Authors of Transition: Foreign Correspondents in Japan

Mr Jonathan Silberstein-Loeb

Saturday, 11 December, 2004; 7:30-9:30pm

Seminar room, No1. Newnham Terrace, Darwin College

In the past 10 years the life of the foreign journalist in Japan has changed significantly. In the early 1990s, foreign journalists were refused entry to high-level press clubs, but there were hundreds of correspondents in Tokyo reporting for major news outlets. More recently, Japan's press clubs (kisha clubs) have opened, though they remain opaque, and foreign journalists have greater access to information. The number of foreign correspondents in Japan, however, has decreased. In part, the number of foreign correspondents and news bureaus has waned because foreign newspapers are more interested in China, Korea, and the Middle East than they are in Japan. But unless journalists are able to overcome the difficulties inherent in reporting on Japan, it seems unlikely that the nation will garner the news coverage it deserves.
The lack of a robust, albeit developing, source culture in Japan hinders the newsgathering efforts of foreign reporters. In most of Europe and throughout the United States, a sophisticated culture has developed in the form of think tanks, talking heads, pundits, public relations firms, academics, etc., which are adequately prepared to deal with a constant barrage of questions from the Fourth Estate.
I show that this culture has yet to develop to the same degree in Japan. Source culture has been slow to develop in Japan in part because of the ineffective Japanese press as well as myriad difficulties in the three major areas of source culture-academia, business, and politics.
Foreign reporters in Japan, unable to speak the language adequately and further handicapped by the inability to develop quality sources, encounter difficulty writing headline-making, easily digestible stories that chart larger trends and developments in Japan and avoid quirky stories about hot springs, the decline in popularity of sumo wrestling, or the falling sales of sake. The upshot is Japan-passing, or declining interest in and knowledge about a country that remains the second largest economy in the world.
Through interviews with domestic and foreign reporters, academics in both Japan and America, and specialists in a variety of different disciplines, I attempt to explain the difficulties foreign journalists encounter in Japan, why they exist and how reporters work to overcome them.