In an 1937 article from the journal Far Eastern Survey, I saw The Japan Times described as a “Foreign Office organ.” There is no mention on the Japan Times’ own history timeline they had ever been anything other than an independent media organization, but a quick Google search turned up this article on the very topic from the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. The following paragraph summarizes the questions discussed in this article.
Here’s what we need to know about The Japan Times: How close was the paper to official Japan, and to what extent did it serve as a mouthpiece of the Japanese government (in itself neither unusual nor categorically inadvisable at times of international tension)? Closely connected to these questions is a third: Were The Japan Times’ acquisitions in October and December 1940 of Japan’s two best-known English-language newspapers, The Japan Advertiser and The Japan Chronicle, motivated purely by the desire for total media control and the need to speak with one voice through one conduit to the Western world, or were other plans afoot? A fourth, more speculative, question is whether The Japan Times could have served a more temperate purpose during the crisis in U.S.-Japan negotiations in 1940-41.
The author discusses the perennial problem of where to draw the line between journalists’ access to government officials and inappropriate cooperation or agreement with them – an issue recently being discussed with great frequency in the United States following various scandals – and concludes that “the reputation of The Japan Times as an official mouthpiece may well have been earned in its early years, but it was less deserved in early Showa, when most other newspapers not only took their lead from government sources but zealously exceeded official enthusiasm for expansion in East Asia and for the cause of ‘Holy War.’ ” This statement includes the period of time – 1937 – in which the reference I discussed at the beginning of the post was published.
On the other hand, the Japan Times’ acquisition of the two rival English language
newspapers in October and December of 1940 was likely orchestrated by Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke, so as “to have an organ close to the Foreign Office in which their opposition to the Military Party could be expressed.”
However, Matsuoka’s access to the Japan Times, and hence his ability to promulgate pro-diplomacy messages to the foreign media through Japan’s sole surviving English language newspaper was eliminated in July 1941, when “the second Konoe Cabinet resigned in order to form a third Cabinet for the express purpose of jettisoning Matsuoka.” (Matsuoka had been trying to persuade the cabinet to abandon the Soviet-Japanese neutrality agreement and join Germany’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union. This would also have complicated the ongoing negotiations with the United States for the purpose of avoiding war between the two countries, in which Matsuoka was attempting to trade a withdrawal from continental China in exchange for recognition of Manchukuo and a guarantee of safety for trade routes of resources through the South Pacific.) This left publisher Go Satoshi to pen editorials which ended up inflaming relations between Japan and the Allied powers, although it is unclear whether this was at the behest of the subsequent Foreign Ministers or not.
The article concludes that “The Japan Times (until Matsuoka’s fall from grace) made a doomed but valiant effort to set up a rational, internationalist alternative to the bellicose rumblings emanating from the General Staff and the Foreign Ministry,” but also brings attention to the fact that after Matsuoka’s departure the paper’s editorials, written by Go, contributed to the climate of mistrust that led to the breakdown of negotiations, which eventually caused Japan’s attack against Pearl Harbor. While the Japan Times of today (which in my experience has a generally liberal and pro-internationalist slant) should hardly be criticized for the ways in which it was used as a vehicle of propaganda during wartime under an imperialist regime, I imagine that the readers of this blog will be as interested as I was to learn a bit about the history of a newspaper whose articles all of us read with regularity. Now I am curious to know if the Japan Times’ close relations with the Foreign Ministry continued after the war, and how the country’s primary English language news source may have been used by the occupying American authorities and post-occupation government of Japan.
On a tangential note, Matsuoka Yosuke was arrested and indicted as a class-A war criminal by the Tokyo Tribunal, but died of tuberculosis before the verdict was read, without his ever having actually appeared in court. Based on the brief biographies of Matsuoka that I have read, I’m not entirely sure on what grounds he was charged. It may have been related to his orchestration of the alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, although Japan was not yet engaged in war against any allied powers by the end of Matsuoka’s term of office. He also advocated war against the Soviet Union, but was ignored and in effect fired for that position. However reprehensible his attempts to promote Japanese-Soviet war may have been, it seems a little bit peculiar to prosecute someone for a policy which was never taken up by the government or military. It also seems possible that his efforts to avoid war between Japan and the US may have been a possible argument in his defense, which due to his premature death was never made. I would be very curious to know exactly what the charges against him were.
Update: I forgot to mention that Matsuoka is also one of the 14 class-A war criminal suspects controversially enshrined in Yasukuni. Apparently Emperor Hirohito mentioned him by name as one of those who should not have been enshrined, and whose listing caused the Emperor to cease visiting the shrine.