In 1890, an Irish-born writer of limited success found his spiritual home after arriving upon the shores of what was then considered by the West to be the world’s most exotic country.
Over the next 14 years, Lafcadio Hearn’s dispatches, published initially in Harper’s Weekly, were the first glimpses most American readers had of Japan.
Accenting the unique, the bizarre and the quaint aspects of his adopted country, Hearn’s prose was designed to titillate as much as inform, and romanticize as much as report.
Today, not a few who follow American media accounts of Japan cynically note that Hearn (known as Yakumo Koizumi in Japan) could still get a job at the Tokyo bureau of any major American newspaper or television station, as they complain that, while there is more raw data about Japan available than ever before, the emphasis of U.S. reporters in Japan often remains stuck on the country’s bizarre, unique and quaint aspects.
Such comments are not totally without reason. The U.S. media have, historically, always had trouble presenting Japan as a “normal” nation.
When Japan opened its doors to the world after the Meiji Restoration, there was lots of coverage of a country awakening after centuries in isolation and racing to catch up with the West.
By 1905, following Japan’s trouncing of the Russian Navy at Port Arthur, the American press had became one of Japan’s biggest supporters, noting with pride that Japan was the first Asian nation to join the Great Powers.
The admiration, however, soon turned to fear that Japan was part of the Yellow Peril. Led by the Hearst newspaper syndicate, U.S. newspapers ran stories on Chinese and Japanese masses emigrating to the U.S. and warned readers that Oriental customs, values and traditions were markedly different from America’s.
During World War II, as historian John Dower describes in his classic work “War Without Mercy,” there was a concentrated, deliberate attempt on the part of the U.S. government and media to portray Japanese as subhuman.
Thus, when the fighting ended in 1945, the image of Japan as a nation of fanatic warriors who would commit suicide rather than surrender had been burned into the minds of American soldiers and the journalists who followed them.
However, not all in the U.S. media merely parroted the official line. After the atomic bombings, Time magazine posed some sober questions about the bomb’s use in the midst of the euphoric victory celebrations, wondering what the future would bring and how history would judge the U.S. action.
The immediate future brought an American emperor, in the form of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and a contingent of nearly 200 newsmen.
As recounted in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan’s recently published history, newsmen who landed in Japan pursued three major stories: The Emperor, Gen. Hideki Tojo and the woman known as Tokyo Rose, who broadcast Japanese propaganda to the Allied forces in the South Pacific.
Although no single Tokyo Rose ever existed, a young Japanese-American named Iva Anna Toguri became a scapegoat for American racial hatred when she was arrested, charged with treason, and served 18 years in prison for crimes she did not commit.
U.S. media reports during the Occupation years focused on how Japan was changing from a wartime state to a peacetime state, and how successful, by and large, the Occupation was.
By the early 1950s, the focus of the American media had switched to neighboring China and Korea. Tokyo became a base of operations, and of rest and recreation, for both soldiers and journalists who now had to cover a Japan rebuilding its economy, a war in Korea and a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
As Japan’s role in the Cold War became more important, the number of regular members of the FCCJ, which began life as the Tokyo Correspondents’ Club, increased. The initial 58 members had grown to nearly 150 by 1960.
With the Cold War sometimes turning hot, U.S.-Japan security relations remained the No. 1 story for most reporters, especially following the clash between police and student demonstrators over revision of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that same year.
Economic news during the early 1960s continued to focus on Japan’s attempts to “catch up,” but it was clear by the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 that the country had already done so. U.S. reports then turned toward Japan’s growing economic might in fields such as consumer electronics and automobiles.
After Expo ’70 in Osaka and the reversion of Okinawa in 1972, economic stories, and trade friction in a variety of sectors, would become more and more important news items.
In the early 1980s, reporters, scholars and Japan watchers in the U.S. began noting with a mixture of concern and admiration that Japan was predominant in many industries.
There was a feeling in those U.S. industries that had been beaten by their Japanese competitors that theirs was a better system, and that the U.S. had much to learn. “This was a period when many business reporters were attracted to books like Erza Vogel’s ‘Japan as Number One’ and other books that praised Japanese management techniques,” said Robert Neff, current president of the FCCJ.