Many journalism scholars have long viewed The Japan Times as a mouthpiece for the Imperial government’s wartime propaganda.

But Tomoko Matsunaga, a Kyoto University graduate student, challenged the established view in an academic paper she presented June 12 to the Japan Society for Studies in Journalism and Mass Communication.

According to Matsunaga, 26, a media studies student, a detailed analysis of wartime articles showed that the country’s oldest English-language daily didn’t only publish Foreign Ministry propaganda — it also printed a range of viewpoints from articles in domestic periodicals and letters from the paper’s readers.

Matsunaga argued that it is misleading to simply view the newspaper as a state mouthpiece, and stressed that its wide-ranging coverage was possible because the paper is published in English.

“Previous studies (of The Japan Times) focused mainly on what the editorials said, but I believe it’s also important to consider who the readers were and what the paper meant for them,” to grasp the wider role it played, Matsunaga said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

In her paper, titled “The Public Sphere in English-language newspapers in Japan, 1931-1945,” Matsunaga analyzed how the so-called Asama Incident, an international maritime flare-up involving the U.K., Germany and Japan, was reported by The Japan Times compared with other domestic newspapers.

The case concerned an inspection of the Japanese passenger liner Asama Maru by the Liverpool, a Royal Navy warship, on the high seas near the Boso Peninsula, Chiba Prefecture, on Jan. 21, 1940. Britain was already at war with Germany, and its navy took prisoner 21 Germans on board the Japanese vessel, which was headed to Yokohama from Honolulu.

The prisoners included military officers and reserves. At the time, Japan was maintaining a neutral position toward both countries.

“This incident took place in January 1940, and that September, Japan, Germany and Italy formed (the Axis) alliance. So, it was a very delicate time. The Imperial army was leaning toward Germany, while the Foreign Ministry still wanted to maintain a good relationship with the U.K.,” Matsunaga said.

The incident reflected different interpretations of international law, or more specifically, who could be taken prisoner on the high seas among passengers aboard a vessel from a neutral country, she said.

Britain’s position was reserve troops could be taken prisoner, but Japan believed this only applied to service members on active duty. But each side’s interpretation was subjective and lacked firm legal backing, Matsunaga explained.

Soon after the incident, domestic newspapers harshly criticized the U.K. for taking the Germans and fueled hostility among the public, who increasingly saw the British as an enemy.

At the time, The Japan Times printed daily translations of editorials in domestic newspapers, so its foreign readership was made aware of the public’s growing hostility, Matsunaga noted.

While The Japan Times in its own editorial criticized the British action as illegal and humiliating for Japan, it also said the government would maintain a neutral stance and was far less hostile than other domestic dailies, she observed.

The paper also printed readers’ letters almost on a daily basis. Among the 13 letters referring to the incident, Matsunaga found that eight were sent by British nationals or readers who supported the U.K., and five were submitted either by German readers or those who supported Germany. One of the British letters was by Lewis Bush, an English teacher and translator who became a columnist for The Japan Times after the war, she said.

By this time, the Japanese government had already banned domestic newspapers from printing material critical of Germany. Although The Japan Times carried government propaganda, it also printed a range of opinions as it promoted itself as a paper that “respects freedom of speech,” Matsunaga noted.

The paper served as an outlet for British readers to voice their opinions, while at the same time Germans also used the daily to attack the U.K. because there was no domestic German-language newspaper, Matsunaga observed.

This indicates that while The Japan Times presented the government’s position, it also served as a channel for public opinion and the voices of foreign nationals, she argued.

“It was actually through the readers’ letters that I discovered the significance of this incident,” Matsunaga said. “They were constantly referring to the Asama Maru, and I became curious and looked into it. And it was really fascinating.”

English newspapers published in Japan have not been the subject of extensive research, largely because of their small readership, experts say. As The Japan Time’s circulation stood at about 7,000 during the 1930s and ’40s, academics have traditionally viewed the paper’s influence as limited and therefore insignificant.

Matsunaga developed an interest in The Japan Times while writing her undergraduate thesis on Motosada Zumoto, who launched The Japan Times in 1897.

Zumoto, who was also an educator, believed that for Japan’s influence to grow in the international community, it was necessary for Japanese to learn to express themselves in English to present the country’s viewpoint and culture. His idea was unique at a time when Japan’s drive to gain knowledge from overseas made understanding and translating foreign languages into Japanese the priority, Matsunaga said.

“I thought it was fascinating that the things Zumoto said are still applicable (more than) 110 years later,” she said. But even though The Japan Times was a means for such expression, that didn’t mean everybody could use it, as the education system at the time didn’t support his theory and focused on comprehension, she said, adding the situation remains the same even today.

Her study of Zumoto led her to view The Japan Times as not just a wartime propaganda outlet, and she began to research the paper’s content more closely.

Zumoto’s ideas also resonated with her own aspiration to communicate in English with people overseas. At age 11, Matsunaga spent a month at a camp in England organized by the Children’s International Summer Villages, and met kids from nine different countries. She loved explaining Japanese culture to the other children, she said.

“That was the first time I thought it was really important for us to communicate with others about Japan,” she said.

Based on her historical analysis of the The Japan Times, Matsunaga said it is crucial the daily continues running stories from an objective standpoint when a major event such as the March 11 disasters and Fukushima nuclear crisis occur.

“It’s not easy to act as a channel when a major news story breaks, but it’s possible if you are already acting as a window,” she said.

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