When Bernie Krisher’s 1975 interview with the Showa Emperor was bumped off the cover of Newsweek, the unofficial complaint took a roundabout route

From the time the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan was formed immediately after World War II, its members have rarely suffered from a lack of stories. But for many years, the Holy Grail for any journalist assigned to this country was seen as all but impossible to gain access to the Chrysanthemum Throne and conduct an exclusive interview with the Showa Emperor (Hirohito).

Until the war’s end a “living god” and afterwards the “symbol of the state,” his reign spanned wartime defeat, military occupation and a miraculous recovery. He was, without a doubt, one of the singular personages in 20th century history.

In fact, it was not until three decades after the end of the war that a tiny number of FCCJ mem-bers had the good fortune to sat-isfy their dreams. One of them was Bernard Krisher, the Tokyo bureau chief of Newsweek maga-zine. The opportunity came about when Emperor Hirohito made plans to visit the United States in October 1975. It was to be his first official state visit to the U.S. (He had shaken hands with President Richard Nixon in 1972 during a stop-over in Anchorage, Alaska.) During their two-week visit, the Emper or and Empress Nagako were to travel to Williamsburg, Washington D.C. where they would meet then-President Gerald Ford New York, Chicago, the West Coast and Hawaii. It was meant to be a historic moment in Japan-U.S. relations.

For seven months, Krisher had been making efforts to penetrate the “Chrysan themum Curtain” by quietly bombarding the cabinet and Imperial Household Agency with requests for an interview. It finally parted, and, at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 20, he was led into the “Shakkyo no Ma” room at the Imperial Palace, where the interview was held.

“I was so excited I couldn’t sleep last night,” Krisher told the Emperor as they shook hands. The Emperor responded with a broad grin. Then Krisher posed questions regarding Hirohito’s pre and postwar roles, his involvement in the outbreak and ending of the war with the U.S., the future role of the imperial family and other issues. It was a fascinating discussion, and worthy of fanfare. The interview was to appear in the issue going on sale in early October in order to be on U.S. news stands at the time of the imperial visit.

Instead, it was rushed to print in the issue that went on sale Sept. 22. Despite the historic nature of the article, it faced some heavy competition, eventually losing out to other newsmakers. The cover subject of the U.S. domestic edition was Patty Hearst, the heiress who had joined the urban guerilla group that kidnapped her, and who had just been caught. The cover of the international edition featured heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali, who was to fight challenger Joe Frazier in Manila on Oct. 1.

Relegating Emperor Hirohito to inside-the-book status was somber news for the Japanese government. On Sept. 26, four days before the Emperor was to depart for the U.S., a Japanese-American businessman in New York sent a letter to Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. His name was Kay Sugahara, and he was the president of the shipping conglomerate Fairfield-Maxwell Ltd. In his letter, he told Mrs. Graham that while he was pleased with Krisher’s article, a senior offi-cial in the Japanese government was extremely dissatisfied with how it appeared in the magazine.

“We found the interview extremely interesting, revealing as it did the inner qualities of a reigning monarch as well as a man, but were distressed by the lack of importance given it by Newsweek magazine.”

In the letter, he quoted a telex he had received from one of his company’s directors: “Met today with (Foreign Ministry’s) Chief of Protocol, Mr. Hiroshi Uchida, who greatly concerned that exclusive interview given to Newsweek magazine by the Emperor very badly handled. Very special exception was made in granting exclusive interview and Japanese Government expected that Newsweek would give it top billing on occasion of visit of Emperor and Empress. Please convey feelings to interested parties.”

The letter went on: “We are fully aware that Newsweek must evaluate readership interest. What disturbed the Japanese was that the Emperor was pushed aside on the international edition for Muhammed Ali.”

The contents of the letter are understandable, given the importance the Foreign Ministry must have given to this upcoming trip. But why use the back channel route of a businessman to communicate their irritation at the article’s appearance? Who was this Sugahara? And why did the activities of this New York based shipping executive resemble those of a Japan-U.S. political lobbyist?

Born in Seattle, Washington in 1909, Kay Sugahara was a second-generation Japanese-American. After losing both parents at an early age, he struggled to graduate from UCLA, after which he operated a trading company. Upon the outbreak of war at Pearl Harbor, he was relocated to a detention camp with other Japanese Americans. He was then recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, and became involved in propaganda operations directed at Japanese troops. After the war, he moved to the shipping industry, and had so much success in that endeavor he eventually became known as the “Nisei Onassis.”

He also was a member of a small, loosely-knit group of individuals in the U.S. government, former State Department officials, influential members of the U.S. Congress, journalists and others, who operated behind the scenes. Sometimes called the Japan Lobby, they worked under the larger umbrella of the American Council on Japan (ACJ). On behalf of Japan’s political and business establishments, they lobbied to alter Gen. MacArthur’s occupation policies, on the grounds that purges and excessive efforts to dissolve the Zaibatsu would weaken Japan’s economy and enable the expansion of communist influence. The core figures behind this, who supported what was called the “Reverse course” policy, included pre-war U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph C. Grew, Eugene H. Dooman, Grew’s chief aide as counselor to the embassy in Tokyo, attorney James Lee Kauffman and others.


Sugahara established a trading company in New York, where the headquarters of the ACJ was located. His connections with U.S. intelligence were still strong, and during the Korean Conflict, he had been requested by the CIA to help procure tungsten, a scarce strategic material that was utilized for producing jet engines. Sugahara traveled to Tokyo where he obtained the cooperation of Yoshio Kodama, a powerful right-wing figure with whom he used pre-war connections, in making arrangements to smuggle supplies of tungsten from Japan to the U.S.

By the late 1970s, individuals in the Japanese government had not forgotten their debt of gratitude to the Japan Lobby. Hideki Masaki, a Foreign Ministry bureaucrat who was also the Emperor’s interpreter, was acquainted with Sugahara from the post war period, and had stayed in touch. Four months prior to the Emperor’s U.S. visit, Masaki sent a letter to Sugahara, dated June 17, in which he wrote:

“As a Japanese national I am always grateful to the Grew-Dooman Group. I now share your hope for the good effects of the Emperor’s visit to the United States on future Japanese-American relations.”

For the Japan Lobby, which had taken it upon itself to become the behind the scenes supporter of Japanese-American relations after the war, the Emperor’s visit was the result of years of effort. The visit could not be allowed to fail, and they paid extremely careful attention to public opinion in both Japan and the U.S.

Sugahara wrote to Masaki regarding trends in U.S. public opinion. Because of this ongoing communication between their bureaucrat and the powerful businessman, the Foreign Ministry likely thought it was only natural to make an appeal through Sugahara directly to Mrs. Graham regarding the interview with the Emperor in Newsweek.

However the communication made its way to her desk, Katherine Graham took it seriously enough to write a detailed response. In her reply to Sugahara dated Oct. 31, several weeks after the Emperor’s successful visit concluded, she apologized for her late response and provided the following explanation:

“Originally, the editors in New York were led to believe that Bernie Krisher would get the only exclusive interview given by the Emperor prior to his trip to the United States. This we planned to run in the issue dated Oct. 7 so that it would be on the newsstands while the Emperor was in the United States.”

Unfortunately for Newsweek, on Sept. 8, 12 days before Krisher’s interview, NBCTV newsman Edwin Newman had recorded his own exclusive interview with the Emperor that would be broadcast on the Today show on the morning of Sept. 23. In addition, on Sept. 22, the Emperor also met a group audience of 31 foreign correspondents, including FCCJ member reporters from AP, Reuters, the New York Times and others. This unprecedented press barrage was conducted by the Imperial Household Agency to familiarize the overseas public with the Emperor’s true face ahead of his U.S. visit. Which was all well and good, but it sucked all the air out of Krisher’s erstwhile scoop.

Mrs. Graham described hearing of the other media plans: “We learned of this late in the editorial week whereupon Ed Kosner, editor of the domestic edition, decided that rather than hold the interview until the following week as originally planned, he would run it at once while it was still unique and had news value. The international edition followed suit. They did not, however, switch to a Hirohito cover for two reasons: 1) we did not have the necessary reporting in and could not get it in within the short time available; 2) we would have been on the newsstands more than a week before the trip.”

Was Kay Sugahara (and his friends at the Foreign Ministry) satisfied with her response? On Dec. 18, 1975, a week before Christmas, he sent the following message to Mrs. Graham:

“Thank you for taking the time to answer so completely and so graciously my letter. . . . The domestic reporting of the visit was extremely well done and I am sure that Mr. Uchida was gratified with the results of the coverage. With best wishes for a very Merry Christmas.”

By all accounts, the imperial visit to the U.S. was a public relations success, helping to polish the image of a rebounding nation that was putting the past behind it. And surely the Newsweek interview with the Showa Emperor was one of the highlights of Bernie Krisher’s very illustrious career. The communications following the article’s appearance offer a peek at the untold drama behind Japan-U.S. relations in the post-war period.

Kay Sugahara died at 79 years old in 1988, a very wealthy man who left a thriving enterprise. Emperor Hirohito died in 1989. Katherine Graham in 2001. Newsweek magazine has undergone at least one “death” and “resurrection” but is still around at the time of this writing.

Eiichiro Tokumoto, a former Reuters correspondent, is an author and freelance journalist.