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Number 1 Shimbun


NUMBER 1 SHIMBUN 2017 (109)

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January 2017 (10)
January 2017



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January 2017

From the archives:
Trump makes a Tokyo visit

Voices of 2016
Quotes from Club speakers

2017: Something to Crow About
Correspondents' predictions for the year ahead

Profile: Abigail Leonard
In search of untold stories . . . by Tim Hornyak

A Change in the Air(waves)
New technologies and viewing habits . . . by Gavin Blair

Is the Government Blind to Japan's Impoverished?
Activists speak on the country's disadvantaged . . . by Julian Ryall

Vaccine Battle Stakes are High
A drug, news headlines and a libel lawsuit . . . by Justin McCurry

Someday Going Back Home

photographs of Syrian refugee children by Natsuki Yasuda

From the President    Khaldon Azhari

Club News

New Members/New books in the library


Nissan1 Ricoh NSK1
FCCJ - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA


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February 2017 (9)
February 2017



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February 2017

From the archives:
The Maestro with the Baton

Journalism Enters the Matrix
The new visual technologies . . . by Michael Penn

Difficult Conceptions
The pregnancy struggle in Japan . . . by Sonja Blaschke


Profile: Andy Sharp
Beating tight deadlines for Bloomberg  . . . by Gavin Blair

The "Kabuki" of Donald Trump and the Auto Industry
A look at the real story . . . by Roger Schreffler

Welcome to the Post-truth World
Fake news isn't the only problem . . . by Ayako Mie


Olympic Press Center Under Fire
Another 2020 mix-up . . . by Julian Ryall

Exhibition: Dojo Giga
Paintings by Bujinkan Dojo Soke, Masaaki Hatsumi

From the President    Khaldon Azhari

New Members/New books in the library


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March 2017 (8)
March 2017



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March 2017

From the archives:
Catalyst for Change
by Charles Pomeroy

Excerpts from Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan

Growing Pains: How Japan's Media Got Here and Why
by Koichi Nakano

Trials in the Shadows
by Lawrence Repeta and Yasuomi Sawa

Profile: Yoichi Yabe
A nautical photographer on his profession . . . by Tyler Rothmar

Women Power the Reconstruction of Kitakami
Some good news from Tohoku . . . by John R. Harris

Who was Kim Jong-nam?
by Justin McCurry

Exhibition: Fukushima Photographic Journey

Photographs by Bruce Osborne

From the President    Khaldon Azhari

New Members/New books in the library


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May 2017 (10)
May 2017


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May 2017

Showa Memories

From the archives:
The Man with the Baton
by Charles Pomeroy

Trouble, Rubble, Toil and Bubble
The media fascination with the Showa era . . . by Mark Schreiber

What's in a Word
The meaning of sontaku . . . by Eiichiro Tokumoto


Profile: Bruce Osborn
by Abigail Leonard

The Emperor's Buon Viaggio
Traveling with the press pack . . . by Stefano Carrer

When We Targeted North Korea

The crisis in 1969 . . . by Todd Crowell

Exhibition: Made in Tokyo
Photographs by Carla Hernandez

From the President    Khaldon Azhari

Club News

New Members/New books in the library


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June 2017 (10)
June 2017



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June 2017

Water Control

From the archives:
Economic Reform Advocate
by Charles Pomeroy

Salute to the Gaijin Ghetto Rats
Memories from the old Nikkei Building residents . . . by Bradley K. Martin

Rebellion in the Valley of the Fireflies
Local protests have halted dam construction, for now . . . by Sonja Blaschke


Profile: Sarah Birke
by Julian Ryall

The Kyoto Classroom: Writers and the Kansai Aesthetic
A different perspective . . . by Eric Johnston

The New Japan Times

Reborn at 120 . . . by Gavin Blair

Exhibition: Being There
Photographs by Michael E.J. Stanley

From the President    Khaldon Azhari

Club News

New Members/New books in the library


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FCCJ - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA


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July 2017 (9)
July 2017



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July 2017

From the archives:
Japan's Favorite Optimist
by Charles Pomeroy

Best Frenemies: Japan vs the UN
Government spokesmen challenge UN statements
. . . by David McNeill

"I Love Linda"
A post-war TV star was discovered at the Club tables . . . by Eiichiro Tokumoto


Profile: Kazunori Takada
Bloomberg's Tokyo bureau chief . . . by Justin McCurry

Scoop! Team Work
An Australian correspondent's China gambit . . . by Gregory Clark

A New Owner for the Japan Times
 by Tim Hornyak

Exhibition: Agion Oros Athos
Photographs by Hirohito Nakanishi

From the President    Khaldon Azhari

Club News

New Members/New books in the library


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FCCJ - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA


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August 2017 (9)
August 2017



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August 2017

From the archives:
The enduring politician and ambassador
by Charles Pomeroy

If . . .
Could the Vatican have helped stop Hiroshima
. . . by Eiichiro Tokumoto

When the journalist becomes the story
Some South Korean reporters had a tough decision . . . by Asger Rojle Christensen


Profile: Johann Fleuri
  . . . by Justin McCurry

The state of the fourth estate
A panel of journalists speak of the future . . . by Julian Ryall

Meet Watson, your non-human resources manager
 by Tim Hornyak

Exhibition: Temptation to express the sensation of riding waves
Photographs by NAKI

From the President    Khaldon Azhari

Club News

New Members/New books in the library


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The New "Japan Times": Reborn at 120

Letters from the history of the paper's masthead.

Japan's largest English-language daily has made some big moves to stay relevant -- and visually inviting.

by Gavin Blair



N THE 12 DECADES since the Japan Times was launched, a multitude of English-language newspapers have come and gone, many absorbed by the JT before the turn of the 20th century. In more recent years, the print editions of the Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi’s English editions have fallen by the wayside. The Japan News, the reincarnation of the Daily Yomiuri, survives, but now consists almost entirely of articles translated from the Yomiuri Shimbun.

Not content to rest on its last-man-standing laurels, and to better cope with the shift to the digital news age, the JT recently underwent its first major revamp in three decades, to coincide with its 120th anniversary. The paper changed its logo, font and layout, as well as increased use of photographs and graphics, for its relaunch on April 1.

The JT was the first English-language newspaper in Japan to be founded by Japanese personnel and financing. Among the founding group were Yukichi Fukuzawa, he of the ¥10,000 note fame, and Sueji Yamada, a former secretary of Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister of modern times and a key figure in establishing the Meiji Constitution. “The samurai era had just finished, and one of the aims was to show the real Japan to the world,” says Sayuri Daimon, the newspaper’s managing editor.

The April 1st relaunch issue, featuring a complete redesign.

The JT’s early look, with advertising concentrated on the front page, owed more than a little to the contemporary Times of London, according to Daimon. The paper went through a series of name changes, including one forced by the government to Nippon Times in 1943. “Although we were allowed to keep on publishing, there was censorship during the war and a push against English; even in baseball, terms like ‘strike’ were banned,” says Daimon.

The post-war period, however, saw a burst in interest in the paper. “The paper sold like hotcakes when General MacArthur came because there were so many Americans here. And we had a lot of advertisers because they knew MacArthur was reading it,” explains Daimon.

FAST FORWARD TO 2013, when the JT was in the process of linking up with the New York Times international edition, then still the International Herald Tribune. Because the NYT publishes six days a week, the JT had an opportunity to experiment with a new format and designs on Sunday, according to art director Andrew Lee. The result was the tabloid-sized Japan Times on Sunday and the stimulus for the complete overhaul of the daily edition that took place in April.

“We changed almost everything apart from the size. We shifted from eight columns to six per page; wider columns are better for longer reads,” says Lee. “People are more likely to read longer articles in print. But we’re different in that we have a lot of readers whose first language isn’t English, and they like to have shorter reads too.”

The new font is Berlingske Serif Text Light, designed for the Danish daily Berlingske, while Serif Black is used for the new all lower case-logo, with its distinctive red dot on the first letter of japan. How the lower case jt logo looked online was a crucial factor, says Lee, as the publication aims to boost its digital imprint. Moving the masthead to the left side of the paper is designed to make it easier to find in newsstands. “On the first day of the relaunch I rushed down to the konbini and I could literally see it from outside; so I thought ‘that works,’” says Lee.


Although the JT has adopted a “web-first” policy, “Print is the face of the paper,” says Daimon.


The print edition now has a circulation of around 45,000, produced by 30 writers, many of whom also have other roles at the paper, as well as a broad roster of freelancers. Although the JT has adopted a “web-first” policy, “Print is the face of the paper,” says Daimon. “Sales jump significantly after big events such as the U.S. presidential election or when Obama came to Hiroshima. So even though there is a shift to online, people do still like to read about the big events in print.”

Daimon cites the incident last summer when a father left his son by the side of the road in Hokkaido as a punishment as the kind of reporting that sets the JT apart from both the Japanese and international media. “It was reported as if he was abandoned. People overseas wouldn’t leave their child on the street in the mountains. But given the safety level in Japan, parents sometimes do that,” she says. “You needed to explain that. We try to give details about cultural background, so we’re often more informative. Japanese papers often don’t give much background.”

“In the era of fake news, I think people are longing for trustworthy reporting. As long as we are based on real reporting, I think readers won’t leave us,” says Daimon. “Anybody can dispatch information. The difference is real journalism and reporting – and we need to continue doing this.”

Gavin Blair covers Japanese business, society and culture for publications in the U.S., Asia and Europe.



The Kyoto Classroom: Writers and the Kansai Aesthetic

Kyoto Journal celebrated its 30th anniversary recently with an exhibition of its photos, and talks by Founding Editor John Einarsen and other editors and photographers. Photo courtesy of Masuhiro Machida


Though few in number, Kansai's writers and journalists reflect a different perspective than their Tokyo-based counterparts.

by Eric Johnston



or virtually all Japan-based foreign journalists, Tokyo is home base. Naturally, their views of Japanese politics, economics, and society tend to draw heavily on Tokyo-based sources. Thus, unconsciously or not, this “Tokyo view” of Japan, with all of its advantages and limitations, becomes the lens through which they – and their readers – see Japan as a whole.

Kansai is the only region that has a sizable foreign community of writers, photographers, and video documentarians capable of providing the outside world with a moderate amount of non-Tokyo-biased foreign journalism regarding Japan. Compared to the professionals in FCCJ, however, much of the work of Kansai-based journalists is not the kind of hard news that editors and producers overseas want for their daily papers, websites or TV stations.

Kyoto has long been the center for Kansai-based foreigners writing about Japan – and not just the Noh-Kabuki-tea ceremony-geisha aspects of traditional Japan that Kyoto embodies. Those remain key subjects, of course. But writers and photographers in Kyoto also use the discipline needed to practice such traditional arts, and the observations gained from doing so, in their approach to tackling broader themes related to Japan, Asia and the world.


Kyoto has long been the center for Kansai-based writing about Japan – and not just about the Noh-Kabuki-tea ceremony-geisha aspects that Kyoto embodies


While there is no equivalent to the FCCJ in Kyoto, in 2015, a group called “Writers in Kyoto” was formed by author John Dougill, whose book In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians was reportedly read by Martin Scorsese as he prepared to film Shusaku Endo’s Silence.

Its members include a wide variety of Kyoto-based writers, bloggers, essayists and journalists, including some with freelance experience with major international media. Guest speakers have included Karl van Wolferen and Robert Whiting, as well as local Kyoto-based writers who talk about covering the city as guidebook writers, but also as amateur social anthropologists – which is one definition of being a journalist.

THE CENTER FOR KYOTO writing and journalistic efforts, though, has long been Kyoto Journal. The all-volunteer publication is now celebrating its 30th anniversary, and while Kyoto Journal is widely admired for its photography and graphic design, it has also long served as a laboratory of sorts for all types of writers, often producing excellent magazine journalism by any standard.

That approach has resulted in an eclectic history of fascinating themes and articles. A 1991 issue entitled “Kyoto Speaks,” a collection of long interviews with 58 Kyoto residents, ranging from a street vendor to a member of Japan’s old aristocracy, remains one of the finest collections of English-language journalism on the Japanese people – as opposed to Japanese political events, social developments, technological advancements or cultural trends – to ever appear.

A 1995 issue, called “Word,” traced the history and development of words and languages. A 2001 issue, “Media in Asia,” included an interview with Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times. And, in September 2010, Kyoto Journal produced an issue on biodiversity that had several pieces on Japan’s practice of satoyama. The magazine was distributed to delegates at the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity, which met in Nagoya that autumn (disclaimer: I contributed to the issue).


Kyoto Journal is widely admired for its photography and graphic design, but it has also long served as a laboratory of sorts for all types of writers.

Like so many of its magazine brethren around the world who faced financial crunches in the internet age, Kyoto Journal was forced to go entirely online in an attempt to save money after the Biodiversity issue. However, some print versions are now scheduled to return later this year.

But it remains a place to go to for journalists, writers and aspirants. Founding Editor John Einarsen says that one big difference is that Kyoto Journal is all-volunteer and not “professional” like Tokyo’s media, where a writer’s qualifications and educational background often play a role as to whether an editor considers a submission. “We are a platform where anyone can share their creative work” he says, “but we want to feature those who are genuinely into their subject.”

He sees that approach as offering more opportunity for young writers in particular. “I don’t think we have a bias. We don’t say, for example, ‘Oh, this person graduated from Columbia Journalism School.’ If their work has heart and you can see it, then it doesn’t matter if they’re beginners or professionals,” he says.

KYOTO JOURNAL HAS A reputation for being ultra-liberal, though a careful reading of their articles over the years actually allows one to make an argument that they are “conservative” in the sense that many writers advocate or pay respect to the conservation or preservation of traditional cultures and lifestyles.

But even if one applies the admittedly outdated tag of “liberal,” Associate Editor Susan Pavloska asks what’s wrong with that? “The word ‘liberal’ has become an insult in the U.S.,” she says. “But what’s wrong with being in favor of freedom? We have never felt the need to publish a line along the lines of ‘the views of this piece do not necessarily represent the views of Kyoto Journal.’”

The focus of Kyoto Journal has also expanded far beyond Kyoto, so that many of its articles today are about the larger Asian region. Managing Editor Ken Rodgers describes the ideal submission: “We look for value that goes beyond style or technical skill,” he says. “Genuineness, a commitment to engagement with society and culture. Writing from the heart. And, of course, a connection – preferably first-hand – with Asia.”

Japan’s travel boom over the past few years has benefitted Kyoto, and Associate Editor Lucinda Cowing says the boom has worked in Kyoto Journal’s favor in some ways, but not in others. “People see the name and think that we are a travel magazine dedicated entirely to the city. On occasion, they even send in messages on Facebook asking for restaurant recommendations, or express disappointment on posts shared about China, or another Asian country, on the grounds that they followed us purely because they want content about Kyoto.”


Ashburne believes Kyoto teaches patience. "The ability to wait, sit out situations, listen and take time is essential. Share a cup of tea. Again. And again and again.”


All of the publication’s editors admit that there has been pressure from various quarters to drop the word “Kyoto” from the name. But as an established brand name, they feel no need. Japanese firms who have advertised with Kyoto Journal on various social media platforms have been happy with the results, Cowing says.

John Ashburne, a Kyoto-based freelancer who has written for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, and is now editor of Foodies Go Local, a website focusing on Japan’s local cuisine and culinary traditions, says being located in Kyoto means different things to different kinds of editors. “Overseas editors tend to fall into two categories, those who know Japan and those who consider all of Asia pretty much one amorphous blob,” Ashburne says. “Naturally, the latter don’t care too much about my location, until I suggest they’ll need to foot up around US$300 to get myself up to Tokyo and back. That’s when they develop an awareness of Japanese geography.”

Ashburne says that Japan-literate editors are also split into two camps. “They either assume I am a journalistic bumpkin, as nothing newsworthy happens west of Hachioji, or I must be a wise and wizened old sage who meditates daily, eats only tofu and can thus only produce stories about Buddhism, food, and anything likely to not offend. Being Kyoto-based channels you towards cultural commentary whether you like it or not.”

He believes Kyoto teaches patience. “In any journalistic context relationships need to be cultivated,” Ashburne says. “But down here such matters are taken to a new level. Ancient connectivity and ancient traditions generate a strong conservatism that is hard to ‘breach’ with an investigative mindset. Getting information is tough. Processing it is harder. Thus, the ability to wait, sit out situations, listen and take time is essential. Share a cup of tea. Again. And again and again.”

SO, IS THERE A “Kyoto School of Foreign Writing and Journalism About Japan?” Yes and no. Career-wise, those in Kyoto who write for publications do so on either a volunteer or a part-time basis, relying – like many FCCJ freelancers – on non-journalism gigs to pay the bills. Nobody in Kyoto, as far as I know, is working full-time for a major overseas media organization covering general Japan news, with the possible exception of a Japanese local hire who once introduced himself as the “Kyoto correspondent” for China’s Xinhua News Agency.

Intellectually, though, one of the most original works of “journalism” about Japan to come out in book form over the past three decades was 2001’s Dogs and Demons, by Kyoto-based Alex Kerr. A long-term resident, Kerr wrote about the political, social and aesthetic corruption of Japan in the late 20th century, and the physical devastation that resulted. He wrote from the viewpoint of someone with a strong aesthetic sense honed in Kyoto, in an informed and deeply passionate way that no Tokyo-based foreign hack has ever managed to match.

Kerr’s works, along with Kyoto Journal’s philosophy, form the basis of a journalistic approach that is arguably a more aesthetic, historical, and intellectual approach to observing modern Japan, especially its people, than one finds in Tokyo. It is not necessarily an “anti-Tokyo” approach. Unlike Osaka, where disdaining Tokyo is a public sport, Kyoto residents, foreign and Japanese, often appreciate the capital city’s charms and energy, though many would prefer to remain in Kyoto if they could. For those seeking an international journalism career who want to get paid on a full-time (or even a more than half-time) basis, Tokyo remains virtually the only real option.

So perhaps “school” is really the most appropriate word to describe Kyoto’s foreign journalism scene. Most if not all Kyoto “students” eventually graduate and move on, but never quite forget the lessons and approach to Japan, and to life, learned in the Kyoto classroom.

Eric Johnston is a staff writer with the Japan Times. The opinions expressed within are his own and not necessarily those of the newspaper.


Profile: Sarah Birke


The Economist's Tokyo bureau chief found her publication's policy of no by-lines a blessing when the Arab Spring spread to Syria, where she was reporting from at the time.

by Julian Ryall



arah Birke became an “accidental war correspondent” in Syria after the Arab Spring broke, covering herself in a hijab when travelling to towns that are now synonymous with death and appalling destruction. After several years of that, Tokyo is a welcome – if extreme – change, she says, with the challenges of working as a journalist here of a very different kind.

Appointed the Tokyo bureau chief of the Economist in the summer of 2016, 35-year-old Birke is presently on maternity leave after the birth of her daughter, Elena, but has a long list of stories that she intends to follow-up on as soon as she returns to work.

After growing up in Essex, on the eastern outskirts of London, Birke earned a place studying English law with Italian law at Oxford University on a course that included a year in the Tuscan city of Siena. “I didn’t intend to practice law afterwards; the real attraction was the year abroad,” she confesses.

While the aversion to the legal profession was not enough to put her off a Masters in the subject at university in Florence, contributions to student publications at Oxford convinced her that journalism was a more attractive career path. “Back in the UK, I did the usual internships to gain experience,” she said. “Some were great, like the New Statesman, where I could do some proper, worthwhile journalism.

“Others were less so,” she added. “I quit Tatler after a week because I was asked to do things like research the top doctors in London you’d use if you had a zillion pounds.”


BIRKE STARTED FREELANCE SHIFTS on the Times in London in 2006, working on the politics desk and attending Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. She also worked on the books and arts desk, as well as obituaries, but had her heart set on foreign reporting.

Birke had already been studying Arabic in evening classes, and her Syrian tutor suggested that she visit her homeland of Syria. On her first visit in 2006, she discovered that the formal Arabic she had learned had limited value in talking to people, but she was able to travel to some of the most far-flung corners of the country.

After returning, she was chafing back in London. Birke began looking for a way to return to the country, and in 2008 took a job with the UN, reporting on the progress of its projects in Syria. The role also permitted her to learn Syrian Arabic and to do some freelance writing, including for the Times. “Richard Beeston was the foreign editor at that point and I asked for his advice about moving to Syria,” she said. “He was extremely supportive – as he was to all young journalists – and said I should go, but that I would probably never get anything in the paper again because no one was interested.”


“At protests, people took risks to help me because they wanted the world to see what was really going on."


By late 2010, Birke was again getting itchy feet and was considering moving on when the Arab Spring engulfed Tunisia and quickly spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen and beyond. “Nobody in Syria thought it could happen there,” she said. “The Wall Street Journal interviewed President Bashar Al-Assad in January of 2011 and he boasted that it would not affect Syria. But by March, there were big street protests. I decided not to leave – because I feared I would not be able to get back in again.”

Birke spent the following five months reporting on the growing conflict. “I was working quietly so nobody would know that I was writing about the situation – and the Economist was perfect as it does not have by-lines,” she said. “At protests, people took risks to help me because they wanted the world to see what was really going on. There was a huge amount of anger in a population that has been so repressed.”

FORCED TO LEAVE WHEN her visa ran out, Birke moved to Lebanon. Offered a staff contract in 2013, she moved to Egypt and began covering the entire Middle East, eventually becoming the bureau chief for the region. “It was a fascinating region to cover at a fascinating time,” she said. “But after several years it took a toll. There was a lot of travelling and I had in effect become an accidental war correspondent.”

By 2016, she was ready to move on and admits to agitating for a change of scenery during visits to the Economist’s offices in London. A visit to Japan in 2013 inspired her to take Japanese classes in Lebanon. (Birke speaks, to varying degrees, no fewer than six foreign languages.)


“In many ways it is harder to work in Japan . . . but there is a great mix of stories: politics, quirky stuff, social issues and, of course, the economics."


“In many ways it is harder to work in Japan,” she said. “In the Middle East, there are no data, unlike here, but people are more accessible and willing to talk. Here, I spend a lot of time faxing requests and submitting questions in advance just to get permission for interviews – and then I often get set answers.

“It is also hard as an outsider to get under the surface here, and that is a constant challenge,” she added. “But there is a great mix of stories: politics, quirky stuff, social issues and, of course, the economics. The Economist is interested in Japan, more so than many other papers, but also because the trends here, such as the falling and aging population, will affect other nations in the future.”

Julian Ryall is Japan correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.



Rebellion in the Valley of the Fireflies



In a small village in southern Japan, a dam project has been dividing the local community for over five decades. Most residents have left, but a few households continue the fight against the dam – and they’ve been successful so far.

by Sonja Blaschke


n a Monday morning in June two years ago, a dozen women gathered in front of a construction site in Koharu Valley in Nagasaki Prefecture. The atmosphere was tense. They hid their faces behind scarves, masks and under wide-brimmed hats with fly nets, and wore long, blue jackets from the local firefly festival to demonstrate their unity. They held signs reading: “We are against the dam” or “Stop forced expropriation.” They had been protesting there almost every single day for several months. What was at stake were their very homes.

Cars pulled up. Several men in work overalls, rubber boots and helmets got out and walked towards the small crowd, which huddled close together. Some of the men worked for a local construction firm, some were Nagasaki prefectural staff. For over 50 years now, the prefectural government has been trying to build a huge dam – 234 meters wide and 55 meters tall. When completed, the Ishiki Dam would leave what is now the small Kobaru community submerged deep under countless cubic meters of lake water. Disappearing with the town would be its pristine natural surroundings, the habitat of several endemic species, say the protesters.


Disappearing with the town would be its pristine natural surroundings, the habitat of several endemic species, say the protesters.


Yet, even after all this time, the dam is far from completion; even the foundations have yet to be laid. All that’s visible are a few barriers and some construction machines. The prefecture recently revised the completion date from March 2017 to March 2022.

Though the officials and construction company managers kept appealing to the women to let the workers pass, the protesters remained silent. “If we start talking, we only get worked up,” Sumiko Iwashita explained later. The women felt that any discussion would lead to offers of compensation, but little in the way of a real exchange of opinions.

THE AUTHORITIES CONSIDER THE dam necessary to prevent flooding of the nearby Kawatana River and to supply water to the city of Sasebo, located about 40 minutes from Kobaru by car. Some decades ago, the city had experienced a water shortage and had to ration water for a while. However, Kobaru residents find reports about a supposed lack of water in Sasebo exaggerated. They argue that actual water use has been dropping with the introduction of new technology, and a predicted rise in population in Sasebo has failed to materialize. The dam opponents suspect some influence from Tokyo: the Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated the country for decades, traditionally falls back on infrastructure projects to boost the economy.

Two years on, the protesters have refused to let themselves be intimidated. They are aware that once they give in, the 60 residents that remain in 13 of what were once close to 70 households will have to leave their hometown forever, thereby abandoning land which, in some cases, their ancestors have inhabited for generations. Six days a week, from morning to evening, the women, flanked by non-resident supporters, continue to block access to the site. Most of them are retirees. It once was the men, the household heads, who led the protest, but they were charged with obstruction of construction. If they actively take part in the protest, they can be fined, an activist explained. That was another reason why the women did not want to reveal their identity while protesting.


It once was the men, the household heads, who led the protest, but they were charged with obstruction of construction.


“There are not so many of us, so we cannot take turns. That is why we bring our lunches and some water, rain coats and umbrellas,” Iwashita explained. The youthful 66-year-old is one of 60 people who after decades of fighting against the dam continue to live in Kobaru. With her husband and one of her sons she lives in a big house set a little above the fields. “I love nature,” she said with a smile. “Birds always sing here.” People who drive through Kobaru can see big signs reflecting the residents’ attitude on the roadside: “If your hometown was going to disappear – how would you feel?”

OFFICIALS FROM NAGASAKI PREFECTURE insist they have done much to garner the understanding of the residents. In fact, construction work was paused for 30 years until, in 2009, the authorities decided to make use of the expropriation law, a highly unusual step. Generally, authorities try to “convince” people affected by a construction project, if necessary with pressure – and money, as dam opponents believe.

The protesters took their case to court, but in December 2016 their suit to stop construction was dismissed. Only a few weeks later, on an early Sunday morning in January – the only day of the week on which women did not gather – workers brought heavy machinery to the construction site. Since then, confrontations along the site fence have been resumed with renewed vigour. At the same time, authorities have kept pushing expropriation efforts: for the past three years, a commission has been working on assessing the value of the remaining residents’ land to determine compensation payments.

Despite the image of the protesters as being of advanced age, there are also many young people living in Kobaru. One man, 43-year-old Shinya Kawahara, dressed in a striped T-shirt and beige pants, sat in the local community house, its walls decorated with black-and-white photos from protests, handwritten posters and banners from supporters from all over Japan. Born and raised in Kobaru, Kawahara, a shift worker at a local ceramic parts factory, said he could not imagine living elsewhere. He loved playing with his teenage daughters at the river, observing fireflies in early summer, watching birds or collecting bugs. “This is the only home we have. I think it is natural for us to want to protect it.”


He saw policemen lifting grandmothers who were sitting on the ground and hauling them away.


He was witness to an event that marked the beginning of this long-running battle of wills. He was 11 in 1982, when he watched officials come to the valley to measure the land in preparation for the dam, accompanied by riot police. He saw policemen lifting grandmothers who were sitting on the ground and hauling them away. Crying children were carried off or thrown to the side, he remembered. Kawahara himself tried to punch a policeman in the stomach, but the man was wearing a metal plate under his shirt.

THE REMAINING RESIDENTS POINT to the brutal police operation in 1982 as the reason they lost trust in the prefectural administration. In fact, the authority itself acknowledges that the incident inflicted “deep wounds to the hearts of the residents,” and the governor at the time attempted to make amends by sending apology letters and trying to meet with Kobaru residents.

However, four kanji – 面会拒否 – on a sign at the door of 66-year-old Isamu Ishimaru’s house are a token of the failure of those attempts of reconciliation. They read menkai kyohi or “refusal to meet,” and they refer to his deep disappointment in politicians, including the former governor, who broke his promise not to build the dam if just one person was against it.

Although Ishimaru only arrived in 1978 from the nearby Amakusa islands with his parents, he considers the little Kobaru Valley home. “This is where traditional Japanese society still remains intact,” he said. Ishimaru walked slowly on a small road leading up to his house where he lives with his wife and daughter, gazing across the light-green rice fields. Dragonflies were flitting through the air. Between the rice plants one could hear frogs croak.

No1-2017-6V2Isamu Ishimaru

Sumiko Iwashita

"If we start talking, we only get worked up."

Isshin Taguchi

Shinya Kawahara


Ishimaru talked about his defiance while pointing to a small street skirting some of his rice fields. That would be where the new main road would to go through, he explained, as the current one would be submerged. Some of his fields were already expropriated on paper, but he continued to plant rice on them anyway. The former public servant considers the expropriation a violation of the Japanese Constitution, which guarantees the right to life, freedom and pursuit of happiness.

But there are those who have accepted the government’s plans and moved out. Over the past decades, more than 50 households have given up and left. A new housing estate for those who left the valley stands in nearby Kawatana, the village of 14,000 people of which Kobaru is a part. Although it’s only a few kilometers down the road, the emotional distance is enormous; the people who moved here from Kobaru, especially the elderly generation in their sixties, do not speak with their former neighbors anymore. Both sides feel betrayed.

While there is some support from outside the valley, it seems that most of their immediate neighbors do not feel like getting involved in the struggle. The family of Isshin Taguchi has been living in Kawatana village, downstream from the dam and therefore unaffected by the project, for over a hundred years. In fact, the unaffiliated, conservative local politician and former ministerial bureaucrat who heads up the dam construction committee argues that the dam is important as a measure to prevent floods. In the nineties, part of Kawatana was severely damaged by flooding after strong rainfall. “I am not exactly eager for the dam to be built – but it is just necessary,” he says. Nagasaki Prefecture emphasizes that the Ishiki Dam would protect the area from severe floods that occur with a statistical frequency of once in a hundred years.


Thanks to young, dedicated residents like Shinya Kawahara, there seems to be little chance of the resistance in Kobaru fading.


Despite all of the setbacks the Kobaru residents try to stay positive. What encourages them is that the authorities still have not managed to move the project visibly forward. In fact, there are many major construction projects throughout the country, from dams to nuclear power plants, which have been stalled or prevented by local resistance. There was also the local resistance to the Arase Dam in Kumamoto Prefecture that led to its being completely torn down, in the only such case in Japan. Thanks to young, dedicated residents like Shinya Kawahara, who feel called to continue the protest, there seems to be little chance of the resistance in Kobaru fading.

At the protest site, the soft-spoken yet feisty Iwashita revealed how she managed to keep her balance and persevere through the exhausting fight: She did not think ahead much, she said. To relax she likes to rip out weeds in her garden. She emphasized that the women tried to keep up their good spirits by enjoying delicious food and by laughing together a lot, “because you cannot fight if you are depressed.”

Kawahara, the local-born ceramic maker employee, said he suppressed thoughts about the fact that he might have to move away some day. “I will get old in Kobaru,” he stated decisively.

Sonja Blaschke is a freelance East Asia and Australasia correspondent for German print media and a TV producer. She divides her time between Japan and Australia.


Salute to the Gaijin Ghetto Rats

"Ghetto” life: f
ront row, Rumiko Kobayashi (the Sydney Morning Herald), Ryoko Fukutake (Wall Street Journal), Hideko Takayama (the Baltimore Sun); second row, Masayoshi Kanabayashi (WSJ), John Slee (SMH), Mike Tharp (WSJ), Doug Ramsey (the Economist), Tracy Dahlby (Far Eastern Economic Review).

An alumnus of two of the news bureaus housed in the old Nikkei Building in the 1970s and ’80s recalls fellow journalists who worked – and played – in its cramped quarters.

by Bradley K. Martin


he 1970s were a great time to be a correspondent assigned to the Tokyo bureau. Readers, viewers, listeners and editors throughout the industrialized world were turning their attention from the Vietnam War and its aftermath to business competition, and that meant Japan. By the end of the decade Harvard Professor Ezra Vogel could and did cast Japan as Number One, and achieve bestseller ranking in the bargain.

How had the Japanese done it? Where were they headed next with their overachieving economy? The world wanted to know. News organizations that had done without Tokyo bureaus suddenly put them on their must-have lists. Quite a few of them found space in a corner of the Nikkei Building’s eighth floor.

One of the first was London’s Financial Times, which had operated a bureau there in the 1960s with Henry Scott-Stokes as chief. That bureau had closed in 1967. Six years later, as former bureau chief Charles Smith recalls, the FT was back in the Nikkei, reopening jointly with the Economist.


How had the Japanese done it? Where were they headed next with their overachieving economy? The world wanted to know.


The rush was on, and soon there was a critical mass, to the point where Nikkei tenants began proudly identifying themselves as Nikkei Gaijin Ghetto Rats. Among arrivals in the early 1970s was the Baltimore Sun. In those days, the regional newspaper serving Maryland maintained seven, sometimes eight, foreign bureaus. The Sun bureau in New Delhi had closed, and Tokyo became its replacement.

Hideko Takayama recalls that correspondent Tom Pepper tried repeatedly to hire her as news assistant. But Pepper operated out of his home. That seemed to her a recipe for mixing up news and household errands, so she repeatedly turned him down. One day “he called me and said, ‘Now you can start working for the Sun. I found our office at Nikkei.’” Takayama reported from there until 1980, when the Sun moved its bureau back to New Delhi in the (futile) hope of managing up-close reporting of the war in nearby Afghanistan. She later became a correspondent for Newsweek and Bloomberg.

Quite a few other news organizations like the Sun (which now has zero foreign bureaus) looked for Tokyo office space and found it in the Nikkei Building – and, later, closed their bureaus as hard times came to the Japan story and the news business. The list includes Hong Kong’s late, lamented Far Eastern Economic Review, New York’s Journal of Commerce, the Fairfax papers (Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Age, Australian Financial Review) and the Globe and Mail of Toronto.

THE NIKKEI CROWD WAS a merry band, often partying together – sometimes in the office. Jurek Martin, who was FT bureau chief and the 1985-86 FCCJ president, recalls that his “most contented times happened at about 4 p.m. for two weeks, six times a year, when Bill Emmott of the Economist emerged from the adjacent cubicle to watch the sumo tournaments on my office TV. It was a quasi-religious and certainly cultural experience, enhanced by puffing on foul-smelling Wilhelm II Dutch cigarillos.”

Martin adds: “There was an immortal Chiyonofuji-Wakashimazu battle lasting over two minutes, won by Wakashimazu, that left cigar ash everywhere and the Suntory Old bottle half-empty. Of course, all this happened at a time of the London day when none of our nominal masters had even turned up to work. Anyway, the pieces I wrote on sumo and high school baseball earned far more kudos than anything on Komatsu tractors, so our times in front of the box were well spent.”


Eddie Lachica (Asian Wall Street Journal), honorary member of the gaijin ghetto Geoff Tudor (JAL), Mike Tharp (WSJ), the author, Tracy Dahlby, the late Richard Hanson (FT), and Charles Smith (FT) at whose wedding this was.

The building had a certain entertainment value, especially during earthquakes. Charles Smith, who after his FT stint worked there as bureau chief for FEER, recalls “standing at our window one day and watching the Mitsubishi Research Institute rocking gently, like a cargo ship tied to its berth.” His FEER colleague Robert Delfs adds that at such times “the Nikkei Building itself was boogieing back and forth, too. One time it dumped all my books off the bookshelves and onto the floor. I gather the amplitude of movement was exaggerated by the use of joints, which were intended to allow the building to sway, releasing stress.”

There were office romances, some leading to wedding bells. And often, after work, Nikkei denizens would repair to either the Club’s correspondent tables or a beer hall closer to the office. On weekends people liked to go to Roppongi, particularly to Kento’s – a 1950s-themed live rock ‘n’ roll nightspot. Kento’s is still there, according to Gwen Robinson, ex-FT and now Nikkei Asian Review editor in Bangkok, “full of genteel obasan getting their rocks off.” That establishment may end up being a scheduled stop for a group of Nikkei Ghetto alumni gathering in Tokyo for an early July reunion.

Besides the FT and the Economist, papers that managed to maintain their Tokyo presence up to now – even though the old Nikkei Building itself is long gone – include Düsseldorf’s Handelsblatt and the Wall Street Journal.

IN 1976, MIKE “BUCK” Tharp and Masayoshi “Chief” Kanabayashi (Tharp likes nicknames) shifted Journal operations from a single desk in the AP office to a real bureau in the Nikkei corner. “To move in,” recalls 1989-90 FCCJ president Tharp, “we traveled the byways of old Tokyo, buying used furniture – desks, lamps, a couch and two stiff chairs for visitors, filing cabinets.”

Eduardo Lachica and Billy Schwartz moved in around the same time to open a bureau for the Journal’s sister regional daily startup, the Asian Wall Street Journal. Prime space was all taken by then, so they drew a tiny windowless alcove – which they had to share with the paper’s business-side people. With appropriate Tokyo office space so hard to come by, the two scribes didn’t complain as they cranked out enough stories to fill half their paper.

Lachica’s productivity earned him a nickname borrowed from a famous pool player of an earlier generation, “Fast Eddie.” Only after he finally left Tokyo for Washington (sent off with a rolling party, a beer-soaked bus tour to the pottery town of Mashiko), was he deservedly able to slow down a bit and play some golf. Talented reporters who also worked in the AWSJ bureau in its early years included Norman Thorpe – who stayed only a year before opening the AWSJ’s office in Seoul – and John Marcom.


They often filled with toxic smoke due to correspondents’ habit of keeping tobacco products burning in their ashtrays while hunching over typewriters.


The building hadn’t been constructed for luxury. Rooms were generally small and simply outfitted. They often filled with toxic smoke due to correspondents’ habit of keeping tobacco products burning in their ashtrays while hunching over typewriters to pound out copy. The health authorities never showed up to put a stop to that.

One semiretired correspondent, asking not to be named for fear of offending Nikkei, recalls that his office “was a shithole.” Nikkei probably wouldn’t disagree. After all, the company tore the building down and replaced it. But that didn’t happen until the 21st century – by which time several generations of correspondents had developed the ability to empathize with Japanese salarymen and OLs based on personal exposure to equivalent working conditions.

THE GENERAL SCHEME IN the Nikkei Ghetto was typified by the FEER bureau, where Susumu Awanohara, Kazumi Miyazawa and Tracy Dahlby (one of the then-rare breed of American correspondents trained in Japanese), joined later by the late John Lewis after Awanohara’s move to Jakarta, squeezed into a room suitable for one or two.

People came and went, some working in the Ghetto for multiple publications over the years. After turning over the WSJ bureau to Urban Lehner when he left in 1980, Tharp returned a year later for a second tour in the building as FEER bureau chief.

Regardless of that continuity, new trends appeared – for example, a developing industry emphasis on correspondents’ language abilities. The AWSJ in the early ’80s hired Chris Chipello, who had learned Japanese as a Princeton student. Around that same time the Japan-raised MK (that’s an abbreviation for missionary kid) Steve Yoder started in the AWSJ bureau as part-time interpreter, blowing away interviewees with his native Tohoku accent. The first story Yoder reported and wrote on his own, an in-depth piece on the Japanese company Seiko, so impressed AWSJ management that he got promoted on the spot to correspondent.

No1-2017-6GaiThe author meets P.M. Takeo Fukuda while company Chairman Gary Black looks on.

Eventually the AWSJ staff was merged into a combined Journal staff. Lehner, back for a second tour in charge of the whole shebang, was the most devoted and accomplished student, ever, of Toshiko Oguchi, who taught Japanese in the office to generations of Journal correspondents. Lehner presided over an expansion that brought the number of journalists to 10 – still including Kanabayashi, Chipello and Yoder, and with the addition of such future stars as Marcus Brauchli.

“A lot of American businessmen had decided for the first time that they needed to understand Japan,” Lehner recalls. “My editors were eager to run not just my business and economics and trade coverage but my neophyte discoveries of Japan and the Japanese. I knew I was on to something when the edit page ran a review I wrote of a kabuki play. Alas, America’s curiosity about Japan didn’t last long.”

Bradley Martin was a Nikkei ghetto rat as Baltimore Sun bureau chief, 1977-80, and again as Asian Wall Street Journal bureau chief, 1983-86. His novel Nuclear Blues is due out shortly




From the Archives: An Advocate of Economic Reform



Haruo Maekawa, Governor of the Bank of Japan, reads from his prepared notes at a professional luncheon on May 26, 1983. Seated to his left is FCCJ President Karel van Wolferen (NRC Handelsblad), and to his right are a bearded Urban Lehner (Wall Street Journal) and Hamish McDonald (Sydney Morning Herald). Later tasked by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone with preparing a plan for restructuring Japan’s economy to bring it more in line with its trading partners in the West, Maekawa and members of his advisory group announced recommendations in 1986 that received positive reviews overseas and negative criticisms in Japan. In his 1989 book, The Enigma of Japanese Power, van Wolferen cited the restructuring efforts of the Maekawa Commission as an example of Japanese government paralysis, while later stating that Maekawa was not at fault and remained highly respected.


by Charles Pomeroy


Born in Tokyo in February of 1911, at the very end of the Meiji Period, Haruo Maekawa witnessed in their entirety Japan’s Taisho and Showa eras. After his graduation from Tokyo Imperial University in 1935, he joined the Bank of Japan, working in Italy, Germany, and New York as a specialist in international finance. In 1974 he was elevated to Deputy Governor of the Bank of Japan (BOJ) and then became its 24th Governor in 1979. Of note was his work with Finance Minister Noboru Takeshita in reaching a 1980 international agreement in which Japan received petrodollars from Saudi Arabia in return for Japanese government bonds, as reported by our own Junnosuke Ofusa of The New York Times.

Haruo Maekawa resigned as BOJ Governor in 1984 to become chairman of an advisory group on economic restructuring. The so-called “Maekawa Report” of 1986 calling for open markets and expanding domestic demand foundered for the most part in Japan because it was considered too radical. He retired that year and became Chairman of DDI (Kokusai Denshin Denwa). He died on September 22, 1989, at the age of 78.

Karel van Wolferen now spends most of his time in The Netherlands, where he is emeritus professor, and writes about geopolitical developments. Hamish McDonald and Urban Lehner both continued their careers in journalism.

– Charles Pomeroy is editor of Foreign Correspondents in Japan, a history of the Club that is available at the front desk




New Members and New Books in the Library

New Members



DANIEL HURST is a freelance journalist working in Tokyo. Hurst started his journalism career in his home state of Queensland, writing for community newspapers. He previously covered Australian politics from Parliament House in Canberra, including as the political correspondent for the Guardian. Before that he worked as a national reporter for Fairfax Media mastheads including the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age. Daniel’s three years in Canberra spanned four prime ministers; apart from the tumultuous politics of the time he focused on education policy issues.He has worked in Tokyo since January, 2017, and has been published by the Guardian, the Times of London, Asia Times and Australian Associated Press.



NOBUYOSHI SAKAJIRI is the foreign news editor at the Asahi Shimbun. Sakajiri joined the Asahi Shimbun in 1989. He covered Hong Kong as a correspondent from 1996 to 1998. From 2002, Sakajiri was diplomatic correspondent in Washington D.C. From 2005 he was based in Beijing to cover China including the Beijing Olympic Games. He later spent a year in Washington D.C. as Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Fellow and three years and half as Beijing bureau chief before taking his present position in 2016. In 2007 he received the Vaughn Ueda Prize for his reporting from Washington D.C. and Beijing.

Chris Russell,
Custom Media K.K.
Peter Robinson,
The University Of Tokyo

Naomi Hatakeyama, Doree Kami Co., Ltd.

Richard Arno,
Merrill Lynch Japan Securities Co., Ltd.
Keigo A. Mirwald, Tokumaru Pearl Co., Ltd.
Eko Egashira, Aqua Moon Systems Co., Ltd.
Shinichi Fukuma, Kyowa Hakko Kirin Co., Ltd.
Kazuyoshi Furuhashi, Murayama Inc.
Sonoko Hatchoji, Nisshin Steel Co., Ltd.
Keiji Harano, Kyodo Public Relations Co., Ltd.
Ayako Kaiho, EY Advisory Co., Ltd.
Kazuo Kubo
(No affiliation)
Yoshikazu Nagai, Mazda Motor Corporation

Yoshinobu Nakamura, Yoshinobu Nakamura
Law Office
Kosaku Nishida,
Alloy Corporation
Hideki Taira, Mazda Motor Corporation
Mika Tsuiki, Ryu Insurance Agency Co., Ltd.
Yoshiyuki Wada, Wada Kaikei Jimusho
Takashi Yanagiya, Erecta International Corporation

Leonardo Griglie,
Touring Magazine


New in the library

Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan

Jeff Kingston (ed.)


Gift from Jeff Kingston


Amerika to Chugoku

Fumio Matsuo

Iwanami Shoten

Gift from Fumio Matsuo


Tokyo denryoku: genpatsu jiko no keiei bunseki

Takeshi Tanie

Gakushu no tomosha

Gift from Gakushu no tomosha


Kenpo to ikita sengo: shiko 70nen - teiten kansokusha to shite no tsushinsha

Shinbun Tsushin Chosakai (ed.); Kyodo Tsushinsha (ed.)

Japan Press Research Institute

Gift from Mr. Kota Ishihara (Kyodo News)


Sekai nenkan 2017

Kyodo Tsushinsha (ed.)

Kyodo Tsushinsha

Gift from Kyodo News Digital Co., Ltd.


Confessions of a Yakuza: A Life in Japan’s Underworld

Junichi Saga; Susumu Saga (illus.); John Bester (trans.)

Kodansha USA


Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan’s Lost Soldiers

Yoshikuni Igarashi

Columbia University Press


Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination after Fukushima

Aya Hirata Kimura

Duke University Press


Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien

Toriyama Sekien; Hiroko

Yoda (trans. and annot.); Matt Alt (trans. and annot.)

Dover Publications, Inc.

Club News



The Special Projects Committee has been busy as usual this early spring, organizing two recent press tours.


On March 23, 20 members participated in a visit to the Tokyo Komatsu “IoT” (Internet of Things) Center in the Chiba port area. Members were briefed on the construction machine company’s concept of “Smart Construction,” which includes improving ease of maintenance, helping find lost or stolen machines and making operation of the big machines easier, minimizing the amount of time needed to teach new operators.

Participants of the tour tried their hand at operating Komatsu machines.



On April 17, 14 journalists visited a Special Exhibit of Chanoyu, the tea ceremony, at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. Special exhibits included national treasure tea bowls, utensils for the ceremony and cultural heritage scrolls from the Muromachi era (1336-1573) to today.

With the cooperation of nine major schools, tea ceremonies were performed by kimono-clad tea masters in the lobby of the museum. Tour participants partook of fresh powdered green tea and exquisite wagashi sweets reflecting seasonal changes.                                   

– Kenji Obayashi and Haruko Watanabe


Exhibition: Made in Tokyo



Made in Tokyo

Photographs by Carla Hernandez


THE PHOTOS IN THE exhibition were taken in 2015 and mostly shot on a mobile phone. As the title says, they were all “Made in Tokyo”. I want to show the variety, colors and composition of this big city called Tokyo.

Carla Hernandez is a photographer with over 20 years of working experience. Her images can be found in a number of overseas publications, along with Asayan, Zipper and Tokyo Classified in Japan. In addition, Carla is co-founder of Mejual group, which presents photo/music fusion events in Tokyo’s clubs and event spaces.


When We Targeted North Korea

No1-2017-05NKA piece of the wreckage of the downed U.S. navy EC121 reconnaissance
plane is carried off the USS destroyer Tucker in 1969.

If recent events have given you an odd feeling of deja vu, perhaps there's a good reason for it.

by Todd Crowell


ECENT HEADLINES SUGGEST THAT the United States is considering a range of “options” to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons/missiles ambitions, up to and including air strikes. What everyone seems to have forgotten is that there was a moment between the two countries in the past that also involved the planning of an air attack by the U.S. Though it eventually never took place, it’s not as easy for me to forget, as I was personally involved.

There was nothing to indicate that the day April 15, 1969, would be any different from any other day as winter gave way to cherry blossom season in Japan. I was a young air force lieutenant stationed with the 347th Fighter Wing at Yokota air base as an intelligence officer for a squadron of F-4 Phantoms.

I began my daily routine by stopping by the communications shop to pick up the morning “flemsies,” a military version of teletype print outs. From them I would construct a short briefing for the benefit of what was grandly called the “battle staff.”


"North Korean jets shot down one of our planes," he said.


On that particular morning there was no indication that anything out of the ordinary was taking place. There was the usual complement of war news from “down south,” meaning Vietnam and Cambodia, where the war was still going strong, and some information on deployment of Russian fighters in the Far East.

As I entered the War Room to give the 7 a.m. briefing, I could see immediately that something was different. The room consisted of a bank of seats culminating at the top dais where the wing commander and his deputy sat, and people usually slowly drifted in. But this day every seat was occupied and, it seemed, every eye was on me. I went over to a major sitting in the corner, and bent down to ask him what was going on.

“North Korean jets shot down one of our planes,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. I stood up and turned to face the briefing audience, fully aware that as I repeated what he had just told me, I was probably the last in the room to know. So I added, optimistically, “We’ll provide more information when we get it.”

That is how I learned about what could have become a seminal event of the Cold War in Asia. Two North Korean MiG-21s ambushed and shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 electronic surveillance aircraft with the loss of all her crew of 31 sailors and marines over the Sea of Japan.

Within in an hour I was ordered to grab my kit and we were hustled aboard a C-130 transport plane and flown from Yokota to Osan Air Force Base in South Korea, the advance base for our wing of jet fighters. For the next week we were on a war footing, fully expecting to launch air strikes on North Korea. I still remember our target: Pukchang-ni air base north of the capital, Pyongyang. It is still an important North Korean Air Force base, home for MiG-23 and MiG-29 fighters.

Everyone was on edge. Pilots, who usually could barely conceal their boredom on our briefings, suddenly became very attentive to what we had to say about defenses they might encounter on bombing runs. We pulled together maps and photos and anything else we could find out about Pukchang-ni in order to make target folders. There wasn’t much we could do, considering how skillfully the North concealed its assets, including placing many aircraft safely in under-ground bunkers.


This was former President  Nixon’s first real crisis, coming about three months after he was sworn in, roughly the same time frame President Trump is in today.


But after a week of fevered activity we were ordered to stand down. No airstrikes were ordered, and I returned to the comforts of Japan – able to enjoy the cherry blossoms instead of enduring the tag end of a cold Korean winter.

This was former President Richard Nixon’s first real crisis, coming about three months after he was sworn in, or roughly the same time frame President Donald Trump sits in today. Nixon and his advisors considered several responses, including air strikes on North Korean military facilities. After debating various options, he decided against retaliatory air strikes. Presumably, he believed that one war at a time was enough.

Instead, he dispatched a small armada of war ships, built around several aircraft carriers, into the Sea of Japan as a show of force – very much like the flotilla sent into the region by Trump. But after a time, they departed and Nixon simply ordered the reconnaissance flights to resume, albeit escorted by fighters.

He faced the same conundrum that bedevils policy makers to this day: namely, what kind of force could the U.S. use that would be tough enough to punish North Korea but not so tough that Pyongyang would think it was prelude to a general invasion, requiring a massive retaliation? Remember, this was a time when nuclear weapons were only a gleam in the eye of supreme leader Kim Il-sung.

The EC-121 shoot down was the single largest loss of U.S. aircrew during the Cold War. There is no memorial to the crew, but the U.S. Navy detachment at Misawa Air Force Base places a floral wreath on the edge of the Sea of Japan and watches it drift out to sea. They have been doing this every April 15 for 47 years.

Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War Between China and Japan published as an Amazon Single Kindle.






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