A thorn removed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 March, 2004, 12:00am

ON JUNE 7, 2000, two men called at the cluttered Shinjuku offices of the magazine Uwasa no Shinso (The Truth Behind the Rumour) and asked to see the editor, Yasunori Okadome. The men, right-wing extremist members of the Japan Youth Federation, had come to complain about a one-line article claiming Crown Princess Masako might be pregnant. What angered many people was not that the magazine had broken a taboo of reporting on the imperial family against its wishes, but that it printed the princess' name without the correct honorific, hi.

After haranguing Okadome and his deputy and demanding a published apology, the visitors split his head with a glass ashtray and stabbed him in the leg. They then told the bleeding, half-conscious editor to call the police before sitting down in his office to wait for their arrival. The men were arrested and sentenced to 16 months' imprisonment each. Why didn't they flee? 'They wanted to send out a message to others I suppose,' says Okadome. The message: 'Don't challenge taboos.'

After a quarter of a century, the monthly magazine Okadome founded in 1979 is rolling out its last issue on Saturday. Dressed in his trademark dark glasses, black outfit and looking a little like the yakuza gangsters he sometimes covers, Okadome says the job has worn him out. 'I've spent 25 years challenging taboos, and the stress has been considerable, so I'd like to take it easy from now on,' says the 54-year-old editor. 'It's been a great period but I've had enough. I started the magazine because there are so many things in Japan that the press is scared of covering. But I'm not getting any younger and I don't have the energy any more.'

A self-confessed anti-establishment figure, Okadome was a student activist before taking up journalism in the 1970s. He has no wife or family because, in the words of one office colleague, 'he's married to his job'. Like many other so-called guerilla journalists who came of age during the turbulent late 1960s and early 70s in Japan, Okadome believed in the famous dictum of Finley Peter Dunne, that journalism should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Unlike most of them, he has lived up to it.

The imperial family, the police, organised religion, top politicians, big business and Japan's pampered, overpaid 'talent' have all had to dodge missiles from Uwasa. And although its approach - a mixture of gossip, sleaze, scandal and smut - is often more carpet bomb than surgical strike, when Uwasa is on target, it hurts. Tokyo's chief prosecutor, Mamoru Norisada, was forced to resign in 1999 after the magazine published a story about his publicly funded affair with a 28-year-old hostess, and former prime minister Yoshiro Mori was badly wounded by a story a year later alleging he had been caught by police in a brothel in 1958. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has taken flak for abandoning his pregnant wife and cutting off his children.

Thousands of other targets have had to run for cover over the years. 'Uwasa starts the ball rolling with so many stories in Japan by just putting them in print,' says media commentator Dave Spector, who writes for the magazine. 'They are the first to go into battle, then all the others pick up the story because once something gets into print it's like a green light for everyone. But Okadome has been attacked and sued so many times. If you're the only game in town, the only one with balls, it's hard to bear the burden.'

Although its quality careered wildly from month to month, Uwasa was required reading among hacks and media talking heads in Japan. 'We all read the magazine to get an idea of what is going on,' says Asahi journalist Chie Matsumoto. 'It publishes stories on things that are hard to approach in Japan: scandals, the sex industry and information that's not released by the press clubs. Government officials and major corporations never give you straight answers, so it was useful for the story behind the scenes.'

Uwasa's method, which earned its editor six major lawsuits - predominantly resulting in a compromise settlement, a stay in hospital and countless protests by ultra-nationalists - is to publish often unattributed stories, usually fed by journalists who sit on information they can't use in their own publications. A typical example was the rumour known to most hacks that Princess Masako's pregnancy in 2001 was the result of in-vitro fertilisation. The Imperial Agency leaned on the press not to report the rumour, but Uwasa ignored them.

The previous year, one of the huge talent agencies that pumps out airbrushed pop idols tried to suppress a story that Masahiro Nakai, of squeaky clean pop group SMAP, had pressured a girlfriend to have an abortion. Okadome printed it.

Uwasa could only exist in Japan, where press clubs, organised business and a long list of gangrenous taboos eat away at the public's right to know, ensuring that newspapers are simultaneously the best read and most timid in the developed world. The press clubs, attached to most large organisations and government agencies, drip-feed information to docile journalists and have been heavily criticised in Japan and abroad.

'The thing is the mainstream newspapers are just coasting in this country,' says Spector. 'They're all the same. They never have scoops or investigative reporting. They just regurgitate what they're fed. They have these huge circulations, but they're boring. If they didn't have the TV schedules their circulations would be cut in half.'

The timorous press has helped fuel a vast underground of weekly and monthly journalism, of which Uwasa was the most thrilling and reckless. Uniquely, it was not dependent on advertising, freeing it from one possible moderating influence, and as a magazine it was excluded from another: the press clubs in Japan's journalistic caste system.

Typical of the magazine's scattershot style, it put out a special edition in January this year called 'Taboo Japan' that listed the journalistic no-go areas that kept the magazine in business for 25 years. The issue reads like a map of Japan's dark underbelly: police and political corruption, tax evasion, the colourful pre-married life of Princess Masako, the chokehold of advertising giants Dentsu and Hakuhodo over the media and popular culture, the manipulation of the North Korean issue by shadowy political forces, the strong-arm tactics of talent agencies. The biggest taboo is the imperial family, followed by the religious group Soka Gakkai (fronted by the political party New Komeito, part of the coalition government) and the Burakumin, the old class of untouchables.

Uwasa's approach has made it many enemies, even among those who might be expected to support it. In addition to being forced to pay out millions of yen to Mori after police refused to release the files on his case, some have accused the magazine of being a vehicle for publicly airing feuds.

'You're not really looking at investigative journalism with Uwasa,' says Mark Schreiber, who introduces stories from the vernacular magazines to Japan Times readers. 'I get the feeling that the stories about politicians and entertainment figures and so on come from one of their enemies who dropped the story into their hands.' Moreover, the magazine has controversially 'outed' prominent celebrities who hide their Chinese and Korean backgrounds, and its unwillingness to meet basic journalistic standards upset some.

'Uwasa is widely respected for providing background reading on areas that rarely make the mainstream press,' says one newspaper journalist. 'But I find much of their writing rather sketchy and gossipy. The magazine ... tended to rely on limited, unidentified sources.'

Still, there is no doubt it will be missed, especially by the thousands of journalists who depended on it to make the first move, one reason why its demise will be, in Spector's words, 'more a psychological than a commercial blow'. Yoshiaki Kiyota, president of industry trade publication Publishing News, says the passing of Uwasa is 'tragic'. 'It forced journalists to be more critical about themselves and their work and gave them motivation to chase stories and people in power, and it gave a voice to ordinary people.'

What of the Japan Okadome leaves behind? 'Libel and new privacy laws have made it even harder for the media to do their job,' he says. 'Taboos are still there and growing stronger, especially in relation to the police and the imperial family. I wonder if Japanese readers will be able to get the truth behind what is going on.'