Kyoto’s ‘Kisha Club’ System Challenged by Gutsy Farmer

By Brian Covert
Staff Writer

KYOTO — Crops of rice, turnips and potherb mustard are not the only things that local farmer Takao Fujita is digging into these days.

When he is not out working the fields of his 1.3-hectare farm, Fujita is giving new meaning to the term “grassroots activism” in his court battles against local governments and their cozy relationship with the press.

In his upcoming Kyoto District Court case Feb. 12, Fujita is suing Kyoto mayor Tomoyuki Tanabe for 2.9 million yen — the amount Fujita estimates the city owes the public for providing the “
kisha club” of press reporters based at Kyoto City Hall with telephone use and various entertainment expenses during the 1991 fiscal year.

“The press club system is like a closed, exclusive society in itself and the people outside are not allowed to come in,” says Fujita, who wants that arrangement opened to public scrutiny.

Fujita’s lawsuit against the city of Kyoto is an extension of an earlier battle with Kyoto Prefecture: an 8.6 million-yen lawsuit against Kyoto Prefecture governor Teiichi Aramaki that Fujita lost in February 1992.

The presiding Kyoto District Court judge at the time rejected Fujita’s claim that news reporters are unduly influenced by their access to the prefecture’s press facilities and other perquisites — privileges that Fujita charged were an unlawful use of public funds and a conflict of interest.

Fujita’s subsequent appeal to the national Supreme Court was rejected five months later.

The farmer’s initial interest in fighting Kyoto’s kisha club system was sparked by a controversial press conference on Sept. 1, 1987 by Kyoto’s government about a national sports meet in Okinawa to be attended by then-Crown Prince Akihito.

Kyoto governor Aramaki was quoted by Kyodo News Service as stating that a recent typhoon that had leveled sugar cane fields in Okinawa provided the sports meet organizers with unforeseen benefits of security against anti-emperor “radicals” who may have wanted to launch a hidden attack from the brush. The story was carried in Okinawa, where it sparked a public outcry among farmers and citizen groups, but few news companies elsewhere bothered to run the story.

Fujita says as a farmer he was incensed about the governor’s remarks and soon began looking behind the scenes into the Kyoto news media’s virtual blackout of the story.

His inquiries led him to Kyoto Prefecture’s press clubs, most of whose operating expenses he found were being absorbed by the prefectural government. After his petition for a detailed audit of the press club was rejected, Fujita decided to take his battle to the courts.

Kyoto’s kisha club system is no different from similar set-ups in other public and private institutions in most cities throughout Japan. Those Japanese media companies who do not join the press clubs are, like most foreign news outlets, essentially barred from covering the inner workings of that particular institution.

One reporter from a major liberal Japanese vernacular newspaper, speaking confidentially, defends the kisha club system as “convenient”: The news releases and announcements authorized by the institution allow press representatives to quickly file the stories back to their head offices from their cubicles at the club room.

Fujita challenges that convenience. “These (Kyoto city) press club reporters are almost municipal employees because they come directly to the clubs from their homes and stay there all day,” he said. “They (rarely) go out and talk directly with the public. They just write what the city government says. And that’s wrong.”

On the other hand, Fujita says that many reporters in Kyoto have privately expressed to him their dissatisfaction with the existing arrangement.

“I know many reporters who feel repressed over their loss of freedom because of the pressure to write only what the city government says,” according to Fujita. “These reporters feel that their ability is not being fully utilized because of that pressure. It’s hard for them to criticize the city.”

Needless to say, Fujita’s challenge to the existing club system has generally not won him many friends in Kyoto press circles.

In more comical moments, he claims, “the reporters run, practically fly, away when they see me coming. One reporter sitting in the press club even denied being a reporter when I approached him! Unbelievable. He just didn’t want to answer my questions. They won’t even talk to me.”

While Fujita himself wonders about the chances of winning his ongoing court case, it has not stopped the Kyoto farmer from raising objections to a press-government relationship that he sees as sowing seeds of doubt and suspicion among the public.

“When it come to Kyoto coverage, people living here feel they cannot trust what the media says, that it’s not right,” he said. “They are gradually finding out that the press clubs are actually on the side of the authorities.”