January 2022

Behind the controversy over the FCCJ’s canceled imperial wedding panel 

Illustration by Julio Shiiki

In December, a panel discussion on media coverage of Princess Mako’s marriage to Kei Komuro was cancelled at short notice after the Professional Activities Committee (PAC), which had arranged the event, turned down the panelists’ request to speak off the record.

PAC had invited journalists from Japanese weekly magazines to share their thoughts on the furor surrounding the couple's wedding. Despite our disappointment, the event’s cancellation gave members of the committee’s forum an opportunity to debate the differences between Western and Japanese journalism.

Some saw the panelists’ reluctance to publicly discuss a story their publications had freely – and at times critically – covered at length as a worrying sign of Japanese media self-censorship when it comes to “taboo” subjects such as the imperial family.

Some FCCJ members are curious about how PAC decides on whether to approve speaker proposals. The decision-making process behind the imperial wedding event is important to understand how the workings of an organisation like the FCCJ differ from those of the kisha club system.

In the interests of the transparency the committee owes to FCCJ members, here is what happened.

Media frenzy

Press conferences at the FCCJ begin as a pitch from someone outside the Club or from a member who contacts the PAC online forum. On this occasion, the pitch came from a PAC member about a week after Mako and Komuro married on October 26. I proposed that we ask the editors of two or three Japanese weeklies, as well as foreign journalists from within our own ranks, to discuss what I called the “media circus” that had surrounded the wedding since the couple went public with their relationship in 2017.

Most Japanese weeklies and mainstream newspaper appeared to have divided into pro- and anti-Komuro camps, with a few falling into the neutral zone in between. 

After discussing which publications had carried the most critical – and intrusive - reporting on the couple, particularly the “scandal” surrounding an unpaid loan involving Komuro's mother, PAC decided the wedding should be the hook for a wider discussion on media ethics and how Japan’s print and broadcast media cover the imperial family.

We were particularly interested in asking our Japanese colleagues where they drew the line between newsworthiness and invasion of privacy, and how this affected their role in holding the powerful to account.

Some PAC members felt it was unfair to apportion too much blame to the Japanese media for their treatment of the Komuros. Khaldon Azhari of Pan Orient News did not believe the controversy was a tabloid-generated media frenzy; rather that Kei Komuro had brought the relentless coverage on himself. 

The marriage, he said, offered reporters a rich seam of material that they were right to mine: the Komuros’ finances; the groom’s manners and appearance – right down to the ponytail he sported on his return to Japan – and the accusation that the couple’s plans to live abroad would potentially place an additional burden on the Japanese taxpayer, a concern they dismissed, with Mako even turning down a lump sum traditionally given to women who leave the imperial family upon marriage.

Moreover, the Japanese public demanded to know the facts about the Komuro family’s finances and what, if any, money would be made available to the couple from the public purse. “The media reflected this kind of anger … it was not a lack of ethics by [the media],” Azhari said. 

It is worth noting here that one of the prospective panelists, the editor-in-chief of a weekly magazine who could be described as pro-Komuro, told me that a 28-page statement that the Imperial Household Agency (IHA) had forced him to read left the public with more questions than answers. 

Pio d’Emilia of Sky TG24, who is also the co-chair of PAC, argued that media coverage of the Komuros, in addition to the way Mako had been treated by the IHA, amounted to a human rights violation. 

By the time our debate began via a series of emails to the PAC forum, the Komuros had wed and held a quasi-news conference where they answered only five pre-submitted questions. The last of those, from the Foreign Press in Japan (FPIJ), included the word ‘scandal’ and to which Mako responded with obvious irritation.

To add more spice to the mix, the news that Kei Komuro had failed the New York Bar exam at the first attempt was everywhere. PAC members wondered if the Japanese media would continue to hound him and Mako after they moved to New York.

PAC decided to invite editors from either end of the imperial wedding spectrum: one from the so-called "pro-Komuro" camp, which prioritized the couple’s right to privacy, and another from the "anti-Komuro" camp - a weekly that had spent years delving into the Komuro family’s money situation and had published explosive stories about the mother’s financial troubles. To complete the panel, we also decided to invite the former editor of a sports weekly who could loosely be described as neutral.

There was considerable discussion on the forum about the need to have a Japanese woman co-moderate the event, given that the topic included the freedom of a young woman to marry the partner of her choice. Some members thought this, in itself, was an example of gender bias.

Fred Varcoe, a freelance sports and entertainment journalist, said, “the harassment in this case was more against Kei Komuro than Mako, who was shut up in the Imperial Palace”.

Cold feet

About a week before the planned FCCJ event, both the "pro-" and "anti-Komuro" panelists said they had been led to understand that it would not be an on-the-record press conference but rather a “small background briefing over lunch with foreign journalists”.

The editor of the weekly that had investigated Kei Komuro for years said he wouldn’t be able to speak at a public event and preferred to remain anonymous. In response, PAC attempted to find a replacement for the editor, and approached the editor of a weekly whose coverage had, if anything, been even more critical of Mako’s now-husband.

The editor from the weekly that was more sympathetic toward Komuro said she needed to obtain permission to appear on the record, leaving the door somewhat open. In the end, she too pulled out of the live-streamed press conference.

Later, after the event had been cancelled, I asked the same editor why she had refused to appear on the record. She denied that her publication had been spooked, but gave an evasive answer: “We just didn't see any merit in [appearing in the event], because our publication is relatively sympathetic to Mako and Kei Komuro. [The anti-Komuro] and other weeklies who pursue this case are in a better position to speak up.”   

It turns out that they weren’t.

When I extended the same invitation to speak separately to the "anti-Komuro" editor, he declined to be interviewed, even off the record.   

The Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of journalistic practices, define on and off the record reporting as the following:

On the record – The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.

Off the record – The information cannot be used for publication. 

Background – The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. 

Deep background. The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.

In all of the above cases, the journalists are advised to object vigorously to anonymity and should try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record.

As the person who came up with the imperial marriage panel idea, my preference and that of several others on the PAC forum was to follow AP’s “background” definition. We would adhere to the wishes of the speakers and let them speak off the record and without mentioning their names so we could hear firsthand information about the media frenzy they had played a part in creating.

Ideally, everything should be on the record, but some PAC members were equally open to an off-the-record briefing open only to FCCJ members. This, as the PAC member Walter Sim of The Straits Times put it, would “certainly serve as a value-add for foreign journalists and add to the appeal of the Club”.

Besides, I was told that the FCCJ had once run a journalists-only roundtable with the editors of The Shukan Bunshun, Facta and The Tokyo Shimbun about five years ago. 

Then we entered another round of debate.

Roger Schreffler, a former president of the Club, initially opposed the off-the-record idea, saying that such events should be reserved for “ ... a defense or national security briefing – but why let the FCCJ effectively become a kisha club for an interesting, but marginal event?” He did, however, agree to a generic attribution, meaning the speakers’ names or publications would not be disclosed. 

Eric Johnston of The Japan Times was also strongly against the off-the-record event, seeing it as problematic from a practical perspective as well as on principle. It would “open the door to more people asking, for whatever reasons, that their official press events also be off-the-record … We are not the Prime Minister’s press club,” he said.

I responded by saying that a journalist-to-journalist event is a rare opportunity to talk honestly about journalism ethics, law, privacy, and reporting on public versus private figures.

According to U.S. media law, if a public figure such as Princess Mako wanted to sue the Japanese weeklies for libel for their media coverage of her fiancé, she would need to prove that they acted with what’s called “actual malice”, meaning “with knowledge that the information about his fiancé was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”.

However, now that she is officially a private individual living in the U.S., the bar is much lower, and her chances of suing and winning much higher. The treatment of the Komuros was interesting from the privacy angle, so I was keen to hear what Japanese journalists thought about it. But that never happened.

In the words of D’Emilia, the PAC co-chairs decided that “although attending off-the record briefings [outside the Club] is … at times indispensable, we at the FCCJ should uphold as much as we can the principle of full disclosure and proper attribution”.

I’m still not sure if we did the right thing by canceling the event, or if we missed an important opportunity. I’d like to know what you think. 

Ilgin Yorulmaz is the Japan correspondent for BBC World Turkish. She serves as FCCJ’s 2nd Vice President and is also a member of its Professional Activities Committee.