Accompanying the Prime Minister to Washington D.C.

January 16, 2013

Media : All on Board for Miyazawa : An American joined the prime minister on his recent U.S. trip to see a kisha club in action.
April 27, 1993|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER
ABOARD SPECIAL JAPANESE GOVERNMENT PLANE — As the jet takes off and heads across the Pacific Ocean for America, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa leaves his spacious cabin at the front to say a few words to the reporters at the back.

The 33 members of the press group await him, holding flute glasses filled with champagne. “I see there are a lot of real veteran reporters on this trip,” says Miyazawa, adding that he wants to “build a relationship of trust (with President Clinton) so we can deal with most problems on the phone.”
Now it’s the turn of the leader of the prime minister’s kisha (press) club to rise and offer a toast. “We pray for your success in seeking to build a relationship of trust with America,” says the group leader as he lifts his glass. ” Kampai !”

” Kampai !” the reporters toast in turn.

Thus begins Miyazawa’s trip to the United States with press coverage handled by a band of respectful, almost loyal reporters.

When Miyazawa flew to Washington this month, he sought to present Japan as an open society ready to take up new responsibilities as an equal partner with America. But the kisha club Miyazawa took with him is an example of the special social institutions that sometimes can make Japan appear impenetrable to outsiders. And the trip provided a rare opportunity for an American reporter allowed to travel with the group to watch one of the more powerful of those institutions in action.

Close ties between reporters and the people they cover is hardly unusual in Japan. There are about 400 kisha clubs throughout Japan. They act as news cartels that grant members special access to the government agencies, political parties and industry groups they cover. In exchange, the reporters abide by an unwritten pact that commits them to avoid embarrassing the officials or ministries they cover.

Membership in the clubs is limited to a core group of mainstream Japanese daily newspapers. Non-members, which include magazine and small-circulation newspaper reporters, are excluded from briefings and press conferences, although foreigners are occasionally allowed in some clubs as observers.

The power of the kisha club is considerable. When Miyazawa gave a rare interview to a group of American correspondents shortly before leaving for Washington, his kisha club demanded that they be briefed about the interview as soon as it was over.

Each Jan. 1, the prime minister gives a special interview to reporters from his constituency in Hiroshima. The kisha club will only allow the interview on the condition that local reporters be forbidden to ask questions of national interest.

On the Washington trip, one thing immediately became obvious: The power of the kisha club does not translate into better or more critical reporting. Rub shoulders with the White House press corps and you are liable to get a stream of the latest irreverent jokes about the Administration. The questions to the President and his spokespersons can be blunt–even obnoxious. The Japanese reporters, however, treat their prime minister with kid gloves. “What demands do you expect from the American side?” Miyazawa is asked during a brief session on the plane. His response: “Clinton is trying to deal with his deficits so I expect there will be some requests.”

American reporters are eager to find an original angle on a story. The Japanese reporters huddle to make sure they not only agree on the important points but have the same quotes. “Sometimes what he says isn’t very clear so we discuss it among ourselves to agree on an interpretation,” one reporter explains.

There is little criticism of the prime minister. A few reporters grumble that Miyazawa’s cabin on this aircraft is bigger than their own living rooms, and that it represents a waste of taxpayer money. The $260-million plane, the largest Boeing produces, was purchased as part of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s effort to cut Japan’s trade surplus. It was delivered in the fall of 1991 but has been used only twice. It contains a large conference room–but one that can’t be used because of the airplane noise. Japanese press reports include none of this detail.

In many ways, the traveling kisha club is no different than the typical Japanese tour group. On arrival, the group is invited by the Japanese Embassy to a steakhouse where a table is set for 40. The dinner is ordered in advance. The Embassy host explains that the restaurant has virtually every beer imaginable. But when one reporter orders Heineken, all the rest choose the same beer to avoid causing trouble.

At the Madison Hotel, the working press room set up for the kisha club reporters is a Japanese sanctuary. There are Japanese box lunches of rice and pickles. There are bags of rice crackers and cartons of sake. A special room has been crammed full of tax-free goods specifically aimed at the Japanese reporters.

The American aboard is ignored by the Japanese reporters until the morning after arriving in Washington, when the group is led into the Oval Office, where Clinton and Miyazawa are posing for photographers and TV cameras. “What did you mean, Mr. President, when you said that Japanese say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’?” asks a Japanese reporter, referring to a remark Clinton made to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin in Vancouver this month.

“I don’t know whether to answer yes or no,” says Clinton. Then Miyazawa pipes up: “It reminds me of the song, ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas.’ ” Back in the bus, the reporters call on the American in their midst to explain the significance of the remarks.

The Japanese reporters, however, become clearly uncomfortable when the American colleague asks about a briefing that he discovers has been scheduled that evening with Miyazawa. They clearly don’t want him there. After negotiations with the group leader and the Foreign Ministry public affairs office, it is eventually agreed that the American may attend. The ground rule: The discussion is to be limited to domestic politics. No questions will be asked about Miyazawa’s historic meeting that morning with Clinton.

The kisha club jealously guards its prerogatives. At one point, the group leader calls a meeting to discuss a serious breach of conduct. A Washington-based Japanese reporter, they have discovered, has used information from a briefing in an evening edition instead of waiting until the next morning’s edition as the club members had agreed. It is decided that the club’s officers will determine what sanctions to impose.

Back on the plane and headed home, the champagne is poured again, and the prime minister is there to give his little talk. “Thank you for all your trouble. You must be very tired,” he says. “I have to say with respect to your reporting that it was not quite accurate in representing the situation,” he adds, suggesting that he and Clinton are not as far apart on trade issues as their press conference may have indicated.

Rather than get the prime minister to clarify his position, the group leader maintains the harmony by apologizing. “We are sorry if we may have oversimplified the issues, but please understand that we were writing under a tight deadline. And as you know, most of us are not well versed on economic issues.”

Evidently peace has been established, because shortly before the plane lands, the crew delivers a bottle of 17-year-old Scotch to each reporter as a personal gift from the prime minister.

 

Leslie Helm

About the Author

Leslie Helm

Leslie Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, where his family has lived since 1869. He has worked as Tokyo correspondent for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times. It was during his years abroad that he adopted two Japanese children and began the research that would result in Yokohama Yankee. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine. Leslie graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in Asian studies. He attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on a U.S. Japan Friendship Commission fellowship. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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