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A scrollytelling visualization of a Japan Airlines runway collision, one of many investigations presented at the 2024 Journalism Practitioners' Forum (J-Forum) in Japan. Image: Screenshot, Nikkei



Investigative Journalism in Japan: Collaboration at 2024 J-Forum Fosters Stronger Growth

Investigative reporting in Japan isn’t without its challenges. According to Reporters Without Borders, Japan ranked lowest among all G7 countries, at 70th, in its 2024 World Press Freedom Index.

In its report, RSF noted that “traditional and business interests, political pressure, and gender inequalities often prevent journalists from completely fulfilling their role as watchdogs.” But despite this assessment, there remains a strong tradition of investigative reporting in the country and the 2024 Journalism Practitioners’ Forum (J-Forum) demonstrated this, as watchdog reporters came together to discuss their successful stories and share their skills. In total, 750 journalists and other media-related professionals from all over Japan convened at the 6th annual J-Forum in Tokyo, to attend 57 sessions and workshops aimed at strengthening the craft of accountability reporting.

Hiroshi Sukagawa, a journalist from TBS Television, kicked off the conference with a symbolic slide featuring a tiger in a cage to illustrate the dangers of reporting in conflict zones. “Being scared does not mean it is dangerous. When you’re scared, it can mean you do not have enough information,” Sukagawa said. He drew the analogy to underscore the importance of risk management and highlighted the impact of fear on decision-making and above all, the critical role of gathering accurate information.

These risks are particularly relevant for investigative journalists. When we dig deep, we can become isolated and lack awareness of the danger we face. But information helps. Therefore, J-Forum always puts extra emphasis on journalists sharing information and reporting experiences with their colleagues.

Hiroshi Sukagawa from TBS Television presented at J-Forum on the dangers of reporting in conflict zones. Image: Courtesy of Tomoko Katsura

The conference also offered behind-the-scenes looks at some of the most notable investigations by Japanese media in the past year. NHK producers shared how they tracked children of Ukraine taken away to Russia. A Nikkei journalist talked about an exclusive exposé revealing how China’s nuclear program still utilizes Japanese machine tools despite sanctions. Shimbun Akahata’s editor-in-chief shared details on uncovering a hidden money fundraising scheme inside the Liberal Democratic Party, the political home of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

In Japan, earthquakes are always an important topic for coverage. Keiichi Ozawa, from Chunichi Shimbun, discussed his deep-dive investigation, which found that the earthquake prediction estimate for one of the Nankai Trough fault lines was based on faulty, old methods. In 2018, government officials had announced that there was a 70% to 80% chance of an earthquake along that fault. But Ozawa discovered that this calculation used a different process than other earthquake risk estimates. One source told him that using this other prediction process would significantly lower the estimated Nankai risk, to just around 20%.

To dig further, Ozawa went after past documents related to the meetings of the government’s earthquake committee, using a right-to-information request. When he ultimately obtained the meetings’ minutes, he found a robust debate among seismologists, going back many years, about the Nankai earthquake prediction estimates, which had never been disclosed to the public.

The questionable Nankai Trough estimate, he learned, was based on archival elevation data that was unreliable for predicting near-term earthquake events, and prioritized political budgets over sound science. To uncover this data he used shoe-leather reporting methods, talking to a local family in the Kochi prefecture who turned over a key document in their possession from 300 years ago. He also spoke with local fishermen and looked at old maps to learn what was happening along the coast every time the elevation data was collected.

Reporting on the inflated prediction was a hard decision for Ozawa, as he noted that prioritized budgets and higher risk numbers kept people on alert and helped many to be prepared, which was a crucial lesson learned from the deadly 2011 earthquake and tsunami. But the risk from these inflated estimates became alarmingly real for Ozawa in 2018, he said, after a powerful earthquake hit the northern city of Hokkaido.

“A boy came up and told me his sister is under the crashed house,” Ozawa recalled. “He said, ‘I did not think this would happen. Nankai Trough I knew, but I was not aware of other possibilities.’ I thought inaccurate numbers can blind people, and that is dangerous.”

Ozawa’s reporting stretched across multiple years had a significant impact on earthquake policy in the country, and he eventually turned it into a book. He received an award from the Japanese Association of Science & Technology Journalists in 2020 and the prestigious Kikuchi Kan Award in 2023.

J-Forum panelists also shared data journalism tips and techniques with attendees. Satoshi Kiyonaga from NHK Television shared his advice in searching for materials at the national archives. Kiyonaga had uncovered documents of government’s meetings about the Aum Shinrikyo cult — responsible for the deadly 1995 Tokyo subway nerve gas attack — and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cherry blossom scandals by exploring the archives. He also discussed discovering historical documents that have become the basis for a drama about the first Japanese female lawyer dating back to the1930s. He emphasized that nonfiction documents could be used to tell many stories.

Wakana Mori from Chunichi Shimbun discussed her Memories investigation, which meticulously visualized the damage caused to historical sites in Syria by the 2023 earthquake. Hirofumi Yamamoto and Hiroshi Kuno from Nikkei shared how their data reporting team created a scrollytelling article visualizing a Japan Airlines runway collision at Tokyo’s Haneda airport.

Wakana Mori, from the Japanese daily Chunichi Shimbun, shared her Memories investigation visualizing the damage to historical sites in Syria cause by the 2023 earthquake. Image: Screenshot, Chunichi Shimbun

Monetization was also an essential topic at the conference. Editor-in-chief Keisuke Yamaguchi shared how he has transformed the content of the business news and analysis site Diamond Online, to make it more financially sustainable. Sabrina Daryanani and Yuta Nagasaki, consultants with Financial Times Strategies, also laid out their vision and how they developed the site’s digital distribution.

News partnerships and collaboration are a growing phenomenon around the world, and in Japan as well. Members of local newspapers from across the country talked about how they connect through JOD, Journalism on Demand, a partnership joining 38 different sites that share articles and sometimes data.

But barriers within the journalism profession remain. Across several sessions, journalists pointed out that Japan is still a male-dominated society, and they discussed diversity efforts to overcome this bias that affects the press. (Panelists pointed out this inequity applies to news sources and cited experts, which are estimated to be 70% to 80% men). Panelists shared struggles both in Japan and in conversations with female colleagues in Korea. Attendees shared their experiences too. “We always need to have men’s authorization to [publish] any news… bosses are mostly men and that is not easy.”

GIJN poster at J-Forum

2024 J-Forum attendees looking at a poster for GIJN (lower right with yellow border). Image: Courtesy of Yasuomi Sawa

“In casually dismissing a woman reporter’s story, one attendee said it’s common to be told by a male superior that ‘this is not what the readers want.'” Many said the feeling that newsrooms are an old-school “boys’ club” remains, as another woman said: “We are under-represented.” Of course, finding and lifting up under-represented voices — both inside and outside of newsrooms — is one of the goals for J-Forum.

In an era where information can be shared in seconds, good journalism is more necessary than ever. Thanks to the investigative journalists who dared to share their skills and their challenges at this year’s J-Forum, watchdog reporting will grow even stronger in Japan.

Tomoko KatsuraTomoko Katsura is a journalist working for Nippon Television in Japan. She started her career in 1998 as a reporter covering economic crimes. As a London correspondent and later a Paris correspondent, she reported from 54 countries in Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Since 2010, she has been a director and then a producer for documentary programs and news shows where she also worked as an investigative journalist.

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