AP boss looks back on eight-year stay

by Rob Gilhooly

For foreigners who have never been to Japan, news wire services and other media often provide their only view of this country.

Yet, for James Lagier, outgoing chief of the Associated Press’s Tokyo bureau, that view can sometimes be distorted.

“There are some journalistic organizations that have stereotyped Japan, and I don’t think it’s right,” said Lagier, who retires today after 39 years with AP, eight of them in Tokyo.

“I believe it’s almost a journalistic crime to assume certain things about Japan which probably are not true and are at least not provable. I have tried to ensure that (at AP) we avoid . . . making such generalizations.”

This, according to Lagier, 66, is close to policy at AP, which he says prefers to stick to the facts and avoid generalizations.

“You can make good stories out of facts. . . . For example, the country with the largest number of hospital beds in the world is Japan, and the longest stays in hospitals are found in Japan. You can get out of these two facts a very interesting story.”

and at the same time impress that it is a characteristic of Japan that there is that kind of care.” Lagier admits that many reporters based here feel the need to respond to an overseas audience, which often craves the stereotyped or unusual aspects of a faraway nation.

Yet, public perceptions, even in Lagier’s native United States, have shown signs of change.

“The U.S. people are interested in Japanese culture so we have been able to do a lot of lifestyle stories, Japanese culture, what makes Japan unique in the world,” he said.

“Yet, interestingly, political stories were not that interesting to Americans until (Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi and (Foreign Minister Makiko) Tanaka came on the scene.”

Since the arrival of the two charismatic politicians, AP political articles have been widely featured on the pages of American newspapers, with Koizumi becoming “a kind of character” rather than just a faceless lawmaker, Lagier said.

“You didn’t have that before, unless you had (a politician) involved in a scandal or criminal activities.”

Other changes he has noticed during his eight-year tenure here include Americans’ perceptions of Japan’s education system and of Japanese-style business management.

“Before I came here, Americans believed that the Japanese education system was far superior . . . and that Japanese kids studied so hard and American kids didn’t. They believed that the management of Japanese companies was far superior to management of U.S. companies. I think that has changed.

“Americans have come to recognize that there are elements of those American systems that are superior. I can remember once reading a book titled ‘The Art of Japanese Management.’ If that book was written today, I don’t think it would sell.”

While Lagier said the main news events during his tenure were undoubtedly the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which claimed 6,300 lives in 1995, and Japan’s inability to “get out of the economic doldrums,” one of the most important stories to him has been Okinawa and problems stemming from the U.S. military presence there.

“This has been such a sad story for so long — the rapes, the crimes . . . all of these things seem to traumatize the U.S. here,” said Lagier, who was posted in Japan with the U.S. military between 1958 and 1960.

“We have always covered that story very aggressively because it’s a story that affects America and America’s relationship with Japan.”

Lagier, who will retire to Walnut Creek, Calif., where he plans to continue studying the piano and “try very, very hard to have fun,” believes that maintaining good U.S.-Japan relations is crucial.

“All of the U.S. ambassadors that have been here (during my tenure) have said that the most important bilateral relationship in the world is the one between Japan and the U.S. In my mind there is no question that that is true.”