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Black ink, red blood

by Stephen Mansfield

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE PRESS NETWORKS OF EAST ASIA, 1918-1945, by Peter O’Connor. Global Oriental, 2010, 381 pp., £61 (hardcover)

In the pre- and early war years, the big three newspapers at the center of the networks in Japan were The Japan Times, Japan Advertiser and the Japan Chronicle.

Historian Peter O’Connor traces the aims of the Japanese Foreign Ministry in seeing the press function as a device to make the country better understood and respected abroad, to the iron resolve of the authorities to determine content in the immediate years before Workd War II.

In a book that is both history and analysis, we learn that the first foreign newspaper in Japan was the long forgotten Nagasaki Shipping List, a treaty port publication which first appeared in 1861.

Over the next four decades, Japan saw the birth of over 40 foreign-language newspapers, including the 1897 advent of The Japan Times, a paper, that in the author’s view, “survived the stresses and pressures of the time better than its rivals.”

These publications were supplemented with a choice from some 30 or more foreign-language magazines and periodicals. One senses an element of adventurism in these enterprises, the extraordinary efflorescence of print attesting not simply to business instincts, but a love of news media.

Exploring the function of English language newspapers and gazettes as forums for public debate, the author also examines their role as instruments of government. Brooking little criticism of their colonial policies in continental Asia, figures like the Resident-General Hirobumi Ito, were eager to use the media as a tool to soften up international opinion about its annexation of the Korean peninsula.

Some editors were quite happy to comply, it seems, provided the request came with a sweetener. In the case of Englishman J.W. Hodge, editor of the Seoul Press, a generous monthly stipend assured a sympathetic coverage of Japanese foreign policy in the region.

O’Connor deftly unravels the complex web of sympathies, antipathies and alliances that existed among a foreign press corps in China deeply divided over Bolshevism, the increasing influence of Japan in East Asia, the rise of Sun Yatsen, the Guomindang and a slew of other issues.

The writer profiles some of the most prominent names in the media, which includes among others, Russell Kennedy, Robert Young, and B.W. Fleisher, men whose experiences alone could provision the content for a book.

Surprisingly, the name Edward H. House, an important crusading American journalist, receives only a brief mention. This may be attributable to the fact that historian James L. Huffman has thoroughly covered the subject in his superb biography, “A Yankee in Meiji Japan.”

Early on, the press tried to find an accommodation on the issue of the treatment of Koreans. Some outrightly criticizedg the brutality of the occupiers, citing evidence of the collapse of Bushido, the noble way of the warrior; others advanced a more mollifying line of justification against insurrection among a subject people. No doubt some of this damping down of criticism came from the British contingent of pressmen, only too aware of their own country’s colonial infamy.

Reading of the media’s reaction to major stories like the Exclusion Act, Anglo-Japanese Alliance and the bombing in Shanghai of Chinese troops and civilians in 1932 by Japanese planes (the world’s first air raid on unprotected targets), we form the impression of a highly adaptable press, responding resourcefully, though not always accurately, to rapidly changing events.

By 1937, a virtual blanket on reporting negative news had been imposed by the Japanese. As the region entered into what historians have termed the “dark valley,” danger and menace stalked the streets of cities like Shanghai.

By 1940, the situation had become untenable for many people working in the foreign press. Radio broadcaster Carroll Alcott had resorted to wearing a bulletproof vest; gangsters working for Japanese interests had begun to harass Western and Chinese news premises; journalist J.B. Powell stumbled across the severed head of a Chinese assistant editor in the French Concession, hand grenades were lobbed through the windows of a news office, while the editor of the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury was assassinated in a German restaurant. Threatening letters, harassment and kidnappings were the order of the day.

O’Connor captures the superheated atmosphere of the times in this immensely detailed work, one that is likely to become the definitive study of the period’s press networks.

Like other standard works (one thinks of Peter Ackroyd’s magisterial, “London: The Biography”), it sets the bar very high for those who follow.