The Japan Times at War Time: Mouth piece or Moderator?
It is a commonplace among architects and preservationists that once a building has passed its 100th year, it enters the realm of the monumental and its chances of staying put increase in proportion to its age. By this measure, Japan’s oldest English-language newspaper, The Japan Times, is to be congratulated on reaching its 110th year, with the prospect of many more to come. Founded on March 22, 1897, The Japan Times had become by the 1940s Japan’s longest-surviving English-language newspaper. That it has kept going this long when its original ideals might no longer seem relevant is proof in itself that it continues to serve the purpose for which it was set up.
NEVER MIND THE QUALITY…
Henri Frédéric Amiel once observed that rather than individuals, “Only institutions grow wiser; they accumulate collective experience.” However, this notion is not conspicuously demonstrated in the 24-page 110th-anniversary edition of The Japan Times published on March 22. The anniversary edition certainly pays homage to press freedom and national progress, and acknowledges the many hands that The Japan Times and its sponsors have clasped across the water over the years. Some analytical relief is to be found in the reproduction of the 1897 edition’s main editorial (p. B15) “Our raison-d’etre” – which justifies the newspaper’s mission to explain, and remains one of the best pieces of writing in its history – and in Sam Ito’s outline history (p. B20-B21), which provide a useful appraisal of the role of The Japan Times during its most controversial period, the late 1930s, an important distinction that is explored below. However, somewhere between the hope of 1897 and the experience of 2007, the criteria seem to have shifted to something like, “Never mind the quality, feel the width,” as if reaching 110 was in itself sufficient cause for celebration.
This represents something of a lost opportunity, because The Japan Times has occupied an important and at times crucial position in Japan’s foreign relations and in the international history of East Asia. Floating uneasily between the plaudits of its friends and advertisers and, possibly, the more somber recollections of the more senior members of The Japan Times circle, a number of questions remain unexamined in this anniversary edition. These unanswered questions matter because the history still matters; the shadows cast by the history of prewar Japan seem only to lengthen with the passing of time.
Here’s what we need to know about The Japan Times: How close was the paper to official Japan, and to what extent did it serve as a mouthpiece of the Japanese government (in itself neither unusual nor categorically inadvisable at times of international tension)? Closely connected to these questions is a third: Were The Japan Times’ acquisitions in October and December 1940 of Japan’s two best-known English-language newspapers, The Japan Advertiser and The Japan Chronicle, motivated purely by the desire for total media control and the need to speak with one voice through one conduit to the Western world, or were other plans afoot? A fourth, more speculative, question is whether The Japan Times could have served a more temperate purpose during the crisis in U.S.-Japan negotiations in 1940-41.
AN OFFICIAL MOUTHPIECE?
The Japan Times was seen by many foreign correspondents as a useful reflection of prevailing opinion at the Foreign Ministry and among the General Staff, and, in 1940-41, of the intentions underlying the pronouncements of the newly formed Cabinet Information Board (Naikaku Johokyoku).
There is no shortage of evidence of The Japan Times’ closeness to the Japanese government, in its early years. It is most abundant in the constituent organs of what may be called the Foreign Ministry network of newspapers, magazines, press agencies and journalists in East Asia. In Taisho and early Showa, the Foreign Ministry network operated a system of revolving doors between the Foreign Ministry Information Bureau and successive news-management organizations. At every stage of the news agency reorganizations that saw Kokusai give way to Rengo in 1926 and Domei replace Rengo at the end of 1935, the new setup always included top Japan Times and Information Bureau personnel.
THE JAPAN TIMES TALKS BACK
The “mouthpiece” issue becomes more complicated in the 1930s. While there is no question about the degree of access Japan Times editorial staff had to news-management officials in government and on The Japan Times Board, on its own this is insufficient evidence for the claim that the paper was an official mouthpiece. Where is the journalist who can survive without official access? But in 1931-33 and again in 1936-37, this qualification was supported by hitherto unusual statements emanating from The Japan Times headquarters in Uchisaiwaicho as the paper took an increasingly critical line on Japanese foreign policy.
In midsummer 1931, for the first time since 1897, the Foreign Ministry withdrew its subsidy from The Japan Times as an expression of its dissatisfaction with the independent tone of the paper under the ownership of Sometaro Sheba (Shiba). By late 1932, the withdrawal of the subsidy had forced Sheba to sell up. When his replacement, Genichiro Date, resigned in January 1933, the Foreign Ministry reasserted control of the newspaper, appointing Hitoshi Ashida, a Seiyukai Diet member and ex-Foreign Ministry Information Bureau director, as president. However, although Ashida was on cordial terms with Toshio Shiratori, one of his more aggressive successors at the Bureau, in 1933 he professed sympathy with the majority viewpoint on the Manchurian issue at the League of Nations, prompting the War Ministry to refuse financial assistance to The Japan Times even after the Foreign Ministry had resumed its subsidy.
The next display of independence was the paper’s lukewarm reaction to the Anti-Comintern Pact of Nov. 25, 1936. A month later, the newspaper felt that the Hirota cabinet had misjudged the public reception of the pact and voiced concern for the effect of the pact on Japan’s relations with Britain and the U.S. Early in 1937, The Japan Times embarked on a series of editorials recommending that Japanese foreign policy be formulated on more “trustworthy” criteria and maintaining that the Japanese people were by no means unanimous in approving of the policies adopted in the last five years. In March, the paper asserted that the Japanese people felt that errors made in foreign policy were the cause of many of their current difficulties, singling out Japan’s China policy as particularly unsuccessful. The paper also claimed that Japanese policy toward Russia was mistaken, because relations with Moscow had deteriorated since Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact.
As these examples of critical commentary indicate, the reputation of The Japan Times as an official mouthpiece may well have been earned in its early years, but it was less deserved in early Showa, when most other newspapers not only took their lead from government sources but zealously exceeded official enthusiasm for expansion in East Asia and for the cause of “Holy War.”
On the opinion page of The Japan Times, running between a masthead and the editorial, you will find this:
Incorporating The Japan Advertiser 1890-1940
The Japan Chronicle 1868-1940
The Japan Mail 1870-1918
The Japan Times 1865-1870.
The above legend encapsulates the business history of The Japan Times in a way that indicates that these “incorporations” were regular commercial transactions. Historians (like journalists) being an awkward bunch, we are bound to ask who or what was behind these acquisitions?
In December 1939, Satoshi Go became editor and managing director of The Japan Times and Ashida resigned the presidency. “Toshi” Go’s “activities in the field of international affairs” and his “wide circles of friends in many foreign countries” were puffed in The Japan Times article of Jan. 10 announcing his appointment. Go was little more than a PR man, with scant newspaper experience, but he negotiated the forced acquisition of The Japan Advertiser that October 1940 and that of The Japan Chronicle the following December, and ran all three newspapers under a mouthful of mastheads until August 1945.
Was the decision to amalgamate Go’s alone or was there a man with a plan in place for the creation of The Japan Times & Advertiser Incorporating the Japan Chronicle and the Japan Mail? In May 1941, the septuagenarian Thomas Millard, writing from Manila, offered some answers. As Millard saw it, “The Japan Advertiser was bought at the instance [sic] of [then-Foreign Minister Yosuke] Matsuoka, backed by a powerful group of Japanese financial interests, the idea being to have an organ close to the Foreign Office in which their opposition to the Military Party could be expressed.”
Millard had been operating at the center of East Asia’s media wars for more than 35 years. He knew all the players in the Advertiser story, Matsuoka not least. When the owner and publisher of the Japan Advertiser, B.W. Fleisher, finally left Japan for the U.S. in November 1940 and stopped off in Manila, it seems unlikely that he would not have discussed the sale of the Advertiser with an associate with whom he had been closely involved since both men founded the China Press in Shanghai in 1913.
In June 1941, Stanley Hornbeck, special adviser to Secretary of State Cordell Hull since 1938, found Millard’s argument “plausible and probably accurate.” As he pointed out, Go had been close to Matsuoka since 1919, when he had worked under him on Japan’s publicity team at the peace conference in Paris, (alongside sometime Japan Times President John Russell Kennedy). Hornbeck also found it significant that Go had been promoted from Shanghai manager of the South Manchuria Railway (SMR) to New York manager during Matsuoka’s vice presidency of the SMR in 1927-29. Thus he felt that it was safe to assume that Go was “a Matsuoka man.”
Millard’s interpretation certainly fits with what we know of Matsuoka’s tendency to use the media as a diplomatic weapon. All in all, his May 1941 contention that Matsuoka pushed for the acquisition of The Advertiser in order “to have an organ close to the Foreign Office in which their opposition to the Military Party could be expressed” seemed highly plausible at the time and continues to ring true.
COULD THE JAPAN TIMES HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE?
By the autumn of 1941, Japan was in firm control of most English-language, Japanese and Chinese-language media in East Asia. In China, the North China Army Propaganda Section ran most of the Chinese-language newspapers in Japanese-controlled areas and had “reoriented” their editors, and China’s Japanese-language newspapers had been merged into a single publication, Toa Shinpo (East Asia Report), jointly controlled by the Army Propaganda Section and Domei. Most experienced Tokyo correspondents had left or were preparing to leave Japan in 1940 and were being replaced by less-experienced newsmen just when international uncertainties meant that Western demand for news of Japan was greater than ever. These newcomers increasingly took their opinion of Japan from the narrow conduit of The Japan Times.
In December 1941, on the day after Pearl Harbor, with the closure of Japan News-Week, The Japan Times became Japan’s last English-language publication – one newspaper speaking from Tokyo, the news centre of East Asia, speaking with one voice where three discrete organs had spoken with many. In late 1941, Japan’s news network ruled the roost and Japan’s side of the story could be told without fear of “correction” by rogue elements in the press of East Asia. How did The Japan Times use this opportunity?
According to Millard’s May 1941 letter to Hornbeck, the acquisition of The Japan Advertiser and the establishment of The Japan Times & Advertiser Incorporating The Japan Chronicle and The Japan Mail was followed by a series of publicity buildups to test the strength of the “internationalist” circle around the new amalgamation and to see how far Matsuoka’s “internationalism” would be tolerated by the “Military Party” at the Foreign Ministry.
The first of these trial balloons floated the suggestion that “Matsy,” as Millard called him, visit the U.S. at the invitation of the American government. When it became apparent that Washington was not receptive to this idea, The Japan Times & Advertiser spun this “fizzle” into a suggestion that the invitation had emanated from Washington and that Matsuoka had turned it down. The Japan Times & Advertiser next advanced a plan for the U.S. and Japan to cooperate in restoring peace in China, but according to Millard, “the Military Party” promptly sat on the idea. The Times & Advertiser then ran editorials campaigning for a compromise with Chiang Kai-shek in China, but within 24 hours, Matsuoka received a request through channels between Tokyo and Chungking (Chongqing) to issue a denial of all possibility of compromise. This he duly undertook and The Japan Times & Advertiser then argued strongly for the legitimate expansion of Japan’s hegemony and a fight to the finish in China.
Since that climb-down, Millard concluded in May 1941, “The Times-Advertiser has done nothing except to raise rumors and raise a dust.” The “net result of it all,” Millard concluded, was that “the Military Party still is in complete control of the Tokyo Government and its Foreign Policy.” Matsuoka’s stock in military circles began to plummet following the unforeseen outbreak of hostilities between the Soviet Union and Germany in June 1941. In mid-July 1941, the second Konoe Cabinet resigned in order to form a third Cabinet for the express purpose of jettisoning Matsuoka, who returned to the political wilderness.
Go survived to direct The Japan Times & Advertiser until 1945. He quickly jettisoned Matsuoka’s notions of an internationalist forum at The Japan Times although that autumn, in complex and delicate negotiations between Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Kichisaburo Nomura and Secretary of State Cordell Hull in Washington, the United States had become increasingly insistent on concrete evidence of good intentions from Japan. Some basis for a modus vivendi between Japan, the United States and Britain was sorely needed, but on Oct. 31 and again on Nov. 5, The Japan Times & Advertiser published editorials rejecting American terms and stiffening Japanese conditions in key areas.
When Tokyo’s American press corps read Go’s Oct. 31 editorial, they immediately cabled it to their foreign desks in the U.S. Having few other Japan-based English-language sources to check the story against, U.S. foreign editors took the article as coming straight from the Foreign Ministry and responded with indignant editorials. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew protested not only to Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori but directly to the author of the editorials, Satoshi Go, at The Japan Times & Advertiser. At midnight on Nov. 4, the next day’s Japan Times & Advertiser was passed out to Tokyo correspondents, and Go’s second editorial, alleging that the U.S. had presented Chungking with demands which would if accepted “create a mortgage on China” and listing a seven-point program of minimally acceptable U.S. “restitution” to Japan, was cabled verbatim to the U.S., alongside Grew’s official rebuttal of the Oct. 31 article.
Having read the Nov. 5 editorial on the night of Nov. 4, Grew immediately sent a letter of protest to The Japan Times & Advertiser, which the paper duly published in its Nov. 5 issue alongside the controversial editorial. In his diary for Nov. 5, Grew reflected, “If anything could render utterly hopeless the prospect of our coming to an understanding with Japan, this editorial, from a newspaper known to be the organ of the Japanese Foreign Office, would appear to do it, and my guess is that the American people will not be sympathetic to further efforts towards reconciliation.”
Looking back in 1943, Robert Craigie maintained that a more flexible American diplomatic response to Japan in October-November 1941 could have enabled a postponement of war “until a time of our own choosing – our time, that is, not Hitler’s.”
It would be simplistic to narrow U.S.-Japan communications to The Japan Times & Advertiser and claim that therefore Japan offered the West no more than Go’s windy editorials in the autumn of 1941. Both sides used other channels in intensive and serious efforts to find a solution to the impasse of November 1941, one of the most hopeful avenues being a Japanese withdrawal from Indochina. However, the continuing pervasiveness of propaganda messages from the Japan network in East Asia and the U.S. and the persistent feistiness of most Japan Times & Advertiser editorials during this period may have clouded Washington’s view of Japan’s negotiating position and prevented Japan’s more conciliatory and workable diplomatic positions from being taken more seriously in Washington.
For seeding such clouds, The Japan Times & Advertiser and Go must bear some responsibility for what followed. However, both Go’s position and habits of discourse and the newspaper’s unique authority as Japan’s best-known and most closely attended public channel to the U.S. in late 1941 were only developing characteristics in an official network that had been accumulating since at least 1921, when Prime Minister Kei Hara and others set up the Foreign Ministry Information Bureau.
Satoshi Go no more fell into the editorial chair at The Japan Times & Advertiser in 1939 than Japan and the United States fell into a state of intense mutual distrust in the autumn of 1941. The greater the tragedy, it seems, the more time and effort required to prepare for it. However, as this article has tried to point out, The Japan Times played far more than the walk-on part of an official mouthpiece. After amalgamating with The Japan Advertiser, The Japan Times (until Matsuoka's fall from grace) made a doomed but valiant effort to set up a rational, internationalist alternative to the bellicose rumblings emanating from the General Staff and the Foreign Ministry. It is a minor irony that the very questions The Japan Times chose to neglect in its March 22 anniversary edition are just those whose examination would have shown it at its best: working to fulfill the mission that it stated so clearly in 1897.
Fält, Olavi (1985) Fascism, Militarism or Japanism? The interpretation of the crisis
years of 1930-1941 in the Japanese English-language press (Oulu: Studia Historica
Septentrionalia 8: Societas Historica Finlandiae), particularly pp.88-9.
Foreign Ministry archives: Gaimushou gaikou shiryoukan, Roppongi, Tokyo.
Public Record Office files: Foreign Office Correspondence: the National Archives, Kew, U.K.
United States Department of State records: internal affairs of Japan, 1910-29; 1930-39; 1940-44; decimal file 894, Record Group 59, particularly USDS 894.911/84: Stanley Hornbeck, USDS, to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, June 5, 1941.