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The establishment in 1998 of the Keizo Obuchi government was a major positive turning point for foreign correspondents in Japan. That’s because the late Prime Minister Obuchi was eager for his voice and the policies of his cabinet to reach foreign countries, directly from the mouths of Japanese officials.

To achieve that, Obuchi selected as his spokesman to the foreign press one of the finest Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, Akitaka Saiki. Weekly sessions ensued at the Sori Kantei – the prime minister’s official residence – for MOFA-accredited correspondents. I was one of them, and I knew if I missed a session I’d miss getting valuable first-hand accounts of – and quotes on – Japanese domestic and diplomatic policies. Saiki-san was one of the most eloquent spokesmen I have met in Japan. He always gave hungry correspondents something to report on, with very informative great and spicy quotes, calculated to grab foreign readers’ attention.

With the passing away of Obuchi two years later, the Kantei and the Foreign Ministry maintained those briefings. A series of very capable and good speakers continued to accommodate the foreign press and its questions. I remember Yoshikawa-san, who is now a high ranking official of Japan International Cooperation Agency, who used to sometimes call us to provide updated information on a developing story.

Such briefings are a matter of course in most advanced countries. Foreign correspondents get the chance to meet heads of states or prime ministers of the countries they serve in regular sessions.

Neither I nor any of my colleagues thought the day would come when such normal practices would become history here in Japan. But as LDP power weakened a decade or so ago, such briefings were gradually disappearing. When the LDP lost power and the Japan Democratic Party took over the Kantei in 2009, the Kantei briefings stopped up to my knowledge.

Meanwhile, prime ministers had long since stopped appearing at FCCJ professional functions. Junichiro Koizumi was the last to come, before the Iraq War.

When Shinzo Abe led his party’s return to power at the end of 2012, we prepared to return to the Kantei for the resumption of the briefings there, but this was not to be. Unlike Obuchi, who treated all the foreign media on an equal basis, Abe seems to favor certain media – whose correspondents in Japan are cherry picked to go to the Kantei to be given briefings.

As an insider in the Kantei acknowledged to me recently, the rest of the media have been left out. He told me that Prime Minister Abe, with the support of some of his advisors, has been cultivating selected senior foreign journalists in Tokyo, such as bureau chiefs of certain media organizations, offering them individual briefings as a way to “get his message across” to the outside world – and as an alternative to having other cabinet members and senior officials come to the Club to speak. This approach also avoids the logistical issues that would be involved if they dealt with all foreign media on an equal basis.

The Kantei official referred to the fact that attendance by foreign correspondents at FCCJ professional events has decreased, saying this has not gone unnoticed by government people. Thus high officials have less incentive to speak at the Club nowadays.

For foreign media left out of the handpicked few who are invited for Kantei briefings, depriving us of officials’ presence at the Club is a double whammy.

One related point I also heard from the official in this regard refers to the fact that our FCCJ news events are conducted in English when possible. This makes the FCCJ less attractive to non-Japanese Asian correspondents operating in Tokyo nowadays who are more comfortable with Japanese than with English, he pointed out.

The unwillingness of the Kantei to invite all foreign correspondents on equal basis, and the boycotting of the FCCJ for a prime ministerial visit are major issues I have been giving attention to.

The American Embassy in Japan admits journalists who hold FCCJ membership cards to its news events, one very positive indicator regarding the importance of the Club. Our mission is to expand the acceptance of Club cardholders for other news events in Japan.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics is around the corner and the Japanese organizing committee has shown a great deal of respect and attention to the FCCJ by giving the Club’s committee membership. I spoke at a plenary session and confirmed we at the FCCJ are more than ready to be a dynamic force in supporting media coverage of the Olympics.

At the same time, we must call upon the Kantei to reconsider its policies and strive, once again, to get its message out to all foreign media “without fear or favor.”

 

-Khaldon Azhari

 

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