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Number 1 Shimbun

Back in the Day: Covering East Asia from Japan

No1-2018-08 06

Back in the Day: Covering East Asia from Japan



Once upon a time, when the world was young, or at least I was young, Tokyo was the center of attention in terms of covering Asia – not counting the Vietnam War and episodic conflagrations elsewhere such as the Indo-Pakistan War of December 1971, which transformed what had been East Pakistan into Bangladesh. One reason why Tokyo was of such overwhelming importance was that China remained largely closed to regular coverage by Western journalists.

The Toronto Globe and Mail had had a correspondent in Beijing for many years, but that was a special case. Correspondents for major American news organizations were just getting into the country when US President Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China – that is, Taiwan – to the People’s Republic of China, as of January 1, 1979. I was in Tokyo at the time and recall the excitement as we talked of “getting into China,” breaking through barriers that had once been almost impregnable to rank-and-file reporters. Richard Nixon during his presidency forged the way, sending his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, on a secret mission to Beijing in mid-1971 and then visiting China for one week in February 1972.

I got to China for the first time in early 1978 accompanying a group of doctors on a tour that took us to Beijing, Shanghai and one or two other cities. Then, on assignment for the Boston Globe, I accompanied the Boston Ballet to Beijing and Shanghai in June 1980 on a whirlwind tour that the organizers touted as “the first by an American ballet company,” as if that were somehow a milestone accomplishment. I’m pretty sure the company had to pay all its own expenses for the privilege. (The Globe covered mine.)

China was a whole lot more open by the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising nine years later, in June 1989, which I covered as correspondent for USA Today. Authorities, after suppressing the firebrands, would begin to revert to the habits of a bygone era, but the constraints imposed on correspondents in China were nothing like the old days.


When I was based in Hong Kong as Asia correspondent for the Washington Star in the late 1960s, “China-watching” was as important as sorties to Saigon and other Southeast Asian datelines to cover the war. A number of famous correspondents operated out of Hong Kong. I remember them well. Stanley Karnow of the Washington Post, Seymour Topping and Tillman Durdin of The New York Times, Robert Elegant of the Los Angeles Times and Robert Shaplen of The New Yorker all resided there, peering across the New Territories into China, to which they were denied access until much later. During a Party Congress in Beijing, the foreign editor of the Star had me filing every day, culling quotes from Xinhya, i.e. the New China News Agency, and “China experts,” who might or might not have known what they were talking about.

Soon the Red Guards were rampaging through China, and Anthony Grey, Reuters man in Beijing, was placed under house arrest for more than two years. When I asked an official from Beijing about a visa to go to China and see for myself what was happening, he screamed in my face. Seriously.

Ah, those were the days. For a steady base, free from wonders about getting your visa renewed or getting kicked out or openly harassed, you could count on Tokyo, to which I gravitated in the fall of 1971 as far east correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. I succeeded Sam Jameson, who recommended me after moving to the Los Angeles Times. Richard Halloran of The New York Times, whom I had known during a fellowship year at Columbia, kindly briefed me. The staff of Reuters, through which I filed for the Tribune in those pre-Internet days, were pleasant, helpful and accommodating.

There were some pretty good stories too. Those who were around all those years ago will no doubt remember Rengo Sekigun, the Red Army, whose zealots staged a number of bloody incidents including the hijacking while I was there in 1973 of a Japan Airlines plane, which they blew up. So intense was the Red Army that the group honestly gave the impression its violent revolution, supported by revolutionaries globally, might jeopardize the long-ruling Tokyo establishment.

Adding to the excitement, from time to time, were mass demonstrations, sometimes in front of American bases, staged by highly organized, mostly leftist groups protesting the US role in the Vietnam War and Japan’s involvement as a rear base area. Japan may not have been as vital to the Americans as it had been during the Korean War, but US Marine Corps divisions rotated out of Okinawa to Vietnam and B52s flew out of Kadena Air Base on bombing missions.

Then too there was the economic story as the “Nixon shokku” of August 1971 freed the value of the yen to the dollar, resulting in rapid depreciation of the dollar from a solid 360 yen through the 200s and down to the 100s on a dizzying roller coaster ride. We all got used to never-ending stories about American efforts to redress the yawning imbalance of trade, admit American imports on a significant scale and take in foreign direct investment. The numbers and other details change, but the basic story has remained much the same ever since.

After a while I began to get on to how deeply conservative was Japan, how driven were the salarymen and bureaucrats who ran the country and, eventually, how different it was, beneath superficial appearances, from any other culture or society that I had visited or experienced. Readers of Number 1 Shimbun understand the often rigid, closed nature of Japan, the difficulties of penetrating barriers, the scarcity of real news, beyond what you’re told by bureaucrats and professors and all those other experts before whom journalists wind up paying obeisance, like it or not.

Complaints about the infamous “press club system” were as often heard then as they are today. Ivan Hall, in his classic Cartels of the Mind: Japan’s Intellectual Closed Shop, quotes an instance in which the leader of a press club tried to block me from access to one of those Japanese who had emerged from the jungle decades after the end of World War II. (I made clear the only ones who could order me around were my editors, and I didn’t always do their bidding either.)

For a break from the daily tensions of uptight Japan, however, one could count on Korea. I first came to Seoul in September 1972 for what were called “Red Cross talks” – negotiations between high-level emissaries of North and South Korea sponsored by the Red Cross organizations of both Koreas. The atmosphere was charged with excitement. Might North and South cooperate on visits between members of millions of families divided by the Korean War, on mail and commerce, on cultural and athletic events?

The Tokyo press corps swarmed over the story. Don Oberdorfer of the Washington Post, who years later drew on memories of those talks in writing The Two Koreas, was there, as were Jameson and Halloran. Keyes Beech, the legendary Chicago Daily News correspondent whom I had first met in India during the 1962 border war with China and then had often seen in Vietnam, flew up from Saigon.

Those Red Cross talks ultimately did little if anything to resolve inter-Korean problems. If that scenario sounds familiar, think of all the other moments, right up to the Singapore summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, when high hopes and optimism were dashed by incredible hassles and delays and rhetorical exchanges. Since that first taste of Seoul, the story has only gotten better (not sure that’s the proper word) in terms of the threat of nuclear war and long-range missiles. In fact, on that first visit, no one realized North Korea was going to go nuclear.

We had to wait another 20 years for a real nuclear crisis, a challenge so grave as to get President Bill Clinton considering an attack on North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Jimmy Carter in June 1994 saved the day by going to Pyongyang and meeting Kim Il-sung on a boat on the Daedong river. I saw Carter, before and after that mission, at the US ambassador’s residence in Seoul. He may or may not deserve credit for averting Korean War II, but I do have this memory of a modest, unassuming man who lives to make the world a better place.

Japan hovers over the region, a giant enigma capable of upsetting or shifting the strategic balance. But the Japanese story also gets boring. How do you penetrate the minds of people who know where to pigeonhole you as a foreigner, to bestow little by way of real insight and information? Sometimes, sure, you get lucky, but the Korean story is far more dramatic, a never-ending cycle of outbursts and recriminations, of dreams and disappointments.

Mass outpourings in central Seoul happen every few years, governments writhe in scandal and abuse, and tensions rise and fall along the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas as surely now as it did at the end of the Korean War. From the bloody Gwangju revolt of 1980, which I covered for British and US papers, to shootouts in the Yellow Sea to heart-rending tales told by defectors from the North, Korea as a story never ceases to shock and surprise.

All of us sought out Kim Dae Jung, the dissident who later became president, about whom I wrote a controversial book, “Korea Betrayed,” citing the vast payoffs he arranged to North Korea to bring about his summit with Kim Jong- il in June 2000. Oh, yes, I also dove so deeply as almost to drown writing books on the Hyundai empire and the 1997-1998 economic crisis.

That’s not to say the Korea story is more important than Japan. Unlike Japan, however, the Korean drama is there, in your face, all around you, while Japan is so infinitely complicated and subtle that perhaps it’s not possible to cover while running off to more alluring datelines and headlines. In my years in Tokyo, I got a sense of having been there and done that, of déjà vu all over again, writing features on the same topics, talking to the same types.

I used to say I wasn’t “covering” Japan, really, but rather one square mile or maybe a square kilometer of central Tokyo, ranging from the foreign ministry to MITI, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, to a few corporate entities and think tanks, then back to the FCCJ to tap away in the workroom (does anyone remember, we used typewriters in those days?), to check out its great library, to enjoy the correspondent’s lunch and chat with familiar faces. As to whether I “understand” Japan, that goal remains as elusive now as when I first got to Tokyo decades ago.


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Donald Kirk, a member of the FCCJ in the 1970s and 1980s, has been reporting from Asia since the Vietnam War. He’s currently based in Seoul and Washington, reporting mainly for CBS Radio, the Daily Beast and Forbes Asia, among others.








Published in: August 2018

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