A 10-minute walk from JR Sapporo Station brings one to a small, white clock tower in the city center. The 13-meter-high Western timepiece is an iconic image of the city and Hokkaido.
Most Japanese recognize the tower, one of the most popular tourist spots in Hokkaido. But few probably know its original association.
The clock tower, originally used as part of a martial arts hall, is one of the few existing structures of Sapporo Agricultural College, which was opened in 1876 by the central government to bring in American agricultural experts and to introduce Western technologies to a developing Hokkaido.
It is also the place where the history of The Japan Times, the nation’s oldest and most widely read English-language newspaper, effectively started more than 120 years ago — a fact little known even among newspaper staff now working at the firm’s head office in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.
The college, first headed by Dr. William Clark, was very unique and one of the most advanced educational institutions in Japan in the late 19th century, when the country started introducing Western technology.
All classes, including English, algebra, debate, chemistry, geology, political economy, zoology and agriculture, were given in English by American and British teachers.
Thanks to the rare environment at the college, graduates later became noted intellectuals, a legacy Hokkaido people remember about the institution, which played a key role in the prefecture’s development and eventually became today’s Hokkaido University.
Among those intellectuals were Kanzo Uchimura (1861-1930), a Christian leader who started Mukyokai-Shugi (the Nonchurch Movement), and Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933), who served as undersecretary-general of the League of Nations from 1920 to 1926. A portrait of Nitobe was featured on the former ¥5,000 note that was first issued in 1984.
One of Nitobe’s closest friends was Motosada Zumoto (1863-1943), who later served as an executive assistant to Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister, and founded The Japan Times in 1897 in Tokyo’s Uchisaiwai-cho district.
Zumoto later recalled that he was determined to launch an English-language newspaper in Japan to promote communication between Japanese and non-Japanese nationals while he was in his senior year at the four-year college.
“For Japan to play an active role in the big, global stage together with advanced countries, what is most needed is to urgently publish an English-language paper to promote mutual understanding of situations and opinions,” Zumoto wrote in an article he contributed to the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju in 1935.
“After realizing this, I decided to make this my life-time mission,” wrote Zumoto.
Zumoto, born in today’s Hino, Tottori Prefecture, was an ambitious boy who dreamed of becoming successful outside his rural hometown and eager to learn English, which he believed would serve as a key conduit to introduce the latest knowledge and technologies from abroad to Japan.
Like many young Japanese people of his time, Zumoto was also a patriot who was deeply concerned about the future of his country, as many parts of Asia were already under Western colonial rule by the late 19th century.
Worried that Russia might soon invade Hokkaido, Zumoto joined the elite college in Sapporo. But soon he realized that Russia was more of a threat to Japan’s interests on Korean Peninsula rather than its northern frontier.
“I was deeply disappointed and suffered in agony, wondering which way I should go in the future, for about six months,” Zumoto was quoted as saying in “The Japan Times Monogatari” (roughly translated as “The Tale of the Japan Times”).
Japan was a developing nation that was desperately trying to modernize its industries in order to attain an equal footing with the Western powers.
It was around that time that Zumoto, who was one of the college’s best English-language students, came to the determination that his life’s mission would be to serve “the country by using English-language skills.”
Taking lecture notes in English during classes given by English-speaking teachers was difficult for Japanese students. But Zumoto’s notes were considered so good that many of his classmates copied them after class.
Later he was widely recognized as one of the best nonnative English-language writers in Japan.
“At that time, Sapporo Agricultural College subscribed to and received many overseas magazines and newspapers. While in Sapporo, Zumoto read and input” a great deal of information on current world affairs, said Tomoko Matsunaga, associate professor of media studies at Tokyo Keizai University who is familiar with the history of The Japan Times.
“What is interesting about Zumoto is that he formed his identity based on journalistic writings, not on English classics,” Matsunaga said. “He studied current English at the college, and then started sending out” messages by using his English-writing skills.
After graduation, Zumoto moved to Yokohama and started working as a translator for the Japan Mail, an English-language newspaper run and edited by British journalist Francis Brinkley.
The Japan Mail often carried Zumoto’s precise translations of documents related to reforms being carried out by the Meiji government in 1885 and 1886.
A key aide to then-Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito, Miyoji Ito was strongly impressed with those articles, which was the reason the prime minister later directly recruited Zumoto as one of his executive assistants.
According to Zumoto’s memoirs, he initially turned down Ito’s offer, saying he wanted to keep working as a writer and translator for the Japan Mail.
Zumoto accepted Ito’s offer only after the prime minister agreed to allow him to keep contributing articles to the newspaper, Zumoto recalled in 1932.
But why did Hirobumi Ito recruit a man like Zumoto?
Ito was one of the few government leaders who could read, write and speak English fluently. He was also one of the first five Japanese to study in Britain, beginning in 1863.
Ito’s deep understanding of current affairs and Western political systems was one of key factors that made him a heavyweight in the Meiji government, according to Kazuhiro Takii, professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto.
In fact, Ito drafted the Meiji Constitution on his own after studying under Western scholars. Zumoto, for example, helped Ito communicate with Hermann Roesler, a German legal scholar who was invited to Japan by the government as an adviser on international law, Zumoto recalled.
Ito was also a keen and a regular reader of English-language books and newspapers.
“Duke Ito understood English very well. He always read The Times of London,” Zumoto was quoted as saying by journalist Kanesada Hanazono, a Japan Times staff writer who worked under Zumoto.
“He was a politician who knew very well how (state) propaganda should be,” Zumoto said.
When Ito resigned his second prime ministership in 1896, Zumoto left the government as well.
With assistance from Ito and many other intellectuals and business leaders, Zumoto then launched The Japan Times in 1897, the nation’s first English-language paper owned and run by Japanese.
“It is a remarkable and deplorable fact that after forty years of mutual association, His Majesty’s subjects and the foreign residents remain to this day virtual strangers to each other,” Zumoto wrote in the very first editorial of The Japan Times, titled “The ‘Raison d’Etre’ of The Japan Times.”
“And without an intimate acquaintance with its language and literature, how can an outsider rightly appreciate the spirit and motives of a people?” Zumoto asked.
“The real Japan has still to be revealed,” he argued, saying it is the reason The Japan Times was founded.
Matsunaga of Tokyo Keizai University praised Zumoto for creating The Japan Times as a place of communication between Japanese and non-Japanese in Japan and for promoting mutual understanding.
For example, early issues of The Japan Times often carried articles to help foreigners understand the various customs and social systems of Japan, such as its religious practices and its judicial and education systems.
Zumoto at the same time urged young Japanese students to learn more about current affairs at home and abroad and acquire English skills, in particular writing, so they could actively and directly communicate with foreign nationals.
After 120 years of working to improvement those communication skills, the Japanese, however, still have a ways to go to realize Zumoto’s vision.
However, Matsunaga, who has read numerous articles, editorials and books authored by Zumoto keenly feels that “there was a limit” to his capability as a writer.
“He was not a journalist who investigated something by himself and formed his own unique opinion. Rather, he himself was the medium” that mirrored nationalistic sentiment in Japan at the time and conveyed it to foreigners, Matsunaga said.
In fact, from the early days of his journalistic career, Zumoto, a patriot, consistently tried in English to justify the Japanese government’s diplomatic positions and advances into China and the Korean Peninsula in his articles and books.
In 1932, Zumoto published an English-language book passionately defending Japan’s aggression in Manchuria and the establishment of the Manchukuo puppet state, claiming that the 1931 Mukden Incident (also known as the Manchurian Incident) and the 1932 Shanghai Incident were both the result of Chinese actions and anti-Japanese elements.
But today, evidence shows both incidents were in fact secretly planned and staged by Imperial Japanese Army officers.
Zumoto’s book “Sino-Japanese Entanglements 1931-1932” was reprinted by the Naval and Military Press in 2014 and is still available on Amazon.
“This volume is a rarity indeed, being an English-language account of the opening stages of the conflict written by a Japanese author from an unashamedly pro-Japanese viewpoint,” the publisher’s introduction to the reprinted version reads.
“From the beginning to the end of his career, he keenly believed Japan was not ‘correctly understood’ by other countries, and then became something like an (unofficial) spokesman” for the Japanese government, Matsunaga said.
From the beginning, Zumoto served as the chief editorial writer at The Japan Times and later as its president from 1911 to 1914.
He died in 1943 at the age of 80 — two years before Japan’s surrender in World War II.
An exhibition looking back on the history of The Japan Times, which marked its 120th anniversary, is now being held at the Japan Newspaper Museum in Yokohama. The exhibition, titled “Japan Through the Lens of an English-language Newspaper,” runs through Dec. 24.