April 2022

Why have most Japanese media companies avoided reporting on the ground in war-torn Ukraine?

2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 4.0

Like their counterparts elsewhere, Japanese editors have scrambled to keep up with events since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Unlike much of the world’s media, however, Japan’s broadcasters and newspapers have almost no staff correspondents on the ground in Kyiv or other Ukrainian cities. Television screens here have instead been filled with local stringers and studio pundits, analyzing events unfolding 8,000km away. On March 8, a puzzled Karyn Nishimura, Tokyo correspondent for Radio France and the Libération newspaper, asked prime minister Fumio Kishida why. 

Kishida replied that the situation in Ukraine was “dangerous” and Japan had urged all its citizens to refrain from traveling there, “regardless” of the purpose of their visit. “As you are well aware, fierce fighting continues in many parts of Ukraine,” he continued. “There is a great risk of loss of life. Given this tense situation, the government's position on this issue is that we would like to ask for your understanding and cooperation in our efforts.”

Some observers may have experienced déjà vu listening to this exchange. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq by US-led forces, staff journalists in Japan mostly heeded government warnings to stay at home. Japan’s television companies instead relied heavily on freelancers, and kept their big hitters in Tokyo. In subsequent conflict zones over the last two decades – notably Myanmar, Thailand, and Afghanistan – Japanese staff reporters have also been noticeably thin on the ground.  

Ukraine is especially striking because, in the words of veteran Independent correspondent Patrick Cockburn, the country is “almost sinking” under the weight of would-be war correspondents. So, what gives?

For years in Japan, managers of TV networks and newspapers have formed agreements (known as hōdō kyōtei), keeping their reporters out of harm’s way. The agreements help alleviate the fear of being scooped, says Teddy Jimbo, who runs the independent Tokyo-based news service  The eruption of Mount Unzen in 1991, which killed 43 people, including NHK TV cameraman Makio Yanai, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which also led to fatalities among Japanese journalists (most notoriously, freelancer Kenji Goto, who was murdered by Islamic State) copper-fastened these agreements. 

After the nuclear accident in March 2011, reporters with the big Japanese TV networks and newspapers mostly obeyed a government directive to avoid the 20 km exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Some began reporting from the area much later, after receiving government clearance – the Asahi Shimbun sent its first dispatch on April 25, 2011 when its reporters accompanied the commissioner general of the National Police Agency. 

The reporting gap was filled by freelancers or independents (such as Jimbo), foreign agencies and in some cases post-retirement Japanese staffers. Later, staff reporters explained why they had stayed away. “Journalists are employees and their companies have to protect them from danger,” Keiichi Satō, a deputy editor with the News Division of Nippon Television (NTV) told me in 2011. “Reporters like myself might want to go into that zone and get the story … but there isn’t much personal freedom inside big media companies. We were told by our superiors that it was dangerous, so going in by ourselves would mean breaking that rule. It would mean nothing less than quitting the company.”

This risk-aversion dominates management at large Japanese media companies, says Nobuyuki Okumura, a former journalist with TV Asahi (who lost a colleague at Mount Unzen), now professor at Musashi University. He also blames a lack of interest in foreign news reporting for the remote Ukraine coverage. “I think Japanese companies have fallen far behind foreign countries because they were the first to cut off investments in acquiring techniques and equipment for reporting in hostile situations,” he says.  

Okumura says TV Asahi kept him at home for conflicts in East Timor, Myanmar, and other foreign assignments where he might have come into harm’s way.  The attitudes of management “frustrated the reporters and camera crews,” he recalls. 

Kaori Hayashi, a media scholar at the University of Tokyo, agrees that bosses in Japanese media companies have less power to make individual staffing decisions, so they usually hire freelancers when the bullets start flying. Both she and Okumura also cite language barriers and a lack of training in war reporting, especially in commercial broadcasters, which, according to Hayashi, “hire new graduates as generalists, not journalists”.

One exception is Shigenori Kanehira, a well-known TBS journalist who has sent regular dispatches from Ukraine. Jimbo points out, however, that Kanehira is no longer a staffer, which makes him a relative free agent. “When reporters are sent to disaster areas, they’re not journalists, they are kaisha-in,” (full-time company employees), says Jimbo. “They have to obey orders from their superiors.  If anything happens, the superior will come under fire.”

Editors can sometimes be swayed by a particularly forceful (or senior) reporter. Yasuo Ohnuki, a former NHK bureau chief who reported on the Iraq war from Jordan, recalls persuading his bosses to allow him to make a reporting trip to Baghdad. “NHK executives were always reluctant to cover heavily, but by chance I could speak to and persuade the president and explained the reason why it’s newsworthy,” he says. NHK and other members of the press club media sent reporters to Basra, in southern Iraq to cover Japan’s controversial dispatch of Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to the area, but they subsequently withdrew with the troops.       

The salaryman culture at Japanese media organizations frustrates some of the younger journalists who work there, say insiders. But it hasn’t deterred stringers. Japanese freelance journalists are entering Ukraine “one after another”, says Jiro Ishimaru, a leading expert on North Korea and chief editor of Asia Press. He estimates that at least seven freelancers are in the country, including a member of Asia Press.

The upshot is that freelancers with no training or institutional support “are expected to take cameras into some of the world’s most dangerous places,” says Martin Fackler, a former Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times. “Meanwhile, the big media journalists get paid fatter, more dependable salaries to sit back in Tokyo.” He says government advisories are a “fig leaf” for avoiding dangerous assignments.

There is no question that reporting the war in Ukraine is dangerous. On March 7, a TV crew with Sky News was ambushed and chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay was shot and injured. The killing of Brent Renaud, a US filmmaker, Yevhenii Sakun, a Ukrainian camera operator, during Russian shelling and an attack on two journalists with the Danish newspaper Esktra Bladet while reporting has been condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a media watchdog. 

But Nishimura says relying so heavily on foreign analysts is in itself dangerous for the Japanese media – and for Japan. 

It is considered normal not to send journalists to war zones, not just in government and media circles, but among the general public, she says. “The result is that rather than broadcasting information, TV broadcasters invite famous commentators not only to give their opinion (anyone is free to give their opinion) but to explain the situation (which they of course don’t know). War in Ukraine is not the kind of situation that everybody can comment on TV. Media still do not understand that. Ukraine is far from here, they do not see the danger.”

David McNeill is professor of communications and English at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, and co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee. He was previously a correspondent for The Independent, The Economist and The Chronicle of Higher Education