Japan has been a magnet for foreign writers and journalists since opening to the West.

One of the first was a Harpers Magazine reporter named Lafcadio Hearn. He arrived on Japan’s shores in 1890 and devoted his life to describing the strange and exotic land for English readers abroad.

Over the 115 years since, there has been no shortage of foreign writers trying to do the same. But unfortunately for today’s would-be Hearns, the Japan correspondent’s role is not what it used to be. Nor is Japan quite as new or as strange (to the West) as it was.

Nowadays, news from Japan struggles to find column space and Tokyo bureaus are upping sticks for China.

Still, it’s not all bad news for Japan-based journalists. While work for foreign publications may be harder to find, some foreign journalists have instead been writing for the domestic Japanese press. And occasionally, it seems, their foreignness can be a help.

When Australian Deborah Hodgson, a reporter for the Japanese edition of Newsweek, was assigned to a story on young Korean Japanese, being a foreigner may have helped her broach sensitive subjects, she says.

At one point she asked young Korean Japanese about their views on accepting blood from Japanese donors.

“I had no real worry about offending them. I don’t think a Japanese person could have really got away with asking that without getting their head bitten off or feeling very uncomfortable.”

The Japanese-language Newsweek was first published in 1986 as essentially a translated version of its U.S. parent.

Since then, the magazine has increased the number of original articles to around 30 percent, using its foreign perspective to cover topics such as immigration into Japan, racial discrimination and comparisons between the Japanese press club system and press freedom in other countries.

Although it shares stories and journalists with the U.S. Newsweek, it is owned by a Japanese firm, Hankyu Communications. The magazine employs both Japanese and foreign writers.

All Newsweek’s local editions, including Newsweek Japan, are dropping “universal stories” published in all editions in favor of more stories specifically targeted at their particular readerships, says editor Keigo Takeda.

When Newsweek Japan started, foreign newspapers took days just to arrive in Japan. Then, the magazine’s role was simply to translate and relay foreign news, particularly about how the world viewed Japan. What is more important now, says Takeda, is to provide viewpoints that differ from the Japanese media consensus. After all, if readers just want foreign news, with a little English ability they can get it off the Web instantly.

“What Newsweek Japan is doing now is bringing differences of perspective (to the reader).” The magazine has shifted from relaying foreign news to relaying foreign perspectives through its non-Japanese journalists.

As one writer, Dana Lewis, puts it, the magazine is an “outside insider.”

“We write for the Japanese public, yet we have this identity that is also non-Japanese.”

In a way, the “foreign” magazine Newsweek Japan does as a magazine what Japan-based foreign writers have always done. They look at Japanese society from a foreigner’s perspective, offering an outsider’s admiration or criticism. Then their observations can be translated and recycled back for a Japanese audience. All part of a long-standing interest — some might say obsession — Japan has with what the world thinks about it.

“There are magazines everywhere which will invite a foreign correspondent or locally based writer to sit down and talk about Japan,” notes veteran Japan-based journalist, Mark Schreiber.

But he points out there is a big difference between being a commentator on Japan and being a reporter researching and writing in Japanese.

One foreigner who does the latter is Benjamin Fulford, an author and freelance journalist who has written for both Japanese weekly magazines and foreign publications.

Fulford says he pitches articles to Japanese magazines that many Japanese journalists will not, or cannot, cover.

“The big taboos are ‘burakumin’ (Japan’s former outcast class), the Imperial Family, yakuza, negative stuff about big corporations — any sort of corruption or big scandal that is not being investigated by the police,” he says.

“It is safer to say it through me,” says Fulford. “I have been told many times that if I was Japanese I would have been killed already.”

During 20 years in Japan, Fulford, who is from Canada, has built a reciprocal relationship with the Japanese media that can provide useful leads, sometimes entire stories. “They come to you with a story — ‘We can’t write it, but if you run it, we will follow through.’ ”

Foreign journalists can sometimes play the role of a “Judas goat,” says Schreiber. “They run with stuff that Japanese (journalists) give them.” The more sensitive the topic, the more likely it is to go to a foreign journalist, even a publication overseas.

Indeed, several huge stories on the Japanese Imperial Family have already been broken this way.

But Fulford believes that, on the whole, the Japanese media has become less free than it was. “The lawsuits and the harassment have whittled down (Japanese journalists’) will to speak the truth.” On the other hand, he notes, there are more opportunities for foreign journalists now to work in the Japanese media, perhaps even to cover stories Japanese journalists can’t or won’t touch.

Another foreigner working right within the hurly-burly of the Japanese media is TV “tarento” Dave Spector. An American-born long-term resident of Japan, he appears on no fewer than eight shows a week, and is one of the most familiar foreign faces on Japanese TV.

“There is a tradition of using foreigners here that goes back since the beginning of the media,” Spector notes. Native English speakers have long found work in the Japanese media; they monitor news from abroad then prepare and present it for Japanese audiences.

Like other foreigners in the Japanese media, Spector has sometimes found that his foreignness can work to his advantage. He was one of the first people on Japanese TV to use the term “North Korea” (“kita chosen”) rather than “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

“It’s just easier for a gaijin to say certain things,” he says. His (relative) neutrality as an American may have helped him avoid protest from DPR supporters in Japan.

Unlike Fulford, Spector doesn’t believe that the media is getting less free, and points to the number of libel cases the media suffer as evidence of chances they take.

“The media gets bashed all the time in Japan,” he argues. “I don’t see that people have kid gloves on.”

Foreign writers, too, find they can criticize Japan without immediately being dismissed as Japan-bashers, argues Fulford. “In the old days they would have called anything negative said by foreigners Japan-bashing. Now they know that it is LDP-bashing, bureaucrat-bashing. It’s not Japan-bashing.”

Japanese readers and audiences seem to be more open than ever to reporting and opinion from foreign journalists, positive or negative.

Many foreigners who have found work with Japanese media readily admit that they are employed for their foreign perspective.

Yet these days many can also boast that they do essentially the same work as their Japanese colleagues — apart from, perhaps, an extra freedom they have to report what they want.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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