Eric Johnston is a well-known figure from his writings in The Japan Times and his involvement in a wide range of Kansai activities. He’s used to interviewing people of course, but here WiK reverses the tables and asks him some questions for a change…
What do you write about?
As a full-time reporter based in Osaka, I write primarily about political and social news in the Kansai region, and on certain national news topics. I cover the adventures of Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, nuclear power, including the reactors in Fukui prefecture, renewable energy, the U.S. military presence on Okinawa and Okinawan politics, the U.S.-Japan relationship, and various subjects ranging from hate speech to the new state secrets law.
Do you write for other publications?
Very rarely. In the past, I’ve done the odd piece for The Guardian, The Observer, USA Today, Adbusters, the International Herald-Tribune, and any number of magazines in and out of Japan. That includes Kyoto Journal, where I had the honor of serving as chief editor for Fresh Currents, which was about Japan’s getting out of nuclear power and into renewable energy. Once in a blue moon, I’ll submit an article to the online journal Asia-Pacific Journal. I also do a fair bit of public speaking, so learning how to create effective PowerPoint slides is my biggest “writing’’ challenge these days.
What’s it like to work as a newspaper reporter in the digital age?
It can be exhausting. Long gone are the days when chain-smoking hacks filed one story and then headed to the pub. Now, you have to keep up with the flood of information – most of it useless—that pours in 24/7, and then figure out what’s worthwhile and what’s garbage. You’re never really “off duty’’. The pressure to keep feeding the media beast is greater than ever, although thankfully I don’t yet have to blog or do video as well as write for the print edition like some of my overseas media friends are doing.
That doesn’t leave much room for context. . .
Or deep historical background. Or literary references, hyperbole, irony, or the kind of storytelling that defines the world’s best journalism. No, it does not. Still, there remains a literate readership for long pieces –especially in Japan and especially among readers of The Japan Times. And particularly among Kyoto readers, who seem to prefer feature stories more than many people in Tokyo and elsewhere. Yet regardless of where they’re located, readers’ attention spans are not as short as media studies professors and media consultants (a plague on both their houses) would have us believe.
Is it still possible to make a full-time career as a journalist in today’s world of free information online?
Yes — if you’re a good reporter first and foremost, and understand the professional distinction between “reporting’’ and “journalism’’. There remains a demand for the former—especially in the international wire services, where the basic job is to record what you see and hear and transmit it to the world as quickly as possible. However, wire service reports do not place top priority on exploring the “why’’ question, as opposed to answering quickly the “who’’, “what’’, “where’’, and “when’’ questions.
The “why’’ question is the most interesting, of course, as it forms the basis of all journalism. When addressing the “why’’ question, though, I think anybody looking for a full-time journalism gig has to show potential employers they know how to ask the other questions first. Good journalism, as the saying goes, begins with good reporting.
What’s it like covering Kyoto?
To the extent I cover Kyoto, which, truthfully, is not that much, it’s quite fun. I have come to realize Kyoto, even when it appears static, is, in fact, always changing. In addition, there is not a lot of foreign news about Japanese politics and society outside Tokyo. So by reporting on, or from, Kyoto, even occasionally, I feel as if I’m offering something other than the standard view of Japan you get from Tokyo-based reporters.
I don’t write much about cultural news. That’s a specialized world, one I leave to those who know what they’re talking about (including the other members of Writers in Kyoto). But as a reporter covering international conferences in Kyoto or the occasional local political or social story, it’s clear the city is the most “genki’’ of Kansai’s major metropolitan areas. It’s got a depth of intellectual curiosity you don’t see in any Japanese city – parts of Tokyo excepted– and a style and atmosphere found nowhere else.
While still bureaucratic and formal compared to some other places in Japan, Kyoto officials I deal with and Kyoto people as a whole seem a bit more direct than in the past. That’s always a plus when you’re a writer. And Kyoto’s creative, eccentric characters, Japanese and non-Japanese, with their artistic temperaments and personality quirks, are sources of occasional amusement and exasperation, but always deep respect and inspiration.
Any problems being a foreign reporter in a country with a closed press club system?
That depends. In Osaka, access to politicians, bureaucrats, and information is easy because The Japan Times belongs to the local press clubs.
In Kyoto and Shiga, it’s not a problem if I notify officials in advance that I want to cover, say, the governor’s press conference. Elsewhere, however, I’ve been told that I can attend briefings but not ask questions. That happened once in Iwakuni at the mayor’s press conference. Thankfully the mayor was more open and democratically minded than the media covering him. He happily answered my questions after the main press conference—to the anger of the press club members. On the other hand, getting official documents from, or attending press briefings by, the police and courts anywhere in Japan can be a hassle if you’re not a press club member. And sometimes even if you are.
I don’t cover business much. But some Kyoto businesses, like Kyocera, are friendly and open to foreign reporters. Of course, it helps that I’m excited about Japan’s developments in renewable energy and that Kyocera is heavily involved in this field.
Any advice for aspiring journalists?
First, choose a small but diverse range of media to follow on a regular basis. Both mainstream and alternate. Bookmark online news sites for topics of interest and check them daily. You’ll get lots of information, but it’s the only way to figure out which sources provide nutritious food for thought and which are the intellectual equivalent of fast-food.
Obviously you need to read good writing. And for making a living at reporting and journalism, this means intellectual travels with crisp and engaged storytelling that is logically structured, rigorously researched, and has a beginning, middle, and end, and not boarding the slow boat to nowhere with authors who offer nothing but banal, self-centered observations. And while all good reporters and journalists must occasionally wander the desert of tenured prose, they should do so in order to discover an oasis of useful research data. Not in the hope of stumbling across a buried declarative sentence or a well-turned phrase.
Warily circle the clickbait chum in the social media waters. Much of it is toxic and overconsumption reduces your ability to concentrate on what’s important. Instead, read real books. On history, philosophy, sociology, economics, culture, current events – whatever you wish. But also engage the world. Writers are solitary creatures. Reporters and journalists are, or should be, social animals. Spend time with all sorts of people talking, not texting.
Don’t constantly expound your views of humanity during conversations, though. Be patient and become a good listener. Don’t forget: everybody has the right. . . to be “wrong’’. It doesn’t mean you have to print what they say, after all.
Go to all sorts of meetings and do interviews. Attend a demonstration, a conference, or a rally, and then write it up in less than 500 words within one hour. It’s a great way to discipline yourself as a writer, regardless of whether you aim to be a journalist.
Finally, you must be an effective researcher. The more you know about where to find information, especially facts, names, and contact details quickly and efficiently, the better journalist you’ll be.
As a postscript, I’d like to suggest that any Kyoto writer consider joining the Tokyo-based Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. As non-Tokyo residents, we get heavily reduced rates in the “Ex-Kanto’’ category that makes it very affordable for freelance writers.
FCCJ is one of the oldest and most prestigious press clubs in the world. Becoming a member is a great way to support freedom of speech in Japan, make contacts for possible jobs, meet or gain access high-level sources, and stay a step ahead of the competition. If you visit Tokyo, you can use the Club’s library (which contains an excellent collection of popular books in English on Japan and Asia, including many rare and out-of-print books), various databases, and a work room. You can also attend press conferences, or just grab a quick beer in the Main Bar. Information can be found at www.fccj.or.jp.
Eric Johnston is a Deputy Editor at The Japan Times, and the only full-time foreign news reporter in the Kansai region. The views expressed above are his own and not those of The Japan Times.