Broadcasting and War
Mar. 22, 2016
On March 22, 1925, Japan's first broadcaster took to the airwaves. The radio service was the predecessor to NHK. Ten years later, it added overseas programs that would come to play a role in the war.
Soon after the service started, Japan became isolated amid rising tensions with China. And as Japanese forces went to war, the overseas broadcasts became a major tool for propaganda.
The purpose of the overseas broadcasts was to strengthen friendships with other countries. It mainly used English to reach listeners abroad.
Susumu Mizuniwa was an announcer in those early days.
"We felt we were doing something special, something not just anyone could do. We all took great pride in our work," he recalls. "I think the number of English speakers in the service outnumbered those at the Foreign Ministry."
As the war with China intensified and fighting in the Pacific broke out, the Imperial Japanese military deepened its involvement in the overseas service.
The broadcast exaggerated reports of Japan’s military achievements, and the damage inflicted on US forces was overstated. The military demanded that no program could be aired without its approval.
The broadcasts were aimed in particular at US troops fighting in the Pacific theater. Young women addressed the enemy using seductive voices. It was meant to weaken the will to fight.
"Hello dear, you guys working somewhere in that cooler water of the Pacific. This is your playmate Orphan Anne," a female voice said in one broadcast on Aug. 15, 1944. "I’m going ahead to give you this and that music can start all about it. Thank you, honey."
They even aired American music, which was prohibited in Japan at the time. Radio stations were set up in Japanese-occupied areas across the Asia-Pacific.
As the war entered its final days and US bombers took a heavy toll on major Japanese cities, a bunker was dug into a mountainside about 200 kilometers west of Tokyo.
The Imperial Palace and military commanders were planning to set up their operations here to resist the enemy.
Inside the bunker, one of the rooms was reserved for the overseas broadcasting service. They never moved in, but the bunker shows how important the overseas service was to Japan's leaders at that time.
Some of the journalists had become disillusioned with the military's propaganda. They were determined to broadcast what they felt the public needed to know, in defiance of military orders.
After US atomic bombs leveled the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese military limited reporting on the attack. Commanders ordered that the words "atomic" and "nuclear" not be used.
But the overseas service described the damage in detail, using the expression “nuclear bombs.”
"Around 10 o’clock Thursday morning, two heavy bombers attacked Nagasaki city, what appears to be nuclear bomb. Details not yet available, pending investigation," the announcer said on Aug. 11, 1945.
Resistance from journalists grew when the Japanese government was poised to accept the Potsdam Declaration, ending the war. They aired the news on Aug. 10, before the official announcement went out to the Japanese public.
Koichi Sumitomo was a reporter for the service at the time. He recalled what happened on that day.
"A man from the Foreign Ministry rushed into the newsroom and told me to air this story. I was surprised to see the memo saying the Japanese government was ready to accept the Potsdam Declaration," Sumitomo remembers.
Foreign Ministry documents we obtained show that top officials had decided to prevent more needless death by quickly informing the US about Japan’s surrender.
Sumitomo knew his action would be seen as traitorous. A document reveals that after the news went out several times, military officers stormed the newsroom and stopped the broadcasts.
But Sumitomo had torn up and thrown away the script. The officers couldn't find the evidence.
A few days later, the Japanese government accepted the Potsdam Declaration. And on Aug. 15, the Emperor himself delivered the news to the public. The war was finally over.
"Broadcasting, whether it’s domestic or overseas, needs to convey the truth," Mizuniwa says. "But once war breaks out, it’s difficult to keep governments from meddling in the media. It’s hard for us to resist them."
NHK World's chief correspondent, Yoichiro Tateiwa, joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.
Beppu: In the video, Mizuniwa said that once war breaks out, government increasingly interferes in the media. And he says it's hard for journalists to resist the government's pressure. I think the problem is not one that's limited to the past.
Tateiwa: I totally agree with you. Broadcast media can be very influential so governments try to use it for their purposes, no matter when or where. NHK today is totally different from the prewar broadcaster that came before it. NHK is a public broadcaster and it's not under government control. But I think we always have to be careful about the issue Mizuniwa mentioned.
Shibuya: But Japan wasn't the only country that used radio propaganda during World War Two.
Tateiwa: Broadcasters in all countries were more or less engaged in propaganda. It was as if they were competing with one another. The BBC used the radio for propaganda to control its colonies, such as India. The BBC initially aired stories only in English. That's because of Britain's colonial policies. But later, they began broadcasting in India with local languages.
Records show that officials wanted to counteract Japan's overseas radio, which used local languages in India to talk directly to the people. In the US, the government's Voice of America went on the air at that time. Records show that officials wanted something like the Japanese overseas services on Pacific battle fields.
Beppu: What do you think are the lessons we can draw from this prewar story of pressure on broadcasters. Well, my take is that this stresses the importance of journalists' integrity.
Tateiwa: What impressed me most about the story was Sumitomo's actions. It must have required a lot of courage for Sumitomo to prepare the script announcing Japan was ready to accept the Potsdam Declaration.
He did it before the government's formal decision. The balance of power between the Foreign Ministry and the military was clear. The Imperial military at the time had greater power. If he was caught, he would not have escaped blame by saying the ministry provided the story. But he decided to go ahead with it. He made a reasonable and clear decision that the war must end.
It's true that wartime broadcasting was under strong government control, and some may wish to forget this. But I believe that episodes like Sumitomo's must be passed on, to serve as reminders of what journalists should do.