Raw Japan

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The memory test for Japanese media

March 12, 2009

A furore over anonymous comments by a senior Japanese bureaucrat that landed him in the middle of a political funding scandal has highlighted an unusual practice in Japan of “no memo” briefings, where journalists can listen but are forbidden to take notes.

“Off-record” briefings are common in Western journalism. These conversations between reporters and contacts will never see the light of day but can be used by sources to get their points across and some would say spin the story.

“Background” briefings, in which comments can be quoted and attributed to a “senior official” or some such but without a specific name or title, are also well-known in many countries.

But the “no memo” briefing appears to be a uniquely Japanese twist — a chat from which comments can be quoted anonymously but where reporters are forbidden to record the briefing or even take notes by hand. JAPAN-ECONOMY/

That means any article must be based on their memory of the discussion.

The affair of the “no memo” briefing began when Japanese media quoted an unidentified senior government official about the probe into illegal corporate donations.

The source said the scandal, which could cost the opposition leader his job just months before an election his party was on course to win,  would not spill over into the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

When Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Iwao Uruma was revealed as the source of the remarks, made at a “no memo” briefing, that fanned already simmering speculation that the investigation was politically motivated.

Uruma, a former police official, said he’d been speaking in general terms only, not about any specific political party and said it was a matter of whose memory was right.

Critics say the scope for post-facto denials is precisely the point of the “no memo” practice.

“Essentially, they are trying to get a complete pass,” said Brad Glosserman of the Hawaii-based think tank Pacific Forum CSIS. “They get perfect deniability.”

Others say the practice as intended to let sources speak frankly and help reporters.

“My understanding is that this is to provide people with background knowledge that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” says one Japanese government source.

“It works in the interests of both sides when it works smoothly, but because of ambiguity or opposing interests from time to time, the system malfunctions,” the source told me.

“That is my personal … understanding — and please don’t quote me.”

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