Keywords: Libel, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech, Internet, Corruption
Copyright 2004. All rights reserved Attorney Roderick H. Seeman
Libel cases were active in 2003, most famously by leading politicians caught all too frequently in compromising situations.

There is increasing concern that libel cases are being used as a hammer to silence publishers, particularly news magazines. This is of concern as well due to claims that new privacy laws enacted in June, 2003 are actually aimed by powerful politicians as a means of silencing the more “uncooperative” elements of the Japanese press. The new legislation provides for jail sentences and fines to be paid by violators. See ourt article under Privacy Law “ PRIVACY PROTECTED OR FREEDOM OF PRESS GAGGED?”

Some claim that it is the rapidly escalating compensation awards that are also leading to increased use of such cases. Most point to a 2001 case by a baseball player who was awarded 10 million yen (about $100,000). Between March 2002 and August 2003 some 33 major libel cases had been filed against publishers. A hospital sued weekly news magazine publisher Shinchosha for 583.7 million yen, but it was awarded only 23.1 million yen.

One Tokyo District Court Judge stated

“The magazine ran the article with the object of gaining profits. Unless obliged to pay significant compensation it cannot be expected to refrain from similar illegal acts in the future.”

Diet member Muneo Suzuki, now under arrest under charges of taking 11 million in bribes from 2 construction companies, was awarded 1 million yen in damages by the Tokyo District Court in July, 2003 (a month after he was arrested) for a libel case he had filed against the Shinchosha, a publisher of a news magazine. Suzuki, a powerful politician who helped to bring down former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, the daughter of a former prime minister, claimed that the magazine published an article that made him out to be a “hard-core liar.”  The judge said that the magazine failed to prove that Suzuki was a liar and that such charges were humiliating.

Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa filed a libel case in the Hiroshima District Court against the weekly news magazine publisher Shinchosha. The magazine had published reports on his involvement with right wing fanatics and an extramarital sexual affair. Most of the information was provided by the woman in the affair. In this relation the Hiroshima District Court was seeking information on the records of discretionary fund outlays while he was Chief Cabinet Secretary, as he reportedly used some of that money to help fund the fanatics, and such evidence could help substantiate the veracity of the magazine report.

The Tokyo District Court dismissed a libel suit for 22 million yen filed in 2001 by former Justice Minister Shozaburo Nakamura over an article by Kyodo News that he had tried to improperly influence a criminal investigation while he was minister. The criminal probe involved whether a large resort project in Okinawa violated city planning laws. The resort project was also a potential threat to a nearby hotel he owned. The article stated that he had ordered the Criminal Affairs Bureau to step up its investigation of the case. The court found the reporter’s testimony believable.

Presiding Judge Makoto Kaiami stated:

“His news-gathering notes were convincing as well, as they described the course of events without exaggeration. It is natural to believe that statements by several sources are true…The news agency has every reason to believe the story is true.”

The Japan Highway Public Highway Corporation filed a libel suit on July 25, 2003 for 30 million yen in damages against publisher Bungei Shunju. Also sued was the deputy head of the same highway corporation’s Shikoku Regional Bureau. The deputy head had cooperated in an article with the monthly news publisher claim that the company had hid 617.5 billion yen, and that in fact it was functionally bankrupt as liabilities greatly exceeded assets. In fact the uproar over the article eventually led to the president of the Japan Highway Public Highway Corporation being fired. After that the libel case was dropped by the company.

In another particularly egregious case of the probable abuse of libel cases involved the powerful consumer lending company Takefuji. The company’s founder and president was later arrested, but not before it was shown that he knew how to use every dirty trick in the book to go after those crossed him. Abuse of libel cases was only one of his tools. In that area he had the company file a series of libel cases against journalists since March, 2003 demanding over 200 million yen in damages. A group of five of the journalists counter-sued seeking 400 million yen in damages. The journalists had filed reports claiming that the company abused its employees, used excessively strong arm tactics in loan collection, paid off police officers for personal information and utilized illegal wire-tapping. The source of most of the information for the journalists was a former Takefuji employee who claimed to be head of the company’s dirty work activities. The company had him arrested, in an attempt to silence him, claiming he had stolen company documents. The police authorities later admitted 17 police officers had pocketed benefits from the firm and three of the officers were disciplined. Besides the founding president eventually being arrested, earlier several company officials had been arrested for various nefarious activities. Later the government filed criminal charges against Takefuji for labor abuses despite voluntarily paying a massive 3.5 billion yen for unpaid overtime wages. The tax authorities also hit the company for reportedly hiding 920 million yen in income.

The Supreme Court in October, 2003 found TV Asahi, a major Japanese tv network  liable for libel for a report it had made about dioxin pollution in Saitama Prefecture. The problem was not that there was no proof of dioxin pollution. There was plenty of that. The problem was that the dioxin the tv reporters had found was on green tea, whereas the tv report made it sound like it was describing dioxin on green leafy vegetables in the area. As a result, orders for green leafy vegetables in the region collapsed. Thus the farmers sued the network for libel and damages of 26 million yen. The two lower courts, the Saitama District Court and the Tokyo High Court had both found in favor of TV Asahi. Although the lower courts noted that it was also found that Chinese cabbage from the same area was also found to be highly polluted by dioxin, the Supreme Court stated that the key point was whether leafy vegetables had been polluted as that was what TV Asahi had reported. It noted that most consumers would not consider green tea leaves as leafy vegetables. The tv announcer repeatedly used the word “vegetable”  when discussing the dioxin pollution and the tv graphic also showed vegetables. The court gave much attention to what kind of impression tv viewers got from the television report. It must be looked at comprehensively, including sound effects and graphics. The decision was unanimous by the five judges of the First Petty Bench.

In July, 2003 the Tokyo District Court ordered the operator of an internet chat room to pay 4 million yen in damages because of comments made on one of its bulletin boards. Bulletin board postings claimed that the products of a cosmetic firm harmed the skin and that many employees of the company were mistresses of the company’s president. The plaintiffs had sought 600 million yen in damages. The bulletin boards permitted messages to be posted anonymously. That particular aspect seemed to be part of the court’s problem with the situation. The judge stated that such anonymity tended to make it easier to slander people, compounded with the speed and ease of propagation of such information provided by the internet. The bulletin board, is one of the biggest in Japan with 30 million hits and 1 million messages per day.

In October, 2003 the Tokyo High Court ordered the publisher of the “Focus” magazine to pay 19.8 million yen for defaming a medical institution and its director. The High Court actually increased the damages granted by the Tokyo District Court by 6 million yen. Over a period of 3 months the magazine published a series of 12 articles claiming that the director contributed to an automobile accident which killed 4 people. The magazine published photos of the director.