His obituary was not carried by major media, but Nobuyuki Ogasawara left a distinctive mark on Japanese journalism.
Far from being a star journalist, he earned his living and secured his reporting expenses mainly as a writing course instructor at cram schools, but the freelancer produced numerous books and magazine articles on a broad range of social issues, from nuclear power and reproductive medicine to euthanasia.
Dying suddenly last July at age 64, he left a draft of an unfinished book that was completed by a close friend and published in December under the title “Reader on ‘Northern Territories Issues,’ ” a Q-and-A-style book on the decades-old territorial row between Japan and Russia.
In the book, Ogasawara detailed the history of the four disputed islands off Hokkaido — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — from the 19th century to the present day, and stressed the need to involve the Ainu indigenous people in the territorial talks.
“It is undeniable that the Ainu are the indigenous people of the Kuril Islands. Japan should withdraw its assertion that the islands are lands descending from ancestors,” he argued in the book.
Yasushi Onuma, another freelance writer who finished the book by writing the last chapter, said Ogasawara “used to say the problematic issues for modern Japan are represented in the territorial row and the Ainu issues.”
Born in Tokyo, Ogasawara started his career as a reporter at the Hokkaido Shimbun in 1972 after graduating from Hokkaido University. After leaving the local daily 14 years later at the age of 39, he turned freelance.
“Growing up as a journalist in Hokkaido, he must have experienced limitations in working as an ‘in-house reporter’ and wanted to shed light on forgotten or undiscovered issues without worrying if they would draw the public eye,” said Onuma, who worked with Ogasawara at the daily.
As a freelancer, Ogasawara published his first book, “Salty River,” in 1990, in which he wrote about Ainu who had moved to the Tokyo metropolitan area from Hokkaido.
Crossing the Tsugaru Straits between Hokkaido and Honshu, locally called the “salty river,” to leave behind discrimination, they found life was not easy for them even in the big city, according to the book.
Ogasawara was prompted to interview them by controversial remarks made by then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone claiming that the intellectual level of Japanese people is high as Japan is an ethnically homogeneous nation. The comments drew criticism from Ainu people.
“It was his lifelong stance not to ignore injustice,” Onuma said.
Sharing the view, Jiro Takasu, president of Tokyo-based publisher Ryokufu Shuppan Inc., which has issued several of Ogasawara’s books, including the latest one, said, “He had a clear vision about how a journalist should be, and he forced himself to live in accordance with the ideal.”
In 2009, Ogasawara published a biography of a legendary editorialist at his old local paper, Teiichi Suda, who is known for arguing that Japan should have concluded an overall postwar peace treaty with the Allied Powers, including the Soviet Union and China, rather than signing a separate treaty only with the Western allies.
Through interviews with Suda’s family members and those close to him, Ogasawara presented a picture of an unyielding journalist, whom he considered an ideal model.
In the postscript of “Living Up to the Freedom of the Press,” Ogasawara said he wrote the book “so journalists, particularly young ones, and those who seek journalistic careers could reaffirm how journalism should be.”
Onuma remembers the day when he took a walk with Ogasawara on the beach near Ogasawara’s home in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, around three months before his death.
“He did not jump at a job offer even if it was lucrative, although he experienced hardships,” Onuma said. “But he told me at that time he did not regret his life as a freelancer. I believe it was because he could embody the soundness of journalism.”
It has become more and more difficult for freelancers to make a living as journalists, as opportunities for publishing their works are decreasing at a time when major magazines have been closed down and book sales remain in a slump.
However, Onuma finds hope in Internet-based journalism.
“Quality reports on the Internet are sometimes picked up by mainstream media in the United States, and freelancers in Japan will be able to live up to their beliefs if such a trend expands in this country,” Onuma said. “A journalist should work under his or her own name, rather than under the name of a news agency he or she works for, as Ogasawara did.”
Ogasawara is survived by a wife, three children and a granddaughter.