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. 

 

Is Japan’s Press Partially Responsible For The Decline Of Press Freedom?

Ever since the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2012 for the second time, Japan has been criticized for failing to guarantee fundamental human rights to its citizens and cracking down on press freedom. The international community, from the United Nations to Japan’s most important ally the United States, has pointed out that the Japanese government is undermining the freedom of the press. The report released last month by David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression, is just another example.

Japan’s Press Freedom has steadily declined since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office. From 11 to 72.

On July 1st, a group of journalists and academics gathered at the symposium titled Contemporary Crises in the Asia-Pacific, jointly hosted by Sophia University Institute of Comparative Culture and Japan Focus, to discuss the state of journalism in Japan.

The event began with freelance journalist David McNeill showing how Japanese journalism continues to be undermined by the government.

Japan’s decline in freedom of press ranking (currently at 72, it was 11 in 2010) clearly shows that journalists in Japan face tough times gathering information and publishing news that are in the public interest but not the interest of the Japanese government or powerful corporations.

 David McNeill pointed out, “Government officials have shied away from holding press conferences in the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) to avoid being faced with tough questions. Instead, they prefer to have private meetings with the media whom they favor and speak everything off the record.”

Another panelist, Michael Penn of the Shingetsu News Agency, supported Kaye’s claim of the press club system undermining the media’s ability to gather information in the public interest. The press club offers exclusive access only to mainstream media journalists who get to attend high official press conferences. As a freelance journalist, Penn has been excluded from having access to attend press conferences, unable to gather information first hand. Penn claims that, “It is not the government who is excluding me from attending press conferences but the mainstream mass media that are in charge of running the club that keep telling me no.” He stated that although the Abe government is undoubtedly applying pressure to the media, it is the media and journalists themselves that are overreacting and imposing “self censorship”.

Nowadays, Penn claims, there are as much overt pressure from the government but the media itself feels the pressure, and by reading between the lines, they are restrict producing content that may have a chance to upset Abe. Penn comes to a conclusion that we need to realize the mainstream media are on the government side.

In order to free journalists from pressures coming from the government and the media itself, Yasuomi Sawa from Kyodo News (the Associated Press of Japan)  brought up an idea of creating a network of journalists from all sections of the industry and providing an opportunity to interact with journalists from other media outfits. As Kaye correctly pointed out in his report, journalists in large media enterprises are organized by enterprise unions instead of craft or industrial unions. Because the journalists are organized in such a unique way, they tend to stay in their companies sometimes for their entire careers and are unable to form solidarity among themselves as professional journalists. Mr. Sawa also claims that for journalists to be compensated and recognized accordingly, there needs to be more awards given to good journalistic work.

In the event, all panel members agreed that journalists and academicians need to come up with ways to overcome the pressure coming from the government and within the media itself to tell the public what they have the right to know and the truth they should know.

 

 

 

Former NYT Chief Explains Japan’s Lack of Journalistic Freedom

Martin Fackler, former Tokyo bureau chief of the New York Times, gave a lecture high above Tokyo at Academy Hills in Roppongi last Thursday, primarily about why Japan’s quality and freedom of the press has regressed from a world ranking of 11 to 72 since 2010 (Press Freedom Index). Filling the auditorium were around 100 mostly-Japanese journalists, students and teachers interested in getting the outsider insight on why Japanese news sources are lacking. In Fackler’s opinion, the mainstream media and their reporters have been molded by Abe’s government into thinking they are getting special access to all the country’s biggest topics, when really it’s diluting the quality of their stories. Whereas in the U.S., major sources like New York Times and BBC that are unafraid to feature public opinions that may oppose the government, Fackler says Japan’s media culture has taken the importance of so-called “access journalism” too far.

“It seems like it’s all about getting the scoop in mainstream Japan media,” Fackler said. “It’s not just the atmosphere, it’s how people’s’ careers are made, by getting the scoop to the officials’ breaking access news.”

While also praising Abe’s cabinet for their savvy when it comes to promptly addressing the media, he points out that the desire for a scoop has made newspapers such as Asahi and Mainichi regress into a routine of rarely questioning or opposing officials in their writing, since doing so would cost them their special access rights.   

“Abe gives out a lot of scoops and one-on-one interviews with cooperative media members, and even has dinner with them,” Fackler said. “So if you play ball, you get a lot of access. That’s why there are a lot of ‘scoops’ in the yomiurii shimbun, sankei shimbun.”

Nowadays in Japan’s newsrooms, getting ‘scoops’ is overvalued in place of more quality journalism, i.e. going out into the field and reaching out to the officials individually in order to not get a pre-canned speech that everyone accepts as true.

Fackler also pointed to press clubs as a culprit for dumbing down Japanese reporting, something that rang true with me.  When I started reporting for JSRC in Summer 2015, I noticed that a lot of the foreigners in the FCCJ rarely left the workroom to write their stories. For me, this was radically different than experiences in my hometown Baltimore, where a protest by locals in the rough parts of town was often a bigger story than the original government plan they were protesting.

“All the reporters sit there and wait for the officials to bring them news,” Fackler said. “These clubs were originally intended as a way to keep a close eye on the government, but now what they’ve become is a machine to create a very passive type of journalism. It’s not just the facts that the officials parlay, it’s also the stories, narratives and how to understand it all.”

Fackler’s opening story and example of this new “passive journalism,” was his experience initially reporting on the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Minamisoma City Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai sent out an S.O.S. for help and almost no local reporters came in person to talk to him, Fackler being one of the few who didn’t opt to run for the hills on March 13th, one day after the disaster.

“I’ll never forget the reaction, because everyone at the front desk excitedly murmured: ‘kisha ga kimashita!’ (a reporter came!). Sakurai said the reason there was so much commotion was that all the Japanese reporters had left. So while all the mainstream papers were saying ‘The government has everything under control, don’t exaggerate the risks, etc.’, those reporters were themselves running for the hills,” Fackler said. “It became a lesson to me of how the media here has a tendency to repeat the official mindset, even if they believe differently, and that there’s a pressure to not deviate from the official narrative.”  

In my opinion, much of what the former correspondent listed as the deep issues with Japan’s newspapers are easily fixable, it just takes some sacrifices with losing favor in the government’s circle of media it likes. I appreciated how Mr. Fackler took notice of NHK broadcasts constantly being focused around an official or prosecutor’s good work, never a simple salaryman or artist. Newspapers are just as much to blame for Japan’s fall in press freedom as Abe and his regime, if not more because of the power I believe news articles can have in rallying people to pressure the government into doing what’s best. Instead, we see newspaper writers falling into line like they are simply mere kohai (second rank) to the government that tells them what’s important.

“I think the Abe govt. has raised the bar with dealing with press, but the problem is the big media haven’t followed. They’re still in this post-war heiwagyou case thing, where they’re so used to having stories fed to them, that when the government roughs them up a bit, they’re like dogs and roll over on their backs. I don’t think they know or have had a good fight with the government in a really long time.”