Japan is a nation of children who were led astray by their military, re-educated under the benevolence of the United States, and rose to become America’s important ally. It became a nation of salaried men and office ladies gaining, for a few brief years, through international trade what it had failed to gain by military might before descending into a lost decade of economic woe and social chaos.

That, in broad strokes, is the U.S. media’s narrative of postwar Japan. The Japanese media’s account of the U.S. in the past half-century, meanwhile, goes something like this:

The United States was a nation of military and economic might that became Japan’s major trading partner after the war and chief source of cultural influence. After the Vietnam War, though, America became full of lazy workers who got jealous that Japanese made better consumer electronics products. Then, the U.S. developed the Internet and a high-tech bubble economy which has collapsed. Meanwhile, U.S. troops are still in Okinawa, although they rape women and commit too many crimes.

While the views on both sides are oversimplified and incomplete, they reflect underlying beliefs and assumptions on both sides that many reporters and editors held — and continue to hold.

In Japan, the media of both countries really only began to enjoy true editorial independence when the U.S.-led Occupation ended in 1952. In the immediate postwar years, Japanese and American reporters alike toiled under strict censorship.

William J. Coughlin, author of “Conquered Press,” an account of journalism during that era, writes that Japanese journalists faced American censors who cut stories they saw as critical of the Occupation policies or of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.

Although Japanese newspapers reached the point where they set up their own censorship bureaus to oversee their copy, much of what ended up being cut came not from Japan but America.

Associated Press wire stories about worsening U.S. relations with Russia and articles in The New York Times about clashes between Chinese Nationalist and communist troops were just two examples of news that the Americans saw as unfit for Japanese consumption.

Nor was it only Japanese journalists who had to contend with Occupation censors. American journalists who arrived in Tokyo had to run the gauntlet of military censorship as well. The tactics of the American military so angered them that they set up the Tokyo Correspondents Club, later to become the Foreign Correspondents Club, partially to counter such bullying.

When the Occupation ended, so did the censorship. The U.S. became the most important overseas destination for Japanese journalists, while Japan became a base of operations to the rest of Asia for American journalists.

American media reports treated Japan primarily as a military ally until the late 1960s, when trade issues, notably textiles, began taking up more space. At about the same time, Life magazine photographer Eugene Smith’s devastating photographs of the Minamata victims — stricken by the degenerative disease caused by mercury poisoning — showed Americans some of the human costs of Japan’s race to industrialize.

It has been over the past two decades, though, that an increase in the amount of bilateral media attention and widely diverging views have been seen.

For the U.S. media, Japan in the 1980s was a predatory economy bent on conquering the world.

The Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows wrote an article in 1987, titled “Containing Japan,” which revived memories of Soviet expansionism, while Dutch journalist Karl van Wolfren warned that Japanese power was so diffuse as to be unaccountable.

Charles Burress, a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle who has researched and written extensively on U.S. media perceptions of Japan, notes that, beginning in the 1980s, the tone of U.S. coverage of Japan became more alarmist.

“My impression is the view that Japan was trying to accomplish economically what it failed to do militarily began to color U.S. news coverage of Japan in the early 1980s,” Burress said.

U.S. academics and diplomats have used a variety of expressions to trace U.S. interest in Japan over the past decade, including “from Japan bashing to Japan passing.” With the economy in the doldrums, much of the nonbusiness U.S. coverage over the past few years has turned to issues related to Japan’s wartime history.

“After the U.S.-Japan auto dispute in 1995, I believe the tone of the coverage changed from portrayals dominated by images of Japan as a devious enemy to images of Japan as a pitifully backward society in a modern guise,” Burress said.

“Over the past couple of years, the worst examples of coverage I’ve seen have to do with World War II-related issues. Some of the stories about Japan’s wartime responsibilities read more like briefs for the prosecution than even-handed works of journalism.”

He added, however, that compared with 10 or 20 years ago, there was less bias overall in U.S. reporting on Japan.

Meanwhile, Japanese news coverage of the U.S. has expanded compared with what it was during the 1950s and 1960s, according to Kansai University professor Hiroshi Inoue, who has studied Japanese media trends.

The U.S. remains the most important source of overseas news, especially economic news. But there is a relative dearth of news about U.S. society in the mainstream Japanese media.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, we saw a lot of news on the U.S. economy, and trade statistics were often given front page play,” he said. “In the late 1980s, trade frictions were often the only stories about the U.S., while some commentators spoke about the rise of Japan and the decline of the U.S.”

A fundamental problem, Inoue said, is that the mainstream media have often failed to offer a nuanced view of the U.S.

“The primary emphasis of Japanese reporting on the U.S. over the past half-century has been on straight political or economic news, and too many Japanese journalists are based in Washington or New York,” Inoue said. “We get an incomplete picture of American society and culture.

“Japanese reporters tend to focus on America only if there is a Japan connection. Coverage of (baseball player) Ichiro (Suzuki) is extensive, but there is not a whole lot of coverage about American baseball. What’s lacking is objective reporting on what Ichiro’s success means for the future of baseball on both sides of the Pacific.”

This tendency to emphasize the local angle at the expense of comprehensive coverage provides evidence for the argument that, if all politics are local, so too are media — at least as far as Japan and the U.S. media are concerned.

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