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Number 1 Shimbun

Why Do People Hate the FCCJ?

05-1

 

By DAVID McNEILL

 

In May something remarkable happened in the world of publishing. A minor magazine that few people had taken much notice found itself at the center of a national row about the limits of free speech and parody in Japan.

The April edition of Number 1 Shimbun, the house magazine of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ), ran a cover that combined the logo for the 2020 Olympics with the Covid-19 virus, upsetting the organizing committee of the Tokyo Olympic Games.

The ensuing kerfuffle led to the resignations of the magazine’s talented editor (Greg Starr) and designer (Andrew Pothecary) and prompted Khaldon Azhari, president of the FCCJ, to call a press conference where he fulsomely apologized for causing offense.

For some, the row was a moment of schadenfreude and a chance to revisit their long-standing hatred of the FCCJ. Bloggers predictably criticized the club as “anti-Japanese”. Some on the fringes demanded the government revoke the FCCJ’s status as a public benefit corporation. https://twitter.com/hashtag/fccjの公益法人取り消しを要求します?

An article in Japan Forward, the English-language arm of the right-wing Sankei Shimbun, called the club “an occupation-era anachronism” that “seeks to pre- serve Occupation-era prerogatives for foreign correspondents”, who, needless to say, show little respect for “Japanese sensitivities.”* https://japan-forward.com/mythbusters-self-righteous-foreign-correspondents-in-japan-claim-freedom-to-be-offensive/


Why Do People Hate the FCCJ?

This framing of the FCCJ as an organization of white, burg- er-chomping gaijin hacks with racist contempt for the society around them is a caricature. It is also wildly at odds with the composition of the Club and its role in Japan.

Fewer than 18% of the FCCJ’s 1,715 members are “foreign.” The bulk of its membership comprises Japanese associate members and journalists.

They include people on the left and right sides of Japan’s political spectrum, even some who have publicly called for boycotting the Club when they don’t like this or that speaker, (in breach, incidentally, of the Club’s rules).

Most of the Japanese members speak English. Most of the older foreign correspondents (those who keep the club running) are deeply embedded in local life, with Japanese families and children. To suggest, as some have done, that they take pleasure in the suffering of Japanese during the pandemic (or wish it could be worse so they could have something to report) is offensively wrong.

The Club was set up in September 1945 by war correspondents who opposed Occupation leadership rules on the number of journalists allowed into Japan. It has gone through peaks and troughs since: pulling in reporters during wars and crises (the Vietnam and Korean conflicts claimed the lives of dozens of FCCJ correspondents, foreign and Japanese, some of whom are memorialized in the Club’s entryway); shedding reporters during the lulls in between.

One reason why the FCCJ has not collapsed under the weight of its own conceit and arrogance over 75 years, and why its members have not bolted for the door, pocketing their 13,000 yen a month in fees (for journalists) or 17,500 yen (for associates) is because it performs a useful function in Japanese society.

Every year events at the club generate multiple stories in the domestic media, whose representatives mostly use its facilities free of charge. Associates and businessmen have for decades paid for ringside seats to watch leading Japanese public figures charm, cajole or stumble in front of the global media.

I’ve been involved with the Club for 15 years, much of that time as chair or co-chair of the Professional Activities Committee (PAC), a group of 16 male and female journalists (including Japanese) that organizes press events. PAC fields hundreds of proposals annually from potential Japanese speakers who, for better or worse, see the FCCJ as a platform for open journalism.

Shiori Ito, for example, who accused a fellow journalist of raping her, initially came to the FCCJ because she said she could not get a fair hearing in the local media (PAC initially turned her request down because it was nervous of airing untested rape allegations (some of us still feel a twinge of shame about this but I don’t think it was wrong, based on what we knew). Last December she and Noriyuki Yamaguchi, the man who had just been convicted in a civil court of raping her held back-to-back press conferences, widely carried across the domestic media. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlK_PYxpauI

 

"One reason why the FCCJ has not collapsed under the weight of its own conceit and arrogance over 75 years, and why its members have not bolted for the door, pocketing their 13,000 yen a month in fees (for journalists) or 17,500 yen (for associates) is because it performs a useful function in Japanese society.”

 

In recent years, however, an organization that once had respectful and friendly ties with Japan’s establishment has found itself at odds with the establishment. This became evident in 2014 when the Liberal Democrats (LDP) and coalition partners Komeito reversed long-standing tradition and declined to send senior delegates to the FCCJ to explain their policies.

The LDP and much of the government has since avoided the Club. Last year, for example, the Ministry of Justice and Tokyo Prosecutor’s Office declined repeated requests to come and discuss the arrest, detention and escape of Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s disgraced boss. Arguably this silence helped negative and sometimes inaccurate press coverage of the Ghosn case to sweep around the world. Ironically, it has also fueled claims that the FCCJ is more interested in bashing the Japanese government than listening to it. A sign that this de facto Abe cabinet boycott had ended was the press conference at the Club by defense minister Taro Kono on June 25th.

Now some might ask why should Japan’s government prostrate themselves before this Occupation-era anachronism. Shouldn’t foreign journalists learn Japanese and attend government press conferences, like Japanese reporters do on foreign postings (many of these reporters rely on local fixers, but point taken). The answer is yes, and a growing number do.

A more pointed question, though, might be why doesn’t official Japan come to a ready-made pipeline to the world. The LDP snub began after an FCCJ press conference in 2014 by Eriko Yamatani, chairperson of the National Public Safety Commission. Yamatani came to discuss North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens in her capacity as Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue. But she was grilled instead on her alleged connections to Japan’s hard right.

 

05-2

A sign that this de facto boycott of the Club by the Abe Cabinet had ended came on June 25 when Defense Minister Taro Kono gave a press conference.

 

Yamatani stumbled through her assignment, seemingly intent on not putting distance between her office and perhaps Japan’s most toxic racist group, Zaitokukai. The event ended with Japan’s top cop being shouted down by a particularly enthusiastic Japanese freelancer. She never returned.

The press conference was relished by some as the sort of scrappy encounter that helped make the FCCJ’s reputation, such as it is. But where some saw rambunctious, open debate, others saw chaos. Freelancers are not allowed such leeway at the more scripted events run by the National Press Club.

Shinzo Abe and his cabinet are like governments anywhere, using control and spin, seeking to dominate the media narrative and avoid encounters where it might be aggressively scrutinized. Abe himself has not been to the FCCJ since he came with a group of LDP presidential candidates in September 2012. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, relented after 19 months of requests, then tried to have the questions scripted beforehand (an attempt, in effect, to turn the FCCJ into a government press club).

Holding powerful people to account is not easy and we can all use whatever help we can get. That’s what the FCCJ is here for, but it might not always be. The Club has suffered a fall in membership (which peaked in April 2002 at 2,164), largely because of changes outside of its control: demography and the erosion of the traditional business model of journalism. Newspapers and TV companies have closed bureaus across the world. Full-time correspondents are an endangered species.

It remains to be seen whether the spat over Number 1 Shimbun helps hasten this decline. Many FCCJ members are furious that the club not take a more principled stand over the cover. For some, it was a wounding blow to its status as a champion of free expression. Whatever the case, the foreign vs Japanese dichotomy used by some to stereotype the club is decades out of date. More importantly, it does nothing to promote an open and tolerant society with diverse views, regardless of whether those views agree with or challenge the status quo.

Those who want the FCCJ to go out of business, should be careful what they wish for.


DAVID McNEILL
is co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee and a professor at the Department of English Language, Communication and Cultures at Sacred Heart University in Tokyo. He was previously a correspondent for The Independent and The Economist newspapers and for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Published in: July 2020

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