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Media connivance in walking the dogs of war

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — For five days following Japan’s surrender this month in 1945, the Mainichi Shimbun, by then reduced to a single sheet because of severe paper shortages, published editions with a good deal of blank space: on Aug. 16, Page 2 totally blank; on the 17th, not just Page 2 but also a third of Page 1 blank, and so forth.

This startling outcome was a result of the daily’s editorial director Kojiro Takasugi’s plea, with his own letter of resignation, that either the newspaper company be shut down or its top executives resign at once. How could a national newspaper that had “glorified and inflamed the war” up to the day of surrender, predicting a certain victory, make an about-face with defeat? The upshot: the executives resigned, including the president.

Mainichi’s competitor, the Asahi, chose a more gradual approach, thereby throwing itself into a much fiercer in-house debate on its “war responsibility.” Still, on Aug. 23, the paper published an editorial to “punish itself” and apologized to its readers, the Japanese. “The responsibility of a speech organ with the closest relationship” to what people do, think, and feel is “extremely grave,” the editorial said. On Nov. 7, the company’s top executives and editors resigned.

These may be well-known stories, but I learned about them only recently when I came across Toshiyuki Maesaka’s detailed account of the conduct of journalism in wartime Japan, “Taiheiyo Senso to Shimbun” (Kodansha, 2007).

Maesaka begins his history of the Japanese government’s stifling of the freedom of the press long before the Pacific War, in the Newspaper Law of 1909, which equipped the government with insidious tentacles to seize and smother anything it did not like. The 1925 Security Preservation Law, which strengthened the “thought police,” empowered the government to arrest and jail those with “dangerous thoughts.”

As if that was not enough, militarists and their allies began to wield intimidation overtly in the 1930s. Among their weapons was a boycott that could put a paper out of business far more effectively than government censorship.

Initially, newspapers put up a good fight, at least some of them, at times nobly. One outstanding example that Maesaka cites is the Kahoku Shimpo, published in Sendai. When the Manchurian Incident occurred, in September 1931, the paper at once saw it was a hoax. But the government did not just fail to punish the military for its illegal conduct overseas; it allowed the military to take over the task of governance instead.

When the Kahoku Shimpo derided this development, the commander of the Sendai Regiment, accompanied by officers of the thought police and Kempei, visited the daily’s president, Jiro Ichiriki. He accused him of “slandering the military” and threatened to start a boycott campaign.

To this, Ichiriki responded in military terms: “This ramshackle building of ours is a fortress for the freedom of the press. All of our 400 employees will defend it with death. If attacking us is His Majesty’s order, go ahead and bombard us. We will be ready anytime.

He added: “A decision not to buy our paper is our readers’. If they decide not to do so, we will not deliver it.”

Ichiriki’s resolute attitude perhaps cowed the commander. He stopped pressuring the Kahoku Shimpo and dropped the idea of boycotting the paper. Other papers were not that lucky.

Worse, for the national newspapers, the Asahi and Mainichi, the Manchurian Incident became a dramatic turning point. Rather than try to get down to the truth, they seized it as a great opportunity to increase their circulation. They had ample resources to engage in competitive reporting, and they did.

They also took the notion of “supporting our troops” to new heights. The Asahi, for one, started a “cash donation” campaign for “our personnel engaged in the grave task of defending our interests and preserving security,” a catchphrase that never fails to excite people. They printed the donators’ names and addresses. The campaign proved to be a wild success, inflaming chauvinistic nationalism.

Underlying it all was the policy they established of defending the military for “international justice.” It was “My country, right or wrong.” That, Maesaka points out, opened a way to further government control of the press.

By the time the press realized they had been grievously wrong and decided to turn around, it was too late. The most famous case occurred in February 1944. With full knowledge of Japanese defeats in battle after battle in the South Pacific, the Mainichi finally printed a few articles, including an editorial, suggesting that the nation faced annihilation if the government stuck to its avowed strategy of fighting it out in the homeland.

This enraged Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo. He demanded that either the publisher be shut down or the reporter who wrote the articles be sent to the front. Thirty-seven-year-old Takeo Shinmyo, draft-exempt as a reporter, was drafted and sent to the front, despite the paper’s valiant efforts. Fortunately, Shinmyo, who covered the navy and wrote articles with its connivance, was protected by the navy and survived. But the 250 men in Shinmyo’s age group whom the navy recruited for appearance’ sake — and who were too old to be redrafted in normal times — were sent to Iwo Jima. All of them were killed there in the spring of 1945.

Maesaka says he decided to pursue the role of journalism in war as his lifelong subject when, a few years after his employment by the Mainichi, he met Hiroshi Masaki (1896-1975), the iconoclastic lawyer famous for his relentless fight for justice. Maesaka came to believe that “a study of failures” is indispensable to prevent something similar from happening again.

But we, of course, do not really learn much of anything from the past. By the time Maesaka was giving finishing touches to the book discussed here, the Japanese media was mindlessly following America’s lead in its “war on terror.”

And that reminds me: Who with his mind open could not see that the threat of weapons of mass destruction was U.S. President George W. Bush’s fraudulent concoction? Yet how happily the American media coalesced on the destruction of another country!

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.