Japan | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press



Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status


Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)


Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)


Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)


Japan’s prolific media garner one of the largest readerships in the world, despite criticism about a lack of viewpoint diversity resulting from exclusive press clubs and occasional backlash from ultranationalists. Press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice. The independent court system in particular has emerged in recent years as a bulwark against political pressure on journalists. In several prominent cases during 2005 and 2006, courts upheld the right of journalists to refuse to reveal anonymous sources, even when the source is a public official. In January 2007, Tokyo’s high court ruled that the public Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) had bowed to political pressure in censoring a 2001 documentary about sex slavery during World War II. Shinzo Abe, prime minister for much of 2007 and the deputy chief cabinet secretary at the time, was among the politicians who had reportedly pressured the station to delete scenes of a mock trial of wartime emperor Hirohito. The court ordered NHK and two production companies to pay US$16,400 in damages to a women’s rights group that had staged the mock trial.

Concerns remain regarding the lack of diversity and independence in reporting, especially in political news. The problem is perpetuated in part by a system of kisha kurabu, or journalist clubs, in which major media outlets have cozy relationships with bureaucrats and politicians. Exposés by media outlets that belong to such clubs are frowned upon and can result in the banning of members from press club briefings. Journalists therefore tend to avoid writing critical stories about the government, reducing the media’s ability to pressure politicians for greater transparency and accountability. Most of Japan’s investigative journalism is conducted by reporters outside the press club system. In recent years, the exclusivity of the clubs has eroded as foreign journalists with press cards from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are now guaranteed access to most official press conferences; according to the International Press Institute, the last significant kisha kurabu to bar foreign reporters is the one that deals with the affairs of the emperor and his family. However, with the exception of Nagano, where former governor Yasuo Tanaka abolished the prefecture’s press clubs, Japanese magazine reporters, online writers, and freelance journalists remain essentially barred from club briefings, even as observers.

Physical attacks against the media are rare. However, in July 2006 an ultranationalist hurled a Molotov cocktail at the headquarters of Japan’s largest business daily, Nihon Keizai Shimbun. No one was hurt in the attack, but the office suffered minor damage. In July 2007, Motohide Hiraoka was sentenced to 10 months in prison for the attack, which he said was aimed at warning the newspaper after it ran a story about Hirohito’s refusal to visit the Yasukuni Shrine once it began honoring high-ranking war criminals in 1978.

Japan has vigorous and free media and boasts the highest daily newspaper circulation per capita in the world. Many national dailies have circulations topping one million and often produce both afternoon and evening editions. More than half of the national newspaper market share is controlled by “the big three”: the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Asahi Shimbun, and the Mainichi Shimbun. There is considerable homogeneity in reports, which relate the news in a factual and neutral manner. Television news content, once dominated by NHK, has diversified considerably with the rising popularity of TV Asahi, Fuji TV, the Tokyo Broadcasting System, and satellite television. Japan also has 188 community radio stations and over 87 million internet users, representing almost 70 percent of the population. In recent years, the internet has become an increasingly important source of news and revenue, with online advertising sales growing by almost 30 percent in 2006 from the year before. No government restrictions on access to the internet were reported in 2007.