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Veteran Tokyo journalist convinced some things just never change

by Mariko Kato

Having lived in Japan for 45 years, 70-year-old British journalist Henry Scott Stokes has seen Japan go through more changes than virtually any other foreign resident has.

And as Tokyo bureau chief for some of the world’s biggest newspapers and a friend of prolific writer Yukio Mishima (about whom Stokes wrote an acclaimed biography), he also recorded these changes as part of his work.

But his simple statement to newcomers to Japan remains the same. “Japan is an island country. It has evolved in certain ways, has a very unique culture, and how it came to be like that is a fact of geography.”

Stokes himself was told similar when he was working for the Tokyo bureau of The Times of London in the late 1960s. “The British ambassador, John Pilcher, summoned me to his office and gave me a lecture that Japan is an island country. And I thought, how over-simple can you possibly get?

“But what he wanted to say was, bear this fundamental fact in mind and don’t rush to judgments on false premises. This is not part of the United States or Asia, this is very much a separate whole.”

Over the years, Stokes has come across such misconceptions in other foreign residents. “I find people who think Japan ought somehow to be like the rest of the world or, as a modern industrialized country, be like the rest of the industrialized world,” he said.

“But how can it possibly be so, when it’s located in such a different situation to any other major or medium-size economic power in the world?

“The Korea Strait is 100 miles of rough open sea, roughly five times the length of the English Channel,” he said comparing Japan to his home country, another economically powerful island.

Born in 1938 in Somerset, southwest England, Stokes first came to Japan in 1964 to open the Tokyo bureau for The Financial Times, a move he himself proposed. But he confessed that his interest had lain not in Japan, but in China.

“I was fascinated by all things Chinese, but it was almost impossible to get into China, particularly as a journalist. It was the middle of the Cultural Revolution and ghastly things were happening behind the scenes.”

As a “naive” journalist, he had what he now calls a misconception about Japan. “I thought Japan and China belonged to the same part of the world, and as long as I got to Japan I would be able to mosey myself into the mainland,” he said.

Although Stokes did get to report from China, he was soon “bitten by the Japanese bug,” and went on to work as Tokyo correspondent for The New York Times, The Economist and other publications. Stokes was drawn to Japanese culture partly due to his roots in Quakerism, a Christian denomination. “I was brought up as a Quaker, so I like things being simple. I love to sleep on tatami,” he said.

Stokes has published works on a wide variety of subjects over the years. He wrote the 1974 Mishima biography “The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima” and, “A Hundred Samurai Companies,” an examination of small and medium-size Japanese companies published in 1999. The following year, he co-edited “The Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Accounts of Korea’s Tiananmen,” an anthology of memoirs by journalists who covered the 1980 South Korean massacre.

Although Stokes developed this diversity while studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, he has only recently been able to appreciate the experience, he said.

“I absolutely hated Oxford while I was there. It had a redundant atmosphere. Another reason I came to Japan was because I was so uninterested in what was going on in my own country.

“The glorious ’60s were around us but the result was a tinge of disappointment — it was a time when people in England were groping for a direction and not coming up with anything very attractive as far as I was concerned.

“I realized many years later how I had failed to understand the deep impact Oxford had on me and failed to realize that going there was a privilege and a responsibility.”

Stokes says he was only able to make this self-analysis over the last couple of years. “Human beings take a long time to understand the principle mystery in their lives, which is themselves,” he added.

According to Stokes, Japan’s role on the international stage has changed dramatically since he grabbed the “pure gold visa” to get to China over four decades ago. He gave the example of the gathering in Tokyo last month of 50 nations and international groups that pledged $5 billion in aid for Pakistan.

“There isn’t a better place than Tokyo to gather consensus and for people to take action and pledge money.” Stokes noted that Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, also said that it could not have been done in any other city in the world.

“These days Japan is a magnificent platform from which the rest of Asia can be reached. It’s a great time to be here.”

Despite this, Stokes feels that nothing has really changed in Japan since he first arrived, least of all himself.

“Japanese people are still very curious about Westerners, so we’re surrounded by an atmosphere of curiosity in ourselves. I find that I haven’t changed, I just got older . . . and stupider.”

Although he has no plans to move back to England, his Japanese wife currently resides in their home in Somerset, while his 24-year old son lives with him in Japan.

“What has changed is that I now have a child who is doing all the things in this society I would have longed to have done myself,” he said, revealing that his son may have dreams of becoming a pop star.

Stokes is convinced that his son’s lifestyle would not have been possible back in England. “He has access, he has visibility, he has a role here that he wouldn’t have in London.

“He can wear the frivolous things, lead the pop life, go in all these directions I would have liked to have taken. He has enormous flexibility, and is totally bicultural.”