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Number 1 Shimbun

Reviewing Our Legacy

SOUTH ASIA AT

THE FCCJ

Reviewing Our Legacy



02-1

Isabella Bird, British explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist

 

MONZURUL HUQ

 

Historically, men have dominated foreign correspondence, with phenomenal exceptions: Isabella Bird (1831-1904), Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998), and Oriana Fallaci (1929-2006) were all special observers of their time whose writings still resonate in ours. Isabella Bird’s dispatches from Japan and China towards the end of the nineteenth century included not only correspondence but also longer, richer accounts that still inform and engage more than a century after her death. Women like these inspired others to follow, and their number has been rising in recent years, though not as fast as the FCCJ would like.

Gender is an aspect of diversity in which we have underperformed but, with four female presidents during the first two decades of this century (including the current incumbent) we have not done too badly, although the proportion of women members and Committee Chairs is still far too small. However, from the perspective of nationality, the FCCJ has done well, compared to many other press clubs. And here South Asian correspondents have played a historically important role.

 

03-2

KV Narain in full flow


KV Narain

Our Workroom carries the name of KV Narain, an Indian who was among the first non-Japanese Asian to play a major role in Club affairs. He was followed by several others. We have a Scholarship fund named after Swadesh De Roy, a distinguished Indian who left a generous fund at the disposal of the Club to initiate a scholarship for aspiring young journalists. The Swadesh De Roy Scholarship fund is still operational, with annual competitions for students of journalism and media studies here and abroad. However, apart from the Scholarship, the life and career of Swadesh De Roy himself have not otherwise been commemorated or made known to beneficiaries of the Scholarship set up in his name. Clearly, he deserves more recognition.

KV Narain, in particular, was a Club stalwart. He chaired the Library and Workroom Committee for years and worked hard to make sure that those from the less powerful media around the world had a place to work and research. The Internet was a long way off and our workroom and library were essential tools for many of our regular members. KV, as he was known among colleagues and friends at the FCCJ, was instrumental in giving the workroom and information gathering facility a definite shape. Small wonder that we honor KV by naming the place after him, though the commemorative plaque originally set up in KV’s honor seems to have gone missing since our move to the Nijubashi Building.

KV Narain first came to Japan in 1937 as a student. No sooner had he settled in Tokyo than Japan went into full-scale war with China. KV stayed on after the war and began reporting for Indian newspapers. He was subsequently made a regular correspondent of The Hindu, the left-leaning English-language daily published from Madras (present day Chennai). In 1961, he joined the Club, remaining an active member until 1998, the year he returned to his hometown, Bangalore.

 

03-3

VC Lingam celebrating his 90th birthday at the Club


VC Lingam, Swadesh De Roy and UD Khan

KV’s counterpart among associate members was VC Lingam, the grand old man who was a regular at the Club until his death in 2014. Like KV, Lingam also came to Japan to pursue tertiary studies in the mid-1930s. He also joined the Club in the early 1960s and remained a member until his death.

Lingam’s legacy was built on by Swadesh De Roy, who came to Japan as a correspondent of the Press Trust of India, a government-linked news agency. Swadesh joined the Club in 1964, ran for various posts, sat on the board and in 1979 became the FCCJ’s first South Asian President. Both KV and Swadesh wrote for Number1 Shimbun. Swadesh contributed a regular column, “Up our Alley”. The fact that contributions to Number1 Shimbun were all unpaid gives some sense of these journalists’ devotion to our Club.

In the early 1970s the FCCJ saw the emergence of another very active South Asian. Umar Daras Khan or UD Khan was a Pakistani who joined the Club in 1974 and remained a member until his death in the late 1990s. Many of our veteran members remember him as a perpetual loser in FCCJ presidential elections. UD Khan ran for President almost every year from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s without ever bagging the top prize. This failed to discourage him from helping to run the Club and he was always available to serve on committees.

 

03-4

Firdous Khergamvala moderating a press conference


Firdous Khergamvala

A close contemporary of UD Khan, Firdous Khergamvala was set to be FCCJ President in early 2000 when premature death robbed him (and us) of victory. Firdous replaced KV as correspondent for The Hindu and he too was a regular presence in the workroom. Firdous too served on various committees and was elected to the Board several times. The Club later named the small conference room at the Denki Building after him. Again, this small mark of recognition was set aside when our Club moved to its current premises. For the sake of knowing and honoring our own past history, we do need to restore the Club’s formal recognition of Firdous Khergamvala’s historic contribution to our activities.

 

03-5

Former Japanese Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira and Swadesh De Roy enjoying an intimate moment at the Club


Maintaining tradition

I myself am one in a line of South Asian journalists perpetuating the rich and storied history of South Asians at the FCCJ. Our colleague Suvendrini Kakuchi is another. Both of us have served as President and we remain active in various FCCJ committees. Another important aspect of diversity we uphold is that we represent the media of our own countries rather than the ubiquitous media of the Western world. This is in itself a challenge as sometimes our hosts do not know who we are or which media institution we represent.

KV used to recall an encounter with Indonesian officials accompanying President Soekarno during one of his Tokyo visits in the early 1960s. As he was joining a press conference, an Indonesian official at the entrance asked KV for his affiliation. When KV told the official that he was a Hindu, the man replied, “I wasn’t asking for your religion, I was asking for the name of your media.”

I still deal with similarly inane queries from hosts, many of whom confuse my name with that of my newspaper. More than a few invitations to press events addressed to “Mr. Prothom Alo” have come my way. But this too is a part of diversity in practice as it shows that the Club is not just a forum for a significant handful of media giants. As with South Asian, East Asian representation at the Club has grown significantly.

We could certainly do with a great deal more help and engagement from our Chinese, Korean and Japanese friends and colleagues, both in running the Club and in making it a more congenial place to visit. Historically, the problem has lain in the language barrier. But this is gradually being eroded, and we look forward to far greater involvement in FCCJ activities from both East and South Asian Members.


Monzurul Huq is Tokyo Bureau Chief of the Bangladesh daily Prothom Alo and a former President of the FCCJ.

 

Published in: November 2020

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