Japan, US Play Down Pearl Harbor Officials on Both Sides of the Pacific Are Concerned That Emotional Media Coverage Will Spur Anti-Japan Feeling

By Clayton Jones, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1991 | Go to article overview

Japan, US Play Down Pearl Harbor Officials on Both Sides of the Pacific Are Concerned That Emotional Media Coverage Will Spur Anti-Japan Feeling


Clayton Jones, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


MORE than three years ago, Japanese reporters in Washington began to throw the same question to Glenn Fukushima, then a United States trade official, about the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Almost every one of them asked me: 'Mr. Fukushima, what nasty things will America do against Japan? he said, "Almost as if {they wanted} to invite unusual criticism of Japan."

Other officials in both the US and Japan also received early warnings that print and broadcast media were preparing to make the most, or the worst, of this week's remembrance of a date that was to "live in infamy."

"Our reporters expected the worst in Japan-bashing," says a Japanese Foreign Ministry official. "We tried to advise them to look at what American officials are saying, not what Americans or the media are saying."

Leaders in both countries, worried about a growing anti-Japanese sentiment in the US, have tried - through subtle coaching - to exercise "spin control" over reporters to influence articles and broadcasts leading up to the Pearl Harbor commemoration.

The most common advice for reporters has been to focus on Japan's postwar record of being a peaceful and prosperous nation, as well its military alliance with the US. But the anniversary coverage so far has ranged the spectrum of criticism, from historical blame to present "bashing" of economic differences, and has been mostly negative, US and Japanese officials admit.

"It's not necessarily a bad idea to play 'spin doctor' so that we don't dwell on the negatives of Pearl Harbor," says Robert Orr, Jr., director of the Kyoto Center for Japanese Studies. "Are we going to dwell on a tragedy forever?"

Private groups, too, have tried to either steer clear of adverse publicity or influence it. In the US, the Japanese-American Citizens League has warned media not to use the semicentennial to "create negative emotional messages" that might evoke racism. And many Japanese corporations have canceled or postponed their advertisements in US media when told in advance that Pearl Harbor was a topic.

About two-thirds of Japanese and Americans were born after the attack, so the media plays a major role in shaping impressions of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath. "The mass media in Japan and the US have used and are still using the other country for political purposes," says Kazuo Ogura, head of cultural affairs for the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

A favorite angle for Western journalists is how the Japanese have not been taught much about their nation's wartime past, and how Japan highlights the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima instead of the Japanese aggression against Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese media report that the US government allegedly goaded Japan to war and knew the attack was coming. "Such articles just feed on a Japanese syndrome to paint themselves as victims," says Dr. Orr.

But interpretations of the Pacific war are still difficult, says Ian Nish, professor emeritus of the University of London. Many nations have not opened their archives from that period. "We are still remarkably ignorant on many issues," he says. Another war scholar, Wang Xi of Shanghai's Fudan University, says it is dangerous when former enemies have such different views of history.

As media attention has intensified, however, some Japanese leaders have decided to drop a strategy of lying low. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party was moving this week to pass a parliamentary resolution noting the anniversary and Japan's commitment to peace. And Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe accepted an old request of the Washington Post this week for an interview in which he volunteered "deep regret over the terrible suffering" Japan inflicted on the US. …

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