Japan Calling: The Origins of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department in the Early 1920s

Prof. Masayoshi Matsumura

Lecture 2001-11-19

Dr. Berendt opened the November meeting by speaking of the procedures involved in holding the annual general meeting, as outlined above. He also encouraged members to respond to the survey which had been sent out recently.

Our speaker for the evening was Prof. Masayoshi Matsumura, former diplomat and department director of the Japan Foundation, and onetime professor at Teikyo University. His subject was "Japan Calling: The Origins of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department in the Early 1920s".

Only sporadic attempts at governmental dissemination of information were made during the early Meiji years, and it was not until the time of the Boxer Uprising in 1900 that the vital need for an organ of public information was brought home. Japan had sent relief forces to Peking and Tientsin well ahead of the European forces, but the European press hardly reported Japan's military contribution, and in some cases cast doubts on Japan's motives. The Gaimusho responded by stationing Alexander von Siebold (son of Philipp Franz) in Berlin and supplying him with information to be distributed to European newspapers; Siebold established useful contacts with agencies such as Wolf, Reuters and Havas. Meanwhile, the Japanese embassy in Washington also began building relations with the Associated Press, the New York Sun and the New York Herald, with the result that European and American papers gradually began to adopt a more considered tone in their coverage of Japan.

For Japan, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 was a defensive exercise aimed at preventing Russia's southward advance in East Asia; many in Japan also believed that Russia was on the point of urging a joint move by Europe and the U.S. to counter the "Yellow Peril". To ward off this threat, Japan sent missions to the U.S. and Britain head by Kaneko Kentaro and Suematsu Kencho, and by the time of the Portsmouth Conference in 1905 the two initiatives had succeeded in bringing American and British public opinion round to the Japanese side. However, foreign correspondents arriving in Tokyo were infuriated by the refusal of the General Staff to let them visit the front in Manchuria, and their editors back home became dissatisfied with the absence of news dispatches from reporters whose stay in Tokyo was so expensive. The Japanese delegates at the Portsmouth Conference did no better, throwing away the progress made by the Kaneko and Suematsu missions by adopting an aloof, secretive air with journalists; by contrast, the Russians worked hard to befriend the press, in order to lighten the terms of the settlement somewhat.

Japan was stirred to make efforts to counter the adverse publicity partly by the wave of anti-Japanese sentiment in California, and also by the patent effectiveness of the propaganda techniques developed on Europe in World War I and the skilful propaganda offensive conducted by China at the Paris Peace Conference. Japan took note that what worked well in war could be applied in peacetime, and that propaganda could no longer be ignored as a vital arm of foreign policy and diplomacy. Japan's main aims at the conference were gaining control of the German interest in the Shantung Peninsula, the cession of Germany's South Sea islands, and the insertion of a declaration against racial discrimination in the Covenant of the League of Nations. Unfortunately for Japan, the "Young China" faction insisted on the direct return of all German rights and interests in China, and vehemently conducted anti-Japanese propaganda outside the Conference. Japan maintained that its claim to Shantung had been sanctioned by a wartime agreement with Britain, France and Italy, but the Young China faction claimed that the world situation had been changed entirely by the war, with the result that in the end Japan agreed to return to China all the German rights attached to Shantung. It was this bitter experience at Versailles in particular that impressed upon Japan the urgent need for an institutional base from which to conduct external propaganda.

Steps were taken to reorganize the existing news agencies. Kokusai Tsushinsha (International News Agency), which had been set up in April 1914 as a private company with some Gaimusho funding, had become subservient to Reuters, who forbade it from cabling news about Japan abroad, and from operating in China. Then there was a need to strengthen the semi-official Toho Tsushinsha (Eastern News Agency), subsidized by the Gaimusho, which supplied Japanese information to China. To deal with the problems facing Kokusai Tsushinsha, Prime Minister Hara Takashi asked Date Gen'ichiro, editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun, to go to Paris to get Ijuin Hikokichi, a delegate to Versailles, to research the methods of European organs of public information. Ijuin's advice was to integrate all the sources of information -- army, navy and Ministry of Finance -- in order to establish a powerful information bureau in the Cabinet. Hara felt there was no hope of getting the army and navy to cooperate, and proposed setting up an information bureau in the Foreign Office. He set about implementing his plan, and the resulting Gaimusho Johobu (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department) was opened formally in August 1921, with Ijuin as Director.

This coincided with the development of a strong reform movement within the Gaimusho pressing for public as opposed to secret or court diplomacy and the development of close relations with newspapers and magazines. The press soon took up the story of the reform movement, and announced the establishment of the new Johobu. On its first day of operations, April 1st, 1920, it was more of a de facto body than a formal entity, but it had become a reality, and on August 13th, 1921, it was officially promulgated after sixteen months in bureaucratic limbo, and Ijuin was formally appointed its first Director. Many army men feared there might be differences of opinion with the Gaimusho over the question of China, and felt reassured by the appointment of Ijuin, who took pains to listen to the army viewpoint and and try to reconcile differing views.

From the long delay in legitimizing the Johobu we can surmise that much discussion was needed, first to come to terms with the need for externally-directed public information, and then to establish the organizational requirements of the new body and its modus operandi. In October 1920, seven working principles for effective propaganda were drawn up. As regards organization, there would be a central body in Tokyo, but the staffs of Japanese embassies abroad would also be directly involved. Even the name Johobu was a subject of discussion. At one time the title Sendenbu (Propaganda Division) was considered, but was dropped as being too direct. Johobu was chosen as a provisional title, but in fact it continued to be used for twenty years until the creation of the Naikaku Johokyoku (Cabinet Information Bureau) on December 6th, 1940.

One of the first problems faced by the Johobu was the question of the limitations imposed by Reuters on the activities of the Kokusai Tsushinsha. Reuters rejected efforts to renegotiate the contract until 1923, so meanwhile the Johobu decided to circumvent the ban on Kokusai's operations in China by expanding the operations of Toho Tsushinsha.

The Washington Disarmament Conference of November 1921--February 1922 presented the Gaimusho Johobu with an opportunity to reverse the disaster suffered at the hands of the Chinese delegation at Versailles in 1919. The Johobu seized the chance to show a new, modern, media-friendly face to the world, and Japan's information management in Washington, under the leadership of the approachable ambassador Shidehara Kijuro, was "positively slick" in comparison with the presentation at Versailles two years before. By 1925, when Shidehara was Foreign Minister, the Johobu had announced plans to use the new medium of radio to broadcast daily to China from Taiwan, and made other broadcasts to the South Sea islands and to North and South America from Iwaki, Fukushima prefecture. The activities of the Johobu proceeded apace under a succession of directors until September 18th, 1931, while Shiratori Toshio was director, when the Manchurian Incident led to a period in which Japan rushed headlong into the tragedy that culminated in August 1945.

In 1936, the Naikaku Johoiinkai was set up to integrate the collection and dissemination of information put out by the various ministries, and this was followed by the Naikaku Johobu in 1937, and the Naikaku Johokyoku in 1940. This last development saw the Gaimusho Johobu finally absorbed into the Cabinet office, which unified all Japanese information activities. Ironically, although it was in many ways a departure from the spirit of the original scheme, this final rationalization effectively brought to fruition Ijuin's dream of an integrated information service, which had been only partially realized with the foundation of the Gaimusho Johobu . To set up a permanent peacetime organization, Ijuin had taken as his models official information organizations in Europe which had been put in place purely to fight the propaganda battle in wartime; they had not been designed for use in peacetime, and had been closed down at the end of the war in 1918. Thus there was a certain bitter logic in the fact that Japan's peacetime version of these organizations only really came to fruition in 1940, when World War II was under way in Europe, and Japan was on the brink of the Pacific War. Ijuin could never have imagined that his grandiose dreams would be fulfilled under such unhappy circumstances.

After Prof. Matsumura's presentation, ample time (comparatively speaking) was left for questions. Among the answers he gave was that the Gaimusho Bunka Jigyobu set up in 1923 had belatedly followed the example of America in inviting Chinese students. Foreign Minister Makino Nobuaki had been a skilful propagandist, particularly over the immigration problem. He had set up a Tozai Tsushinsha in New York, and a Taiheiyo Tsushinsha in San Francisco, both of which had been successful in sending out information. Prof. Matsumura regretted that the Japanese government these days was not yet so skilful!

The meeting closed with a vote of thanks proposed by Prof. Peter O'Connor, who had himself made a study of the subject and was able to provide informed and trenchant comments.


Adapted from "The Asiatic Society of Japan Bulletin No. 10", December 2001, compiled by Prof. Hugh E. Wilkinson and Mrs. Doreen Simmons.