In the history of English-language dailies in this country, The Japan Times is virtually the last one standing, with its ups and downs involving business difficulties and challenges, wartime government control, mergers, and post-war press freedom.
The lineage of this newspaper is actually 152 years old, considering the acquisitions of newspapers that were established as long ago as the feudal Edo Period.
The Japan Times is proud of its heritage and displays its significant chronology every day in the masthead at the top of the Opinion page. The paper’s official inauguration took place in 1897, but it incorporated its significant rivals and predecessors along the way. Among them were two other papers named The Japan Times. The first Japan Times, considered the “grandfather” of the present Japan Times, was founded in 1865.
At the other end of the time frame, in recent years, the paper has diversified its business, placing emphasis on its internet operations and producing spin-off publications in several languages. It withstood the crisis following the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
A remarkable evolution took place in 2013 as the paper signed a tie-up with The New York Times. Since then, The Japan Times has been bundled with the international edition of The New York Times, offering readers the best of both worlds.
The U.S. paper’s presence in Japan had diminished after The Asahi Shimbun in 2011 decided to no longer print its English-language version, which had been bundled with The International Herald Tribune, the predecessor of the NYT international edition. Earlier, The Mainichi Newspapers Co. gave up its English-language newspaper business in 2001. The 62-year-old Japan News, formerly The Daily Yomiuri, is still in the field.
Dawn of journalism
Back to the past. The Japan Times, following its 1897 inauguration, has absorbed several reputable English-1anguage journals. Two of the key newspapers that joined The Japan Times’ family had been owned and operated by Britons and one first published by an American.
The first of these three papers was The Japan Mail that Capt. Francis Brinkley, a British correspondent for The Times of London, inaugurated in 1870.
The Japan Mail continued its publication until The Japan Times absorbed it in 1918. During its half-century run, The Japan Mail annexed the first Japan Times, founded by another Briton in 1865 — three years before the Meiji Restoration.
Incidentally, the first modern newspaper in the Japanese language was the 1870 Yokohama Mainichi Shimbun, predecessor of the Mainichi Shimbun. With Japan far behind the West in printing technology in the 19th century, expatriates were the first to publish modern newspapers in this country.
Patriotism and the need to communicate with the outside world was the major reason why The Japan Times was inaugurated as the first indigenous English-language newspaper, run by Japanese and edited under Japanese leadership.
Japan was a fledgling Asian power and had been humiliated by “unequal treaties” with Western colonial powers signed by the legally naive Tokugawa Shogunate, which bowed to pressure under the threat of military conquest. Treating Japan as an uncivilized nation, the terms forbade Japan from setting its own trade tariff rates and gave extraterritoriality rights — immunity from Japanese law — to foreign residents.
The Meiji government had initiated Westernization, including a military buildup and political, economic and legal reforms, to try to convince the West that Japan should be treated as an equal partner. The Japan Times supplemented the Westernization drive and built a bridge of communication between expatriates and the elite Japanese who understood English.
The paper’s first editorial laments the language barrier at the time and the need to speak up in English, “It is a remarkable and deplorable fact that after 40 years of mutual association, His Majesty’s subjects and the foreign residents remain to this day virtually strangers to each other … .
“In the eyes of the general public abroad, Japan is like a dumb actress leaving the audience to attach her motions whatever meaning it may please them to choose … we persist in our assertion that Japan has not yet been adequately represented through the press, and further, that under the circumstances it is only by the Japanese themselves that their views, sentiments and aspirations can be correctly presented to the outside world. Such are the principal causes that have led to the inauguration of The Japan Times.”
Zumoto, the first managing editor
The idea of starting an English-language newspaper owned and operated by Japanese was first conceived in 1883 by Motosada Zumoto, one-time translator on the staff of The Japan Mail and later secretary to Japan’s first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito. But it was not until the autumn of 1896, when the Ito Cabinet resigned, that Zumoto was really able to set about putting his long-cherished plan into practice.
Sueji Yamada, a senior friend of Zumoto hailing from the same prefecture, Tottori, was then in a position to help Zumoto, having resigned as head of a branch office of Nippon Yusen Corp.
On hearing Zumoto’s plans to start an English-language paper, Yamada was so impressed that he immediately started to raise funds to finance the project. The first man whose assistance he recruited was Yukichi Fukuzawa, founder of Keio University and the Jiji Shimpo newspaper, to whom he was related by marriage.
Fukuzawa succeeded in persuading Baron Yataro Iwasaki, then governor of the Bank of Japan, to raise funds for Zumoto’s paper from the Mitsui and Mitsubishi interests, the Bank of Japan, the Yokohama Specie Bank and Nippon Yusen Corp.
Ito himself helped Zumoto in both official and private capacities. He financed, for instance, Zumoto’s trip abroad to visit and study newspaper facilities in Europe and the U.S.
Zumoto returned from this four-month tour in January 1897 with his convictions that an English-language newspaper was badly needed in this country further strengthened by his discovery that people abroad were totally ignorant of Japanese affairs.
Thus, March 22, 1897, saw the appearance of the first issue of The Japan Times. The paper’s chief executives were Yamada, president; Zumoto, managing editor; Yoshitaro Takenobu, assistant managing editor, and Miezo Nakanishi, business manager.
For the logo, the Old English type used in The Times of London was adopted with a woodblock print of Mount Fuji in the center. Also, as with the Times and many other newspapers of the time, the front page was entirely given over to advertisements. A copy cost five sen and a month’s subscription cost ¥1.
Kennedy takes over
In 1911, Zumoto became president of The Japan Times. Zumoto was to hold this position for just three years, for in 1914 the management of The Japan Times was transferred to the Kokusai News Agency.
The foundation of this news agency had come about following a Japanese business mission headed by Viscount Eiichi Shibusawa — known today as the father of capitalism in Japan — traveling to the U.S. in 1910 at the invitation of chambers of commerce on the Pacific coast. During his three-month stay in the U.S., Shibusawa had come to the conclusion that it was essential for Japan to have an international news agency that would do something to remedy the general ignorance of Japanese affairs prevailing in the U.S. and elsewhere. On his return to Japan, he devoted all his efforts toward the establishment of such an agency.
The result was that the Kokusai News Agency was founded in March 1914 with Count Aisuke Kabayama as its president and John Russell Kennedy as its general manager.
Although Zumoto played an important part in the founding of the news agency and probably was the originator of the idea regarding its amalgamation with The Japan Times, he was merely given a position in Kokusai, the actual management being entrusted to Kennedy, an Irish-born journalist who had moved to the U.S., becoming the city editor at The Washington Post. In 1907, he came to Tokyo as an Associated Press correspondent. To ensure a smooth liaison between the news agency and the English-language papers, Kennedy also assumed the management of The Japan Times.
On July 2, 1914, the paper was reorganized into a joint-stock company capitalized at ¥10,000 and called The Japan Times Kabushiki Kaisha, with Kennedy succeeding Zumoto as president.
The Japan Mail moved into the Times Building in February 1915, merely retaining its name without issuing any paper for seven years. In 1918, The Japan Times absorbed The Japan Mail, changing its masthead to The Japan Times & Mail.
In December 1921, Kennedy resigned the presidency and the company was then reorganized as an anonymous association under new management. Bunshiro Hattori, chief secretary of the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce, was made president and Sometaro Sheba became managing director.
Sheba, a newspaper publisher in Hawaii, hired R.O. Matheson, a former Honolulu Advertiser managing editor, to run the newsroom. Sheba, who had bought shares from Kennedy, later became president.
In 1923, the paper introduced press campaigns to this country. It proposed the preservation of the retired, but famed, battleship Mikasa. Two years later, the government agreed. It was the first known successful case of the press running a prolonged campaign to gain public support to realize a project of social importance.
The early 1940s was an exceptional period in which The Japan Times kept roaring ahead with big, forceful headlines to glorify its stories.
The time could also be considered the darkest days for the paper because it had to serve the military-ruled empire under state censorship.
During World War II, the media fanned public hatred toward Americans, British and other enemies, and justified Japan’s conquest of much of Asia. The Japan Times, then under control of the government, was no exception.
“My instruction to The Japan Times was to stress that Japan shall have a perfect victory, and that the nation shall fight it out to the very last person,” Yasuhiko Nara, a former Foreign Ministry bureaucrat who supervised the paper at the time, said in a 1987 interview with the paper.
In the 1930s, almost all the shares in the newspaper were purchased by certain individuals at the request of the ministry, which funded the purchase, according to Nara.
The Japan Times has lost ownership documents from the era, but the appointment of Tokichi Tanaka, a former vice foreign minister, as The Japan Times president in 1924 suggests the ministry’s control of the paper began around the 1920s. It lasted until September 1945, a month after Japan’s surrender, when the Occupation forces ordered the government to relinquish all media share holdings.
The paper in 1940 assumed a long official name, The Japan Times Advertiser Incorporating The Japan Chronicle and The Japan Mail, having taken over its competitors in accordance with government policy. The competitors largely represented foreign interests.
Under military pressure, The Japan Times was obliged in 1943 to adopt a name with a nationalistic tone, Nippon Times.
In January 1956, the Nippon Times invited Shintaro Fukushima, a career diplomat and former director-general of the Procurement Agency, to take over its presidency. Under his leadership, the paper reverted to its original name, The Japan Times, on July 1, 1956.
The paper coined its editorial motto, “All the news without fear or favor,” and set out its mission in writing.
“The mission of The Japan Times, as Japan’s one and only independent English-Language newspaper, shall be to report domestic and international news accurately, speedily and amply to readers in Japan and overseas from an impartial standpoint. Without fear and without flattery, The Japan Times shall endeavor to build a well-informed public opinion for the sake of truth and justice, freedom and democracy, and international cooperation and world peace.”
Publishing newspapers is not the only business The Japan Times is engaged in. The company began publishing directories of foreign residents in Japan and other things before WWII. In the 1960s, the company began publishing books on English learning and the publication business has kept growing since then. The company today also publishes books for non-Japanese to learn Japanese, as well as other books.
Sam Ito was managing editor of The Japan Times between 2005 and 2006. He currently works with NHK.