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Asia's Version of Paparazzi Leaves Royalty Off-Limits

Media: Decorum rules in treatment of Japan's imperial family. Handling of others is now under scrutiny.


TOKYO — Snapping wedding photos was an easy job for veteran cameraman Toshi Nakayama--but it drove him out of Japanese journalism.

In a cautionary tale well known to all who might consider challenging the formidable "chrysanthemum curtain" that shields the staid Japanese imperial family from the rambunctious media, Nakayama was barred from palace work by the Imperial Household Agency for having the gumption to take a candid photograph at the 1990 wedding of the emperor's second son.

Was it a titillating shot of the bride arranging her petticoats or an intimate close-up of the nuptial kiss?

Hardly. Nakayama's offense was to have made public the chaste, charming moment when Princess Kiko reached out a white-gloved arm to brush a lock of hair from the forehead of her bridegroom, Prince Akishino, as they prepared for their formal wedding portrait.

Decorum still reigns almost supreme in media coverage of the Japanese imperial family. It is the product of an unwritten but vigorously enforced code governing photographic access; of self-censorship by the media maintained in part by fear of the pro-emperor right wing; and not least, of the extreme self-restraint that is practiced by the Japanese royals.

"His majesty the emperor never does anything that would give reporters a scoop," said Nakayama, who was a Kyodo News Service photographer assigned to the palace for the wedding. And the same is expected of the rest of the clan that claims to have ruled Japan in an unbroken line for about 3,000 years.

As the West ponders whether paparazzi were culpable in the death of Britain's Princess Diana, a shocked Asia is scrutinizing the role of its own celebrity hunters, particularly in the feisty and lucrative media markets of Japan and Hong Kong.

While Japanese royalty are given kid-glove treatment, politicians, celebrities and criminal suspects are considered fair game.

Focus magazine, famous for having once run a large picture of a Japanese lawmaker urinating in the parliament garden, came under intense fire this summer after it printed the photograph of a 14-year-old Kobe boy who had confessed to murdering and decapitating another child.

Focus and other Japanese publications are also fond of "secret assignation photos" of glitterati slinking out of hotels or condominiums with an attractive companion who is not their spouse.

Recent quarries have included a top pop singer, a famous writer caught with another woman for a second time (he slugged the first tabloid reporter who tried to photograph him) and a former Olympic gymnast whose pregnant wife was also interviewed once her husband confessed to his infidelity. Many of the shots are taken with hidden cameras.

Hong Kong's press corps is also famous for exceeding the limits of good taste. One favorite circulation-boosting tactic is to sneak up on ordinary couples smooching along the waterfront and then print the photographs. But several recent incidents have helped redefine decency and discretion.

Last year, gangsters attacked a magazine publisher and cut off his left arm with a meat knife in gory apparent retaliation for articles about regional gang wars and tycoons' mistresses. The publisher, Leung Tin-wai, had his arm reattached and is now back at work overseeing the provocative Surprise Weekly.

Leung and the police do not know who was behind the attack on the Chinese-language magazine or which story prompted the attack. But "it sent a message to stay away from some people's private lives," Leung said.

He has taken the hint and is now more circumspect. "I don't think it's necessary to chase celebrities like that, and we definitely wouldn't print a photo of Diana in the wreck," Leung said. "I remind my team of reporters not to do those sorts of things."

Likewise, the weekly Next Magazine, which has a reputation for the most sensational reporting in Hong Kong, said it won't publish photos taken of Diana as she lay dying.

"First of all, we couldn't afford it, and we have to maintain good taste," said its publisher, Yeung Wai-hong. He said he learned his lesson a few years ago when the magazine put on its cover a photograph of a young boy's body after he was kidnapped and murdered.

"Readers really objected," Yeung said. "Their letters are still ringing in my ears. They said it was like murdering the kid a second time. We learned gradually to respect that."

Mainland China's tightly controlled press is banned from reporting on the private lives of Chinese public figures, but it thrives on scandals from abroad. The Jiefang Erbao (Liberation Daily) translated paparazzi as "pai-pai [the sound a camera makes] la ji [rubbish]" and denounced the capitalist media.

"Diana cast off the royal family, but she could not break out of the circling Western media," the newspaper said. "To the Western press, Diana was like a coin on the ground. . . . Our Western peers' sense of social responsibility has deteriorated."

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