Last Updated: Friday, 27 November 2015, 12:04 GMT

Freedom of the Press 2008 - Japan

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 29 April 2008
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom of the Press 2008 - Japan, 29 April 2008, available at: [accessed 27 November 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Status: Free
Legal Environment: 2 (of 30)
Political Environment: 13 (of 40)
Economic Environment: 6 (of 30)
Total Score: 21 (of 100)
(Lower scores = freer)

Japan's prolific media garners one of the highest readerships in the world, despite criticism about a lack of viewpoint diversity as a result of exclusive press clubs and occasional backlash from nationalist extremists. Press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice. The independent court system has particularly emerged in recent years as a bulwark against political pressure on journalists. In several prominent cases during 2005 and 2006, courts upheld the right of journalists to refuse to reveal anonymous sources, even when the source is a public official, ruling that the protection served the public interest and the public's right to know. In January 2007, Tokyo's High Court ruled that the public broadcaster Nihon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) had bowed to political pressure in censoring a 2001 documentary about sex slavery during World War II. Among the politicians who had reportedly pressured the station to delete scenes of a mock trial in which the Emperor had been found guilty of crimes against humanity was Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister for much of 2007, who at the time had been serving as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. The court ordered the NHK to pay $16,400 in damages to a women's rights group who had staged the mock trial.

Concerns continue regarding the lack of diversity and independence in reporting, especially in political news. This is facilitated in part by a system of kisha kurabu, or journalist clubs, in which major media outlets have cozy relationships with bureaucrats and politicians. Exposés by media outlets that belong to such clubs are frowned upon and can result in the banning of members from press club briefings. As such, journalists tend to avoid writing critical stories about the government, thereby reducing the media's ability to pressure politicians for greater transparency and accountability. Most of Japan's investigative journalism is conducted by reporters outside the press club system. Nevertheless, in recent years, the exclusivity of the clubs has eroded as foreign journalists with press cards from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are now guaranteed access to most official press conferences. According to the International Press Institute, the last significant kisha kurabu to bar foreign reporters is the one that deals with the affairs of the Emperor and royal family. However, with the exception of Nagano – where former governor Yasuo Tanaka abolished the prefecture's press clubs – Japanese magazine reporters, online writers and freelance journalists remain essentially barred from the clubs, even as observers.

Physical attacks against the media are rare. However, on July 21, 2006 an unidentified man hurled a Molotov cocktail into the headquarters of Japan's largest business daily, Nihon Keizai Shimbun. No one was hurt in the attack, but the office suffered minor damage. In April 2007, Motohide Hiraoka, an ultranationalist and former member of a right-wing outfit, was arrested for the attack, whose aim he said was to warn the newspaper after it ran an exclusive story about the late emperor Hirohito's refusal to visit the Yasukuni Shrine war memorial, once it began honoring 14 convicted war criminals in 1978. In July, Hiraoka was sentenced to ten months in prison.

Japan has a vigorous and free media and boasts the second highest daily newspaper circulation per capita in the world (after Norway). Many national dailies have circulations topping one million and often produce afternoon and evening editions as well. More than half of the national newspaper market share is controlled by "the big three": the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Asahi Shimbun, and the Mainichi Shimbun. There is considerable homogeneity in reports, which relate the news in a factual and neutral manner. Television news content, once dominated by the public station NHK, has diversified considerably with the rising popularity of TV Asahi, Fuji TV, the Tokyo Broadcasting System, and satellite television. Japan also boasts 188 community radio stations and over 47 million registered internet users, representing almost 70 percent of the population. In recent years, the Internet has increasingly become an important source of news and revenue, with online ad sales growing by almost 30 percent in 2006 from the year before. No government restrictions on access to the Internet were reported in 2007.

Copyright notice: © Freedom House, Inc. · All Rights Reserved

Search Refworld