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What influence does the media exert upon
the political process in Japan?

In recent years the Japanese media has been widely lambasted by scholars both within and without Japan. Enjoying huge circulation figures, the mainstream newspapers are cautious not to offend any sector of society, resulting in neutral, dull, bland reporting devoid of opinion. The newspapers are not alone in this; with television networks, which the average Japanese tunes into for over 4 hours a day, are bound by law to respect the government, which in the case of the national broadcaster NHK allocates funds, and in the case of private networks issues broadcast licences (Pharr and Krauss, 1996; FPCJ, 2006). This tendency is further reinforced by the manner in which information is collected through the kisha kurabu (press club) system, which relies on widespread use of anonymity and internal ‘gentleman’s agreements’ to govern if and when information is released, a process designed to guarantee future exclusive access to sources (De Lange, 1998, 187, 191). Investigative journalism is discouraged, and all information is pooled amongst members so as to avoid the possibility of any news outlet being scooped. This tendency to form ‘information cartels’ in order to avoid any possible controversy, has resulted in a dependency upon staged press conferences and ‘credentialed’ government news releases, the contents of which are then simply regurgitated in the papers and on the evening news. This has led critics to label the Japanese media “[a] well-tuned single-voice choir”, “coconspirators”, and “Trade journals for the political establishment” (van Wolferen, 1989, 96; Freeman, 2000, 19; Kyōgoku, 1975, 118 respectively). Freeman (2000, 19) sums up the situation by stating that the press strive to maintain a neutrality that is more “that of the closely linked insider who rarely challenges the status quo, rather than one of the independent outsider.”
              The apparent dependency of the mainstream media upon cooperation and collusion with the state for its continued commercial success, would seem to indicate that it has significantly less influence upon the political process than may be the case in other democratised countries, where the mass-media industry applauds challenges to the existing system. It has been said that the Japanese media performs the role of ‘guard-dog’ rather than ‘watch-dog’, obediently protecting the interests of its political master from outside intruders in return for guaranteed nourishment (Freeman, 2000, 162).
              Despite this, it is possible to discern a number of distinct areas where the media actively influence the political process. Firstly, it will be shown that reporters play a vital role in the daily running of the Diet, by acting as information transporters between Diet members, bureaucrats and businessmen, thus gaining the ability to influence the thinking of policy makers on all levels (Feldman, 1987, 1993).
              Secondly, it can be demonstrated that the media have a degree of influence over the formation of public opinion, and through that, voting patterns. With the average household subscribing to at least one of the 70 million newspapers sold on a daily basis, the combined power of all media outlets is a force that the ruling elite cannot afford to ignore (Krauss, 1998; FPCJ, 2006; NSK, 2006).
              A third area of influence that the media enjoy to a certain extent is in agenda setting. Whilst it is acknowledged that this power is significantly less than that held by counterparts in other democratic countries (mainly due to an unwillingness to upset the status quo), with the power of the people behind it there have been times when the media has wielded significant power in bringing issues to the attention of the government, and in effect forced politicians to take action (van Wolferen, 1989, 98-99; Campbell, 1996, 190; Altman, 1996, 172-173).
              A fourth role that the media has performed with exceptional success is in aiding the preservation of the political status quo, and most notably, facilitating LDP longevity. In the absence of a credible opposition, it has been claimed by some that the media play a watchdog role, ensuring that the government remain accountable for their actions – history tells us otherwise (Freeman, 2000, 6).
              Finally, it can be shown that the advent of television politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s has resulted in a change in the concerns of Diet members when attempting to transmit their messages to the public. Due to their immaturity and lack of ties to the press club system, the private TV news stations were able to ask questions that were considered taboo within the mainstream press, in addition to presenting politicians as ‘real people’ rather than as untouchables reading from prewritten scripts. Thus, the public was allowed to engage further in the political process, and politicians came one step closer to appreciating that there was a public ‘out there’ and that they had a duty to respond to it.
              Whilst it is commonly accepted that the media plays a central role in informing the public of news, the extent to which politicians rely upon the media for critical information has often been overlooked. In the mid-1980s, Feldman carried out an in-depth survey of Diet members to establish what information was required by politicians to enable them to carry out their roles effectively, and what their sources of information were. His findings demonstrated that newsmen played a critical role in the political process, a role which could be regarded to a certain extent as distinct from that of newspaper reporter, and were subsequently able to exert significant influence on policy.
              In order to carry out their role efficiently it is vital that politicians are kept informed of events happening both within and without the governmental structure. However, due to the sheer volume of information that is churned out on a daily basis from all corners of the political world, it is logistically impossible for them to personally gather all of the information that they require. Further, due to the oppositional nature of politics, they may not be able to obtain sensitive information from sources who do not see it as being in their interests to divulge it. Whilst regular party meetings and close attention to the public press can help to fill the void, these alone are not enough to provide politicians with all of the information that they require, especially during busy periods such as election campaigns when swift reactions to developments are vital. In Japan, such needs are even greater; the factional nature of politics result in politicians within the same ruling LDP coalition being unable to approach colleagues from other sides of the party, whilst the consensus-based nature of political decision making requires that some common ground be reached before face-to-face consultations between the relevant politicians can begin. News reporters, due to the very nature of their jobs, meet with many different political players on a daily basis, thus acquiring a vast wealth of knowledge not just on mundane political facts but also on politicians’ opinions and ideological stances. Accordingly they are seen not only as neutral, trustworthy sources, but also as political advisers whenever matters arise that involve political players outside of familiar territory (Feldman, 1987, 1993).
              The close relationships which journalists develop with Japanese officials has often been highlighted as an example of media bias. These ties are particularly noticeable in the phenomenon of ban journalists, packs of reporters who are assigned to individual political figures (historically these are people such as LDP faction leaders, the secretary general and the Prime Minister). These journalists, who form what has been described as “a press club within a press club” (Feldman, 1993, 87), will follow their assigned individual from morning until night, noting down everything that they say and do. When the evening comes, they may wait outside the residence of the individual, and if they are fortunate will be invited into the house for a glass of whiskey, a game of Majong and an intimate chat (Feldman, 1993; Freeman, 2000).
Whilst this has the well-publicised effect of endangering objective reporting and encouraging the self-censorship of news that could prove damaging to influential political figures (Freeman, 2000, 115), it also results in politicians coming to view journalists as close allies, whose advice is worth heeding on a whole range of subjects. Indeed, the extent to which politicians value the opinions of journalists was highlighted in Feldman’s research by the response of one senior LDP Diet member, who commented:

“Reporters know better than most of my close aides what is necessary for me to do as a Diet member, when to do it, and how. Based on their broader knowledge and a keen ability to analyse any political trend or movement, their sense of judgement is uncanny” (Anonymous Diet member, cited in Feldman, 1993, 144).

Other senior politicians cited the fact that journalists tended to have a broader outlook upon policy issues, that they are informed of the opinions of rival factions and opposition parties, and thus, when a new policy is proposed it is often to them that they turn first for advice (Feldman, 1993, 145). In addition to this, they are thought of as more reliable than other Diet members who may give biased information for reasons of self-interest. When there is a need for compromise with other factions, or when bureaucratic opinions are sought, it is the ‘neutral’ newsman who acts as the go-between, informing all camps of the thinking of the other parties concerned, and laying the foundations for further cooperation (Feldman, 1987, 372; 1993, 178). Enjoying such a privileged position, newsmen are able to directly influence the thinking of policy makers, most notably in changing their attitudes towards the precedence and importance of issues. They are also able to introduce new ideas to policy makers which may otherwise be ignored by the establishment (Feldman, 1993, 165-181, Gamble and Watanabe, 2004, 51).
              The second role that the press enjoy is that of vertical communicators, that is, dissemination of information between the government and the public (Feldman, 197). The Japanese media has been justly described as “a Godzilla of the news” (Gamble and Watanabe, 2004). In addition to the unparalleled circulation figures enjoyed by the press, there is a wealth of weekly magazines, numerous private television and radio stations, in addition to the public broadcaster NHK, second only in size to the BBC. The uniformity of the news presented by many of these outlets (brought about by the kisha kurabu system) means that should the media choose to take a certain stand on an issue, the majority of the Japanese public will be exposed to that opinion on multiple occasions. Thus, not only do the public become informed, which in turn has been shown to lead to increased discussion about political issues between individuals, but also their attitudes are shaped, which ultimately can affect voting patterns (Krauss, 1996a, 118; Pharr, 1996; Gamble and Watanabe, 2004, 91). The huge advertising campaigns that the weekly magazines rely on for their continuing success further extends the reach of the media into the everyday life of the public, thus their influence could be perceived as stronger than in other countries (Feldman, 1993, 22-24; 193).
Flanagan (1996, 289) demonstrates that those who have more exposure to political coverage in the media are, naturally, more politically knowledgeable. He goes on to state that an increased knowledge of politics does lead to increased participation in the political process (Flanagan, 1996, 295). A further, somewhat more concrete example of media influence over voter behaviour can be seen in the case of the “Announcement affect”, whereby in the days leading up to elections, the media publishes the results of candidate popularity polls, and predicts the outcome. This can lead to voters’ opinions being swayed, most notably where the predicted outcome is of a close-run race (Pharr, 1996, 8).
              The agenda-setting ability of the Japanese media has often been criticised for being compromised by pack-journalism and vested interests . Nonetheless, due to its wide reach the Japanese media has the potential to act as a powerful force for bringing issues to the attention of both the public and the state. Indeed, the power of the press is widely recognized by many of the parties concerned: a study of 2,664 Japanese elites by Ikuo and Broadbent (1986) found that out of 11 major power-holding groups (such as the LDP, big business, and the bureaucracy etc.), all but one ranked the media as being the most powerful group in Japanese society – the exception was the media itself, which placed itself in second position after big business.
              However, it should be noted that the media seldom initiate policy change themselves. Rather, they tend to act on behalf of a sponsor, which may be a civil rights group, a business sector, or on occasion government departments that wish to bring about social change but lack the influence necessary to carry out a campaign unaided (Campbell, 1996, Groth 1996). As Campbell (1996, 190) has noted, “it is difficult to get ‘the people’ to sympathize, more difficult to get them to do anything positive, and hardest of all to keep them interested”. Thus, if a nationwide political campaign is to be successful it is vital to get them onboard. Examples can be seen whereby a focused media has brought about significant change – a notable case would be that of the fall of the Miyazawa government in 1993, which was brought about following a television interview with the prime minister in which promises were made that ultimately could not be kept (Altman, 1996, 173). However, one should be cautious not to over-emphasise the power of the newly discovered ‘television politics’ of the 1990s; the fall of the LDP in the summer of 1993 was brought about primarily by LDP defections to other newly-established conservative parties, rather than a big shift in voting habits (McCargo, 1996).
It is also important to bear in mind that even if one has the support of the media, one must watch one’s back. In an attempt to reconcile conflicting theories on the role that the Japanese media plays, Pharr (1996) has labelled it as the ‘trickster’: at one moment inflating an issue to epic proportions, in the next, casting it off as if it was of no concern. When it comes to agenda setting, organisations that wish to spread their message to the wider public through the mass media may find themselves victims of the messenger’s unpredictable behaviour. Once an issue has been picked up upon it is open to interpretation by a wide variety of commentators who often have little expertise in the relevant field, but nonetheless are only too eager to offer their opinions in the popular press.
              The LDP, which has enjoyed over 40 years of almost continuous rule, has much to thank the press for. Whilst some may cite the media as fulfilling the role of ‘the fourth state’ (that is, serving as a watchdog against government corruption), others have claimed that despite having full inside knowledge of the regular abuses of power by politicians and bureaucrats, the press engage in self-censorship, as they are only too aware that an end to the existing system would also spell an end to their cosy partnership with the ruling powers. Thus, no matter how many political scandals hit the headlines, fundamental reforms are never made. Rather, excessive greed and corruption is slewed off through resignations and tearful apologies, before business is allowed to continue as usual (Farley, 1996, 158-159; Gamble and Watanabe, 2004, 113). As Krauss notes, the weakness of the opposition parties, which led to what has essentially been a one-party system, heightened the importance of the media’s role in transmitting public opinion and reaction to the government (Krauss, 1996b, 360). However, due to repressive media laws and the ingrained patterns of information gathering carried out by the newspapers through the medium of dependent press clubs, deep-rooted corruption (such as the ‘stocks-for-favours’ Recruit scandal) were deliberately kept out of the press, despite reporters being aware of what was going on (Feldman, 1993; Farley, 1996, 148-149). In addition to this, the powerful newspaper association and media business groups were cautious to avoid upsetting their powerful allies in the Diet – thus, it was in everyone’s interests (but the public’s) to allow the façade of democracy to continue unhindered (Freeman, 2000).
              The 1993 election, which saw an end to 38 years of LDP rule, was dubbed by some as Japan’s first ‘television election’ (Krauss, 1998). The launch of Asahi TV’s News Station evening news program in 1985 marked a revolution in television’s treatment of politics. NHK, the domineering force in television news up until that point, shied away from offering commentary or opinion – the facts were simply read from scripts in a serious, unengaging manner. The focus was on the public bureaucracy, and any images used of those in power would often be devoid of a soundtrack, thus further removing viewers from the subjects behind the stories (Krauss, 1998).
              News Station, with a presenter, Kume Hiroshi, who was better known for presenting pop shows, changed all of that. ‘Aggressive’ American style interviews were introduced. A lack of ties to the press club system enabled the producers to push beyond the ‘norms’ of television news. The staff were also highly motivated, having been selected from members of the public, and not being subject to the low, seniority-based pay scale that NHK employees suffered from. On screen, seemingly complex political matters were broken down into understandable language, before Kume went on to question and criticise the government in a direct manner. News Station went on to surpass NHK News in popularity – it had become one of Japan’s most popular news sources (Altman, 1996, 170-172; Krauss, 1998).
              The success of News Station encouraged other networks to follow suit. When it came to elections, political candidates, restricted by official government regulations on official campaign airtime, began to realise that these chat-show style programs offered them a unique opportunity to get their messages across to the voting public. This trend was particularly noticeable with the younger generation of politicians who felt frustrated by the barriers imposed by the political old-boys network. Thus, the media, through embracing this new role, served to bring the decision makers out from the back rooms where they had previously been shielded from public scrutiny – no longer was election success guaranteed by the ability to raise funds and establish in-house support networks (Altman, 1996; Flanagan, 1996; Krauss, 1998). One could argue that the current Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi is a product of this phenomenon (Amyx and Drysdale, 2003, 9). However, the televisation of politics has also had the detrimental effect of encouraging politicians to concentrate upon their media images to ensure election success, at the expense of building up portfolios of sound policies for the governing of Japan (Altman, 1996).
              From the above examples, it can be concluded that the media does indeed wield a significant amount of influence over the political process within Japan. Through facilitating and manipulating horizontal communication within the Diet, agenda setting and opinion forming in the public realm, preserving the corrupt foundations of the political status quo, and making political players answerable to the electorate, the press enjoys considerable power. Whilst not all of these (namely reporter bias resulting from intimate ties with politicians, and preservation of the status quo) are welcome features of the system, and those that are (agenda setting, opinion forming and making politicians answerable to the public) suffer from institutional restraints, it would be naive to condemn the Japanese media as ineffective bystanders that serve as nothing but ‘trade journals for the political establishment’.


Altman, Kristin Kyoko (1996), “Television and Political Turmoil”, 165-186, in Susan Pharr and Ellis Krauss (eds.), Media and Politics in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Amyx, Jennifer and Drysdale, Peter (2003), Japanese Governance: Beyond Japan Inc., London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Campbell, John (1996), “Media and Policy Change in Japan”, 187-212, in Susan Pharr and Ellis Krauss (eds.), Media and Politics in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

De Lange, William (1998), A History of Japanese Journalism”, Richmond: Japan Library.

Farley, Maggie (1996), “Japan’s Press and the Politics of Scandal”, 133-163, in Susan Pharr and Ellis Krauss (eds.), Media and Politics in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Feldman, Ofer (1987), “Accessibility to News: Sources of Information for Japanese Politicians”, Government Information Quarterly, 4: 4 (371-381).

Feldman, Ofer (1993), Politics and the News Media in Japan, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Flanagan, Scott (1996), “Media Exposure and the Quality of Political Participation in Japan”, 277-312, in Susan Pharr and Ellis Krauss (eds.), Media and Politics in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

FPCJ (2006), Facts and Figures of Japan 2005: Mass Media, Tokyo: Foreign Press Center Japan. Available from <> (Updated 2006, Accessed 07/05/2006 15:59).

Freeman, Laurie Anne (2000), Closing the Shop: Information Cartels and Japan’s Mass Media, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gamble, Adam and Watanabe, Takesato (2004), A Public Betrayed: An Inside Look at Japanese Media Atrocities and Their Warnings to the West, Washington: Regnery Publishing Inc.

Groth, David (1996), “Media and Political Protest: The Bullet Train Movements”, 213-241, in Susan Pharr and Ellis Krauss (eds.), Media and Politics in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Ikuo, Kabashima and Broadbent, Jeffrey (1986), “Referent Pluralism: Mass Media and Politics in Japan”, Journal of Japanese Studies, 12 (2), 329-361.

Krauss, Elliss (1996a), “Portraying the State: NHK Television News and Politics”, 89-133, in Susan Pharr and Ellis Krauss (eds.), Media and Politics in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Krauss, Elliss (1996b), “The Mass Media and Japanese Politics: Effects and Consequences”, 355-372, in Susan Pharr and Ellis Krauss (eds.), Media and Politics in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Krauss, Elliss (1998), “Changing Television News in Japan”, The Journal of Japanese Studies 57 (3): 663-692.

Kyōgoku (1975), “‘Seken no jōshiki’ to sekai no jōshiki’ “(“The Popular Common Sense” and “the Worldly Common Sense”)”, Bungei Shunjū, January 1975, 118, cited in Susan Pharr (1996), “Media as Trickster in Japan: A Comparative Perspective”, in ibid, 19-43.

McCargo, Duncan (1996), “The political role of the Japanese Media”, Pacific Review, 9 (2): 251-264.

NSK (2006), Facts and Figures about Japanese Newspapers: Circulation, Tokyo: Nihon Shinbun Kyokai. Available from <> (Updated 2006, Accessed 07/05/2006 14:40).

Pharr, Susan and Krauss, Ellis (eds.) (1996), Media and Politics in Japan, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Wolferan, Karel van (1989), The Enigma of Japanese Power, London: MacMillan London Limited.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare discovered this to their cost in the early1970s. At that time, faced with a rapid increase in the number of elderly people, the ministry initiated a program of social education, to make people aware of the need to provide health care for this growing sector of the population. It was also careful to include in its press releases proposals for meeting the problem; these emphasised ‘preventative medicine and health maintenance’. However, it was not in the media’s character to publicise such mundane answers to the problems – instead, alongside the government warnings they carried calls by outsiders (such as the Tokyo Governor) for vast injections of cash into the system by means of paying doctors directly for providing elderly patients with free checkups. This notion of ‘free’ medical care soon caught on, and was widely mimicked throughout Japan, despite the objections of the ministry that had instigated the movement (Campbell, 1996, 201-206).


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© Joseph Tame 2000~2006