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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (November 25, 2003)

Japanese journalists don't bite, but why not?

Tomohiko TANIGUCHI (Editor at Large, Nikkei Business Publications, Inc.)


Why is it that Japanese reporters do not "bite" at press conferences?

Take as an example the conference former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone gave on 27 October to announce his retirement as a Diet member. Nakasone was apparently angry as he ended up being forced to retire by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, despite the fact that the Liberal Democratic Party had up till then maintained that a "promise" would be kept between him and the party no matter what. The party, two Prime Ministers ago, introduced a new rule stipulating that anyone wishing to stand for general election as a proportional representation candidate must be under the age of 73. But to Mr. Nakasone, who turned 85 this year, the party gave a "promise" that he would be exempt from this rule "for the rest of his lifetime".

So, he had long since known that he would remain as an endangered species. The kind of question reporters should have raised at the conference therefore was: When you say they made a "promise" to you, does that mean you have a signed document as proof, or was it just an oral pledge (which he must know that no politicians regard as binding)?; Anticipating that this could happen, have you sought another option, like standing for election in your home district? Had one or two of these questions been raised, it could have revealed Mr. Nakasone's na´vetÚ, uncommon for a seasoned politician like him. He had no signed document, nor had he sought any other option to remain as a Diet member. However not a single reporter dared to bite him about this (this writer was not present, by the way).

I was contemplating the reasons for this, while attending a recent conference given by Katsuya Okada, Secretary General of the Democratic Party of Japan and one of many possible answers occurred to me.

It was one of the conferences that Mr. Okada gives customarily at fixed intervals. As such, probably more than 90% of attendees were members of the "press club", associated in one way or another with the speaker in question, whose members are in daily contact with him or his colleagues. The ambience in the conference room was one of extreme collegiality, that is to say, everyone knew everyone else. This always makes me feel like "the new kid on the block", for I am not a member of any press club.

This could have two possible outcomes: the shared culture is such that you tend not to insult someone who you have to deal with almost daily by raising biting questions; similarly, you become hesitant in letting yourself appear as "the nail that sticks out". It takes courage to state your name and affiliation and raise harsh questions for fear that you will become visible, if not "get banged down".

Why should you be afraid of making yourself visible? Well, that is intrinsically part of Japanese culture. Many English teachers working in Japan would testify that this very tendency, found among so many Japanese, discourages their students from standing up and practicing what they have just learnt. As raising the first question makes you the most visible, it is customary for reporters at press conferences to remain silent for the first 20 seconds after the floor has been opened.

So I must confess, when I nonetheless raised my hand to ask the following question to Mr. Okada, I knew that this would be a question no one else would ask, and that as a consequence those in the room would think of me as an outlier. The question was: "You are opposed to sending Japanese Self Defence Forces to Iraq. What do you think the Italians, British, Dutch and Koreans, those already operating in what you term as an increasingly dangerous environment, would say? Let them do the dirty jobs. The lives of the Japanese are worth more than theirs. Is that not what you are saying?"

"Because Japan has a Constitution that forbids its troops to get involved in any armed conflict". Mr. Okada replied. "Is that all?", I followed up. "That I think is all. To do more, we have to revise the Constitution", he answered. Did I follow this up again by asking "Would you want to change it then"? No, I didn't, because all of a sudden I realised that the rest of the bunch were wondering who the hell I was, or at the least that was how I felt. Biting your interviewees requires that you be a non-conformist. To be a non-conformist, however, is almost like being non-Japanese, is it not?

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