Japan, a parliamentary democracy, upholds the principles of media freedom and pluralism. However, the weight of traditions, economic interests, political pressure, and gender inequalities prevent journalists from fully exercising their role of holding the government to account.
In Japan, traditional media remain more influential than news websites. Mainstream newspapers and broadcasters are owned by the country’s five major media conglomerates: Yomiuri, Asahi, Nihon-Keizai, Mainichi, and Fuji-Sankei. Yomiuri and Asahi have one of the highest newspaper circulations in the world, with 6.8 million and 4 million copies a day, respectively. At the same time, Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK) is the second largest public broadcaster in the world.
Since 2012 and the rise to power of the nationalist right, many journalists have complained about a climate of mistrust, even hostility, toward them. The system of ‘kisha clubs’ (‘reporters’ clubs), which only allows established news organisations to access government events and to interview officials, induces journalists into self-censorship and represents blatant discrimination against freelancers and foreign reporters.
Vaguely worded regulations, enacted in 2021 and first applied in 2023, restrict public (including journalists) access to 58 areas near defence facilities and infrastructure deemed of “national security interest”, such as the Fukushima power plants, under penalty of two years in prison and/or a fine of up to 2 million yen (about US$18,240). The government also refuses to amend a law on the protection of specially designated secrets, which punishes the publication of information obtained “illegally” with up to ten years in prison.
In this world's most aged country, the paper-centred model remains the main economic model, but its future is uncertain due to the decline of its audience. Japan does not have regulation against the cross ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations, which has led to an extreme media concentration and the growth of media groups of considerable size, sometimes with over 2,000 reporters.
The Japanese government and businesses routinely apply pressure on the management of mainstream media, which results in heavy self-censorship on topics that could be deemed sensitive, such as corruption, sexual harassment, health issues (Covid-19, radiation), or pollution. In 2020, the government dramatically reduced the number of journalists invited to its press conferences, using Covid-19 health measures as an excuse, and included public broadcaster NHK on the list of organisations supposed to follow its “instructions” in the case of a major national crisis.
While Japanese journalists enjoy a relatively safe working environment, some have been sued by politicians simply for retweeting content deemed “defamatory”. On social networks, nationalist groups also routinely harass journalists who criticise the government or cover “unpatriotic” subjects, such as the health problems caused by the Fukushima disaster. In an isolated incident in December 2022, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan received several disturbing phone calls threatening to bomb the club and kill two of its journalists.