Looking back on a ‘rudderless’ land


In the four years since Howard French took the helm as The New York Times’ Tokyo bureau chief, he has witnessed — and covered — the rise of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the fall of his former foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, the scandalous accident at the uranium-processing facility in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, and the historic summit between Japan and North Korea last September.

Now at the end of his Japan posting, the 45-year-old correspondent is preparing to turn his attention to matters on the Asian mainland. In August, French, who has an Ivoirian wife and two teenage sons, will move to Shanghai to join his New York Times colleagues in Beijing and Hong Kong in reporting on the emerging modern giant that is China.

French — an imposing figure at 193 cm — brings more than two decades of journalistic experience to his writing about East Asia. After earning a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Massachusetts in 1979, French spent the early 1980s filing stories to The Washington Post, The Economist and other publications as a stringer in Africa. He then worked as a metro reporter for The New York Times for 3 1/2 years before being sent by the paper to Central America. Since that time, his stories have carried datelines from South America, the Caribbean, many countries in Africa, Japan and the Koreas. He was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1998 for his coverage of Africa, and won an Overseas Press Club award that year for the same. In March, French’s first solo book effort, “A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa,” will be published by Alfred A. Knopf.

On the eve of his departure, The Japan Times asked French to share his thoughts on this country . . . and the crisis rocking his newspaper back in New York.

Is Japan a story anymore?

I think the answer is self-evident. There continue to be a large number of foreign correspondents here and Japan stories appear frequently and still relatively prominently in the world’s press.

Japan is not the story it once was. News tends to be a negative business, where the biggest news is bad news and things driven by bad news — pain, war, suffering or fear. Japan was a considerably bigger news story at the height of the bubble, when fear was driving a lot of the coverage.

(There was a) very ethnocentric, narrow, almost racist feeling that this “yellow nation” was about to take over. Back then, much of the coverage was colorful illustration of this fear that made its way often to the front pages of the major newspapers of the world. Japan doesn’t enjoy that kind of competitive success any more, so for the very same ethnocentric reasons that made it a big news story, it has shrunk as a news story.

Also, Japan is a country that does not produce drama very often, of any kind. It is a country that has not undergone rapid, obvious social change, or political change or economic change. I think there are important changes under way here but they are often not of the kind that lend themselves to easy, quick-brush treatment in newspaper articles.

What is your prognosis for the Japanese economy and its political world?

The cliche is that Japan, as a society, doesn’t make interim adjustments well but adjusts astoundingly well in times of major crisis. I’m not sure how well that cliche holds up, and even less sure how good a predictor it is of the future. But I do have a feeling that Japan as a nation is coasting, that it’s a society that has achieved its major postwar goal of catching up with the West — even surpassed it in many ways — and now is rudderless.

People are temporizing; there’s no sense of urgency. Koizumi came in talking a big game and has basically spun his wheels for the past years. He retains fairly decent popularity because, A: There’s no obvious alternative; and B: People are not really clamoring for radical change.

You’re on record as saying the Japanese press plays a role in subduing debate on issues of national importance. Would you elaborate?

I think that the Japanese press has fallen into a trap of coziness with the government and with authority that has led to atrophy, that has led to a real confusion of roles and almost a perversion of roles.

A Japanese newspaper came to interview me the other day about kisha (press) clubs and the question was, “What do you think of the assertion by the Shinbun Kyokai (The Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association) that kisha clubs are required in Japan because the bureaucracy is so powerful that unless the media band together they will be powerless to carry out any vigorous role?”

My answer was just the opposite: There is no evidence — that I’m aware of — that the press has combined its forces to attack or to challenge any perceived overwhelming power on the part of the government or bureaucracy. There is no attack on the government, no concerted criticism that I’m aware of, by the press. If there was a feeling on the part of the press that the government and bureaucracy were too powerful, why aren’t they going to the roots of the problem and demanding — in a concerted fashion, since they’ve agreed to band together — that there should be far more vigorous freedom of information, that there should be far more accountability at every level of government and society? There’s no demand like that.

What we have instead is a system of “footsie,” where each party has settled into a very comfortable role and is driven by the feeling on the part of the press that they and the bureaucrats are all part of the same elite, and as part of the same elite they’ve got to understand each other, to sympathize and corroborate. That’s inimical to crusading, to muckraking, to investigation. It’s all about coziness. And the best proof of this is that the newspapers who say they have to band together in the kisha club in order to defend themselves against the overwhelming power of the government turn around and say we can’t allow shukanshi (weekly papers) or free-lancers into the kisha club. The problem is, those outsiders might really decide to compete, rather than everyone agreeing according to some hidden, universally understood rules that say every newspaper should basically have the same story. The weeklies and free-lancers might decide to muckrake a little bit, so they have to be kept out at any price. It’s all about protecting that coziness.

Would you care to cite an example of collusive whitewashing by the Japanese press?

I’ve watched on as in one big story after another, from the Tokaimura nuclear accident, to the North Korea kidnapping incident, to the Resona Bank nationalization, how the government has spoon-fed the press, and the media has expended very little energy challenging the assumptions of government policy, or even the veracity of the government’s account of things.

Nuclear energy is treated with kid gloves because the government says Japan is an energy-vulnerable country. End of argument, even amid scary accidents and horrible economic costs.

The government’s theatrical explanations of Koizumi’s North Korean visit are accepted hook line and sinker. No one, or very nearly no one, asks if it is plausible, (as) the official story has it, that the prime minister could visit Pyongyang, not knowing in advance whether Japan’s kidnappees were dead or alive. More surprising, still, is how the fate of a small number of Japanese citizens came to trump overarching questions of national security for Japan. In other words, how could bilateral discussions come to focus overwhelmingly on abductees in a situation where Japan is potentially vulnerable to missile strikes and nuclear attack from the North?

How would you compare Japan’s approach to radical change with that in other places you’ve lived?

Well, the best comparison is Korea, right next door, where I go quite frequently to report. Korea has not plateaued by any means. It has not achieved the same kind of wealth that Japan has, but it has a similar record of extraordinary postwar growth. The Koreans are hungry. They’re in a hurry. They measure themselves against Japan compulsively and they want to be better than Japan, just as Japan measured itself against the West. Perhaps, if and when Korea reaches that plateau, Korea will mark a pause for a while just as Japan has for 12 years. Perhaps, though, there is something very different in the culture that makes Koreans more driven in an ongoing way than Japanese are.

Certainly, Korea’s response to the Asian economic crisis was far more dramatic than Japan’s responses have been to this country’s economic woes. The Koreans still have obvious structural problems in their economy, but they were willing to look at their problems with a degree of forthrightness and get busy to fix things with an energy and a willingness to accept pain and an openness to discussion of the contradictions in society that I have not seen in Japan during the four years that I have been here. This feature seems to set the two societies apart quite distinctly.

There is a notion that Japan has fallen out of step with the rest of the world. Japanese don’t speak English as well as other Asians; the justice system is said to be antiquated. When do you see Japan catching up in such areas?

This is something that Japan has wrestled with almost eternally: What degree of openness to the outside world is appropriate? Their own feelings of uniqueness are very important to them (and are) often exaggerated. Nihoncha is actually Chinese tea. Go is actually a Chinese game. Things that are thought of typically by your everyday Japanese person as quintessentially Japanese are often . . . not really Japanese. (Still,) this points to what I think is an ingenious element of Japanese culture: the ability to adopt things and make them into their own. The question is whether Japan is doing this quickly enough and dynamically enough right now. And I tend to think that the country’s self-satisfaction in the wake of its achievement of this historic postwar goal of catching up with the West has attenuated the country’s process of absorption and adoption of the better influences from the outside world.

Japan needs to open its universities to foreign talent much more dramatically. Japan needs to reabsorb its own citizens who go overseas to study, and most particularly women; it needs to embrace them and their talents because they went overseas and picked up a lot of techniques, learning and experience that just weren’t available in Japan. Japan has proven very poor at that.

Japan’s medical establishment, the legal establishment, any important sector could benefit from what the French call brassage, which means the mixing in of outside influences, stirring the pot with new ingredients, enriching the basic broth that is Japanese society today. But if you feel very happy with yourself, it’s difficult to accept that. The threat of pollution outweighs the benefit of improvement.

There has been change in some areas, notably in the area of national security following the Sept. 11 attacks. What is your interpretation of that development?

I’m very nervous about the changes. My problem is not primarily with the substance of decisions on things like the national security laws that have been introduced. It’s that the country’s leadership is engineering fundamental and dramatic changes like these with hardly any debate.

It’s not simply by accident that there hasn’t been a debate. It’s not simply because the Japanese people are sheep that there hasn’t been a debate. It’s because there is a style of government here — a government by indirection, a government by feints and hidden moves and backdoor deals and invisible consensus formation among a very select elite that believes the people have no business discussing vital matters like these. It believes that involving the people would simply invite confusion — which is a famous Japanese way of describing this sort of stuff. I think that to behave this way is ultimately destructive of Japan’s claim to democracy.

I have no problem with Japan’s having its own defense, providing it’s done within the ambit of a democratic, vigorous discussion. That gives you confidence in the responsibility of the nation and the people. But when you do it in a slimy, sneaky, surreptitious way, one is left with all kinds of worries about just how badly things could go in this country if a serious crisis were to arise.

Why? Couldn’t things go very smoothly precisely because there is a select elite making all the decisions?

Narrow, self-enclosed groups don’t reliably make good decisions over time. They’re unchecked. They reflect and self-reinforce their own perversions and biases and, as an example of this, one can examine the various security laws and how they treat the question of personal privacy. One can wonder what would happen to ethnic minorities here in times of crisis and whether we wouldn’t have a repeat of what happened to Koreans during the great earthquake. Some people might think fears like these are exaggerated, but when vigorous, open discussion and debate are treated like expendable niceties, then one assumes that in a crunch human rights and civil rights for minorities, and any number of other vital concerns, could also be dismissed as niceties.

Finally, with The New York Times in something of a crisis over its former reporter Jayson Blair, how do you, as a fellow African-American journalist, feel about what is happening?

There have been good and bad effects from the Jayson Blair thing. The good thing is that people’s feelings are out in the open now, that a lot of people who have harbored resentment over affirmative action have sprung up to voice these resentments because they felt the Jayson Blair incident gave them an appropriate pretext for doing so. The bad side of it is that journalists of color everywhere have just had reinforced what many of us have endured from the very beginnings of our careers — a perception, usually an entirely unfair perception, that somehow we got some kind of undeserved boost in our careers because of our racial backgrounds. It should be noted that although The New York Times’ owners and senior managers have a long record of speaking strongly in favor of diversity, that The New York Times even today remains an unusually undiverse place. This basic fact alone should have been enough to give pause to those so eager to decry affirmative action.

Do you feel personally wounded by Jayson Blair?

I’m saddened. But in no personal sense do I feel implicated, whatsoever. If somebody wants to think that among the very small number of black reporters at The New York Times — or any other major newspaper in the United States — that person X, Y or Z got to where he was simply because he was black, it’s simply not worth arguing with that person. I know that I have to get up every day and produce. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I have never had any other feeling other than I’m being judged on that basis by those who matter.