Sinking a bold foray into watchdog journalism in Japan

Members of the media

It seemed like compelling journalism: a major investigative story published by The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest daily newspaper, about workers fleeing the Fukushima nuclear plant against orders.

It was the work of a special investigative section that had been launched with much fanfare to regain readers’ trust after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011, when the Asahi and other media were criticized for initially repeating the official line that the government had everything safely under control.

The team had been producing award winning journalism for three years, but the story on the workers would be the last for some of its ace reporters. And its publication in May 2014 would come to mark the demise of one of the most serious efforts in recent memory by a major Japanese news organization to embrace a more independent approach to journalism.

The hastiness of the Asahi’s retreat raised fresh doubts about whether such watchdog journalism–an inherently risky enterprise that seeks to expose and debunk, and challenge the powerful–is even possible in Japan’s big national media, which are deeply tied to the nation’s political establishment.

The editors at Asahi, considered the “quality paper” favored by intellectuals, knew the culture they were facing, but they saw the public disillusionment in Japan that followed the nuclear plant disaster as the opportunity launch a bold experiment to reframe journalism.

 

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No more pooches

On the sixth floor of its hulking headquarters overlooking Tokyo’s celebrated fish market, the newspaper in October 2011 hand-picked 30 journalists to create a desk dedicated to investigative reporting, something relatively rare in a country whose big national media favor cozy ties with officials via so-called press clubs. The clubs are exclusive groups of journalists, usually restricted to those from major newspapers and broadcasters, who are stationed within government ministries and agencies, ostensibly to keep a close eye on authority. In reality, the clubs end up doing the opposite, turning the journalists into uncritical conduits for information and narratives put forth by government officials, whose mindset the journalists often end up sharing.

The choice to head of the new section was unusual: Takaaki Yorimitsu, a gruff, gravelly-voiced outsider who was not a career employee of the elitist Asahi, and had been head-hunted from a smaller regional newspaper for his investigative prowess. Yorimitsu set an iconoclastic tone by taping a sign to the newsroom door declaring “Datsu Pochi Sengen,” or “No More Pooches Proclamation”–a vow that his reporters would no longer be kept pets of the press clubs, but true journalistic watchdogs.

The Investigative Reporting Section proved an instant success, winning Japan’s top journalism award two years in a row for its exposure of official coverups and shoddy decontamination work around the nuclear plant.

 

The new section gave reporters a broad mandate to range across the Asahi’s rigid internal silos in search of topics, while also holding to higher journalistic standards, such as requiring using the names of people quoted in stories instead of the pseudonyms common in Japanese journalism.

The Investigative Reporting Section proved an instant success, winning Japan’s top journalism award two years in a row for its exposure of official coverups and shoddy decontamination work around the nuclear plant, which was crippled when a huge earthquake and tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems. The section’s feistier journalism offered hope of attracting younger readers at a time when the 7 million-reader Asahi and Japan’s other national dailies, the world’s largest newspapers by circulation, were starting to feel the pinch from declining sales.

The Asahi Shimbun believes such investigative reporting is indispensable,” the newspaper’s president at the time, Tadakazu Kimura, declared in an annual report in 2012. The new investigative section “does not rely on information obtained from press clubs, but rather conducts its own steadfast investigations that require real determination.”

That is why it was all the more jarring when, just two years later, the Asahi abruptly retreated from this foray into watchdog reporting. In September 2014, the newspaper retracted the story it had published in May about workers fleeing the Fukushima plant against orders, punishing reporters and editors responsible for the story, slashing the size of the new section’s staff and forcing the resignation of Kimura, who had supported the investigative push.

 

A newspaper-appointed committee of outside experts later declared that the article, which the Asahi had trumpeted as a historic scoop, was flawed because journalists had demonstrated “an excessive sense of mission that they ‘must monitor authority.’”

While the section was not closed down altogether, its output of major investigative articles dropped sharply as the remaining journalists were barred from writing about Fukushima.

 

Emasculating the Asahi

The abrupt about-face by the Asahi, a 137-year-old newspaper with 2,400 journalists that has been postwar Japan’s liberal media flagship, was was an early victory for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which had sought to silence critical voices as it moved to roll back Japan’s postwar pacifism, and restart its nuclear industry.

“In Japanese journalism, scoops usually just mean learning from the ministry officials today what they intend to do tomorrow,” said Makoto Watanabe, a former reporter in the section who quit the Asahi in March because he felt blocked from doing investigative reporting. “We came up with different scoops that were unwelcome in the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Abe and his supporters on the nationalistic right seized on missteps by the Asahi in its coverage of Fukushima and sensitive issues of World War II-era history to launch a withering barrage of criticism that the paper seemed unable to withstand. The taming of the Asahi set off a domino-like series of moves by major newspapers and television networks to remove outspoken commentators and newscasters.

Political interference in the media was one reason cited by Reporters Without Borders in lowering Japan from 11th in 2010 to 72nd out of 180 nations in this year’s annual ranking of global press freedoms, released on April 20, 2016.

“Emasculating the Asahi allowed Abe to impose a grim new conformity on the media world,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo and a leading critic of the administration on press freedom issues. “Other media know that once Asahi gave in, they were exposed and could be next. So they gagged themselves.”

But government pressure fails to fully explain the Asahi’s retreat. Some Asahi reporters and media scholars say the government was able to exploit weaknesses within Japanese journalism itself, particularly its lack of professional solidarity and its emphasis on access-driven reporting. At the Asahi’s weakest moment, other big national newspapers lined up to bash it, essentially doing the administration’s dirty work, while also making blatant efforts to poach readers to shore up their declining circulations.

The knockout blow, however, came from within the Asahi itself, as reporters in other, more established sections turned against the upstart investigative journalists. The new section’s more adversarial approach to journalism had earned it wide resentment for threatening the exclusive access–enjoyed by the Asahi as part of the mainstream media–to the administration and the powerful central ministries that govern Japan.

Media scholars say reporters in elite national newspapers like the Asahi have a weak sense of professional identity; most did not attend journalism school and spend their entire careers within the same company. Until recently, a job at a national daily was seen as a safe career bet rather than a calling, as the Asahi and its competitors offered salaries and lifetime job guarantees similar to banks and automakers.

This result is that many Japanese journalists are unable to resist pressures that officials can put on them via the press clubs. Journalists who are deemed overly critical or who write about unapproved topics can find themselves barred from briefings given to other club members. This is a potent sanction when careers can be broken for missing a scoop that appeared in rival newspapers. This is what some Asahi journalists in the press clubs say happened to them as the Investigative Section angered government officials with its critical stories.

“When the chips were down, they saw themselves as elite company employees, not journalists,” said Yorimitsu, who after the Fukushima article’s retraction was reassigned to a Saturday supplement where he writes entertainment features.

 

Unable to weather the storm

It was a bitter reversal for a section that had been launched with high expectations just three years before. Yorimitsu described the new section as the newspaper’s first venture into what he called true investigative journalism. He said that while the Asahi had assembled teams in the past that it called “investigative,” this usually meant being freed from the demands of daily reporting to take deeper dives into scandals and social issues. He said the new section was different because his journalists not only gathered facts, they used them to build counter narratives that challenged versions of events put forward by authorities.

“Until 2014, the newspaper was very enthusiastic about giving us the time and freedom to expose the misdeeds in Fukushima, and tell our own stories about what had happened,” recalled Yorimitsu. “We were telling the stories that the authorities didn’t want us to tell.”

Yorimitsu had been hired in 2008 in to take charge of a smaller investigative team that the Asahi had created in 2006, when it was first starting to feel the pinch from the Internet. From a peak of 8.4 million copies sold daily in 1997, the Asahi’s circulation had slipped below 8 million by 2006, according to the Japan Audit Bureau of Circulations. (By late 2015, it had dropped to 6.6 million.) The team of 10 reporters was an experimental effort to win readers. “We realized that in the Net era, independent, investigative journalism was the only way for a newspaper to survive,” said Hidetoshi Sotooka, a former managing editor who created the original team.

However, it was not until Fukushima, Japan’s biggest national trauma since its World War II defeat in 1945, that the newspaper wholeheartedly embraced the effort, tripling the number of journalists and elevating it to a full-fledged section, putting it on par organizationally with other, more established parts of the paper.

Under Yorimitsu, the section’s crowning achievement was an investigative series called “The Promethean Trap,” a play on the atomic industry’s early promise of becoming a second fire from heaven like the one stolen by Prometheus in Greek mythology. The series, which appeared daily beginning in October 2011, won The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, in 2012 for its reporting on such provocative topics as a gag-order placed on scientists after the nuclear accident, and the government’s failure to release information about radiation to evacuating residents. The series spawned some larger investigative spin-offs, including an exposé of corner-cutting in Japan’s multi-billion dollar radiation cleanup, which won the prize in 2013.

 

These were promising accomplishments for a new section, but they also led to resentment in other parts of the newspaper, where the investigative team was increasingly viewed as prima donnas, and Yorimitsu’s “no more pooches” proclamation as an arrogant dismissal of other sections’ work.

At the same time, the Investigative Section also was making powerful enemies outside the newspaper by exposing problems at Fukushima. This became particularly apparent after the pro-nuclear Abe administration took office in December 2012, when other media started to cut back on articles about the nuclear accident.

“We were being told that the Prime Minister’s Office disliked our stories and wanted them stopped,” Watanabe recalled, “but we thought we could weather the storm.”

They may have been able to if the new section had not given its opponents an opening to strike. But on May 20, 2014, running under the banner headline “Violating Plant Manager Orders, 90 Percent of Workers Evacuated Fukushima Daiichi,” the front-page article made the explosive claim that at the peak of the crisis, workers had fled the nuclear plant in violation of orders to remain from plant manager, Masao Yoshida. The article challenged the dominant narrative of the manager leading a heroic battle to contain the meltdowns and thus save Japan.

The reporters behind the story, Hideaki Kimura and Tomomi Miyazaki, had obtained a transcript of testimony that Yoshida gave to government investigators before his death from cancer in 2013. The 400-plus-page document, drawn from 28 hours of spoken testimony by Yoshida, had been kept secret from the public in the Prime Minister’s Office. Unearthing the testimony was an investigative coup, which the Asahi unabashedly played up in ad campaigns. It might have stayed that way, had not the Asahi opened up the floodgates of public criticism by clumsily setting off a completely unrelated controversy about its past coverage of one of East Asia’s most emotional issues.

That uproar began on Aug. 5, 2014  when the Asahi suddenly announced in a front-page article that it was retracting more than a dozen stories published in the 1980s and early 1990s about “comfort women” forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels. The newspaper was belatedly admitting what historians knew: that a Japanese war veteran quoted in the articles, Seiji Yoshida, had fabricated his claims of having forcibly rounded up more than 1,000 Korean women.

The comfort women retractions appeared to be an attempt by the Asahi to preempt critics in the administration by coming clean about a decades-old problem. Instead, the move backfired, giving the revisionist right ammunition to attack the Asahi. The public pillorying, led by Abe himself, who said the reporting “has caused great damage to Japan’s image,” grew so intense that the magazine of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan ran a cover story: “Sink the Asahi!”

It was at the peak of this maelstrom, when the Asahi was on the ropes, that criticism of its Fukushima scoop erupted. In late August, the Sankei Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun, both pro-Abe newspapers on the right, obtained copies of Yoshida’s secret testimony, and wrote reports challenging the version of events put forth by the Asahi. “Asahi Report of ‘Evacuating Against Orders’ At Odds With Yoshida Testimony,” the Yomiuri, the world’s largest newspaper with 9 million readers, declared in a front-page headline Aug. 30. Other media, including the liberal Mainichi Shimbun, followed with similar efforts to discredit the Asahi.

According to these stories, the Asahi’s epic scoop had gotten it wrong by implying that the plant workers had knowingly ignored Yoshida’s orders. The newly obtained copies of his testimony showed that his orders had failed to reach the workers in the confusion. The other newspapers accused the Asahi of again sullying Japan’s reputation, by inaccurately portraying the brave Fukushima workers as cowards. (Whether the Asahi got the story wrong is debatable, since its article never actually stated that workers knowingly violated Yoshida’s orders; however, it did fail to include the manager’s statement that his orders had not been properly relayed–an omission that could lead readers to draw the wrong conclusion.)

The fact that two pro-Abe newspapers had suddenly and in quick succession obtained copies of the Yoshida transcript led to widespread suspicions, never proven, that the Prime Minister’s Office leaked the documents to use against the Asahi. True or not, the newspapers seemed willing to serve the purposes of the administration, perhaps to improve their access to information, or to avoid suffering a similar fate as the Asahi.

The other papers also saw the Asahi’s woes as a chance to steal readers. The Yomiuri stuffed glossy brochures in the mailboxes of Asahi subscribers, blasting it for tarnishing Japan’s honor, while praising the Yomiuri’s coverage of the comfort women. This attempt to poach readers ultimately backfired as both newspapers lost circulation.

“Rather than stand together to resist government pressure, they allowed themselves to be used as instruments of political pressure,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Hosei University.

Despite peer pressure, Asahi journalists say the newspaper initially intended to defend its Fukushima scoop, going so far as to draw up a lengthy rebuttal that was to have run on page one in early September. As late as Sept. 1, Seiichi  Ichikawa, the head of the Investigative Section at the time, told his reporters that the newspaper was ready to fight back. “The government is coming after the Special Investigative Section,” Ichikawa said in a pep talk to his team, according to Watanabe and others who were present. “The Asahi will not give in.”

The Asahi’s decision to punish its own journalists will discourage others from taking the same risks inherent in investigative reporting.

 

The rebuttal was never published. Instead, President Kimura surprised many of his own reporters with a sudden about face, announcing at a press conference on Sept. 11 that he was retracting the Fukushima-Yoshida article. Reporters say the newspaper’s resolve to defend the piece crumbled when journalists within the newspaper began an internal revolt against the article and the section that produced it.

This was compounded by a sense of panic that gripped the newspaper, as declines in readership and advertising accelerated markedly after the scandals. Fearing for the Asahi’s survival, many reporters chose to sacrifice investigative journalism as a means to mollify detractors, say media scholars and some Asahi journalists, including Yorimitsu.

The Asahi’s official line is that the story was too flawed to defend. The paper’s new president, Masataka Watanabe, continues to talk about the importance of investigative journalism, and some current and former Asahi journalists say investigative reporting will make a comeback.

However, scholars and former section reporters say the setback was too severe. They say the Asahi’s decision to punish its own journalists will discourage others from taking the same risks inherent in investigative reporting. Worse, they said the Asahi seemed to lapse back into the old, access-driven ways of Japan’s mainstream journalism. “The Asahi retreated from its experiment in risky, high-quality journalism, back into the safety of the press clubs,” said Tatsuro Hanada, a professor of journalism at Waseda University in Tokyo. Hanada was so dismayed by the Asahi’s retreat that he established Japan’s first university-based center for investigative journalism at Waseda this year. “It makes me think that the days of Japan’s huge national newspapers may be numbered.”

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Martin Fackler is a Research Fellow at the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a Tokyo-based think tank. Prior to joining RJIF in 2015, he worked for two decades as a correspondent in Asia, including as Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times from 2009 to 2015.