Journalist awarded for giving Japan’s business world a face

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In an attempt to “humanize” the business news she was filing back to the United States, Jocelyn Ford took her recording equipment down to a members-only club in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

Through chats over drinks with customers and Sakura Maeda, the exclusive club’s effervescent Mama-san, Ford found the perfect palette from which to dab in the multicolored layers of what has been dubbed Japan’s “invisible recession.”

“My mission was to try and make Americans feel like they have a connection with Japan,” said Ford, Tokyo bureau chief of U.S. public radio’s business magazine Marketplace.

“Most foreign media present Japan with this kind of mysterious sheen around it,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to cut through, to make real a country that many (listeners) have never been to, will probably never go to and may not even have an interest (in).”

Acclaim for the series, “From a Tokyo Bar Stool,” pinnacled Friday, when Ford received an award at a ceremony in New York from the Overseas Press Club of America, which presents 19 awards each year for outstanding international reporting.

Ford, who won the award for “best business broadcasting,” insists she has merely been keeping her ears to the ground and looking to people, not numbers, to make Japan’s economic woes “more real and accessible” for listeners back home.

Among “From a Tokyo Bar Stool” interviewees was a manager of a construction company who retired early to pursue his hobbies, and a maverick businessman who job-hopped in search of promotion.

While the latter had difficulties fitting into Japanese society due to his insistence on being “the nail that sticks up,” the former told Ford that his work, which had taken him to many countries and often involved long hours in the office even when he was working close to his family, cost him dearly.

When he did find time to go home, his children would run and hide, thinking he was a total stranger, said Ford, who was formerly political correspondent for Kyodo News.

Even now, he only sees his 26-year-old son twice a year for a drink, he told Ford at the Ginza club.

“This bar was a place where members relaxed and felt they could talk about their problems,” said Ford, who during her time at Kyodo became the first foreign reporter to be assigned to cover the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.

“Sakura (the bar’s proprietress) knew them all so well. She served more of a role of counselor.”

Ford said she has endeavored to remain sensitive to cultural differences as well. While some foreigners may think bearing one’s soul to a Ginza club Mama-san is a quirky, uniquely Japanese trait, she remains critical of overseas journalists who fan the flames of Japan being a “faraway, wacky, incomprehensible country.”

“Some try to apply a Western model and look at Japan through Western eyes,” Ford said. “For example, counseling: it’s not that it isn’t happening here, it just happens in different places.”

Marketplace, whose Japan coverage is supported by the Keizai Koho Center, among others, has gained a tremendous following during its 11 years on air due to its laid-back format: music and general-interest features are preferred to dry reports on hedge funds and consolidated issues.

This made tying essentially social issues to a business framework relatively easy, Ford said.

The last episode of “From a Tokyo Bar Stool” went to air in December and featured club owner Maeda, a former hospital secretary who opened the Ginza club eight years earlier to support what she described as her extravagant lifestyle.

However, this final episode told the story of how the club, which in the bubble-economy days of the late 1980s had brought in thousands of dollars a night and charged some $125 to get through the door, was facing imminent shut down.

“Now she is trying to reinvent herself again,” Ford said. “For a 45-year-old woman in Japan, there’s not a lot of options. Age discrimination is amazing here. Maybe that’s a future story.”