ABOARD SPECIAL JAPANESE GOVERNMENT PLANE — As the jet takes off and heads across the Pacific Ocean for America, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa leaves his spacious cabin at the front to say a few words to the reporters at the back.
The 33 members of the press group await him, holding flute glasses filled with champagne. "I see there are a lot of real veteran reporters on this trip," says Miyazawa, adding that he wants to "build a relationship of trust (with President Clinton) so we can deal with most problems on the phone."
Now it's the turn of the leader of the prime minister's \o7 kisha \f7 (press) club to rise and offer a toast. "We pray for your success in seeking to build a relationship of trust with America," says the group leader as he lifts his glass. "\o7 Kampai\f7 !"
"\o7 Kampai\f7 !" the reporters toast in turn.
Thus begins Miyazawa's trip to the United States with press coverage handled by a band of respectful, almost loyal reporters.
When Miyazawa flew to Washington this month, he sought to present Japan as an open society ready to take up new responsibilities as an equal partner with America. But the \o7 kisha \f7 club Miyazawa took with him is an example of the special social institutions that sometimes can make Japan appear impenetrable to outsiders. And the trip provided a rare opportunity for an American reporter allowed to travel with the group to watch one of the more powerful of those institutions in action.
Close ties between reporters and the people they cover is hardly unusual in Japan. There are about 400 \o7 kisha \f7 clubs throughout Japan. They act as news cartels that grant members special access to the government agencies, political parties and industry groups they cover. In exchange, the reporters abide by an unwritten pact that commits them to avoid embarrassing the officials or ministries they cover.
Membership in the clubs is limited to a core group of mainstream Japanese daily newspapers. Non-members, which include magazine and small-circulation newspaper reporters, are excluded from briefings and press conferences, although foreigners are occasionally allowed in some clubs as observers.
The power of the \o7 kisha \f7 club is considerable. When Miyazawa gave a rare interview to a group of American correspondents shortly before leaving for Washington, his \o7 kisha \f7 club demanded that they be briefed about the interview as soon as it was over.
Each Jan. 1, the prime minister gives a special interview to reporters from his constituency in Hiroshima. The \o7 kisha \f7 club will only allow the interview on the condition that local reporters be forbidden to ask questions of national interest.
On the Washington trip, one thing immediately became obvious: The power of the \o7 kisha \f7 club does not translate into better or more critical reporting. Rub shoulders with the White House press corps and you are liable to get a stream of the latest irreverent jokes about the Administration. The questions to the President and his spokespersons can be blunt--even obnoxious. The Japanese reporters, however, treat their prime minister with kid gloves. "What demands do you expect from the American side?" Miyazawa is asked during a brief session on the plane. His response: "Clinton is trying to deal with his deficits so I expect there will be some requests."
American reporters are eager to find an original angle on a story. The Japanese reporters huddle to make sure they not only agree on the important points but have the same quotes. "Sometimes what he says isn't very clear so we discuss it among ourselves to agree on an interpretation," one reporter explains.
There is little criticism of the prime minister. A few reporters grumble that Miyazawa's cabin on this aircraft is bigger than their own living rooms, and that it represents a waste of taxpayer money. The $260-million plane, the largest Boeing produces, was purchased as part of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's effort to cut Japan's trade surplus. It was delivered in the fall of 1991 but has been used only twice. It contains a large conference room--but one that can't be used because of the airplane noise. Japanese press reports include none of this detail.
In many ways, the traveling \o7 kisha \f7 club is no different than the typical Japanese tour group. On arrival, the group is invited by the Japanese Embassy to a steakhouse where a table is set for 40. The dinner is ordered in advance. The Embassy host explains that the restaurant has virtually every beer imaginable. But when one reporter orders Heineken, all the rest choose the same beer to avoid causing trouble.
At the Madison Hotel, the working press room set up for the \o7 kisha \f7 club reporters is a Japanese sanctuary. There are Japanese box lunches of rice and pickles. There are bags of rice crackers and cartons of sake. A special room has been crammed full of tax-free goods specifically aimed at the Japanese reporters.