This is the journalism Japan needs.

"WaseKuro isn’t just taking over the investigative role of traditional media. We are creating a new form of journalism in Japan."

By Makoto Watanabe
Waseda Chronicle

The following is Waseda Chronicle’s first newsletter, written by its Editor-in-Chief Makoto Watanabe. It is republished here in its entirety with his permission.

Waseda Chronicle has 18 members in its team. The youngest is 21, the eldest 72. Photo supplied by the author.
Dear colleagues,

Happy New Year!

Waseda Chronicle will mark its third anniversary on February 1. In this newsletter, I’d like to introduce our path, past and future, as a Tokyo-based investigative journalism nonprofit. We look forward to further cross-border collaboration with partners who share the same journalistic ideals and mission in 2020 and beyond.

Japanese journalism in danger

 “The independence of the press is facing serious threats.” In April 2016, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye announced the findings of his survey of Japanese journalism. That year, Japan fell to 72nd place in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. In 2010, it had ranked 11th.

I was interviewed by Kaye in 2014. At the time, I worked for The Asahi Shimbun’s Special Investigative Section. Earlier that year, the section had exposed secret government documents detailing the circumstances of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. However, the Asahi’s president subsequently retracted and publicly apologized for the article, and the reporters responsible were punished. When he interviewed us, Kaye asked my colleagues and me whether the government was exerting pressure on the Asahi.

I replied that it was not. Japan’s mass media doesn’t fold in the face of pressure from the powerful — because it already self-censors. The Fukushima article retraction is one such case: The Asahi’s management cracked as it imagined Prime Minister Abe’s inclinations.

Japan’s press clubs are emblematic of this acquiescence to the powerful. The clubs, comprised solely of reporters from major media organizations, are housed in government offices and fed exclusive information. It’s an efficient system for producing articles and news broadcasts. Of course, the government usually just shares what is convenient, which media organizations then duly discharge because they don’t want their special access revoked.

Obedience is rewarded. For example, last year Japan raised its consumption tax, but newspapers were exempt from the hike. Diapers, a daily necessity for those with small children, were not. Do newspapers, which lack public trust and whose readerships are dramatically dropping, really deserve the exemption?

Japanese mass media is not suppressed for opposing the government; it has allied itself with the powerful. And the tendency only worsens as media organizations face financial difficulties. In my eyes, this is the reason for Japan’s mediocre World Press Freedom rankings in recent years.

True journalism cannot flourish unless it stands in opposition to power.

In March 2016, I left The Asahi Shimbun, my workplace of 16 years, to found Waseda Chronicle. One month later, Kaye’s report confirmed my reasons for doing so.

Read Splice's profile of Waseda Chronicle here.

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The little nonprofit that moved a giant

Waseda Chronicle (affectionately abbreviated as WaseKuro in Japanese) published its first investigative report, “Journalism for Sale,” on Feb. 1, 2017. The series explained how advertising giant Dentsu and Kyodo News colluded over the past 20 years to slip sponsored content into news articles. This practice damages the independence of the press and spells the death of journalism.

For Japan’s mass media, Dentsu is untouchable. It brings sponsors to newspapers and TV stations and is by far the largest advertiser in Japan. The company is also well-known internationally and was a major force behind Tokyo’s winning bid for the 2020 Olympics.

WaseKuro doesn’t run ads. We are an independent, donation-funded nonprofit. We do not fear giants like Dentsu. Our “Journalism for Sale” series exposed the company’s collusion with Kyodo News using Dentsu Group internal documents. Following our report, Dentsu promised at its shareholders’ meeting to improve business practices, and Kyodo promised its employees that it would stop publishing compensated articles. With its first investigation, little WaseKuro cut through industry taboo to create change.

A formal apology and compensation for victims

From the late 1940s to the 1990s, the Japanese government oversaw the forced sterilization of over 16,500 people with disabilities. The sterilizations aimed to eliminate disabilities in order to “revive the Japanese race.”

WaseKuro interviewed victims and examined decades’ worth of documents regarding the sterilizations. Our investigation found that the government encouraged municipalities to compete to perform the highest number of sterilization surgeries. Surgeries were also actively promoted by the Japanese elite — including judges, doctors, and even newspapers and TV stations. Although some voiced their dissent, comparing the sterilization program to the Nazis, they were overwhelmingly in the minority.

Victims sued the government, and other media organizations followed WaseKuro in covering the issue. As a result, Prime Minister Abe released a statement that “the government deeply apologizes” in April 2019, and the Diet passed a law to compensate victims.

We believe that uncovering hidden facts is the surest way to effect change.

Who is our work for?

Of course, we must always keep in mind who our work serves.

In 2019, WaseKuro put online its Money for Docs database, which allows users to see the remuneration doctors receive from pharmaceutical companies, including the company name, remuneration amount, and service for which it was given. The database took 3,000 hours to create. It has been accessed over 4 million times and was even used by the Diet to examine the interests between doctors and pharmaceuticals.

I was already working on the database during my days at The Asahi Shimbun, but the Asahi’s management refused to make it public. They feared a lawsuit from doctors and pharmaceutical companies that might claim the database used personal information. 

WaseKuro released it anyway. If doctors’ choice of medicine is swayed by payments from pharmaceuticals, patients are the ones who suffer. Our decision to make the database public was solely for their benefit. 

Cross-border collaboration

Since its inception, WaseKuro has prioritized cross-border collaboration.

We worked with fellow journalists from KCIJ Newstapa (South Korea) and Tempo (Indonesia) to investigate the construction of coal-fired power plants in Indonesia by the policy-based financial institution and corporations of Japan and South Korea. Following the release of our report, a South Korean corporation announced in the National Assembly its intention to withdraw from the project due to environmental concerns, and now a corruption scandal has emerged regarding the plant construction. 

We also worked with the Guardian (U.K.) to report on how “solitary deaths” are becoming commonplace in Tokyo’s public housing. Although, as the Olympics draw near, Tokyo appears to be thriving, in reality the city is grappling with poverty and an aging population. These are issues that all developed nations eventually face. After choosing a theme, WaseKuro and the Guardian discussed the article in detail, with both sides bringing a fresh perspective to the work.

In addition to the above, we are currently collaborating with various overseas journalism organizations.

The world’s problems cross borders, and so the solutions must too. WaseKuro hopes to be part of an international team of reporters who collaborate to produce fearless, high-quality investigative journalism.

Makoto Watanabe left Asahi Shimbun in 2016 to start Waseda Chronicle. Photo supplied by the author.
Makoto Watanabe left Asahi Shimbun in 2016 to start Waseda Chronicle. Photo supplied by the author.

 Waseda Chronicle is here to stay

Japan’s major newspapers have over 100 years of history. The Asahi Shimbun, my former workplace, has been around for 141.

But Japan’s newspapers are gradually giving up their mission as journalistic institutions as they become mired in financial difficulties. In particular, investigative journalism — risky, costly, slow — has fallen by the wayside. 

WaseKuro isn’t just taking over the investigative role of traditional media. We are creating a new form of journalism in Japan. 

Rather than acquire customers, we aim to produce journalism that inspires readers to become partners who help us change society for the better.

That won’t happen unless we invest in making our organization sustainable. Along with raising the bar for quality investigative journalism, we are developing fundraising methods that will allow us to carry out WaseKuro’s mission.

In our first year, we dipped into personal savings to fund our investigations. In the second, at least those were covered. By year three, we managed to (very modestly) start covering personnel expenses such as salaries and remuneration. This coming year, we’ll be implementing various ideas to increase revenue.

WaseKuro currently has 18 members. The youngest is 21, the eldest 72. Our diverse team counts not only journalists but also a bar owner and an employee of a multinational corporation. A capable, young American and a Canadian journalist assist with translation. WaseKuro’s progress so far is the result of everyone’s combined expertise, and we’ll work to ensure this spirit of collaboration lives on in the organization even after its original members are gone. We aim to make WaseKuro last a century. 

If you have an opportunity to visit Tokyo this year, perhaps for the Olympics, please stop by the WaseKuro office when you’re in town. Let’s plan the future of journalism together.

WaseKuro’s English website can be found at en.wasedachronicle.org. We’ll be sharing the majority of our articles in both Japanese and English from now on, and we look forward to welcoming new readers from around the world.

Makoto Watanabe
Editor-in-Chief, Waseda Chronicle
watanabe-m.wijp@protonmail.com

Makato is Waseda Chronicle's founder and editor-in-chief. He joined Nippon Television Network Corporation in 1998 and moved to Asahi Shimbun in 2000.

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