A finger in the eye of the powers-that-be
The non-profit investigative cyber-paper Waseda Chronicle, led by ex-Asahi journalists, looks for important stories ignored by the mainstream media
By David McNeill
One autumn day five years ago, journalists at the Asahi Shimbun looked up from their desks to see their boss holding an impromptu press conference on the newsroom TV screens. For months, the newspaper had been taking flak over an article about the Fukushima nuclear accident. Now Tadakazu Kimura, its president, was apologizing to the nation and announcing that the article in question was being retracted.
Hideaki Kimura, who wrote the piece, and Makoto Watanabe, who ran the special investigative section that carried it, watched in astonishment as the president stood up, flanked by the paper’s heads of editorial affairs and public relations and bowed low for six seconds. Neither reporter knew what was coming. But then Kimura straightened up, and vowed strict punishment for “all concerned.”
For many, the humiliating mea culpa, coming on the heels of another Asahi retraction of articles on “comfort women” a month earlier, was a mortal wound to Japan’s flagship liberal newspaper. For Kimura and Watanabe, though, it was the end of the line, and both quit soon after.
But despite the slap in the face, both stayed in the journalism profession. Today, they can be found running the Waseda Chronicle, an online, non-profit investigative newspaper out of a small office in Tokyo.
When we met, Kimura had just returned from a reporting trip to the Philippines, source of most of the bananas consumed in Japan. Unknown to most consumers, the industry is a black hole for human rights, he says, with instances of strikebreaking, intimidation of workers, even murder. It’s exactly the sort of story the big media should be doing, he says. “But they ignore it.”
THE CHRONICLE, (IT TAKES its name from the Institute of Journalism in Waseda University where it was founded in 2017) wants to plug this gap in investigative journalism. The main stream media, argues Watanabe, has been narcotized by its press club system, in which official sources, from the government down, drip feed information to the press pack.
“It doesn’t occur to most journalists to go and chase down stories in foreign countries,” Watanabe says. “And it’s not just foreign reporting it’s anything outside their beat. They are trained to focus on daily briefings: ‘The police say this; The Ministry of Finance says that.’ They prioritize the voices of authority and that they cozy up to those voices. It’s a weakness in journalism here.”
These problems have been cited with banal regularity in journalism surveys, most notably in the annual “World Press Freedom Index” produced by Reporters Without Borders. Globally, Japan ranked 67th in the latest ranking, a notch of five places up from the previous year but still the worst in the G7 group of industrialized nations. A copy of the survey is pinned to the wall in the Chronicle’s office.
Though still just a few years old, the paper has demon strated a talent for nosing around in the nation’s underbelly. It was the first media outlet to report on how prefectural governments set up eugenic review boards after the Second World War, competing to perform the most sterilizations. In one shocking detail, a board commemorated the milestone of surpassing one thousand surgeries.
An estimated 25,000 people were sterilized under the 1948 Eugenic Protection Law, which targeted people with hereditary conditions such as epilepsy and learning disabilities. Local doctors reported cases of suspected disabilities that in some cases were just troublesome teenagers, according to records of board discussions obtained by Kimura and Watanabe. The youngest person sterilized was just nine years old. The victims were finally offered a paltry compensation package of ¥3.2m each this year.
WHEN YOU START FROM THE PRINCIPLE THAT YOU’RE ON THE SIDE OF THE VICTIMS, YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT BEING NEUTRAL
THE PAPER HAS ALSO carried a series of articles on how Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising company, has been paying Kyodo News Agency to run articles on pharmaceuticals. Another reported on the construction of coal fired power stations in Indonesia by Japanese and South Korean companies using technology that fails pollution standards in their own countries.
The pickup of these stories in the local Japanese media has been negligible, the two journalists lament. In 2017, however, the FCCJ awarded the Chronicle its Supporter of the Free Press Award, recognizing its importance in a climate that includes “growing self censorship” and press clubs that leave journalists struggling to serve the public interest and fulfill their “role as democracy’s watchdogs.”
The FCCJ nod was important, says Watanabe. In fact, it was a talk at the Club in 2014 that helped nudge him into action. Professor Tatsuro Hanada, the Waseda Institute’s then director, demanded that the Asahi reverse its Fukushima decision and stand up to the forces attacking it. The press conference was a clarion call to free journalism in Japan but only Watanabe and Kimura responded.
“The birth of Waseda Chronicle is a consequence of that suppression of investigative journalists, who subsequently left the Asahi,” Hanada said in his award acceptance speech.
The key task, however, for any such enterprise is how to avoid being crushed by economics. With no advertising, the Chronicle is supported by crowdfunding and donations. A few successful examples of this model exist: ProPublica, an American nonprofit online newsroom that has won five Pulitzer Prizes, runs with the help of large charitable foundations. In Japan, the investigative magazine FACTA, which first broke the Olympus business scandal in 2011, survives thanks to subscribers and an initial rich donor.
The Chronicle has no such largess, laments Watanabe, and Japan’s culture of charitable funding is comparatively undeveloped. One reason for publishing in English is to broaden the paper’s reach but translation and copy editing add to the cost.
To save money on his banana story, Kimura flew economy class and stayed in the houses of local labor union members in Mindanao, where the plantation is based. The price tag for his entire two week reporting trip came to less than ¥250,000. He is unfazed by how this might have colored his story. “When you start from the principle that you’re on the side of the victims, you don’t have to worry about being neutral,” he says.
The need for independent journalism to monitor corruption, censorship and the growth of personal surveillance has rarely been more acute, says Watanabe. He cites the growing use of DNA technology in Japan. “The DNA of about one in every 100 people is stored on record,” he says. “It’s not destroyed, as it should be. But the media doesn’t like to write about the police, so it’s a dangerous situation.”
WATANABE NOTES THAT THE mainstream media has steered clear of the Dentsu pharmaceutical story, which he spent 10 months researching while at the Asahi, because of the chokehold the huge ad agency has over advertising. Deference to authority, to power and money are always threats, as he knows from his time at the Asahi. In a recent series of articles, he returned to his role as head of the paper’s Promethean investigation on the Fukushima disaster.
The climax of that coverage, and the piece that started all the trouble, claimed that workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disobeyed manager Masao Yoshida during the worst of the crisis and decamped to the nearby Daini plant in March 2011.
The article, well at odds with the official narrative of brave samurai holding out against lethal odds, predictably infuriated Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the government and the Asahi’s conservative rivals. Yet, Watanabe and Kimura still believe it was accurate. Yoshida had openly contemplated the ruin of east Japan, says Watanabe, so was it so hard to imagine that his foot soldiers might panic and flee the field of battle?
“Yoshida is quoted in his transcript as saying that ‘All of the nuclear materials could escape and spread. Our image was that of a catastrophe for eastern Japan.’ He ordered 720 staff members to remain at the Daiichi plant. Contrary to that order,” says Watanabe, “650 people about 90 percent of the entire stafffled to the Daini site. More than 80 percent of those people had not returned by March 16. This is all recorded in a TEPCO video conference. However, no one cares about such inconvenient facts.”
His answer to the perennial question of “What is journalism and why do we do what we do?” seems obvious: to monitor abuse of power on behalf of the people who buy newspapers and watch the news. When watching President Kimura leave the dais after his disastrous apologetic press conference in 2014, Watanabe says his mind focused on one thing: “What would the ordinary people of Fukushima think about what had just happened?”
David McNeill writes for the Irish Times and the Economist, and teaches media literacy at Hosei and Sophia Universities.