times gone by

Episodes of historical interest from JT’s pages


Staff writer

One lingering question about the history of The Japan Times is: Does it have any connection with the Japan Times launched in 1865 in Yokohama? The answer is “Yes,” but in a roundabout way. In 1918, The Japan Times absorbed The Japan Mail, which had absorbed the earlier Japan Times in the 1870s.

Reporters check the news on wire service machines in 1967.
Reporters check the news on wire service machines in 1967.

The Yokohama-based paper is well-known for having carried a series of articles written by Earnest Satow, a British diplomat, in which he argued that the Tokugawa “Shogoon” was not a true sovereign of Japan and called on foreign powers to form a “fair and equitable” treaty with the “Mikado and the Confederate Daimios.”

In 1895, two years before the launch of The Japan Times, Satow returned to Japan as British minister. The paper’s Dec. 20, 1898 issue reports that Satow was among those present at the unveiling ceremony on Dec. 18 for the statue of Takamori Saigo, a Meiji Restoration hero from Satsuma with whom he had had a friendship, at Tokyo’s Ueno Park, still a landmark in Tokyo.

Whether trivial or significant, The Japan Times is studded with reports and episodes of historical interest like this.

Korekiyo Takahashi, who served as prime minister once and finance minister six times, was an examiner when Motosada Zumoto, the paper’s first editor-in-chief, sat for an exam to enter the Imperial University preparatory school. Zumoto recalled: “He had just returned from America. He looked so much like a foreigner that I spoke to him in English. I was admitted to the school as I was given a full mark in English.”

In the inaugural issue of The Japan Times, Takahashi’s name appears as manager of the Yokohama Specie Bank in the bank’s advertisement on the back page.

Takahashi, then finance minister, was assassinated by rebellious young army officers during the February 26 Incident of 1936. The Japan Times in its first report on the coup attempt on the top page of its Feb. 28 issue erroneously reported — due to conflicting information — that Prime Minister Keisuke Okada was instantly killed and Takahashi seriously wounded. The fact is that Okada survived unharmed and Takahashi was killed instantly.

A Reuters dispatch from Berlin via London that The Japan Times carried in its Jan. 22, 1914 issue marked the first report on the Siemens Scandal involving high-ranking members of the Japanese navy, the British company Vickers and the German industrial conglomerate Siemens AG, which eventually toppled the Cabinet of Prime Minister Gonnohyoe Yamamoto in April that year. The paper achieved a big scoop by interviewing in Shanghai a man named Carl Richter, a former typist of the Tokyo agency for Siemens who stole important documents from the safe of the agency for blackmailing purposes. Fearing that reports on the scandal may affect Japan’s international position, authorities asked the paper not to play them up. But The Japan Times’ news editor Tsunego Baba flatly refused this request out of responsibility for the paper.

The same year, The Japan Times imported three Linotype machines and became the first newspaper in Japan to use the line casting machine. Around that time, the paper’s reporters started using typewriters instead of pencils.

Yosuke Matsuoka, later to become head of the Japanese delegation to the League of Nations when Japan withdrew from it, president of South Manchurian Railway Co. and foreign minister, had something to do with The Japan Times’ purchase of its first rotary press. A rotary press that Britain bought in 1918 — at the time of the Siberian Intervention — from Goss Printing Press Co. of the U.S. to publish a propaganda paper in Vladivostok was sitting idle. Matsuoka, as head of the Foreign Ministry’s information section, negotiated for its purchase in preparation to publish a propaganda paper. Following circuitous negotiations, The Japan Times acquired the press around 1922, but it was left rusting after it was transported to Tokyo. The paper started using the machine as late as November 1925.

The Japan Times was unable to publish papers for three days after the Great Kanto Earthquake hit the nation’s capital and surrounding areas on Sept. 1, 1923. On the morning of Sept. 4, Randall Gould, the only foreigner on staff at that time, set up a typewriter in the street in front of the Times office and managed to issue carbon copy “Earthquake Extra” bulletins to be read by “foreign refugees” at the Imperial Hotel. Apparently he was so befuddled that he dated the extra August 4.

On the occasion of the 44th anniversary of the paper’s launch, Matsuoka said in his message as foreign minister that the paper “has rendered valuable service as the leading mouthpiece of the nation, widely disseminating among its readers, both at home and abroad, Japan’s mission of promoting world peace and enhancing the welfare of mankind.”

His statement indicates that the Japanese government wanted the paper to propagate its position on various issues in the international community. In fact, there were times it provided financial support to the paper.

Although the paper was strictly subjected to control and censorship by the Foreign Ministry during World War II, Peter O’Connor, an expert on the history of English newspapers in Japan and Asia, once wrote in effect in the Number 1 Shimbun of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan that it is wrong to regard the paper just as a mouthpiece of the government. In 1933, the paper under president Hitoshi Ashida, a Diet member and former chief of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Bureau who would become prime minister after the war, “professed sympathy with the majority viewpoint” at the League of Nations on the Manchurian crisis. When Japan and Nazi Germany concluded the Anti-Comintern Pact in November 1936, the paper “voiced concern” over the pact’s effect on Japan’s relations with Britain and the U.S. The paper was also critical of Japan’s China policy when most other newspapers were enthusiastic about Japan’s “expansion in East Asia” and the cause of its “holy war.” But after Ashida resigned from the paper as president in December 1939 and Toshio Go took over, its line on Japan’s foreign policy started to change, according to O’Connor.

In her paper that dealt with the Asama Maru Incident — the inspection of the Nippon Yusen passenger liner on its way from Honolulu to Yokohama and capture of 21 German passengers aboard it by a British warship on Jan. 21, 1940, off Cape Nojima of Chiba Prefecture — Tomoko Matsunaga, who received her Ph.D. from Kyoto University, said that The Japan Times around that time secured a multiple discourse space as exemplified by the fact that it published eight pro-British letters and five anti-British letters from readers concerning the incident when public opinion was strongly anti-British and pro-German. Its editorials supported the Foreign Ministry’s approach to diplomatically solve the issue, not being swayed by emotional public opinion.

In the 1960 revision of the security treaty between Japan and the U.S., a major political event in postwar Japan, The Japan Times supported the new treaty, distinguishing itself from other newspapers. But the paper took a critical stance toward the state secrets law and security legislation under the Abe administration. Perhaps it was the only newspaper that touched on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s relationship with the Shinto Seiji Renmei (Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership), which is pushing for a new constitution based on Japan’s traditional values and national ceremonies for “the spirits of the war dead” enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine, and the activities of Nippon Kaigi, a nationalist group exercising influence over the nation’s legislation and administration, when it reported on his and other G-7 leaders’ visits to the Ise Grand Shrine in May. The Japan Times’ bitter wartime experience will remain a lesson the paper must not forget in its reporting activities.

Download the PDF of this 120th Anniversary Special

Tai Kawabata served as chief editorial writer of The Japan Times from the fall of 2005 to the summer of 2013 and is currently adviser of the paper’s editorial writing board.


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