Guardian correspondent Justin McCurry gave a talk at Ryukoku University on Friday which was open to WiK members, and four of us were in attendance, namely Paul Carty, Amy Chavez, Malcolm Benson and John D. Justin’s talk was perfectly pitched for the students attending, while at the same time providing some thought-provoking content. In the photo for instance he holds up one of the many items from a large and heavy bag which he has to lug around on assignments. This is because rather than just using pen and paper, the modern ‘cyber-journalist’ is expected to record interviews, take videos, photographs and provide instant information for a 24 hour deadline. A far cry indeed from the leisurely drunken correspondents I remember from my youth in the Middle East!
Justin has been in Japan for some 20 years, and came into journalism from English-language teaching via copy-editing for the Daily Yomiuri. Since 2003 he’s been working for the Guardian, covering not just Japan, but Korea – South and North! Considering the global importance of the area, it seems an almost impossible job for one person. Yet it’s no different elsewhere, for he gave the figures for South-east Asia as a whole: 2 Guardian correspondents in China; 1 in Bangkok; and 1 in Australia.
Other interesting bits of information concerned the very limited number of English-language correspondents based in Tokyo. Some ten organisations in all, drawing on the same Reuters and AP new sources. It explains why the media all seem to run the same stories, for the resources are so stretched.
And what exactly are the main stories about Japan? Justin gave us a list of the most common topics he’s regularly asked for by head office. Food (washoku is in vogue); prime minister Abe (what exactly is he up to?); Fukushima (toxic or not?); Geisha (a perennial fascination); tourism (hot topic); yakuza (like geisha a symbol of exotic Japan); current trends such as robots and sexless marriage. Finally the controversial matters of Yasukuni/WW2 plus the animal rights issues of whaling and Taiji dolpins.
The latter topics were picked up by Justin as illustrative of the differences between the English-language media and that of Japan. This is particularly evident in the nuance of the wording, which unconsciously shapes people’s minds. English-lang press talks of the ‘slaughtering’ of whales; Japanese press considers they are being ‘harvested’. When English lang media talks of ‘sex slaves’, Japanese talks of ‘those known as comfort women’.
The matter of ‘kisha clubs’ and the control of information through self-censorship was brought up too, with Justin pointing out that the word ‘meltdown’ was used by the Western press about the Fukushima ‘disaster’ after 7-10 days, whereas the Japanese press did not mention the word until several months afterwards in conjunction with the ‘accident’ that had taken place.
One of the dangers of reporting here is the demand for ‘wacky Japan’ stories, and Justin illustrated just how dangerous the issue of ‘fake news’ could be through articles that spread worldwide concerning a Japanese craze for ‘eyeball-licking’. This turned out to be completely false, but nonetheless matched people’s expectations for the kind of weirdness associated with Japan.
And what of the future? Will there continue to be a printed Guardian? Will its fabulously successful website continue to be free? Justin foresaw some kind of paywall being necessary to provide revenue for the news organisation, but at this stage no one can say for sure because things are changing so rapidly. One thing we can say, though, is that with his affable nature and level-headedness, Justin provides assurance for those of us living here that Far Eastern affairs will be covered in a dispassionate and insightful manner.
Justin McCurry is the Japan and Korea correspondent for The Guardian and Observer newspapers in London. As a foreign correspondent with more than 10 years’ experience, he has covered numerous news events, notably the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Earlier this month he travelled to South Korea to write about increasing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Justin McCurry read economics at the London School of Economics (LSE) and gained an MA in Japanese Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University. He was a copy editor and reporter at the Daily Yomiuri in Osaka before moving to Tokyo to become a full-time foreign correspondent for The Guardian in late 2003. He also contributes to the Lancet medical journal in London and reports and narrates scripts on Asia-Pacific topics for France 24 TV.