Written half a century ago, a book delving into journalistic issues from the perspective of a news agency editor is continuing to provide precious lessons to contemporary readers about the challenges of the news media.
“Editor’s Diary,” first published in the 1960s, shows the process through which newspapers decided what stories to run on the front page or discard, and how editors and reporters struggled to depict the social events in the turbulent days when Japan was grappling with issues including its security policy in the nuclear age, environmental pollution amid high economic growth and the Vietnam War.
The five-volume diary from December 1963 to October 1968, written as an inside report by Jiro Kowada, the pen name of Toshio Hara, who served as an editor of the city news section at Kyodo News and later became editor-in-chief, contributed to improving media literacy in those days.
It has recently been re-edited as a one-volume book and reprinted by a Tokyo-based publisher.
“In editing the book, I was surprised to find that many journalistic problems have been controversial for the past 50 years,” said Ippei Omata, chief of the Yudachi-Sha Ltd. publishing company. “The various points raised by Mr. Kowada still have significance.”
Omata himself was an admirer of the diary when he was a rookie reporter at NHK.
On Feb. 14, 1964, Kowada noted that major media had neglected to report the death of a 53-year-old man in Ibaraki Prefecture whose demise was suspected of having been caused by a toxic symptom of a cold medicine manufactured by a major pharmaceutical firm.
He pointed out the drug maker had spent huge amounts on advertising on TV and in newspapers and that an influential ad agency must have approached these media. “I focused on how they had reported the rapid fall of the drug maker’s share price, but they didn’t provide any explanations.”
On Dec. 5 that year, Kowada took up the issue of the “press club” over an incident in which journalists covering the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had agreed to hold off reporting the planned hike of bus fares in the capital at the request of transportation authorities.
Press clubs are located in major public offices, police stations and economic organizations, and sometimes face criticism that they have privileged access to news sources and serve the interests of authorities rather than the public.
“Press clubs of the authorities and by the authorities inevitably become press clubs for the authorities,” Kowada noted. “Freedom of press in Japan has advanced from the prewar era, but press clubs remain old-fashioned. Isn’t it the most dangerous aspect (of Japanese journalism)?” he noted.
On Jan. 29 and 30, 1965, he reported his news agency decided not to carry a photograph of a public execution of a man believed to be a Viet Cong in Saigon, in the former South Vietnam, on the grounds that it was “too cruel.”
Expressing doubt over the decision, Kowada wrote, “What is cruel is the reality of South Vietnam, not the photo. Should readers appreciate newspapers that are kind enough not to present cruel things, even though they are not informed of the public execution?”
His agency decided again on Feb. 4, 1968, not to carry a photo showing ordinary citizens looking at an array of fallen soldiers in South Vietnam.
“Under the principle of not showing photos of dead bodies, as they make readers uncomfortable, we will have to run photos without bodies even in reporting a war,” he wrote.
“I insisted we should carry the photo, but my argument was rejected.”
On the development of nuclear technology in the 1960s, Kowada paid attention to news in 1968 that highly pure plutonium was created at the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute in Tokai, Ibaraki prefecture, which promoted itself as a “pioneer” of the nation’s nuclear power program.
In a diary entry May 16 that year, Kowada noted, “It is significant that Japan has independently established the manufacturing technology for materials for an atomic bomb.
“Japan has become the ninth country in the world that is capable of producing an atomic bomb. While Japan advocates peaceful use of atomic energy, it has nonetheless become possible for Japan to have the kindling of Satan. A country with the capability of producing atomic bomb(s) needs to be a perfect democratic nation.”
On Aug. 8, 1968, a professor at Sapporo Medical University announced that he successfully conducted the first heart transplant in Japan.
Kowada noted it was intensively discussed within news media if they should welcome the surgery. “It has not yet been concluded in the world when a person can be pronounced dead, but a transplant requires ‘a living heart’ following such a declaration (of the donor’s death).”
“It is necessary for news media to carry (not only praise for the surgery but also) critical voices over the surgery,” he said, stressing the need to examine an event from various angles.
The diary also critically reported frequent gatherings of news media executives and high-ranking politicians.
To continue in-depth inside reports, Kowada introduced himself only as “a newspaper reporter in Tokyo,” and the diary included inside stories of several news agencies, leading to speculation that editors from several agencies were involved.
In a recent interview following the reprint of the book, Hara said he “decided to report the real conditions of (journalists’) work” after becoming “dissatisfied” with Japanese media, “and prompted by belief that we needed to face meaningful criticism to improve ourselves.”
“I believe that journalists and their readers are partners, who forge each other in seeking a better society,” he said.
“I myself could obtain abundant perspectives during the five years I issued the diary,” he added.
The 88-year-old Hara is still active in journalism, regularly hosting study sessions on journalism and current social issues, including the controversial proposal for revising the pacifist Constitution.