After years of deliberation, the Toyota Motor Corp. reached a decision this summer that was certain to be an important news story in the United States. It was going to build a major automobile factory there.

But when company president Shoichiro Toyoda announced the plan at a Tokyo press conference, no American journalists were present. Many had wanted to attend, but were told they could not, because there was not enough space.

The reporters Toyoda met were all Japanese, and members of the Kisha Kurabu (press club) that covers the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren), a sort of super chamber of commerce.

It was the club, not the company, that decided the room was too small. The Americans had to write their stories from secondhand accounts provided by the company.

There are about 400 press clubs in Japan, and many foreign reporters see them as the journalistic equivalent of a nontariff trade barrier. By custom, they maintain first rights to information flowing from government and company offices where the great decisions of Japan are made.

"In effect, they are cartels, fixing the distribution -- and often the value -- of the information they glean," British Broadcasting Corp. Tokyo correspondent William Horsley wrote recently.

Foreign journalists are now reopening a decades-old battle for access. Some clubs have opened press conference doors, while others continue to resist, citing reasons ranging from space crunches to traditional rules of the profession.

In the United States, a person calls a press conference and admits any legitimate reporter. In Japan, the process traditionally works in reverse: a club sponsors and organizes the conference, decides who will attend, in what order questions will be asked and sometimes how long it will last.

Scholars date the system's origins to 1890, when reporters from about 35 Japanese newspapers banded together to petition for seats in the gallery during sessions of Japan's first parliament.

Clubs have flourished to the point that today every institution of any political or social significance, such as Tokyo's police headquarters, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Yomiuri Giants baseball team, has one, usually tucked away in a cluttered work room in the institution's main office building.

Membership is generally limited to people from the large Japanese newspapers, news agencies and television networks. Smaller Japanese media are kept out. Newly assigned reporters must apply individually for membership, pay nominal dues and agree to obey the club's charter.

In return they get access. Members of the Tokyo police headquarters club, for instance, can count on twice-daily briefings by the heads of each major division. Those in the Keidanren club receive the substance of major company announcements at least two days in advance, with the condition that it is embargoed and will not be shared with nonmembers.

Club members drink together after hours, compare questions before asking them and discuss the puzzling, evasive answers that Japanese officials, in what are called "Zen dialogues," often dish out as news.

The club habit is so deeply ingrained that reporters often set up informal clubs when working abroad. Japanese covering the Indochina war, for instance, were known for traveling in groups, relying on one interpreter and filing similar stories to their home offices.

All Japanese reporters maintain that their first responsibility is the skupu, or scoop. But by and large, the clubs foster a remarkable homogeneity in the media. One scholar has estimated that 80 percent of all articles in newspapers are generated in clubs.

In many foreigners' eyes, it is simply further proof of Japanese society's addiction to regulation and group activity. But, many Japanese journalists argue the clubs play a positive role.

Clubs help enforce journalistic ethics, they say. Occasionally, they reprimand or expel members for questionable practices, most often violation of embargoes. By assuring that members will respect confidences, the clubs create an atmosphere in which officials can speak to the point.

Clubs are praised as a crucial contact point between the two sides in arranging press logistics or cooperation in sensitive stories, kidnapings, for instance, in which the victims's safety could be jeopardized by reports that the police had been called in.

When press and agency are at odds, reporters can present a united front through the club. The club might negotiate if people feel they aren't seeing enough of the minister they cover, for example.

Japanese reporters also say the clubs bring order to a fundamentally disorderly job. "If we let all reporters in," says Mainichi Shimbun newspaper reporter Shizuo Nakamura, a member of the Tokyo police headquarters club, "things would always be jammed. That would mean trouble."

Critics accuse the clubs of fostering excessive intimacy between reporters and those they cover. Reporters will think twice about writing hard-hitting stories if doing so might cut off access to inner offices or embarrass people they have come to know well.

Similar charges of collusion and dependence on handouts are often made against the American press. The difference is that the clubs formalize such relationships and make it harder for individual reporters to strike off on their own. Once an embargoed announcement is posted in a club, for instance, all members are bound to respect it.

Clubs have often formally agreed to suppress remarks that American reporters would have rushed into print. Last year, for instance, a club agreed to ignore insulting words about Koreans that were voiced by a senior figure in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party shortly before South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan was to arrive for a state visit.

In such cases, reporters will often be granted some special favor in return. Keeping the club happy, in fact, is a never-ending concern for the host institution. Rule number one is to deal only with it when making an important announcement.

After Toyota's closed press conference, company officials apologized to foreign journalists, saying there was no time to find a larger room. Arranging a joint conference, however, would have risked offending the Keidanren club, which has long toed a tough line on the access issue.

"Allowing the foreign press in would strike at the basic rules of the club," says a newspaper reporter member. "We would have to admit all of the other Japanese media too."

Reporters and agencies that are not members must rely on informal contacts or negotiate each interview through the public relations office. A few treat their exclusion from the clubs as a badge of honor, proof that they have maintained independence.

Major stories in Japanese journalism often originate with these people. The party official's remarks on Koreans first reached the public ear through a small afternoon paper in Tokyo. Disclosure of the financial dealings of former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, which eventually forced his resignation, began in a monthly magazine.

Foreign journalists are not asking for membership in the clubs, since most of the briefings are of no interest to foreign audiences. What they want is the right to attend important ones, to get direct quotes and full information, rather than relying on secondhand accounts.

Their battle has been supported by the government's desire for an "international" image for Japan. The prime minister's press conferences have been open for years, and Foreign Ministry officials have been known to lobby western journalists to go, apparently so television cameras panning the room will show a cosmopolitan scene.

Most ministry-level press conferencesare now open, although outsiders often cannot ask questions. Many government offices provide English-language briefings for the foreign press corps, but always later than the clubs' briefings, if only by an hour.

Things continue to loosen up, but no one expects the club system to wither away. The U.S. Embassy continues to have to explain to clubs from time to time that it will not provide visiting American officials for closed-door press conferences.

Recently, the Keidanren club pushed for a closed meeting with a visiting delegation from the U.S. semiconductor industry. The club lost, but at the press conference, one member was heard complaining that with so many people around, it was not possible to have a good talk with the delegation.