This excerpt from Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan describes how the political development of Japan’s newspapers has seen both struggles for power and collaboration between government and media

To make sense of the rise of illiberal politics with a particular focus on the role played by the media, it is of utmost importance to look at the historical roots of the most striking features of press-state relations in modern Japan. One of them is the extraordinarily close tie between the press and the state, in terms of both personnel and money. As Sasaki Takashi, a professor of contemporary Japanese history, argues in his 1999 book, Media to Kenryoku (“Media and Power”), “Ever since their inception, Japanese newspapers have had the character as devices for the dissemination of information for the government or power, and while there have been some changes in the appearance, that character remains essentially unchanged.”

According to Sasaki, there are three ways in which the Meiji state can be said to have “sponsored” the press in its early years. First the state practically subsidized the press by purchasing a large number of copies. Both Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun (today’s Mainichi Shimbun) as well as Yubin Hochi Shimbun (later absorbed by Yomiuri Shimbun) benefitted from such arrangements from the time of their founding in the first decade of the Meiji era. Amounting to as much as 25 to 30 percent of their revenue, this was no negligible amount of de facto subsidy for the fledgling papers.

Second, the government appointed some papers, Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun, for instance, as the semi-official conveyors of its news releases a practice that boosted their sales. This continued on until 1883, when Kanpo was launched as the official news medium of laws, ordinances and personnel appointments, which led to a nearly 40-percent drop in the circulation figures of Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun.

Third, secret government funds were also provided as subsidies to such newspapers as the Nichinichi, the Yubin Hochi Shimbun, Jiji Shimpo (founded by Yukichi Fukusawa) and even Asahi Shimbun for several years.

It is well known that, as a late developing country, the Japa- nese state often played a leading role in founding and nurturing such various key industries as banking and steel, but it is of great interest that similar patterns of state-led modernization were to be found in the news industry as well. In early modern Japan, most of the newspapers fell into either of the two categories “big papers” (o shimbun) that engaged in political debates from strong partisan standpoints, or tabloid-like “small papers” (ko shimbun) that traded in gossip and entertainment.

In that context, the Meiji state sought to nurture newspapers that would disseminate information and lead public opinion from a pro-government standpoint, but the overtly pro-government newspapers were not very popular and, consequently, were limited in their influence. As a result, the government attempted to assist the establishment of a new genre, the “medium paper” (chu shimbun) that would report seemingly “neutral” news. The eventual success of the Mainichi Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun placed these “neutral” medium papers in the mainstream of the newspaper industry in Japan.

The intricate ties between the state and the press were not limited to often covert financial support from the former to the latter. The personnel connections were as extensive, and far more overt. The pro-government Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun, for example, was particularly close to the Choshu clique struggling to control the government, and by 1891 it was under the direct control of Hirobumi Ito and Kaoru Inoue, both Choshu natives. The paper was headed by Miyoji Ito, chief secretary of the Privy Council and trusted aid to Hirobumi Ito in secret, because it was against the law for an official to hold another office in the private sector.

Masayoshi Matsukata of the Satsuma clique countered this move by founding Keisei Shimpo in 1891, in spite of the fact that he was then prime minister. Over the years, Mainichi Shimbun (including its predecessors) invited bigwig politicians to serve as its president both Takashi Hara and Takaaki Kato, for example, went on to serve as the nation’s prime minister during the Taisho period while Asahi Shimbun (and its predecessors) developed extensive relationships with former bureaucrats of the Ministry of the Interior in particular. And the Yomiuri Shimbun, an old “small paper” that was acquired in 1924 by Matsutaro Shoriki, an exelite police bureaucrat, of course, has eventually grown to become the newspaper with the largest circulation in the world.

Once Asahi Shimbun, the last national paper to remain critical of militarism, shifted its position and began contributing to the war effort after the 1930 Manchurian Incident, press freedom and truthful reporting of news disappeared from Japan. In fact, the papers who actively collaborated with the wartime regime received secret funds and preferred paper rationing as well as being supplied with top management personnel.

What is striking, however, is the fact that all of the major national dailies referred to here survived the postwar reforms and disruptions intact. None were disbanded by the U.S. Occupation forces and none saw fit to close themselves as an act of contrition. In fact, Taketora Ogata, the public “face” of Asahi Shimbun in the prewar period, not only served as a state minister and president of the intelligence bureau in the final years of the war, but once he was de-purged following the end of the Occupation in 1952 and the resumption of Japan’s independence, continued to rise up the political ladder as chief cabinet secretary and deputy prime minister, as well as ascending to the presidency of the Liberal Party.

The Yomiuri’s Shoriki, in a similar fashion, swiftly regained control of the newspaper and the Nippon TV empire after his de-purging and went on to become a member of the Diet, an active promoter of nuclear power, probable CIA asset, and a minister of the Science and Technology Agency.

The newspapers themselves, in general, became more liberal and more critical of state power in the newly democratized Japan, but some of the old habits that developed during war- time persisted in the postwar era. The much-criticized press club (kisha kurabu) system is an obvious case in point. The wartime government tried to control the media by organizing them into press clubs, and as one of many institutional continuities in postwar Japan, they survived the spate of U.S. Occupation democratization initiatives as they proved to be a handy way to manage the news. It was a cozy arrangement for the journalists as well, serving as an insiders’ information cartel.

Through the club system, some of the most powerful men in the Japanese media rose and prospered. The now elderly emperor of the Yomiuri media empire, Tsuneo Watanabe, saw his career blossom in conjunction with the success of Yasuhiro Nakasone’s political career in the 1970s and 1980s. And while most mainstream news organizations in Japan have not adopted a sweeping ban on journalists’ participation in government councils, it boggles the mind to think how the journalists can critically examine the government policies they actively take part in formulating in the first place.

Toshio Hara, formerly of Kyodo Press, wrote in his 2009 book, Janarizumu no Kanosei (“Potential of Journalism”),

The biggest sin of the press club system is not only that it is a closed information cartel, but also that the agenda setting initiative of public debate in Japan is thus held by government ministries, parties, and big businesses. News sources thus control the news, and while the media is mobilized to lead public opinion in a certain direction, the journalists are hardly aware that that is a problem.

This may indeed be among the most lasting and pervasive wartime legacies, the happyo (announcement) style journalism that makes a mockery of the Fourth Estate’s presumed role of holding the government accountable. Even though news organizations today are not as dependent on the state for money or personnel as in the wartime period, the prevailing mindset is still very much one of dependency and subordination to the state. So much of what passes as “news” in Japanese newspapers and television programs amount to mindless, uncritical announcements of government initia- tives and policies.

The press was generally repentant about the wartime col- laboration with militarist leaders in the early postwar period and adopted a critical attitude towards the conservative government agenda. Change began in the 1970s when the Sankei Shimbun shifted to the right, adopted an overtly pro-government, pro-LDP stance, and started to criticize the other newspapers as “biased” and left-leaning. Further change occurred as Yomiuri Shimbun, too, began to shift to the right in the 1980s as Watanabe, a close associate of Prime Minister Nakasone, rose to take increasing control of the paper’s media empire.

The fact that the press was now divided between pro government, right-leaning papers and critical liberal papers is not necessarily a matter of concern. After all, it is both normal and desirable in a liberal society to have a diversity of views represented by the media. What is both interesting and worrisome at the same time, however, is that a less unified media environment did not lead to a freer, more open and more pluralistic and vibrant press culture in the subsequent years, but instead resulted in the considerable decline in press freedom that we witness today.

Koichi Nakano is Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Sophia University.