Japan, today the world’s third largest industrial power, looms above Asia as does Fujiyama over the plains of Tokyo, yet as far as most Americans are concerned, their major Pacific ally is all but unknown.
After five years as the United States’s wise and articulate ambassador to Japan, Edwin O. Reischauer returned last year to academic life at Harvard University to find that Japan, as far as his daily reading went, was a noncountry. He said recently, “I sometimes feel that, in our newspapers, Japan is the least adequately reported country in the whole world. Its importance to us as our second largest trading partner in the world and our chief ally in Asia is obvious, but our press gives it far less space than to any of our other major allies and, of course, far less attention than to the other trouble spots in the world, which are usually places of much less basic significance to us.”
No news from Tokyo
An illustration may be seen in Japan’s critical parliamentary elections of January. The election determined that Prime Minister Eisaku Sato’s conservative, pro-American Liberal Democratic Party is likely to dominate Japanese politics through 1970. That year the U.S.Japancse Mutual Security Treaty comes up for review, and that is therefore the year which the Communist and pro-Peking Socialist leadership, supported by more than one third of the Japanese voters, has picked as a target date to seize control of the government, and to wreck the treaty which binds Japan and the United States together.
Corruption in Sato’s regime and a rising cost of living threatened the Liberal Democrats’ chances. Would the left’s appeal to the voters mass enough strength to rock relations between the two countries or, a remote possibility, drive the United States and its bases from what one former White House aide called “the only place in Asia we can step without sinking up to our knees”? A backlash of fear against tempestuous China was apparently one factor which strengthened Sato’s appeal and weakened that of his Socialist and Communist opposition. When the returns were in, the Liberal Democrats had 277 Diet seats out of a total of 486, one less than before the elections; the Socialists trailed with 140 scats. (Sato even carried along to victory several Liberal Democratic members of the Diet who had resigned from his government under fire for corruption.)
Like much other news about Japan which should concern Americans, the January 29 election was underplayed by the U.S. press. In the attention span of the United States, Japan receives no more than a passing glance.
Says Reischauer, “I carefully read the best American papers and magazines, but, if I did not have an airmail edition of a Japanese language paper and other current materials sent to me from Tokyo, 1 would feel in the dark as to what was happening there.
“We are served in our papers only the sketchiest outline of political developments in Japan, with little depth on important undercurrents, and a rather tired round of the same old color stories Zengakuren, Sokagakkai, and neon lights on the Ginza — but little of the real news of developingJapane.se attitudes and actions that could well affect our future in Asia.”
Among the Japanese who are concerned about the lack of coverage of their country is Prime Minister Sato, a sixty-five-ycarold prosperous-looking bureaucrat turned politician. After speaking of the close diplomatic and economic links between the two countries, he warned an American interviewer recently, “I feel that information and understanding of Japan in the United States is still not sufficient. ... I hope that Americans will not take the Japan-U.S. relationship for granted. I ask for greater efforts to evaluate fully the fact that each partner has its own feelings and ways of thinking and is also coping with its problems in its particular environment.”
He cited some areas of neglect: “It is my sincere wish that the American people will accurately understand how the Japanese feel . . . concerning China, with whom Japan has close historical and geographical ties; concerning Vietnam, in which we are keenly interested as an Asian nation; concerning the destiny of Okinawa, which is a part of Japan and whose inhabitants are Japanese; concerning the importance of trade and fishery in our limited land. . .
Sato over De Gaulle
The “economic miracle” of Japan’s post-war recovery is well known, but the miracle doesn’t seem to flag in its pace at all. Japan has achieved the third largest industrial aggregate in the world. While its gross national product is only fifth, it is equal to all that of Latin America, twice that of Africa. Its industrial prowess — the factories, shipyards, mills, and plants —• makes Japan third in steel, produces almost half the world’s new ships and electronic microscopes, will this year or surely next make the country the second largest vehicle producer; it already is second in radio, TV, and synthetic fiber production, and to end on a happy note, first in pianos. It is the only industrialized Westernbloc nation in Asia.
In population, Japan is now almost twice as large as any Western European nation, and in literacy, leads the United States. The flaw in these impressive statistics is that Japan’s per capita income is still low, twenty-third in the world, just behind Italy’s. But in ten years, say Sato and his economists, it will reach the present levels of Western Europe today; in twenty, those of the United States. Still, Japan is hardly a pocket of poverty — 97 percent of its homes have TV.
Politically, Japan is democratic and committed to the United States and the West; the election results mean it will stay that way. Washington columnist Joseph Alsop writes that Charles de Gaulle’s “real weight is already a trifle less than Premier Sato’s, who does not throw his weight around. In a decade, moreover, the weight of De Gaulle or his successor is due to be hardly more than half the weight of Sato or his successor.” It is at least plausible to say the same of the heirs of Harold Wilson and Kurt Kiesinger. Island England, our closest ally, has passed island Japan in the post-war years — on the way down. Japan’s economy is again heading toward a 1967 growth rate of 9 percent, the highest sustained one in the world, while Britain continues to stagnate.
But what do we know of Japan’s real policies toward Red China, already divergent from ours? Of its nuclear opinions as the one nation which both has suffered atomic attack and could quickly develop its own nuclear capability? Of its future political stability? Given the volatile nature of the Japanese and the new political trends which exist today in Japan (Tokyo elected a Communist as mayor in April), there is no reason to presume that it will remain an automatic ally.
As a highly advanced nation stemming from an entirely different culture, Japan is one of the most difficult in the world for us to understand. From a purely journalistic point of view there is the indifference of a European-oriented United States, and a frequent lack of “hard” news in a country which slides toward positions rather than boldly announcing them. In the face of these obstacles, the United States, from its government to its press, tends to sweep what is current and serious in Japan under a mental carpet, and contemplate only its cherry blossoms and Fujiyama charms. But today’s Japan is not a quaint, exotic Shangri-la. It is as modern and advanced as its Sony TV, its scrappy Honda motorcycle, or its 125 mph Dream Express.
To the nineteenth-century romantic Lafcadio Hearn, a European who became a Japanese, in Japan the left was always the right; the carpenter pulled rather than pushed his saw; the needle was brought to the thread, not the thread to the needle. And Percival Lowell said that the Japanese speak backwards, read backwards, write backwards — and that is “only the abc of their contrarity.” These superficial examples at least suggest how deep the differences between our two societies are in every aspect of life.
Language is a shared problem. Few Japanese speak English, and Reischauer’s final plea as he left Japan was for the Japanese to make a far greater effort to study it. The student of a romance language, as the Berlitz ads now advise us, can start to speak and read at once. To be able to speak and read Japanese, with its minimum of 2000 characters which must be memorized, to carry on a conversation and read with fair comprehension, requires twenty-four months of full-time study.
Of the more than eight hundred U.S. businessmen in Tokyo, perhaps three are fluent enough to make an impromptu afterdinner speech. Of the American correspondents, only one can speak and read Japanese well enough to do without an interpreter. A few others can hold conversations and stumble through newspapers, but must use a translator for serious business. Virtually no American in Japan can write Japanese which would meet the standards of its leading publications.
Thin press line
The recent campaigns and election results in Germany, France, and India, and even in lesser countries, have received extensive media exposure in the United States, but Japan’s were hardly reported. Our newspaper of record, the one to which the student and scholar would turn for reference, the New York Times, ran one story at the campaign’s start, saying it was “one of the most important of the postwar period,” which would choose the leaders for “a critical period in Japanese political history.”
Then, with the exception of one feature story on campaign posters, there was a three-week silence on the issues, the candidates, and why the election was important. On the eve of the vote a story predicted the outcome. This story was requested by the Times of London from the New York Times news service since its own Tokyo correspondent was in Saigon. On the Sunday after the election, a follow-up story about the outcome was dropped after one edition, while one on a debate about a Japanese war memorial on Guam remained in. About the same time, the Times gave somewhat more prominence to the emergence of a Hawaiian sumo wrestler and a feature on the two-year-old Dream Express.
The U.S. correspondents in Japan are something of a thin red line, to be sure. Five newspapers, the wire services, the news and business magazines have bureaus. The three TV networks, one of whom removed its staff correspondent from Tokyo last year, have treated Japan as a reserve base for their coverage of Southeast Asia.
But even these roughly twenty regular correspondents, their editors willing, should have provided the United States with more news about the important fact that our Pacific ally has been overwhelmingly, often violently, opposed to our policy in Vietnam despite the more recent anti-Chinese backlash which helped re-elect Sato. Here was a clear case where we could not take Japan for granted. In the Japanese antiVietnam sentiment there has been the potential of an unexpected eruption of anti-American violence similar to that in 1960. Then the mob fury which followed the forced ratification of the Security treaty led to the emergency helicopter rescue of Presidential Press Secretary Jim Hagerty from a threatening mob, and the subsequent cancellation of a state visit by President Eisenhower.
The Japanese people are highly susceptible to mudo, “moods,” which sweep quickly to a national peak, whether it’s a craze for catching goldfish in artificial pools or a political demonstration. In January, 1965, Vietnam was only a lesser issue at a Sato-Johnson White House meeting. At that time, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was naively proposing means of interesting the Japanese in covering our war in Vietnam; in a kindly way, the embassy hoped.
The Vietnam mood
But even while Sato was in Washington, the Mainichi Shimbun had begun a forty-part series on the “Mud and Flame” in Vietnam, by Wilfred Burchett (whom it failed to identify as a strongly anti-American, left-leaning journalist) to report from North Vietnam. The entire media of Japan, from TV to magazines, capitalized on the burgeoning betonamu mudo, the “Vietnam mood,” and the Japanese press corps suddenly became the second largest in Saigon. Both coverage and editorial comment were conspicuous for their one-sided bias against the United States.
This Japanese interest in Vietnam coincided with our bombing of the North. A deep pacifist strain runs through post-war Japanese opinion in general, but our bases in Japan and our use of Okinawa bases made the danger of Japanese involvement in Vietnam seem real and present. The government was sympathetic to our role, but for domestic political reasons paid the least possible lip service. At the height of the excitement a poll showed that only 4 percent of the Japanese supported our bombing of North Vietnam. A majority not only opposed the war, but felt the United States responsible.
This attitude of our Pacific ally was completely apparent from February, 1965, on, but went virtually unreported in the United States. The New York Times ran a few tiny references to demonstrations and editorial comment, but it and other U.S. papers neglected as a major, continuing news story the fact that the people of the most important nation in Asia were overwhelmingly opposed to our action in Vietnam. Almost a year later the United States government still had so little sensitivity to the state of affairs in Japan that a visit there lay President Johnson after the Manila conference was actually considered. Prime Minister Sato, whose personal popularity had for the moment sagged to a precariously low level, faced a difficult political situation, in which the opposition demanded dissolution of the Diet and a general election, and in addition an increasingly critical press and a threatening cloud of party scandal.
For Johnson to come to Japan, fresh from a meeting with his blooddrenched mercenaries, as the Communist press would have put it, would have given to the opposition as a target the chief devil of its political demonology: LBJ, the genera] of the hateful war in Vietnam, the occupier of Okinawa, the warlord of the Security Treaty, and the landlord of our bases in Japan. If the tiny Communist Party could muster, as they did, 200,000 people to demonstrate against our policy in Vietnam, consider what they and the Socialists might have done with Johnson as a drawing card.
In terms of practical politics, a Johnson visit would have been about as welcome to the government as the Boston Strangler at a Cambridge weekend. For the United States, the stories and photos of the demonstrations would have meant international embarrassment, and a further loss of face in Asia. If there was any doubt about the Japanese view, Vice Foreign Minister Takezo Shimoda, now ambassador to the United States, removed it by calling the visit “inconceivable.” An exchange of notes buried the idea.
There was hardly any notice in the U.S. press of the fact that a visit by our President to Japan was “inconceivable” in the view of Japan’s Foreign Office.
The problems for a U.S. reporter in Japan, aside from language and cultural barriers and the home office’s lack of interest, are compounded by the Japanese themselves. On an individual basis, the Japanese government and the rest of Japan are often receptive to correspondents. But officially, the Japanese government, unbelievably, does not have real control over its own news. Every aspect of Japanese public life is handled by feudal kisha kurabu, press clubs made up of Japanese reporters covering everything from the Prime Minister to a small steel company.
This hangover from a feudal guild system bars foreign reporters from the Prime Minister’s press conferences, the daily press briefings at his office, and from organized news gatherings such as exist in Washington. Only the Foreign Office among all government ministries has a weekly briefing at which the director of its Public Information Bureau will answer questions —so long as he has already given the same information to the Japanese press. While an individual foreign correspondent may see the Prime Minister or one of his ministers on rare occasions, only once or twice a year will a single high-ranking government official consent to a press conference.
Not only does the effect of this system on the foreign press directly affect the flow of news from Japan, it also has a stultifying effect on Japanese journalism. During the January election campaign, the semigovernmental television network, NHK, showed as a public service a program in which the leaders of the various parties, including the Prime Minister, presented their views. Sato’s press club promptly banned NHK from live coverage of his press conferences, which meant the Japanese public only saw portions of it on commercial TV rather than the full treatment NHK gives. Not a word of the ban appeared in the Japanese press.
One possible reason for less attention being paid to Japan than to our other allies is that Japan was really traumatized into a kind of national reticence by the devastation of war and defeat, and its international voice has been a whisper compared to the roar of its bulging industrial energy. Surrounded in Asia by its former enemies, uncertain and cautious on the world scene, its external moves have been economic, not political. Last year, Japan on its own initiative called a Ministerial Conference for the Economic Development of Southeast Asia as well as one on agricultural development in that area, took part in the inauguration of the Asian Bank, to which it contributed a president and two hundred million dollars, organized a consortium of Indonesia creditors, and attended the conference of the Asian and Pacific Council (ASPAC) in Seoul, where it moderated the fierce anti-Communism of Taiwan and Korea, which might have wrecked this incipient Asian harmony.
One must assume that with the coming of regional cooperation among Asian nations, japan must have the leading economic position, and increasingly, as its self-confidence returns, the major political role. But the difficulty of reporting on japan in terms which will interest hard-news European-oriented editors in America is compounded by the sparsity of dramatic news, particularly in foreign policy, and the colorlessness of Japanese leadership.
Any important new policy in Tokyo is leaked in dribs and drabs and discussed in exhaustive detail by the Japanese press, so that when the final announcement comes, it’s like proclaiming dawn at midday. Unlike President Johnson’s State of the Union message, which he deliberately and personally loads with as many surprises as he can muster, Premier Sato’s policy speech to the Diet generally rises from the depths of Japanese bureaucracy smoothed and diluted at every stage until it emerges as a bland and misty outline of righteous intentions.
In Japan both government and business are usually conducted by “consensus.” It makes for, or perhaps creates, what Reischauer has singled out as a persistent cultural trait, group leadership. The Japanese say deru kugi wa utareru, “the nail which sticks out must be hammered down.” Japan creates few newsmakers on the style of Churchill or De Gaulle, Robert Kennedy or Howard Hughes. The surface of the Japanese business and political world is as smooth and featureless as lacquer ware. In the face of this blandness, resident and visiting correspondents tend to be driven, if they wish to be published, to the cliché: features about the absence of street addresses in Tokyo, its kamikaze cabdrivers, Hiroshima revisited, and as the final resort, geisha, cherry blossoms, and Fujiyama.
If the press is to be faulted about coverage of Japan, can someone who wants to know about Japan find books to help him? There are volumes, certainly. World War II is covered in exhausting detail; a few monumental works of history exist; Reischauer’s books have uniquely brought Japan’s political, intellectual, and economic history up to date. Zen, new religions, Kabuki, flower arranging, judo, and karate are covered in fountains of print. There are dozens of accounts of curious old Nippon. But books which really explain this culture so alien to us simply do not exist.
Two major areas where little work is available in English are practical politics and practical business. At the time of the January election little existed in English which would explain the complexities of the Japanese political parties in relation to the voter and the conduct of the election. Similarly, a businessman curious about the United States’s second largest trading partner would find virtually nothing to help him penetrate the feudal maze of Japanese big business. Even the big news is dimmed out: last year, while the Wall Street Journal was closing its regular Japanese bureau, Japanese steel production rose 16 percent; this year a gain of 13 percent is anticipated.
Until the United States, from government to press, begins to be seriously concerned about Japan — and let us hope it will not be a rude Vietnam type of awakening —Japan will remain for us a noncountry, yet one which will be, next to us, the most powerful in the non-Communist world.
James William Morley, director of Columbia University’s East Asian Institute, lamented recently after a year spent in Japan, “I can only say that it is shocking to return from that center of dynamism, which
seems destined by every measure of educational, intellectual, aesthetic, economic, and political attainment and by every indicator of potential power and influence to be not only the great power of Asia but, in the course of the next twenty years, to become one of the three greatest powers in the world, and find the American people abysmally uninformed and unprepared for the future this portends.”
•— James McC. Truitt