Hiroko Kuniya was one of Japanese journalism’s brightest stars. As the host of Close-up Gendai, a current affairs programme on national TV channel NHK, she had established herself as a reliable voice of incisive news and analysis. She was feted for her sharp understanding of world news, formed in part by her experience studying in the United States. 

Gendai has been a rare example of genuine public service journalism in Japan, a country where cosy relations between reporters and prominent business and government figures result in a lack of critical reporting.

Kuniya’s time at the top of the Japanese media world came crashing down when she did what every interviewer should do: ask tough questions about issues that matter. In a live interview in July 2014 with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Kuniya calmly persisted on an issue that is important  to many Japanese: the cabinet’s decision to reinterpret the constitution to allow collective self-defence rights, which means Japanese troops can be mobilised even if Japan wasn't attacked directly. Japan’s pacifist constitution is a source of pride for many Japanese who see it as a hedge against a repeat of the horrors of World War II, and the current government’s effort to change it without a referendum has been controversial.

After Suga gave bland answers reiterating the government’s standard line on the issue, Kuniya pushed him. She asked him to address concerns that are common among the Japanese public: is it legal for the government to reinterpret the constitution of its own accord? Could Japan be pulled into overseas wars?

It’s not a coincidence that the alleged dismissals come amid a steep decline in freedom of expression in Japan. The country tumbled to 72nd on Reporters Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index.

After the interview, the prime minister’s office reportedly complained to NHK about the tone of the interview. In April, she left the position she had held for more than 23 years, allegedly forced from the role. NHK did not respond to a request for comment on her departure.

Along with Kuniya, other well-regarded broadcasters, including Shigetada Kishii, also allegedly lost their jobs at media outlets last winter. Broadcaster for TV Asahi Ichiro Furutachi stepped down after saying he was being restricted from freely commenting on the news. TV Asahi said it was his own decision.

These departures raised alarms in and outside Japan, amid fears that the three of them are canaries in the coalmine, heralding the demise of Japan’s free press. They could also be an ominous signal to other reporters wishing to challenge the official line, showing the grim fate that can be visited upon even the most prominent journalists.

It’s not a coincidence that the broadcasters’ alleged dismissals come amid a steep decline in freedom of expression in Japan. This year the country tumbled to 72nd on Reporters Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index; in 2010 it was 11th.

The watchdog group said, “The Abe administration’s threats to media independence, the turnover in media personnel in recent months and the increase in self-censorship within leading media outlets are endangering the underpinnings of democracy in Japan.”

Critics say press freedom came under attack in 2012, when right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office. Throughout his term (his second as prime minister), Abe has sought to control the national narrative, pushing a nationalistic line that glorifies Japan’s imperial past, while attempting to silence critics. But even before the recent wave of government pressure, Japan’s system of reporting has made it hard for reporters to question powerful figures.

Japanese journalists quite literally travel in packs: reporters covering business, government ministries, police stations and many other beats in Japan organise themselves into units called kisha clubs. The clubs are physical places where reporters spend their days, press conferences are held and press releases distributed. Reporters who aren’t members aren’t allowed inside.

“Japanese reporters very rarely defy the edicts of the kisha system,” said Donald Kirk, a journalist with extensive experience in Japan.

In part because of the local customs of reporters and sources having long, booze-soaked meetings, the kisha club reporters often develop close relationships with their sources. They tend to write nearly identical articles based on whatever the spokesperson tells them, usually without asking probing questions.

Members tend to be from big Japanese newspapers, such as the Asahi or Yomiuri dailies. Freelancers or reporters representing less mainstream outlets are denied access, which limits the diversity of coverage and means that the kisha clubs function like a lid on a news beat, determining who gets in and what information gets out. The clubs also have what they call “blackboard agreements”, whereby members agree with their sources not to report a certain story until a specific date. And unlike Western reporters, who sometimes step over each other to be the first to report something, members tend not scoop each other.

“Japanese reporters very rarely defy the edicts of the kisha system,” said Donald Kirk, a veteran Asia journalist with extensive experience as a reporter in Japan. According to Kirk, the Japanese media “essentially operates on the principles of herd journalism – a reflection of the unity, order and discipline of the society and system in which the reporters live and work.”

The kisha club system occasionally becomes a topic of national debate, as in 2011, when Japan suffered an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in quick succession. Nuclear power has long been a contentious subject in Japan. Painfully seared into the national memory are the World War II nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a strong anti-nuclear movement draws on those incidents to argue that nuclear power carries the risk of catastrophe and long-term suffering. The nuclear power industry has long been accused of having close ties with the government, thus hampering journalists’ investigations into the safety and maintenance of nuclear facilities.

The tsunami which hit northeast Japan in March 2011 caused a serious radiation leak at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. While the Japanese public craved information on the disaster, TEPCO, the company responsible for the plant, was slow in communicating. The kisha club reporters who cover TEPCO were accused of failing to hold the company to account. Crucial issues were left unexplained, such as how much radiation was leaking, the safety measures TEPCO was taking and the question of whether the leak could have been prevented.

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The role of the kisha club in the Fukushima case was cited by Reporters Without Borders as a factor that affected Japan's ranking. Yet despite the obvious drawbacks of the kisha club structure, it remains deeply ingrained in Japan’s media landscape. Under the country’s system of lifelong employment, employees with permanent positions know that if they lose their job and re-enter the job market at middle age, they may never work again.

“Anyone transgressing the kisha system runs the risk of losing access and having their career derailed. But in clinging to this privileged access, the media… becomes beholden to the officials and institutions they are supposed to cover without ‘fear or favour’,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus.

On a trip to Japan in April, David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, called for the kisha clubs to be abolished. “They’re a tool to restrict access,” he told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “They foster a kind of access journalism and undermine investigative journalism. I think they’re a hindrance to media freedom in Japan.”

The general state of freedom of expression in Japan seems unlikely to improve anytime soon. In February Sanae Takaichi, Japan’s minister of internal affairs and communications, threatened that there could be more cases like Kuniya’s in the future — except that next time it may be the organisation as a whole that suffers. Takaichi said that broadcast media outlets are obligated to maintain “impartiality”, and could have their license revoked if the government concludes they have failed do so.

Kuniya declined to be interviewed for this story and has yet to comment on her dismissal, saying that she prefers to stay out of the public eye for the time being. There is no telling when, or if, another reporter with a willingness to ask tough questions of government will come along to occupy her place.