The Clark-Fingleton discussion

Below, set out in chronological order, is a series of three exchanges between  Professor Gregory Clark and me concerning, among other things, the problems for foreign correspondents in reporting the truth from Japan. Clark, a Japan-based educator and columnist for the semi-official Japan Times, has been a key insider in Tokyo since the 1970s.

The controversy began when Clark criticized Fingleton’s contrarian views on Sino-Japanese relations in the Number 1 Shimbun, the magazine of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

This is Fingleton’s reply, published in the magazine’s July issue:

To the Editor of the Number 1 Shimbun

I’d like to respond to some Fingleton-bashing in your pages lately. Professor Clark suggests (Number 1 Shimbun, May 2008) that I see “plots and schemes” everywhere. Not at all. On the basis of a near-40-year career spanning three continents, I know that establishment news sources in most parts of the developed world are generally relatively truthful. Tokyo, however, is an exception. Here the version of reality presented to the foreign press is a kabuki play within a kabuki play within a kabuki play….

Professor Clark refers in particular to an article I wrote for The Atlantic in July 1990 on Narita airport. He has a long memory — and a faulty one. Pace his “conspiracy theory” suggestion, the article’s analysis was soundly based in fact and was supported by the testimony of top tourism officials and airline executives in the United States. I would be happy to provide a copy to any FCCJ member who is interested.

As Professor Clark has for many years made something a hobby of sniping at my work (though we have never met and I have never given him any cause for grumpiness), it is past time I called his bluff. I therefore invite him to a public debate. Let’s do this over lunch at the FCCJ on a day when there are no major competing engagements. As for the theme, why not “Tokyo is the world capital of press management”? (We can start with the early post-war period when both the foreign and domestic press demonstrated remarkable “self-control” as former war criminals were appointed to top jobs in “New Japan” — e.g. Takeo Tamiya, Japan’s Dr. Mengele, who was made president of the Japan Medical Association in 1950.)

Some years ago I tried to organize a similar debate on Japan’s “lost decade” (my point was that the “lost decade” story was a myth concocted to take foreign eyes off Japan’s soaring trade surpluses). All but one of the highly paid analysts who were invited to take the other side — that is to defend the “Japan as basket case” propaganda they had been pumping unchallenged into the foreign press for years — demurred. The only analyst who was prepared to emerge from his mousehole was a man who wanted a rigged debate in which we would stop every few minutes to take questions and comments from the floor — a perfect formula for allowing vested interests to gum up any reasoned discussion between the protagonists. When it was apparent that I would settle for nothing less than a serious one-on-one debate, this man inexplicably withdrew his offer.

I trust that Professor Clark, a former president of a Japanese university who has served on various Japanese government committees, will show more alacrity in consenting to a straight one-on-one discussion.

Professor Clark aside, another person who has invoked my name lately is Peter O’Connor, who referred to me in his latest article (June issue) on Taid O’Conroy, the Keio professor who in 1933 published a highly prescient if shrill and structurally flawed book on the rise of Japanese militarism. As recent interest in O’Conroy’s amazing story seems to have stemmed in part from an article I wrote in the late 1990s, I have been following with increasing mystification Peter O’Connor’s repeated efforts to blacken O’Conroy’s name.

O’Connor has questioned in particular the bona fides of O’Conroy’s complaint in 1933 that his life had been threatened. What makes the question of special significance is that O’Conroy died two years later at the age of 52 in circumstances that have never been adequately explained. Although, according to Peter O’Connor, the cause of death was supposed to have been simply cirrhosis of the liver, in reality it was given at the time as a heart attack, which may or may not have been brought on by cirrhosis. There is also the fact that the life of O’Conroy’s Japanese wife had allegedly been threatened. Moreover nothing of what happened to her after the mid 1930s seems to be known. This though, on foot of the fact that O’Conroy had been born in Ireland, the Irish embassy made a big effort some years ago to settle the question. To anyone who knows how extensive and careful is Japanese record-keeping in the case of ordinary, uncontroversial citizens, let alone those of “special” interest to the authorities, it is truly amazing that the embassy’s inquiries proved fruitless.

At this stage it is probably impossible for any Westerner to say for sure whether Taid O’Conroy invented the death threats. What can be said is that his general credibility is attested to not only by the remarkable prescience of his book but by the fact that some of his more distinguished and resourceful contemporaries, not least George Bernard Shaw, found him an impressive witness.

If O’Conroy’s bona fides was good enough for George Bernard Shaw, why isn’t it good enough for Peter O’Connor? It is not as if O’Connor brings any new evidence to the table. The best he can do is make much of something that undoubtedly was no secret to O’Conroy’s contemporaries — O’Conroy’s change of name (he had been born simple Timothy Conroy). Was there something sinister about this? O’Connor’s innuendos to the contrary, probably not. There is an obvious explanation: O’Conroy simply chose, in common with many of his compatriots in the early twentieth century, to Gaelicize his name. Taid after all is simply the Irish-language cognate of Timothy.

The other “evidence” O’Connor musters is the testimony of one Malcolm Kennedy. As I have pointed out in your pages before, Kennedy was hardly an impartial observer. In fact to invoke Kennedy against O’Conroy is about as convincing a gambit as to quote say Vidkun Quisling against Anne Frank! A British diplomat turned executive of the Rising Sun Petroleum Company turned Reuters correspondent, Kennedy was widely recognized by the mid 1930s as a shameless conduit of Japanese militarist propaganda. He even dedicated his 1935 book The Problem of Japan to Koki Hirota — the same Koki Hirota who was hanged as a Class A war criminal in 1948 for, among other things, the 1937 Nanking massacre.

Kennedy was an early example of a Tokyo type that has become all too familiar, a foreign resident who acts as a Japanese establishment attack dog in savaging the credibility of those in the foreign community who uphold the Western truth ethic. Kennedy launched blatant ad hominem attacks on several rival correspondents covering East Asia in the 1930s. The New York Times correspondent Hallett Abend came in for special animosity. “Abend’s personal morals, from all accounts, are those of Sodom and Gomorrah,” wrote Kennedy in 1931. In reality Abend, who never married, was one of the fairest and most capable correspondents of his generation. It is a matter of record moreover that he was subjected to physical attacks by ruffians alleged at the time to have been acting on behalf of Japanese interests.

For our purposes a key point is that, as sales of O’Conroy’s book took off in 1933, Kennedy was drafted as Tokyo’s chosen tool in running interference. In particular he was used to plant a rumor that O’Conroy had once spied on the Tokyo foreign community on behalf of the Japanese establishment. But if O’Conroy had once been such a stooge, why would he later turn around and become that same establishment’s chief accuser? Far better to do what so many foreign charlatans in Tokyo have done down the decades — opt for an easy and well paid life as Tokyo’s idea of “a respected authority on Japan.” That way, in return for endorsing the establishment line on a few pertinent propaganda issues, O’Conroy could have expected to have brought in more from a single lunchtime talk than most people earned in a month (and he would have been a better life insurance underwriting risk to boot!).

Although I don’t know Peter O’Connor, I understand he is a person of some capability — capability that should not be thrown away on an effort, however inadvertent, to perpetuate the militarists’ propaganda dirty work of the 1930s. I have a suggestion: why not let the ill-starred Taid O’Conroy rest in peace? Why not instead take a searching look at Malcolm Kennedy, a man who proceeded in the 1950s and 1960s, with the benefit of a ton of Japanese money, to reinvent himself as the “dean of British Japan studies”? Such an inquiry will not bring in a fat grant from Suntory and its author will probably not be welcome at such Tokyo-funded forums as Chatham House and the Council on Foreign Relations. But, in marked contrast with virtually every other “scholarly” effort in the Japan studies field, it will make a real contribution to our understanding of how the world works.

Eamonn Fingleton
Mita 2-chome

This was Gregory Clark’s reply (which was published in the magazine’s August issue):

To the Editor of the Number 1 Shimbun

Eamonn Fingleton gets it about as wrong as is possible in his 300-word criticism of myself (No. 1 Shimbun, July).

He says, quote: “We have never met before and I have never given him (Clark) any reason for grumpiness.” In fact we have met, at an Irish Embassy reception a few years back, where I congratulated him, most un-grumpily, on the important work he has done highlighting Japan’s manufacturing prowess and determination. Japanese manufacturing skill is also one of my favorite themes (the monozukuri culture), but he has taken it much further than I have. I am constantly amazed by the quality of his research, and I told him that. He has a very selective memory.

I also told him he did not deserve the flak he was getting for his book predicting, wrongly, that Japan would overtake the U.S. by year 2000. Neither he nor I was to know the U.S. would bubble its economy, replacing manufacturing with financial industry gimmicks. Nor was he to know that Japan’s economy would be wrecked by the Koizumi-Takenaka duo naively relying on U.S. supply-side economic policies, though he could have realized this was coming from the Hashimoto-era policies.

As for the grumpiness charge, wrong again, and badly. Some years back he backed out of a planned FCCJ debate, on the grounds that since the establishment was plotting to get him, questions should not be allowed (a debate without questions? At the FCCJ?).

In addition to the Narita location issue, he also said something about Tokyo’s refusal to release the Shiodome land for sale at the height of the Bubble (another topic close to my heart) being an LDP plot to drive land prices even higher. I had good reason to believe it was not a plot, that it was a typical piece of Tokyo economic stupidity (you keep prices down by restricting supply). I went on to suggest that in addition to his worries about debate questions, he was prone to seeing plots, including the Narita location and Shiodome land-sale issues, even when they did not exist.

But I tried not to hurt his feelings by using a conditional word like “maybe” somewhere in the text. In reply, he seized on my use of the conditional to avoid answering any of my points, stating baldly, and even more grumpily, that by using the conditional I had admitted I was uncertain of my facts, and he did not have to say anything more, period.

I was indeed certain of my facts. So when he recently launched into his improbable thesis that Japan and China have long been in cahoots with each other and are just pretending to be hostile, I could not resist the temptation finally to come back to the argument he avoided answering earlier, namely, his belief that the Narita location was a Tokyo plot to discourage overseas travel (this at a time when JETRO was shifting from export promotion to import promotion, including increased overseas tourism, to reduce the balance of payments surplus and the endaka it was causing ).

My own hunch was that it was a typical piece of Tokyo bureaucratic stupidity has since been confirmed.

I would be happy to accept his offer of a debate, except that on the topic he has chosen – Tokyo’s manipulation of information – I am totally in agreement. I too have written about the Unit 731 connection with postwar Japan’s establishment. Maybe (I repeat “maybe” with tongue in cheek) I have stuck my neck out even more than he has by challenging the way Tokyo has manipulated the NK abduction issue.

Do that and you really do run into flak, serious flak.

Gregory Clark

Eamonn Fingleton replied (in the September issue of Number 1 Shimbun) as follows:

To the Editor of the Number 1 Shimbun

Professor Gregory Clark’s letter (August issue) not only completely garbles my analysis of the Japanese economy but reiterates as if there were no issue the standard Japan Times propaganda version of Japan’s lost decade of the 1990s that I have debunked in three books.

It would take me 10,000 words to correct fully his extraordinarily misleading comments. I will content myself here with correcting just one especially significant point – his statement that “some years back he [Fingleton] backed out of a planned FCCJ debate, on the grounds that since the establishment was plotting to get him, questions should not be allowed.” Actually, the person who backed out was my prospective opponent, Jesper Koll, a then-influential analyst at Merrill Lynch Japan. He had agreed to take the other side in a debate in which I undertook to demonstrate that the story of Japan’s “lost decade” was a myth – a myth moreover intended mainly to deflect attention from Japan’s ever-burgeoning trade surpluses. (In this context it may be worth pointing out that Japan’s current-account surplus – more than $212 billion at last count, as recorded by the “CIA Factbook” – represents a near-fourfold rise on the $56 billion total that was considered so unacceptably high by American officials in 1989. It is also worth pointing out that none of the major U.S.-Japan trade disputes of the late 1980s was ever resolved to America’s satisfaction – not even rice.)

In response to an earlier invitation I issued in 1998, Peter Tasker, the reigning No. 1 analyst on Japan as rated by Nihon Keizai Shimbun, agreed at first to debate me but only on condition (1) that our discussion be conducted in the Japanese language, and (2) that he be accompanied on the podium not only by his close intellectual ally Alexander Kinmont but by some Japanese economists. After someone (not me) pointed out that the official language of the FCCJ is English, the British-born Tasker immediately withdrew his offer and shortly afterward left Japan.

I remain as interested as ever in a debate and therefore now through your pages renew my invitation to the five top analysts mainly responsible for the “lost decade” story. Besides Koll and Tasker, these analysts are Robert Feldman and Kenneth Courtis, as well as Kinmont.

As for format, I merely ask that this be a real debate in which my opponent and I have at first 80 minutes to concentrate fully on each other’s arguments before the discussion is opened up. Thereafter we can deal with questions and comments from the audience till the cows come home.

As all of the above analysts have turned down previous invitations, I urge Club president Catherine Makino to intervene personally to persuade them that they are honor-bound to make themselves accountable for what they told foreign correspondents in the 1990s. Either that or they should publicly admit they were wrong.

As a further demonstration of my confidence in my position, I also extend the same invitation to the authors who were most influential in publicizing the “basket case” story: Bill Emmott (author of “The Sun Also Sets”), Michael Porter (“Can Japan Compete?”), Richard Katz (“The System that Soured”), Peter Hartcher (“The Ministry: How Japan’s Most Powerful Institution Endangers World Markets”), and Gillian Tett (“Saving the Sun”). Though, as I understand it, none of these people now lives in Japan, I believe that foundation money may be available to pay for their travel. It goes without saying that alternatively I am prepared to debate them at such venues as Chatham House in London and/or the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington or New York.

As for Clark, I note that he has implicitly conceded my point that “Tokyo is the world capital of press management” and I am grateful for that. If he wants to make a further contribution to the cause of truth, may I suggest he publicize my invitation to the analysts and authors via his Japan Times column (if the newspaper’s editors are agreeable). It would be particularly helpful if all the various invitees were named and their responses to my invitation put permanently on the public record. Over to you, Professor!

Best wishes,
Eamonn Fingleton

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