This article is part of a broader week-long series on free speech. Check here for other components of the series. 

Japan, home to one of the world’s leading economies and a long-standing democracy, may not be the first country to come to mind when considering the issue of media repression. However, a steady deterioration of Japan’s press liberties in the past decade has given rise to concerns about the state of the nation’s access to information. In particular, a recent change in Japan’s leadership has prompted speculation about the future of the government’s relationship with the press, and whether the newly elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will build on his predecessor’s patterns of restricting journalistic freedoms. 

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are enshrined in the Constitution of Japan. Despite this, Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s legacy regarding the protection of these freedoms has left much to be desired. When Abe took power for a second mandate in 2012, Reporters Without Borders ranked Japan 22nd in the world press freedom rankings — the nation now holds the 66th spot in the list. Abe’s reputation of hostility towards the press developed as a result of his strategies to control coverage of his administration’s work. These strategies included threatening journalists with promises to withhold access to sources and even restrict broadcasting licenses if news stations’ coverage was not deemed to be sufficiently impartial to government standards. NHK, the national broadcaster, has notably shifted from being a public broadcaster to another arm of government control under Abe’s leadership.

Abe’s interest in controlling media narratives extended beyond the protection of his own government; his nationalistic policy included the denial and sanitization of Japanese history through a revisionist approach to Japan’s record of wartime atrocities. Abe’s nationalism has emboldened right-wing organizations that seek to silence press freedoms and have threatened reporters. In 2014, for instance, reporters received death threats from right-wing organizations for their work on a damning story about Japan’s history with ‘comfort women.’ Abe stood in support of the campaign against the liberal newspaper.

Prime Minister Suga was instrumental in the strengthening of Abe’s grip on the Japanese press when he served as Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary. He was largely responsible for restricting media freedoms in a series of efforts to bury Abe’s political scandals. While Suga served as Abe’s right-hand man, the government passed the 2014 Protection of Specially Designated Secrets Act, an act that further empowers the state’s ability to prosecute journalists who report on leaked information and weakens freedom of information rights. 

Yoshihide Suga speaks to the media during a press conference in Tokyo during his time as Chief Cabinet Secretary. Image by Casino Connection International via Flickr Creative Commons

The structure of Japan’s press is particularly vulnerable to political manipulation. Press associations composed of newspaper and television companies — known as Kisha clubs —  are used by state authorities to restrict access to information to a select few who hold privileged status. Journalists associated with important Kisha clubs seek to preserve their sources of exclusive state information while state officials benefit from being able to control the amount of state transparency. Because of this, reporters are commonly restricted by the interests of their associated news sources. In order to maintain important links with politicians, they frequently self-impose restrictions of their journalistic freedom from fear of sanctions, such as the loss of club membership.

Japan’s government regularly utilizes this clubby media environment for its benefit. Although government press conferences are open to all journalists, regardless of their belonging to a Kisha club, questions from journalists outside the clubs are generally placed at the bottom of the priority list and are frequently avoided. Questions at Japan’s press conferences are usually submitted in advance; politicians develop scripts to answer vetted questions from compliant clubs, carefully controlling the information that is released. 

The exclusionary mechanisms of the Kisha clubs make the field of political journalism difficult to penetrate by independent reporters. Beyond acts of favoritism at state press conferences, the restrictions imposed by this system are exemplified by the fact that Japan’s courts can choose to provide copies of their verdicts to Kisha club journalists only. Likewise, prefectural police departments can limit their press briefings to members of selected clubs.

Suga’s approach to shaping media coverage under Abe’s leadership involved direct confrontations with journalists who showed resistance to the expectations of press compliance. Reporter Isoko Mochizuki has gained notoriety for pressing politicians and asking multiple questions at press conferences, as well as for defying gender expectations in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. Naturally, this kind of behaviour in a highly restricted journalistic environment has made her a target for intimidation by cabinet members, particularly Suga. Last year, Mochizuki was accused by a cabinet representative of making factual errors in her questioning after she pressed Suga about environmental issues in Okinawa. Suga lodged multiple complaints in an attempt to have her removed from her press club and has had a well-recognized tense relationship with the hard-pressing journalist.

The new LDP leader and his new cabinet were sworn in on September 16th, 2020. Suga appointed Meiji Kakizaki, the deputy managing editorial writer of prominent news agency Kyodo News, as his presidential advisor. This has led some to speculate that Suga is working to expand the state’s capacity to control the press through the involvement of an experienced reporter in the government. As the Suga government works to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, it will define whether it intends to continue down Abe’s path of press intimidation, labeling critical coverage of the government as inherently biased, and hostility to investigative journalism. As it stands, the new LDP leadership has given no indication of shifting its path away from the erosion of press freedoms, leaving much in the air for Japanese reporters who continue to strive for the survival of investigative journalism and the right to criticize the state.

Edited by Maya Garfinkel.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image designed by Olivia Yu