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Out of Japan: Reporters club together to tell it not quite like it is

TOKYO - Masako Owada, the 29- year-old former diplomat who married Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito last week, is taller than the prince, has an unfashionably dark complexion in a country where pale skin is valued, and agreed to marry the Crown Prince last December. These are the facts.

In the Japanese press, she is described as being one inch shorter than the prince and of fair complexion. And although her engagement was known to the journalists who cover imperial affairs before Christmas, it was not publicised until January - and only then because a foreign newspaper discovered the betrothal and reported it overseas.

The reason for this disparity between fact and newspaper fiction is the pervasive and highly restrictive system of kisha kurabu, or press clubs, which control and dispense information from all government ministries and state institutions, the police agencies, economic organisations and large companies. The press clubs are very exclusive, admitting members only from mainstream newspapers and broadcasting networks: investigative weekly magazines and, above all, foreign reporters are strictly excluded.

This - a source of friction between the foreign and domestic press in Japan for decades - has worked as a powerful symbol of the difficulty foreigners have in penetrating Japanese society. The clubs are given exclusive briefings by top officials - and to make sure no mistakes are made the journalists agree among themselves on quotes and interpretation before writing their respective stories.

Now, after years of lobbying, an important professional association of Japanese journalists has issued a recommendation that the ban on foreign reporters in kisha clubs be lifted. On Thursday the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association said press clubs should admit foreigners to all formal and informal press briefings. But having struggled for so long for admittance, those same foreign news organisations are having second thoughts about whether they really want to belong to the Japanese news management system.

Consider the Masako Owada case. The reason for changing the descriptions of her personal appearance and stature was because that was the 'guidance' issued by the Imperial Household Agency's press club, perhaps the most manipulative of all the clubs. They wanted to present Ms Owada in the best light, but not have her overshadow her husband.

The news of her engagement was delayed because all the members had agreed to respect a news blackout imposed by the Palace press club on the crown prince's search for a bride.

This blackout had been going for nearly a year. The news was broken by the Washington Post's Tokyo bureau chief, and when there was an outcry in Japan he was able to respond calmly that his paper, like all other foreign publications, was denied access to the press club briefings and hence could not be held to their self-imposed rules.

The problem is that if foreigners are admitted to press clubs in Japan, they could find themselves being forced to accept a slanted and one- sided view of the news - on pain of being thrown out of the club if they violate its 'guidance'. A photographer was ejected from the Imperial Household press club several years ago for taking an impromptu - and charming - picture of one of the minor members of the imperial family smoothing a lock of her husband's hair in preparation for a formal portrait shot.

In private, Japanese journalists are a fund of interesting information and anecdotes, but little of their inside knowledge ever appears in print for fear of 'offending' their sources, with whom they spend most of their waking life for the period of their assignment to the particular club.

The breakthrough for foreign reporters in the press club battle came last month, when two US reporters forced their way into a meeting of the Tokyo Stock Exchange press club and demanded they be given the same information on corporate results as the Japanese members were then receiving. Such information is normally fed to foreign news agencies 10 minutes after the Japanese press has received it which, in today's world of instantaneous news transmission by screen, puts the foreign agencies at a strong competitive disadvantage.

The Stock Exchange press club has said it will now try to accommodate the foreign reporters' demands. The other main target is the Bank of Japan press club, which is the first to receive highly sensitive information on interest rate changes. But outside financial services, it remains to be seen whether foreign reporters would benefit from membership to press clubs whose purpose is to puff up the reputation of Japanese politicians, talk up corporate images, or gloss over bureaucratic abuse of power. Paradoxically the Japanese press benefits from the freedom of foreign journalists, often quoting foreign papers on sensitive political or diplomatic issues that they dare not write in their own name.