You could say that Vasily Golovnin was destined to build a life and career in Japan. His father was a Japanese language professor at Moscow State University, but it was an account of the Kuril Islands by an early 19th-century Russian naval commander that convinced the Russian journalist to venture east. The commander’s name: Vasily Golovnin.

“I was absolutely fascinated by him,” Golovnin says of his namesake, who was lured ashore while exploring Kunashiri Island in 1911, then held captive on the main island of Hokkaido for more than two years. After one failed escape attempt, Golovnin used his incarceration to learn Japanese and gain a better and eventually affectionate understanding of his captors. His book was an instant hit and has been credited with defining attitudes towards Japan among generations of Russians.


They include Golovnin, who arrived here in rather less dramatic circumstances in 1982, having spent several years in Delhi working for the Soviet news agency Tass after graduating from university.

“It was the year Leonid Brezhnev died and the Cold War was at its height,” says Golovnin, now chief of Itar-Tass’s regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific, which is based in Tokyo but covers a huge slice of the region, from Seoul to Sydney.

“I travel a lot, and I love working in places like Thailand and Indonesia,” he says. “My focus has always been on this part of the world. Believe it or not, I’ve never been to the United States or Western Europe.”

The bureau, comprising four Russian and one Japanese staff, covers everything from politics and economics to popular culture, technology and slice of life stories. It produces as many as 15 print stories a day for sale in a huge market encompassing Russia, Russian speaking China, Mongolia and Eastern Europe.

These days, the 57-year-old Muscovite enjoys the freedom to decide what and how he writes about Japan, in stark contrast to his time here in the early 1980s, when the Soviet press corps included several KGB spies.

“We had to write about working class battles against Japanese capitalism, the ‘militarist class’ of politicians such as Yasuhiro Nakasone and Japan’s role as the Pentagon’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier,’” Golovnin says.

“We couldn’t resist the editorial agenda, but we did try to avoid using too many clichés. It was very difficult to write in neutral language.”

Golovnin says he was never a supporter of the Soviet system but, like many of his journalistic contemporaries, he resigned himself to playing along. “In a sense, Soviet communism was a kind of lifestyle governed by doublethink. You knew what reality was, and at the same time you knew what was unbelievable.

“That experience has helped me understand what is happening in North Korea, although the situation there is different. There’s no intelligentsia living a kind of internal exile of the kind we had in the Soviet Union, which is why I don’t think there have been significant changes in North Korean society.”

Golovnin did not feel like he was able to exert real control over his content until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy of more openness and transparency in the second half of the 1980s. “My job became much easier,” he said. “For me, proper reporting began in about 1988. Only then did we start writing objectively about Japanese politics.”

Despite hailing from what was then a totalitarian state, Golovnin was surprised by the discipline he encountered on the streets of Tokyo. “I was shocked to see people waiting patiently for the green light at pedestrian crossings, even though there were no cars in sight. That would have been unthinkable even in communist Moscow.

“Since then the Japanese have become more individualistic, less disciplined and, I suppose, a little freer.”

In Japanese newspapers of the time, Golovnin found signs of groupthink that reminded him of home. “They were almost Soviet in their lack of individuality. Their editorials were uniformly vague, but they have changed significantly for the better.”

Appropriately enough, the dispute over the Northern Territories that led to his namesake’s incarceration two centuries ago continues to cast a shadow over Japan’s ties with Russia. But Golovnin does not believe that the issue will affect bilateral relations in the same way as the Senkakus have blighted those between Japan and China.

“It is impossible to strike a deal over the Northern Territories, but then again the Japanese and Russian leaderships don’t feel the urgent need to do so,” he says. “No one in Russia believes Japan has bad intentions over this. There is caution in Asia about Shinzo Abe, but not in Moscow. If anything, the trouble between China and Japan is a diplomatic opportunity for Russia.”

Golovnin notes, too, that the closure of almost all of Japan’s nuclear reactors in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis has made it an even more attractive market for Russian oil and gas.

Like many other regular members of the FCCJ, Golovnin has devoted much of the past two years to reporting on the aftermath of Fukushima, picking up an award from a Russian journalists’ union along the way.

Golovnin has spent almost his entire career in Japan and has no plans to move. He is a familiar face at the Club, often in the company of his wife, Natalia. The couple’s daughter, Maria, is a London based Reuters journalist who has covered the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While his official title suggests he spends long hours in the office, Golovnin says he is still a reporter at heart. “I don’t really like editorial work, I much prefer being out in the field and writing. I’m in a privileged position in that I also write for Russian newspapers. There’s a huge appetite at home for stories about the territorial disputes, but also for articles on culture, food, technology and other ‘soft’ subjects.

“I love writing about social issues problems that have an aroma. Every day there’s a real story out there that captures the interest of our clients.”

Justin McCurry is Tokyo correspondent for the Guardian and Observer newspapers in London and principal Japan and Korea correspondent for Global Post.