their sources by suppressing embarrassing information.

April 24, 1990|KARL SCHOENBERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — A glance at the top headlines in Japan's national newspapers on Tuesday, April 10, tells worlds about the way information flows in this highly structured society.

Just a few days earlier, the press had been obsessed with blanket coverage of U.S.-Japanese trade talks and was otherwise preoccupied with such grave concerns as plunging stock prices and the crumbling Soviet empire.

Now, suddenly, the issue of the hour was parking.

"To Impose Charges on Owners of Illegally Parked Automobiles; Automobiles With No Garage to Be Banned," trumpeted the conservative Yomiuri, the world's largest daily newspaper (circulation 9.6 million).

"Reduce Parking Violations! New Operation; National Police Agency Draws Up Tentative Plan for Revision of Laws Concerned," went the lead headline in the liberal Asahi, often described as Japan's most prestigious newspaper.

"Light Weight Automobiles Also to Be Obligated to Obtain Certificate on Owning Garage," declared the ultra-conservative Sankei, flagship paper of the Fujisankei media conglomerate, which grabbed headlines for itself last October by paying Ronald Reagan a whopping $2 million to give some speeches in Japan.

Among the nationally circulated general newspapers, only the Mainichi broke away from the pack that day, leading Page One with an investigative story on the use of political funds in the Feb. 18 parliamentary election.

Granted, parking is a big deal in congested, urban Japan. But how to explain the uncanny conformity of the day's news agenda?

The answer may lie somewhere in what's called the "press club system" and the cozy web of relationships between Japanese government officials and the local version of the Fourth Estate that would chill the heart of even the most calloused Washington insider.

To understand, begin with the background: In the Confucianist tradition of early modern Japan, the public had no intrinsic right to know about the doings of its government. Reporters in the late 19th Century were forced to band together into news-gathering cartels to negotiate access to haughty officialdom.

Today, these "press club" cartels are attached to every major agency and industrial association. They not only demand prompt disclosure, ostensibly in the public's interest; they also restrict access to news sources by foreign journalists and other outsiders--including muckraking and independent-thinking reporters for the weekly magazines.

Long hours of intense exposure to officials on the beat results in a tissue of expedience: Embarrassing information is routinely suppressed, and so-called addo baroon, which Americans know as "trial balloons," are floated shamelessly to test reaction to policy options. Consider new parking regulations, for example.

The front-line reporters of Japan's major media organizations are arguably in the service of the corporate and government sources they depend on to get the news. The role of adversary is the exception, not the rule.

So it was that on Monday, April 9--the day before the Greek chorus honed in on the national parking dilemma--the Japanese media uniformly praised the success of the "G-7" meeting in Paris over the weekend. That was a gathering of finance ministers and central bankers from the seven industrial powers, who deliberated on foreign exchange rates, among other matters.

Japan had gone to the meeting desperately seeking help from its economic allies in propping up the sagging yen through coordinated monetary policy, but it was clearly rebuffed. At least that was what Western news organizations reported.

Little trace of skepticism was betrayed in the Japanese press, which played the role of cheerleader to Tokyo's foreign exchange market by noting with enthusiasm that the G-7 communique actually mentioned the yen currency by name--a first.

It wasn't until the end of the week that the Asahi dared to inform readers, and currency speculators, that the Bank of Japan was actually passing its own funds through other central banks to create the illusion of coordinated yen-buying market intervention. There was no further denying that the G-7 meeting had flopped.

There have been times when the game goes terribly awry.

In 1988, cub reporters in the Asahi's Yokohama bureau uncovered stock-trading irregularities that led to the Recruit scandal, which eventually toppled a prime minister. Veteran journalists concede that political reporters in the press clubs could never have broken the story.

Last year, the Sunday Mainichi, a weekly magazine, published an expose about the next prime minister's illicit relationship with a geisha, also leading to his resignation. The dailies could never have disclosed it.

Surprisingly, the editorial boards of the major newspapers have distanced themselves from the government line and displayed strong support for the U.S. position in the Structural Impediments Initiative talks, which climaxed earlier this month when Tokyo's negotiators made some key concessions. The Japanese public has also been sympathetic with American demands.

But exhaustive news reporting on the political dialogue has tended to focus on the trees, not the forest.

"None of the press club reporters have the capacity to think about the big picture," said Koki Tabe, a reporter for the weekly Asahi Journal. "We should be asking how the concessions Kaifu made at the structural talks can possibly be implemented in the present domestic political situation. But you won't read about it in the newspapers."

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