[The Journalist] Shines Light on Japan’s Dark Side (film review)

by Kaori Shoji

Shinbun Kisha (The Journalist) is getting great box office and rave reviews, belying the myth that a Japanese movie about newsrooms and politics just won’t cut it. Based on the bestselling autobiography by audacious Tokyo Shinbun (東京新聞) reporter Isoko Mochizuki, The Journalist is a suspense thriller about how the titular woman journalist dared go after the government to unveil conspiracies and cover-ups. Infuriatingly, most of her male colleagues are intent on adhering to the status quo. Alone and isolated, the journalist teams up with a young bureaucrat from ‘Naicho’ – the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office – to expose a government scandal that’s almost an exact reenactment of Prime Minister Abe’s ‘Morikake’ incident. 

“All Japan needs is a mere facade of democracy,” goes a line in this movie, implying that the nation neither needs or wants the real deal. 

But now, with the House of Councillors election happening on Sunday, politics is on many peoples’ minds, including millennials that had shown zero interest in the past. Tickets in 42 theaters have sold out and the movie’s distributors announced that they will be printing 10,000 new copies of The Journalist pamphlet, as they’ve been selling off the shelves in theaters across Japan. Next week, the two main cast members will appear on stage at a theater in Shinjuku, to take their bows and answer questions from the audience. It looks like politics and newsrooms are a winning combination!

The Journalist is gripping, wrenching and ultimately cathartic, even if the plucky heroine doesn’t oust the evil government agents or get an enormous raise for her efforts. No, what happens is that news hound Erica Yoshioka (played by South Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung), after a series of grueling assignments that require round-the-clock investigating, not to mention the actual writing –gets to keep her job so she can start the cycle all over again in the name of quality journalism. Yoshioka also keeps her dignity and integrity intact, which is much more than one can say for Japanese movies about professional women, or let’s face it, women protagonists in general. 

The role of Erica Yoshioka is gutsy and intriguing and you can’t help but wonder why a Japanese actress didn’t snap it up. Rumors are going around that all the possible candidates had turned it down because they didn’t want to get involved in anything anti-government and were afraid of the backlash. Shim can return to South Korea, but Japanese actresses have to live and work here. 

Personally, I’ll take what I can get, and bask in the fact that The Journalist got made at all. Usually, such projects never get off the ground. Not only does The Journalist dig at some old scars the current Administration would rather forget, it bears the hallmarks of a well-meaning dud. There is no love story. There are no sex scenes or girl idols to alleviate the complete seriousness of the proceedings. And the director, Michihito Fujii, is only 32 years old with no blockbusters on his resume. Initially, Fujii turned down the offer of director since, as he professed in an online interview, “I didn’t know anything about politics or the news.” 
Still, once he signed on, Fujii did the research, hit the books and lined up interviews with government officials. The story benefits from his efforts but the directing seems just a tad stiff and two-dimensional. Perhaps Fujii was too caught up in the material to do more than connect the dots, albeit with meticulous expertise. 

As it is, The Journalists belong to Shim and Tohri Matsuzaka who plays Sugihara, the elite bureaucrat working for ‘Naicho’. They give their all to film and Matsuzaka has been commended on social media for taking on a “dangerous” role that could potentially give him a bad name (the anti-government name). 

Compared to Shim’s Yoshioka, Sugihara is more nuanced and inwardly tortured. His job is to protect the current administration and make sure the press don’t get their hands on any problematic information, but he has his misgivings. When his boss commits suicide to cover up another cover-up, Sugihara is shaken.

(Editor’s note–this is based on the suicide of a Finance Ministry official who killed himself rather than take part in deleting or altering government documents that implicated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a scandal relating to a government land-sale to a right-wing elementary school, run by his crony. None of the other officials who participated in forging public documents, which is a criminal offense, were charged; the female prosecutor who dropped the case was promoted)

The boss’s last words to Sugihara had been “don’t end up like me,” and Sugihara can’t fathom whether that meant “don’t die” or “don’t get involved in anything bad.” For a Naicho bureaucrat, the two most likely mean the same thing. 
Matsuzaka is a revelation – he has always been good but The Journalist shows his range. Last year, he was doing sex scenes ad nauseum in Call Boy and here, he never even takes off his jacket. 

A word about Shim as Yoshioka: in the movie, her character has a Japanese father and a Korean mother, hence her accent when she speaks Japanese. Yoshioka completely lives for her job, to the point of excluding everything else from her life. It turns out that her father (also a journalist) had killed himself over an incident involving fake news. As his daughter, she had vowed to pursue the truth, whatever the cost. Shim’s performance is excellent, and one can only hope there will be a future where Japanese actresses will go for roles like this –  far, far away from the planet of ‘Kawaii’.

In real life, there aren’t a whole lot of women journalists working for Japanese newspapers. Many don’t make it past the first five years; what with the long hours combined with frequent transfers to regional branches, incidents of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and of course, that thick glass ceiling – the job doesn’t exactly encourage them to stay on. 

Isoko Mochizuki, the author of the book on which the film is based, however, is changing the scenery. As mentioned above, she’s a veteran reporter for Tokyo Shinbun which is famed for its hard-hitting investigative journalism and for being the Abe Administration’s most vocal critic. Her frequent cross questioning of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has ripped a big hole in Japan’s infamous ‘kisha club’ system (where only the reporters of major newspapers are allowed to attend closed press conferences). And now, with the unexpected success of The Journalist, perhaps we can start discussing hard-hitting issues like democracy and freedom of the press. Who’s to say the Japanese don’t need it ? They seem to love films that bring up these issues.

Write Hard To Live Free: Happy Year Of The (Watch)Dog! 番犬報道の年ですよ!謹賀新年

 Today marks the start of The Year Of The Dog. I like dogs and I like them because I think journalists should be the guard dogs of a free society. We bark, we bite, we protect democracy and the public right to know. That’s our duty. ワンワン.

If you’re a lapdog for the powers that be, like executives at Fox News or News Corporation, journalism may be a rewarding and easy job.

Being a free-lance foreign correspondent and investigative reporter in Japan these days is a lot like being the private detective in the Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest. You’re working for a newspaper editor who’s dead before you ever get to meet him (sounds like the newspaper business in general) and you have to struggle to get paid the money owed to you. You deal with gangs and thugs and crooked politicians, pitting them against each other, appearing to take work from anyone and at the end of the day, if you’ve brought someone to justice and you’re the last man standing: you’ve won. Collect your cash and go home.

Actually, it’s not really like much like that at all, but I wanted to start this article with a hard-boiled simile.

Jokes aside, making a living as freelance reporter in Japan these days is rewarding, but risky and unstable, and there are fewer and fewer of us doing it full time.

 

There are a lot of reasons for that. The number of working journalists is decreasing every year, while the number of people working in public relations keeps going up. Newspapers and magazines that have bureaus in Japan or that will pay for stories from Japan keep declining in number. Time’s Tokyo Bureau closed years ago. Newsweek folded. Dow Jones culled a large number of senior reporters this year. Reuters hires and fires at a schizophrenic pace. Bloomberg downsized. CNN and CNBC are barely here. The Los Angeles Times bureau once existed but I can only barely remember it. It used to have an office in the Yomiuri Building,

To my delight from spring of 2015 until the fall of 2016, I was a special correspondent for the L.A. Times. Then the newspaper ran out of money. No more budget for Japan.

Well, if you read the expose from the L.A. Times Guild (the labor union formed this year) it may not even be that they ran out of money – but rather that TRONC, Inc., the corporation running the newspaper into the ground, just sucks up all the profits and awards them to its executives, not the reporters. It certainly doesn’t spend more than it has to on paying for actual reporting. The problems at the Los Angeles Times are a microcosm of what’s happening all over the media – fewer and fewer people are asked to do more work with fewer resources. That’s the case for regular employees.

I applaud the union for actually standing up for members’ rights as workers and against mismanagement.

Maybe they’ll accomplish something.

Maybe some rich philanthropist will buy the newspaper as Jeff Bezos of Amazon did with the Washington Post, and restore it to glory.

And maybe I’ll do that job again if that happens. It was a great gig.

 

Mark that word, gig. Martin Fackler, who tried freelancing for a while but has now returned to the New York Times, says the experience taught him that “Freelancers are the Uber drivers of the new journalism gig economy. Everything is on a transactional basis, with no benefits or guarantees. You get more freedom, but pay for it with lower living standards and no job stability – like the rest of the gig economy.”

I’ve been a journalist since 1993–in Japan. Next year, I’ll have been doing it 25 years, a quarter of a century, more than half my life. At 48, I have now been a journalist half my life.

Half of those years (12.5, to be exact) were spent working as a regular employee at the world’s largest newspaper. I was a reporter and a regular employee for life aka (seishain/正社員), with the promise of a pension, all my insurance covered, paid vacation with use of the company’s corporate vacation facilities, an actual expense account, a bonus twice a year and a stable income. Sure, I worked 80-hour weeks but I didn’t have time to think about the work-life balance because there was none. Life was work and since I liked the work – investigating, interviewing, writing – it worked for me.

I’ve been working freelance since 2006. I’d like to say that it has gotten easier but in fact, even as you become well known, or relatively well known, life doesn’t get any easier. The joy of freelance work is that you can to some extent pick and choose the stories you want to write and who you write them for. The sadness of freelance work is that income is so unpredictable that you can’t really walk away from a gig and you have to pay constant attention to the news for a story that someone might want because it’s timely.

I currently write regularly for the Japan Times, ZAITEN, the Daily Beast and Forbes. I write for other publications as well but those are my main gigs. And I’m happy to have them.

However, to make my rent, I have to write a lot and I do part-time jobs. I do consulting work. I appear on Japanese television shows. I write short books and I write long books. I run a blog.  I am constantly hustling.

Every day, I spend an hour or more reading newspapers and magazines in Japanese, looking for what may be a good story. I scan the articles and put them in a file. I make appointments and send out letters requesting interviews for the stories that I think are interesting. I answer email. I meet people in the afternoon, or attend press conferences. In the evening, I try to meet up with sources and maintain those relationships. I don’t have an expense account, so cheap bars and izakaya I like. If it’s an expensive place, I eat cheap somewhere first and then just have drinks.

You don’t have job security as freelancer and sometimes you don’t even get respect.

At least in Japan, you can get public health insurance, at an affordable rate. It’s one reason I can’t afford to leave Japan. That is a great perk of being a freelancer here.

By the way, the term for non-regular correspondents in the industry is “stringer.” It makes you sound sort of like a barnacle.

Below the stringer is “the fixer.” Fixers set up the meetings for the reporters coming to Tokyo, often doing the interpreting and translation of the materials. They are often not even credited for their work.

I rarely do fixing for anyone but I will for one public radio station because their correspondent is great; she credits me for the work I do on a story. That’s nice.

I’m not alone in struggling with the freelance life. Willie Pesek, author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades and recipient of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers prize for commentary also joined the freelance ranks this year. What he has to say is worth hearing:

Six months into my freelance existence, the very first of my career, I’m struck by George Orwell’s observation: “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” Having a full-time journalism gig strikes me as a similar tradeoff. The certainty of a reliable paycheck, medical benefits and access to an HR department has its merits. But the liberty freelancing affords – who you write for, which topics, which arguments -– is its own joy after two decades with major news companies.

But the biggest pros of this existence -– like working when I want to -– can also be key drawbacks. The main challenge, I’m finding, is maintaining a reasonable life/work balance. At times, while juggling various writing assignments, my inclination is to work around the clock. Creating boundaries -– like closing the laptop and having a life –- is a work in progress for me. So is knowing when to say “when.” Quality and actually has never been more important in this Orwellian fake-new world, but the quantity imperative gets in the way. Part of the tension, of course, relates to making a living –- one’s natural reluctance to turn down writing assignments. Finding a balance is something all freelancers will struggle with more and more in the years ahead. It’s a fact of this trade that quality comes first.

Then there’s the Tokyo problem. In my 15 years in Asia, I’ve always been a regional writer, which is proving to be an asset as a freelance. Lots of demand for columns for China, India, North Korea, the Philippines. Japan, not so much. Sadly, many overseas editors favor “weird Japan” items over, say, reality checks on Abenomics. But, hey, Tokyo is still a great, great city in which to live. The domestic story here, though, can be a hard sell. The Abe government using this latest electoral mandate to make big things happen would be the gift that keeps on giving for freelancers.

Willie, has a good point. Japan isn’t as important as it used to be.

I kind of wish sometimes that I hadn’t focused so much on Japan. But I’m okay with that. In the end, I may be working more hours now than I did as a regular employee. And as any freelancer will tell you, you also have to spend a lot of time on social media, getting people to read your articles, responding to those who have read them. Now and then you have to munch on the trolls who plague anyone who writes about Japan in a critical way.

Sometimes, people close to me ask me why I don’t change jobs. Here’s the best answer I can give.

Japan is my home. I love Japan. My children are Japanese. Most of my friends live here. Many Japanese people here are hard-working, honest and polite.

That doesn’t mean the society doesn’t have problems, such as child poverty, gender inequality and discrimination against: the handicapped, women, foreigners, especially Korean Japanese. Japan has a pestilent well-entrenched mob. There are nuclear dangers, staggering injustice in the legal system, repression of the free press, sexual assault on women with impunity for many assailants, rampant labor exploitation, death by overwork, and political corruption. Ignoring the problems doesn’t make them better. If you are offended by that, rethink your love of Japan.

I believe that journalism, especially investigative journalism, is a force for good and for maintaining a healthy society. It’s a vocation, not just a job. Sure some of the work is crappy, including writing about a series of crap-themed kanji instructional books for children—but you also get to do some enormous good.

Weird as it sounds, this year I took the vows to become a Zen Buddhist priest and I am one now. Not full-time.

It’s not easy being an investigative journalist and keeping the Ten Grave Precepts of a Soto Buddhist priest but there is a point where the two professions match up.

To paraphrase the Hokukyo, this is what we do.

Conquer anger with compassion.

Conquer evil with goodness.

Conquer trolls with humor and sarcasm.

Conquer ignorance with knowledge.

Conquer stinginess with generosity.

Conquer lies with truth.

The monetary rewards are not so great. Sometimes, the spiritual rewards make it seem like the best job in the world.

 

 

 

 

This was originally published in The Number One Shimbun, the periodical of The Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan.  It has been slightly modified for New Years. 

 

日本の報道の自由を守ろう!報道推進賞に記者等をノミネート。23日が締め切り!

飴と鞭と日本の報道の自由

西洋では「人参と棍棒」の喩えがなじみ深いが、日本ではこれを「飴と鞭」という。

日本のジャーナリストはここのところ飴を与えられることは少なく、鞭を見舞われることが多い。どうすれば状況を改善できるだろう。

世界の報道の自由の日に合わせて日本の報道の自由に貢献した方々・報道機関を褒めよう!推薦してください。
世界の報道の自由の日に合わせて日本の報道の自由に貢献した方々・報道機関を褒めよう!推薦してください。

 

自公連立政権が始まって以来、円が下がるより急速に下がったのは報道の自由だけだ。国境なき記者団は今年の報道の自由度ランキングで日本を前年より2位後退させ180カ国中の61位とした。これは韓国に次ぐ順位でクロアチアより数ランク下である。2012年には日本は22位だった。

国境なき記者団はこの急降下の理由をぼかしたりしない。

『2013年に国会で成立した(特定秘密保護)法は、今やタブー化している原発や日米関係などの重要な問題に関して行政の透明性を損なう。「調査報道、公共の利益、情報源の秘匿が全て、不名誉な暴露から国の名誉を守ることに躍起になっている議員たちの犠牲になる」』としている。

国内のメディアがここまで規制されるのはおそらく1937年以来のことである。もちろんイスラム国の武装グループが先日日本国民にテロ行為を行ったことが後押ししている。安倍首相が1月11日にカイロで行った演説(その演説で首相はISILと闘う国々に2億ドルの支援を約束した)が武装勢力を刺激し日本が標的になったかと問うだけで「テロの擁護者」と認定される時代に我々は生きているのだ。警察庁筋は、首相の演説までイスラム国の兵士たちが日本を紛争に中立と見なしていたという。もはやそうではないということだ。

ISの事件後野党やメディアが非常に控えめに、カイロでの演説は賢明だったか、またなぜシリアで人質になっていた日本人の救出に政府が積極的でなかったのかを質問した。日刊ゲンダイは、ジャーナリスト後藤健二氏がイスラム国の武装グループに拘束されたと伝えられた後首相がとった行動は短い休暇を取ることだったと指摘した。

政府は人質事件の対応について内部で検証を行うと言っているがそれは公表されない。2月10日岸田文雄外相は記者会見で、人質事件にまつわる事項はすべて国家機密になりうると言い、さらに報道陣を失望させた。

これはごく遠回しに「追及し続けるならお前を投獄することもできる」と言っているのだ。先月シリアへ向かおうとしたフリーランスのジャーナリストに至ってははっきりと逮捕すると脅された。もはや遠回しではない。

安倍政権は発足時から脅しと破壊、ときには飴を用いて報道と言論の自由を扱ってきた。報道は今にも敗北しようとしている。

ウォールストリートジャーナル他のメディアは先月、NHK籾井勝人会長がNHKは政府の見解が明らかになるまで戦前・戦中日本軍兵士に性行為を提供した従軍慰安婦の問題を報じないと発言したと報じた。

自民党が嫌う朝日新聞が昨年、1980年代から90年代の慰安婦問題の報道の一部を撤回したとき、右翼団体はこの機会を逃さず攻撃を始めた。朝日新聞はまた福島第一原発災害に関する重要な証言を、おそらく攻撃を恐れて撤回した。

安倍首相自身が、朝日新聞は日本の名誉を傷つけたと発言し、実質的に朝日新聞を国家の敵だと宣言することで、他の新聞が慰安婦問題を報道する際に配慮するように警告した。

さらに、週刊文春が国家公安委員長として警察庁を統括する山谷えり子が在特会として知られるヘイトグループと結びついていると暴いたとき、山谷氏は在特会と絶交することを拒んだ。

山谷氏は「私が(政府高官の立場で)いろいろな組織についてコメントするのは適切でないと考えている。」と日本外国特派員協会での会見で言った。

別の言い方をすれば、 政府が朝日新聞の報道と意見を異にするので朝日新聞は恥辱だと言うことには問題ないが、人種差別主義者を非難するのはよくないということだ。同様に、首相によって2013年、教育再生実行会議に識者として指名された曾野綾子氏が産經新聞に日本での人種隔離を奨励するコラムを書いて騒ぎを起こしても安倍首相は沈黙を守ったのだ。

発言すると公然と攻撃される時代に言論の自由を重んじ、正当な理由で戦い続ける人を励ますために何が出来るだろうか?

日本外国特派員協会は第1回報道の自由推進賞を新設に向けて小さな一歩を踏み出した。賞は5月3日(世界報道の自由の日)に発表される。調査報道に与えられる特別賞や、報道の自由に貢献したジャーナリスト以外の人に与えられる賞がある。(実は私は組織委員会に属するのでどの賞にも推薦される資格がない。)

審査員には日本の錚々たる識者も入る。賞は「報道の自由と開かれた社会及び民主主義の担保に寄与する優れた業績をあげたジャーナリストに贈られる。」

また、他界した英雄たちにも賞が贈られる。賞が創設される最初の受賞者は安倍首相のカイロでの演説後、ジハード主義者によって斬首されたジャーナリスト、後藤健二氏となる可能性が高い。

とはいえこの賞は何よりも、メディアにおいて権力を有する者が大衆に知られたくないことを知らせるという使命を果たす人々を表彰するものである。そのような働きこそが、私にとってはまさに表彰する価値があることに思える。

自らノミネートしても良いし、素晴らしいと思う報道もノミネートしてください。報道の自由と民主主義を重んじるなら声を上げてください。

詳細はFreedom of the Press Awards (FCCJ報道の自由推進賞)

直接にノミネートしたい場合、報道の自由推進賞ノミネートの入力ページ