Photo/IllutrationIsoko Mochizuki, a reporter for The Tokyo Shimbun, Tokyo’s largest regional newspaper, in the paper's newsroom, on July 5, 2019. Mochizuki’s interrogations of government officials have made her something of a folk hero in Japan, where the press is known for being clubby and compliant. The government is “always trying to hide information from people,” she said. “That’s what we have to dig out.” (Irene C. Herrera/ © 2019 The New York Times)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

TOKYO--Isoko Mochizuki, a reporter for Tokyo’s largest regional newspaper, walks into a government news conference pulling a burgundy wheeled suitcase that holds her laptop, books and notes. She sits toward the back. After the other journalists politely ask their questions, she pounces.

Sometimes rambling, sometimes boring down on tiny details, she presses for answers. Often, the officials chastise her for being long-winded or cut her off altogether. “I don’t have to answer each of your questions,” Yoshihide Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary, snapped recently after she asked about North Korea, and then stalked away from the podium.

Mochizuki, 43, has yet to break a major political scandal or expose business-toppling corruption. But she does ask a lot of questions. And that has made her something of a folk hero for press freedom in Japan.

While her industry colleagues often act more as stenographers than inquisitors, she refuses to take no for an answer, repeatedly getting under the skin of the politicians and bureaucrats she interrogates.

She says she views her mission as “really watching how people in power are behaving.” The government is “always trying to hide information from people,” she said in an interview. “That’s what we have to dig out.”

Asking questions, seeking facts: that might just sound like the basic job description of any reporter. “In our context, that’s like, ‘so what?’” said David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and a clinical professor of law at the University of California at Irvine, who has raised concerns about the independence of Japanese news media.

But in Japan, Kaye said, Mochizuki’s persistent questioning “seems pretty meaningful”--if nothing else, by showing that a reporter can refuse to submit to the compliant media culture.

Mochizuki is unusual in that she is a reporter covering the Tokyo metropolitan region who attends news conferences held by the central government. But she also stands apart as a vocal woman in the male-dominated world of Japanese politics.

“She is attacking these male bonds,” said Kaori Hayashi, a professor of sociology and media studies at the University of Tokyo. Mochizuki violates “what they have understood of what journalists should do at a press conference,” she said.

Japan is a modern democracy where freedom of the press is enshrined in the constitution, which American occupiers drafted after the war. It is not the kind of place where journalists are denounced as the “enemy of the people.”

Still, the government sometimes behaves in ways more reminiscent of authoritarian regimes, like denying some journalists access to news conferences, or using clubby relationships between politicians and media executives to keep reporters in line.

The news conferences that have made Mochizuki a celebrity in Japanese press circles are attended by members of the Cabinet office’s so-called kisha club--a press association whose members are given priority to ask questions, and whose queries are sometimes vetted by government officials. (Mochizuki’s employer, The Tokyo Shimbun, is a member, which is why she is allowed to attend.)

Such press clubs, which exist for institutions as small as local police departments all the way up to the prime minister’s office, often bar nonmembers from even going to news conferences and strictly control the information that comes from government agencies.

After a mass stabbing in a Tokyo suburb in May, for instance, the prefectural police agency refused to allow reporters who were not members of the club to attend any news briefings, and it refused to give them even basic facts about the case.

Critics say reporters in this system tend to avoid confrontations with officials, for fear of being ejected from the clubs and losing privileged access to information, including occasional leaks. At one briefing this spring, a reporter used his chance to question Suga by asking if the government planned to give baseball star Ichiro Suzuki a special award upon his retirement.

Ultimately, the press clubs dampen the investigative hunger of many journalists, constricting what Japanese citizens know about their government, industry observers say.

“There are many opaque scandals happening in Japan right now, and reporters should be pressing really hard to ask questions,” said Kozo Nagata, a former producer at NHK, the public broadcaster, and now a professor at Musashi University in Tokyo. “But the Japanese media is very sick with a malaise right now.”

As Mochizuki has bucked the system, the government, which faces a parliamentary election this month, has pushed back.

Last December, after she asked Suga questions about a military construction project on Okinawa, where local leaders have pushed for a reduction in the large U.S. military presence, a Cabinet office aide sent a memo to the press corps accusing Mochizuki of making “factual errors” during her questioning.

Although the memo indicated that Mochizuki would be allowed to attend future briefings, her defenders suspected that it was an underhanded attempt to squelch her. In a special full-page editorial in February, The Tokyo Shimbun, her employer, declared that “power cannot hinder or regulate the asking of questions by journalists.”

In March, about 600 people rallied in support of Mochizuki at a protest in front of the prime minister’s office, chanting slogans like “Fight for truth!” and “Stop bullying reporters!” A feature film with a protagonist loosely based on Mochizuki was released in June, and she is also the subject of a forthcoming documentary.

As a child, Mochizuki aspired to become an actress. But after graduating from college with a degree in politics, she applied for jobs at a number of national broadsheet newspapers.

None offered her a job, but she secured a rookie slot at The Tokyo Shimbun and was sent to a rural bureau to cover the police. She rose quickly, landing a prestigious post covering the Tokyo district prosecutors’ office.

To get stories, she sometimes slept in a black town car parked outside the home of the lead prosecutor, the meter running as she waited for him to emerge for a morning walk. When her editors saw the car service bills, they moved her off the beat.

Eventually, she worked her way back to the metro desk. After she gave birth to her two children, she moved to the business desk, where she wrote several exposés about Japanese companies exporting military equipment.

She first came to national prominence two years ago, when she started showing up at Suga’s news conferences to ask detailed questions about a trove of documents related to an influence-peddling scandal involving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Because another newspaper ultimately got hold of the leaked documents, some of Mochizuki’s critics in the press corps--none of whom would speak on the record--suggested that she had failed to get results and that her questioning amounted to theatrics.

Other journalists, speaking more generally, criticized Mochizuki’s style of questioning.

“Our feeling is just that we hope that she should regulate or restrict herself a bit more,” said Shiro Tazaki, a retired reporter from Jiji Press, a wire service. “In order to maintain this great system, we have to keep in mind the importance of not repeating the same questions.”

At Mochizuki’s newspaper, Nobuyuki Usuda, the managing editor, said she could occasionally be a management challenge.

“Sometimes she even goes against her bosses,” he said. “But that is good because she has clear opinions, and that is a virtue as a reporter.”

“Nowadays, we have so many quiet reporters,” he added. “Sometimes she can be too noisy--but mostly in a good way.”

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Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

(July 5, 2019)