Howard W. French
Born in Washington D.C., and now living in Shanghai with his wife and their two children, Howard French is a senior writer for the New York Times.
After teaching at the University of Ivory Coast from 1980 to 1982, he began his freelance journalism career writing about Africa for the Washington Post, Africa News, The Economist and numerous other publications. Since 1986, he has reported for the Times from Central America, the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, Japan, Korea and now China where he is the Shanghai Bureau Chief. He is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa (Vintage: 2005).
Mr. French was the Tokyo Bureau Chief from August 1999 to August 2003.
Among his many awards and nominations, Mr. French won the Overseas Press Club (OPC) of America’s award for best newspaper interpretation of foreign affairs for his coverage of the fall of Mobuto Sese Seko in 1997 as well as being a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize (1997) and the Lettres Ulysses Prize (2004).
From 1998 to 1999, Mr. French was a visiting scholar at the University of Hawaii, where he studied the Japanese language, and East Asian affairs. In the spring of 1999, he was also a Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center, in Honolulu. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Maryland in 2005. He is fluent in French, Mandarin, Spanish and Japanese.
He gave this exclusive interview to Victor Fic, a guest interviewer at JapanReview.Net.
Interview: March 25, 2005
Howard, you spent a year at the East-West Center in Hawaii preparing for your Japan posting. What course of study did you have? Which books or commentators were best?
I made many useful academic acquaintances in Hawaii, Victor: Edward Shultz, director of Korean Studies, and Susan Minichiello, head of Japanese studies were both great mentors intellectually, and have published valuable works on their respective cultures. Danny Kwok for Chinese studies, ditto. Dae Suk Suh, I regard, as one of the most interesting people on the Kim Dynasty in North Korea. I read very, very widely during this period. Hard to say what impressed me the most. Lots of fiction, and lots of history. (I’ll send you a list separately, if you’d like.)
Many students of Japan complain that their classroom instruction was unrealistic. Maybe they learned that Japanese schools are the world’s best, but they find their students are quiet and conformist. Did you reject or modify what you were taught?
I tried to reserve judgment, actually. My first and best impressions came from the classroom. In several classes many of my fellow students were Japanese ryugakusei, as were my Japanese language tutors. I learned a lot from observing and interacting.
The idea of Japan as number one in anything, much less academia was well over by the time I was studying for my assignment 1998-99. I was struck, though, by the preponderantly passive way many of my fellow students behaved in class, offering very little of their thoughts.
You started in Japan in the late 1990’s, when Americans were in the so-called “Japan passing” phase. Did you find the US disintersted in Japan?
Disinterested is perhaps too strong a word for what I found. I found the interest to be tepid, irregular and often patronizing—both in terms of the American policy establishment and the media establishment, by and large.
And Korea? It is a war zone, after all, with some 38,000 American soldiers here. Did the national security story predominate?
The national security story did predominate, for understandable reasons, I think, given all that was going on during my “watch,” from the North South summit to, Evil Axis, to the nuclear materials crisis, and the dramatic shift in South Korean public opinion.
I tried, always, to pay attention to Korean politics, not through the lens of the alliance, but on their own terms, and I tried to do pure features as much as possible, too.
My big frustration and regret is that while I became fluent in Japanese, I never learned how to speak Korean. One works dutifully and conscientiously at covering a country, and there are lots of stories I can look back upon with pride, but one never covers a country properly without being able to function in the native language, at least at a basic functional level.
Koreans, I think, resented this too, seeing the American diplomats and the journalists sent there essentially as Japan retreads.
Japan’s press clubs are criticized for promoting self-censorship and excessive collusion between the source and reporters. How do you view them?
I think of the press clubs as machines to prevent good journalism. They are antithetical to really competitive reporting. By the way, city hall or police headquarter press offices in the States have an inhibiting effect on enterprise and digging and original work, too, because they encourage a habit of news handouts from the authorities, where every agency and every reporter know he’s get the same material and can sit around waiting for it. Not everyone, fortunately, falls into this kind of trap. Japanese press clubs go much further, inhibiting and sometimes even sanctioning members who disturb the wa and do original work.
Are they justified on cultural grounds, like the Japanese are groupist, or the clubs help prevent social instability that results from sensationalized reporting?
I’m a little suspicious of overarching cultural explanations. I do feel, however, that the mainstream press in Japan has an elitist feel to it; an insiders’ clubbiness to it that probably stems in part from class origins. The rulers and reporters came up together in the same schools and identify with each other. Look, for example, at the way the press by and large buys into the government’s arguments in favor of nuclear power. It’s almost like an elite consensus was formed, and almost nobody wants to take a really hard run against it.
Who was it, Archimedes(?) who said give me a lever long enough and I can throw the earth? Well, in Japan there doesn’t seem to be much of a limb to stand on for those who want to challenge elite consensus. Either you are inside the big circle, or you don’t count.
What about with Korea? Was access to officials any easier or harder in Seoul? Were they more candid?
I suffered some particular handicaps in Korea, starting with the language, which I don’t speak. I also didn’t live there, but rather visited often. It’s not the same at all. Korea’s press system has inherited some of the worst traits of Japan’s system, along with even less cosmopolitanism. In everyday news situations, the Japanese usually had someone for the foreigner to talk to. The information might not have been very meaty, but at least they’d take your call. In Korea that often wasn’t the case. That said, I witnessed the early phases of the breakup of Korea’s old press system, with the emergence of the Internet, alternative papers, and civil society as important alternative sources of news, and I was left with an idea of greater flexibility in Korea (than Japan) and I think ROK is on the road to becoming a very interesting information society.
How about at the non-official level, among regular folks?
Koreans, to make a very broad generalization, often struck me as far more approachable than Japanese.
The Japanese government and official organizations stand accused of trying hard to manipulate Western journalists with special access, charm offensive, fellowships and culture-based theories that highlight Japan’s positives. Were you “massaged,” more so than would occur in the US?
Yes indeed. I was wined and dined for weeks, no, for months, by Gaimusho types in a way that made me uncomfortable from the very beginning. They seemed to want three things: that I portray Japan sympathetically, which is normal, if a bit naive (I don’t approach any country thinking in these terms); that I attend Gaimusho briefings, which would have meant flattering their own image, but getting very little work done in Japan; and finally, that I regard them as the conduit of information or indeed spokesman for all of Japan.
The relationship, if one can call it that, broke down finally when I reported during the Lucy Blackburne summer that Japan’s sex industry is huge and omnipresent. Gaimusho folks took strong exception. Some time later, my case agent, meaning the man whose job it was to stay on my case, called repeatedly to complain about my coverage of Tuffy Rhodes thwarted home run record drive. I finally told the man off, saying I failed to see the connection between baseball and foreign policy. They stopped calling (and inviting me to lunch.)
Korea is apparently phasing out the clubs, but not Japan. Why is Japan so determined to retain what Ivan Hall called the cartels of the mind?
Corporatism, wedded to the wa, a deep seated aversion to frontal, public competition, a political system whose stability (and lead-like qualities) owe much to the way the press works, and on and on.
You reported that Japan has chosen to “avert its eyes” from its war guilt. This is a common refrain in the Western press. But is Japan worse than, say, the Europeans in facing what they did in Africa?
The problems are closely related. Westerners have not been honest in owning up to their imperial history, nor to the impact of colonialism or even post-colonialism. There is very much a winners write history phenomenon at work here. Add to that a penchant for the auto heroic mode, if I might create a term on the fly, in Western thought. Our narratives posit us, as Westerners, in the role of goodness and light, as the positive motor in history, no matter how much blood or how many tears were shed along the way. These are footnotes, ultimately, especially when the blood involves the death of “savages.” This was the price of their salvation (by us). It’s called the white man’s burden, I believe.
The Japanese didn’t conquer anyone they can even remotely pretend were savages, nor did they have the convenient racial distinctions that existed between Europeans and Africans, or other dark skinned people. This has created narrative difficulties for the Japanese which are complicated by the fact that they didn’t win the war, and therefore didn’t get to write any histories, except those used in its secondary schools.
The Japanese position toward its imperial history is miserable, and has been very costly to the country. It is a small beer mentality that grows from longing for respect and produces the opposite result.
In Korea, local collaboration with Japan during the imperial era is also a taboo, partly because so many collaborators became powerful after 1945. Did you encounter Koreans avoiding this or other subjects?
I don’t know the literature very well on this in Korea, but I had many conversations on this subject in Korea, and didn’t find it so difficult to discuss.
You were upbeat overall on the online, citizens-participation forum called OhMYNews in Korea. But it is often reproached because anyone can declare himself a journalist and post biased or shoddy work. Is it ironic that a NYT bureau chief would like a news source with apparently minimum standards?
Standards are the fruit of practice, and over time I have confidence they will rise in a society like Korea, with its literacy, income and sophistication. I also don’t see much of an alternative, frankly. The marketplace will, I am fairly confident, sort most of these things out. Shoddy papers will have a hard time over time.
The Korean media is supposedly very partisan, corrupt and inaccurate. Japan has the press clubs and social taboos like discrimination against the burakumin. Are Korean and Japanese journalists doing more or less for democracy?
I don’t have a fixed view of partisan versus non-partisan press. The European style press, where papers are identified loosely or directly with parties seems to function pretty well, as does ours. Not to say that either is perfect. I think Korea’s press has been a real engine of democratization in the last several years. Japan’s press isn’t really so preoccupied with democracy, as far as I can tell, which isn’t to say that it isn’t an important element in Japan’s democracy. This democracy is, in my view, anemic, at best, and a big part of that owes to the peculiarities of Japan’s media.
Foreigners in both countries insist that the media is nationalistic—hyping trade pressure, foreigners’ alleged crimes and historical suffering, but not guilt. Is this your impression?
There’s certainly a lot of this. I live in China now, as you know, and I’ve become keenly aware that this is a phenomenon with deep roots in this part of the world. I’d like to understand it better.
The American media stands reproached for not challenging the White House’s claims before the Iraq War, and US media ownership is increasingly concentrated. Is the US media less likely to pander to officials and public mores, or more likely to escape corporate pressure in exposing a major advertizer?
The American media deserves a lot of criticism. Absolutely. We’ve lost a lot of our grit and spunk and sometimes succumb to the Japanese thing of seduction by power, or confusion of roles, thinking of ourselves as part of the elite, rather than as outsider looking in with as critical an eye as one can muster. That said, I read the Washington Post this morning on a flight to Japan, and the front page carried a lengthy story about how that paper had failed to raise the right questions before the Iraq war, and how the readers’ , and nation’s interest had not been served.
This is, for me, a hopeful sign that the patient, though ill, still has a fair amount of life in him.
Victor Fic is a Canadian freelance writer and broadcaster specializing on Japan and WW II, and U.S.—East Asian diplomatic affairs. He lived in Japan between 1991 and 1995, and now broadcasts for C.B.S. News Radio, the Media Corporation of Singapore and others in Seoul. He has published in some 35 newspapers and journals worldwide.