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Japanese investigative reporter challenges Kisha system

Terasawa says his relations with police are "like warfare." (CPJ) Yu Terasawa seems philosophical as he discusses plans for his fourth lawsuit against the Japanese state, which he says he plans to initiate next week. Lawsuits are a part of daily life for Terasawa, who has been at the forefront of Japan’s investigative journalism community for almost 20 years as a freelance reporter specializing in police corruption. He has lost three cases of his own, been sued and has countersued in response, and has settled out of court. He is fighting for things many journalists take for granted: The right to attend a press conference, cover court proceedings, and above all, tell the truth.

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Terasawa describes through a translator how he first sued the Japanese state for recognizing Kisha Clubs, associations of print and broadcast journalists with exclusive access to press conferences and high-level anonymous sources, in 1999. He tried a second time soon afterward; on his third attempt, he sued Japan in conjunction with the Kisha Club specifically connected with reporting on the country’s huge police corps. Each time, the courts told him that allowing mainstream reporters to cover official proceedings was already a concession—a mark of gratitude, offered without obligation. Why should they extend such a kindness to freelancers?   

Kisha Clubs dominate Japanese media, but they are restricted to employees of mainstream media outlets, Terasawa explains. And they print what they’re told, often unattributed, as a condition of continued access to those in power. Those who choose to dig a little deeper are subject to a catalog of harassment. “My relationship with the police is like warfare,” he says with a grin.  

An earnest, youthful-looking 43-year-old, Terasawa comes alive when he discusses the challenges of his chosen profession, leaning forward in his seat and gesturing emphatically over coffee at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, a business and shopping district in western Tokyo.  

“When I’ve been investigating reports, I’ve been hit, I’ve been followed, I’ve been bugged, and I’ve been dragged off in a police van without a warrant and detained until my lawyer arrives,” he says. Though he believes access in general hasn’t improved, these days when he turns up to cover a press conference, he’ll be waved through, albeit reluctantly. “That’s the guy who sues,” he’ll hear. 

Terasawa, who often breaks stories in weekly tabloid-like magazines until more mainstream media pick them up, started his own publishing company to facilitate long-term investigative reporting. The company recently published a controversial book on a convicted juvenile murderer.

Does his work have an impact? “The more harassment I get, the more I write,” he says. And readers are sympathetic. The journalist—son of two customs officials who, he admits with a wry smile, are not thrilled with his combative work—stumbled into his role as an independent reporter after being stopped for speeding on his scooter on the streets of Yokahama at age 15. Except, he says, he hadn’t been over the limit. The injustice rankled, Terasawa says, until seven years later he penned an exposé in a car magazine about the sums of money police stations collected from traffic violations, and the number of retired police officers who found employment with firms responsible for maintaining traffic lights and other city infrastructure. Readers frustrated with unfairly stringent law enforcement were thrilled, he says.  A lifelong habit of asking unwelcome questions developed, and he estimates around 100 police have been fired or penalized as a result of his reporting.

If it works, why haven’t others followed his lead? According to Terasawa, it’s simply too expensive. “The reason I’ve survived as a freelancer isn’t pure talent; it’s because I negotiate how much I get paid,” he says firmly. A wistful look passes over his face. “I wish I was rich. Then I could provide for those who want to do the same.” He knows from experience, however, that the next lawsuit is not likely to help his bottom line.

(Reporting from Toyko)

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