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Truth hurts: censorship in the media

Re-examining the role publishers played in leading the country to and through World War II

by

Staff Writer

“Truth, it has been said, is the first casualty of war.” — Philip Snowden, July 1916

In September 1945, less than a month after Japan’s surrender ending World War II and ushering in the U.S.-led Occupation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied powers, began cracking down on alleged Japanese war criminals. Over the next three months, hundreds of politicians, military men, bureaucrats and industrialists would be issued arrest warrants for their role in leading Japan to, and through, the war.

Among those who found themselves under suspicion as Class-A, -B, or -C war criminals were senior members of the press. One of the most notorious was Matsutaro Shoriki, owner of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

“He was one of the most important journalists who actively propagated the Axis cause before the war and energetically supported it through the war,” read a secret report on Shoriki compiled by Occupation officials when he was arrested on Dec. 12,, 1945.

“With the large circulation that his newspaper enjoyed, he ought to be regarded as one of the most evil influences in poisoning the public mind.”

Shoriki would serve only 21 months in prison before being released, as the Occupation’s early zeal for going after the country’s conservative and right-wing wartime leaders such as Shoriki gave way to a desire to work with them as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and communism in the new Cold War.

Yet Shoriki was hardly alone. Senior editors and producers working for the country’s major print and broadcast media also found themselves arrested or under suspicion in the early months of the Occupation, as the Allies looked to fix blame on the war’s most influential propagandists and ensure they would not hinder efforts to rebuild Japan. But the roots of Japan’s media problem ran deeper than most in SCAP realized.

Road to censorship

When Japan surrendered, the Asahi, Mainichi and Yomiuri newspapers, along with NHK radio, were the dominant news organizations and had long been subject to censorship. Government control of newspapers dated back to at least 1909, when the Diet passed the Newspaper Law, which restricted freedom of press.

As Gregory Kasza outlines in his 1988 book, “The State and the Mass Media in Japan: 1918-1945,” activities banned under the 1909 law included covering closed judicial and legislative meetings, printing the contents of government documents that had not been officially released, insulting the Emperor or agitating for the government to be overthrown. Anything that authorities might define as “subversive” to the public order, or was judged to be a threat to public manners or morals, also ran the risk of being censored.

This law formed the basis of future government efforts that would further restrict press freedom. For example, the 1925 Public Security Preservation Law (also known as the Peace Preservation Law) was aimed at punishing socialist or communist groups, and made it a crime for anyone to form an organization that challenged the national polity or the system of private property.

Following the 1931 Manchurian Incident, which would lead to war with China, the government once again intervened. In March 1933, partially to quell opposition to what the Imperial Japanese Army was doing in Manchuria, the Diet passed a resolution that urged all “radical” ideas to be suppressed.

For NHK, which began radio broadcasts in 1925, a key year was 1934 when the government decided the broadcaster’s local stations had too much autonomy. NHK branches at the time sometimes saw news in ways that were too different from the official line heard in Tokyo. Thus, the Communications Ministry forced NHK to centralize its operations in the Tokyo head office, which could now control content for the entire country.

“Programming would not simply flatter popular desires but would promote the ‘Japanese spirit’ and provide leadership,” Kasza writes, paraphrasing the statement of a ministry official.

The Communications Ministry also took charge of the hiring and firing at NHK. Ex-bureaucrats, many of whom often had little or no understanding of radio, were appointed to high-level posts at the broadcaster.

This would lead to an inside joke that the ideal NHK executive was a “three tei man.” First, he was a graduate of a university such as Tokyo University, a tei-koku daigaku, or “Imperial university.” Second, he was somebody who had worked in the Tei-shinsho (Communications Ministry). And, third, he was a tei-no — an imbecile.

Japanese media scholars point to a number of laws passed in the late 1930s that removed the final barriers to media censorship — in particular, the 1938 National Mobilization Law, which was drafted in response to the July 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident near Beijing, an event that had led to full-scale war between Japan and China.

The law strengthened government control over private organizations, especially the media. Despite protests by some Diet members that it was unconstitutional, the law passed in 1938 under strong pressure from the Cabinet and with concerns, very real at the time, that the military might overthrow the government, as had almost happened during the Feb. 26, 1936, incident in which young military officers tried to stage a coup d’etat.

“The National Mobilization Law was the pivotal moment in the history of the Japanese media,” says Kaori Hayashi, a media scholar at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies. “It became the source of power for all the existing media players, including broadcasting stations, because it excluded new players from the (media) industry, and made the kisha (press) club system that exists today legitimate.”

Final consolidation

From the spring of 1938, the move toward more government control of the media accelerated. A few months after the National Mobilization Law, the Home Ministry banned reports that conflicted with the government’s China policy. Furthermore, letters to the editor would be more carefully scrutinized. None that were judged to weaken public resolve would be printed. Nor were newspapers allowed to print letters from soldiers or the families of soldiers in China who faced problems. Building upon the morality clause in the 1909 Newspaper Law, the government also frowned upon articles that introduced “gaudy new fashions” or “frivolous tastes.”

With so many new laws and regulations to possibly run afoul of, and never entirely sure what would pass the censor, major media organs and the government had, by the early 1940s, developed a system of consultation and cooperation. Senior editors would meet with government officials to not only receive legally enforceable directives on what they could and could not print but also “advice” on how to spin the news in a way that would pass the censor and avoid the financial costs — and possible legal action — that would result in newspapers violating government press directives.

By then, there were far fewer voices of dissent in the media to oppose these efforts at control.

“In addition to the state’s legal controls, the continual ‘consultations’ with media people enabled the government to censor material before publication and to blacklist writers,” Kasza said in an e-mail to The Japan Times. “By the late 1930s, many of those banished from the media world had been mainstream rather than radical intellectuals, and this sent a clear message to those who remained active. Media people who wanted to continue resistance were relatively few.”

Over 1940 and 1941, consolidation of the media under government supervision was largely completed. In early 1941, the Cabinet Information Bureau, which would emerge as the most powerful government authority in terms of media control, issued a directive after consultations with major newspapers such as the Yomiuri, Asahi and Mainichi that banned the publication of state secrets.

Further orders were given to the media to play up government attempts to resolve the war in China (or the “China Incident” as it was referred to). On the home front, reports and editors were forbidden to be overly critical of Diet members. By then, Kasza writes in his book, Cabinet Information Bureau officials were holding constant briefings at the Diet, where bureaucrats would first attend the Diet sessions and then sit in on meetings with editors where they would tell the media what was banned, what they would not like published, and how the papers might spin particular stories to avoid censorship.

The result would be little more than propaganda about war, virtually all of it false. In the months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the media could cheerlead for the navy’s advances in the South Pacific (even as the “China Incident” continued to drag on). However, Japan’s defeat at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 was hushed up, as were subsequent defeats as the tide of war turned.

This was not to say the media themselves were always in the dark about what was really going on, although clandestine efforts to learn the truth were necessary. One the more famous stories of attempts to learn from the outside world the truth of what was happening is that of Mainichi Shimbun’s “Women’s Toilet Press.”

Not long after Pearl Harbor, the women’s toilet in the paper’s headquarters was renovated, which included soundproofing. On the assumption the men in the police and military would not embarrass themselves by searching a woman’s toilet, enterprising journalists hid a shortwave radio there to secretly — and illegally — receive overseas broadcasts.

Over the course of the war, the radio picked up broadcasts from numerous countries, including the United States. It was via this source that Mainichi journalists learned about (but could not report directly on) Japan’s defeats in the Pacific War after 1942, the collapse and surrender of its ally Germany in May 1945 and then, in July 1945, the Potsdam Declaration that called for Japan’s unconditional surrender.

Censorship continues

The end of the war brought with it the American-led Occupation and an often sincere, if sometimes naive, belief on the part of Occupation officials they could fundamentally remake Japan. “Democracy” was the buzzword in the first months after the war. As the Japanese media learned, however, that did not necessarily mean they were free to report on whatever they wished.

In William Coughlin’s definitive 1952 book on Occupation policy toward the media, “Conquered Press: The MacArthur Era in Japanese Journalism,” the author notes that MacArthur had a contentious relationship with the Japanese and foreign media. What could be printed (or broadcast on the radio) under Occupation authority was often decided in an arbitrary manner.

“The application of censorship rules was so confusing and difficult that most large Japanese newspapers set up permanent ‘censorship desks’ at which they posted experts who were expected to keep informed on the latest interpretation of the rules by Supreme Headquarters,” Coughlin writes.

While domestic reports were targeted for censorship, SCAP officials were particularly anxious to keep out foreign media reports that were critical about what was happening in Japan. U.S. Col. Donald Hoover, chief of censorship, said on Nov. 3, 1945 that there were four types of foreign media stories that would not be allowed to be reported in Japan.

These included, Coughlin writes, attempts to build up offenses by American troops into anything resembling a “crime wave,” any attacks in editorials or reports from the U.S. to Japan that might undermine Japanese confidence in the Occupation, blatantly false statements and anything that encouraged militarism.

Censorship would continue throughout the Occupation. By 1948, however, liberal idealists who’d arrived in the autumn of 1945 had all departed, replaced by those concerned with the looming Cold War and keeping militant unions, leftists and socialists out of power — and especially out of the media. Those who had been arrested on suspicion of being war criminals in 1945 were out of jail by 1948 and America’s new allies in the struggle against communism.

The change in priorities suited Japanese media owners who were anxious to curb the power of the unions, and they saw the advantages of issuing their own directives in line with SCAP’s attitude. On March 16, 1948, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association cracked down on printers unions and reporters who reported in a way that “damaged editorial fairness” or didn’t follow editorial policy as laid down by management.

“Reporters were virtually deprived of their freedom, and ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ became god-like terms for Japanese reporters,” Tokyo University’s Hayashi says.

When the Occupation ended in 1951 with the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan’s media would consist of all of the prewar daily newspapers as well as NHK and, not long afterward, commercial television stations. With the Americans gone, Japan’s media faced fewer legal restraints than at any time since, arguably, the 1909 newspaper law. However, as postwar developments would come to show, the media, like Japan itself, would retain certain prewar habits, customs and political arrangements that, if nothing else, ensured their own survival and prosperity.


Government ban on foreign loanwords forced The Japan Times to change its name in 1943

Strict control of the press during wartime Japan also extended to the realm of English-language newspapers, and particularly to The Japan Times, after its English competitors were incorporated into the paper.

The decision to continue publishing one English-language paper during the war years was made for several reasons. First, it was a source of information for citizens of friendly or neutral countries who remained in Japan during the war years. Second, it was a way for the Japanese government and the Foreign Ministry to speak to the outside world.

“There were liberal circles at both The Japan Times and the Foreign Ministry who wanted to show the world Japan was not being run by a bunch of fanatics,” says Peter O’Connor, an expert on the history of English newspapers in Japan and Asia who teaches at Musashino University and Waseda SILS in Tokyo.

The paper’s exact positions on any given issue weren’t always clear, though it did operate under government control. However, it was not restricted: It was sold at venues other than foreign embassies in Tokyo. According to O’Connor, it could also be purchased in kiosks and international hotels by anyone, without having to register with the government or receiving special permission.

This is somewhat ironic given official attempts to ban the public use of English. Mark Irwin, a linguistic scholar at Yamagata University who has written on wartime crackdowns on English, says that between 1940 and 1945, English was declared a tekiseigo (combatant language) or a tekikokugo (language of an enemy nation).

What this meant in practice was that many English loanwords were replaced with more “Japanese” words. For example, entertainers were no longer allowed to use “bizarre stage names, including those containing English” because they were “fostering the vice of foreigner worship.”

English signs at more than 4,000 train stations were removed, sales of records and songs with English titles or lyrics were prohibited, and bars and restaurants in the Ginza were not allowed to have “European-like” names.

Of course, the “Japan” Times became the “Nippon” Times in 1943, because “Japan” was, after all, an English name.

  • Oliver_K_Manuel

    Truth is now the only way for the world’s deeply troubled society to regain sanity.

  • Oliver_K_Manuel

    Reality revealed by experimentation and observation bears a truly remarkable resemblance to the GOD revealed by prayer, contemplation and meditation,

    and TRUTH is revealed even if public funds are futilely squandered to hide TRUTH.

  • Nancy Snow

    Excellent piece. It would make a great book subject too!

  • DA

    Great piece! Thanks, Eric. More of the same please.