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Number 1 Shimbun

Takashi Tachibana - A giant among Japanese journalists

No1-2017-09 Tachibana


Takashi Tachibana
A giant among Japanese journalists

Takashi Tachibana became famous more than four decades ago thanks to a hugely publicized investigative reporting project. Then, like the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward after Watergate, the frizzy-haired reporter refused to rest on his laurels. He has continued for decades to produce leading-edge journalism, scholarship and criticism.

And now, late in the eighth decade of his life, the FCCJ is honoring Tachibana with its Lifetime Achievement Award for upholding and promoting freedom of the press. The presentation is scheduled for Sept. 11.

Tachibana’s leadership of a Bungei-Shunju project involving relentless investigative digging in open sources is often credited as having played a major role in bringing down Kakuei Tanaka, the more than typically corrupt prime minister who had been postwar Japan’s most powerful leader.

The mainstream Japanese-language daily media initially gave Tachibana’s reporting a lukewarm reception. The FCCJ intervened, arranging for Tanaka to speak at a luncheon – which became the most famous (notorious, in some people’s view) press conference we’ve ever hosted.

Thanks to the fame that Tachibana thus acquired, he has enjoyed remarkable freedom in what he has been able to report on for the rest of his career. He’s made astonishing use of that freedom and, still working at 77, continues to inspire youngsters who wonder how they can get the real story in a country where the kisha clubs rule.

“Over the years, Mr. Tachibana has conducted thorough research and reporting to get to the core of many important subjects,” says Kenichi Harada, 36, Seoul correspondent for Jiji Press. “He’s a role model for a journalist like myself. He’s written a number of books about journalistic methods, from which I learned a lot. His body of work will serve as textbooks for many young upcoming journalists.” 

Born May 28, 1940, in Nagasaki, Tachibana graduated in French literature from Tokyo University. His first job (1964) was with Shukan Bunshun. After a couple of years, he quit the weekly. In 1967, he returned to Todai to study philosophy.

Finding it was hard to make ends meet as a young scholar, he freelanced, writing articles for various magazines. In 1971, he opened a tiny bar/snakku called Gargantua in Shinjuku 2-chome’s Golden-gai. He did the cooking, handling a large number of menu items. He sold Gargantua in 1972 and left for Europe and the Middle East to wander around.

The Tanaka ‘sting’
Tachibana was a 34-year-old freelancer when he became famous for speaking truth to power. Leading a team of 20 journalists, relying not at all on leaks, he meticulously waded through an ocean of publicly available information to chronicle Tanaka’s dealings.

He waited until a couple of days before the monthly magazine's deadline to start confronting officials with his findings. “A hastier approach,” wrote T. Tokuoka of Mainichi Daily News, “might have touched off a counteroffensive from the Prime Minister's quarters, which could possibly have wrecked the whole venture.”

When the Bungei-Shunju editor was looking for someone to lead the reporting project, “no establishment journalist would touch it,” Newsweek reported. “They had all been pressured away or they had too much to lose.”

Tachibana hadn't been ground down to fit a Japanese daily newspaper reporter's routine of covering briefings, following kisha club rules and showing up at politicians’ houses late at night to receive the daily dose of wisdom. Another similarly intrepid reporter, the late Takaya Kodama, wrote in the magazine's same issue about Tanaka's female “shadow,” Aki Sato. Tachibana and Kodama eventually would be lionized as Japan's Woodward and Bernstein.

The magazine's 61-page exposé, TIME reported, was “a devastating chronicle of Tanaka's financial dealings through dummy corporations, secret bank accounts, incomplete tax statements and the use of vast amounts of money to buy support within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Tanaka clung to office just long enough to welcome President [Gerald] Ford to Tokyo.”

TIME added that “Bungei-Shunju's feat would have been a coup in any country. But in Japan, where the press seldom mentions the private peccadillos of government leaders, it was an unprecedented display of hara (guts). The nation's last major political scandal, the 1966 ‘black mist’ influence-peddling affair, went unreported in the press until the matter came before the Diet. This time, Bungei-Shunju's disclosures were ignored for nearly a fortnight.”

What happened to turn the tide? “It was only when foreign reporters grilled Tanaka about the article that big Japanese dailies began to print disapproving editorials,” TIME reported.

Government outrage
“Why such docility?” TIME asked. “For one thing, Japanese journalists have a tradition of pleasant bonhomie with their news sources that makes hard digging difficult. Then there are the reporters' clubs … Beyond that, many major news organizations are in debt to banks that have close ties to the Liberal Democratic Party … Tokyo dailies have also built their offices on government land relinquished to them through important politicians.”

At that October 21, 1974, FCCJ press conference, sarcastic-sounding introductory remarks by the moderator, a Hungarian Communist correspondent, as well as tough questioning from the floor aroused government outrage. (See the account in the official club history, Foreign Correspondents in Japan, starting on page 207.) Tanaka grew so disturbed by persistent questions – which from the third question, by the late Sam Jameson, focused on the Bungei reporting – that he walked out before the scheduled end of the conference.

Events that day caused something of a schism among the Regular membership. “The FCCJ was guilty of a fairly blatant intervention in Japan’s political debate, and it was not necessarily in favor of the good guys,” argues Gregory Clark, current Club second vice president, who at the time was bureau chief of The Australian.

Tanaka had made political enemies with his opening to China two years before and Clark thinks the “good guys” were those who backed the prime minister in that, while establishment forces such as the Bungei publishing house attacked him. Twenty-two members, led by the late AFP bureau chief Pierre Brisard and including Clark, apologized to the government.

Journalists besides Clark who got involved and who remain in Tokyo include FCCJ former president and current life member Gebhard Hielscher of Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, who sat at the head table as second vice president, and Hideko Takayama, then of the Baltimore Sun, who had read the Bungei-Shunju article to help her bureau chief, Matt Seiden, prepare a question for Tanaka.

In Hielscher’s view, “Only the introduction by Bela Elias was problematic, but that was in part also due to his somewhat limited command of the English language.” Otherwise, Hielscher says, correspondents spoke to the prime minister “in courteous language.”

Although reporter Tachibana was not present for the press conference, he drew a share of criticism. Clark, for example, says Tachibana’s work on Tanaka was not all that original. Long preceding Tachibana’s package, Clark says, was “a savage article” in the May 1972 edition of Bungei-Shunju on Tanaka’s “money politics,” written by right-winger Shintaro Ishihara – later to become Tokyo’s governor.

But the main effect on Tachibana’s career came from the fact that after the FCCJ presser the mainstream Japanese media began asking tough questions – and within days the prime minister had to resign.

Foreign influence
While Tanaka never came back to the FCCJ, Tachibana became friends with a number of foreign correspondents (including the author of this article) and went on to speak several times in the club over the following decades.

Right after one of his FCCJ talks, in 1976 when he was preparing a major piece on the Lockheed scandal, Newsweek quoted him as saying that “the establishment press has always played journalistic kendo at a meter's length from their opponent's sword and has never closed in. I think some of the individual reporters on the major papers will notice what we're doing, but I think the impact on management will be negligible.”

He always acknowledged an inspirational debt to investigative journalists abroad. For example, he wrote a book published in 1978 entitled Journalism wo kangaeru tabi, (Travels to Think About Journalism) in which he interviewed David Halberstam and other well-known journalists.

But although he continued to do political journalism, he also branched out to become a polymath. While people close to him have lost count of how many books he’s published all say the number is more than a hundred. “His strength is really his diversified interest in different subjects,” says Takayama, who moved on from the Baltimore Sun to report for Newsweek and then Bloomberg News. “His interest went into so many directions it’s been hard to keep up.”

Those directions, she says, “have ranged from Kakuei Tanaka to the sexual revolution in the U.S., from space to brain death, from the Japanese Communist Party to near-death experiences, from agricultural cooperatives to music, from science to the Emperor and Todai, from his own illness to the Pacific War.”

Tachibana, she recalls, “once produced record albums recorded at his own place under the label ‘Chez Tachibana.’ One of his major works was Uchu kara no kikan (Return from Space), in which he interviewed American astronauts about how their space trips changed their lives, and I think it is one of his best.”

One of his most recent works, published in 2016, is Toru Takemitsu – Ongaku sozo e no tabi (Journey Toward Musical Creation), over 700 pages of text based on interviews with the late Japanese composer. Another 2016 Tachibana book title can be translated as Tachibana talks about War. 

This year some notable Tachibana interviews have appeared in Bungei-Shunju. One is an interview with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, titled “Declaration of War Against the LDP.” Another, in which he interviews a specialist, is called “Diabetes and Cancer.” Tachibana suffers from both.

Bradley Martin joined the club in 1977 and has worked for the Baltimore Sun, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Asian Financial Intelligence, Asia Times and Bloomberg News. His forthcoming novel, Nuclear Blues, is set in North Korea. Alex Martin of The Japan Times also contributed reporting for this article.

Published in: September 2017

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