Japan Echo

Vol. 37, No. 2, April 2010


JAPAN ECHO GETS THE AX This will be the last issue of Japan Echo. At some point during the coming fiscal year it is slated for reincarnation as an online publication, but as of this writing in early March the details—including the title, launch date, publisher, and makeup of the editorial board—have yet to be settled.

Every year for the past several years the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Japan Echo has been reduced, and I was quite aware that the journal would probably not continue to be published in its present form much longer. Even so, I had no idea that it would get the ax suddenly like this in my third year as editor in chief. Let me briefly explain how this came to pass.

The Democratic Party of Japan won a sweeping victory in the House of Representatives election last August 31, and on September 16 DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio took office as prime minister. The new administration’s Government Revitalization Unit, headed by Sengoku Yoshito, formed a budget-screening panel to review some of the programs included in the budget requests for fiscal 2010 (year starting April 2010), and on November 25 the screeners looked at the Foreign Ministry’s appropriations for public relations, including its funding for the Japanese monthly Gaiko Forum, the quarterly Nippon (published in English and other languages), and Japan Echo.

According to the materials distributed by the budget-screening panel that day, these appropriations were being targeted for two reasons: (1) The Foreign Ministry every year purchases 110,000 copies of the monthly Gaiko Forum, published by Toshi Shuppan, which it distributes to scholars, university libraries, National Diet members, media organs, and others, but those who want this publication could buy it for themselves; there seems to be no need for the Foreign Ministry to buy large numbers of copies and distribute them. (2) The Foreign Ministry every year also purchases 800,000 copies of Nippon, published by Heibonsha, and 50,000 copies of Japan Echo, published by Japan Echo Inc., as foreign-language PR publications and distributes them to intellectuals overseas, but the contents of these two publications are similar to that of Highlighting Japan, the online PR magazine of the Cabinet Office, so it is questionable whether the Foreign Ministry needs to carry out this PR activity separately.

The time allowed for the screening of these publications was 30 minutes. And most of this was spent discussing the Foreign Ministry’s purchases of Gaiko Forum. The screeners’ assessment was that the requested appropriation should be cut 20%–30%. The website of the Government Revitalization Unit posted the following appraisal: "In the course of the discussions on this occasion, many opinions were expressed concerning the purchases of public relations magazines. The discussions focused on the fact that national government funds have been used for a long time to purchase magazines put out by private-sector publishers and the question whether this practice should continue to be implemented. Purchases of PR magazines are to be abolished."

After this, late in November, representatives of the responsible organs within the Foreign Ministry entered into discussions with the Ministry of Finance concerning the fiscal 2010 appropriations for Japan Echo and Gaiko Forum. The following problem points came up: (1) the difficulty of securing budget funding for paper-media public relations, (2) the fact that purchases of private-sector publications have continued for a long time, (3) the favoring of particular companies through single-tendering contracts, and (4) the size of the appropriations. And around this time we started to hear rumors that these two publications were to be halted.

Meanwhile, the results of the budget screening had provoked a great deal of debate. A particular focus of attention was the funding for promotion of next-generation supercomputing technology. One of the screeners, a DPJ legislator, suggested that it was not necessary for Japan to aim for first place in this field, and the panel recommended slashing the appropriation to virtually nil. A group of Nobel laureates and many others, including scientists and graduate students, published a declaration opposing this proposed move. And on December 2, at the initiative of such figures as the University of Tokyo’s Professor Kitaoka Shin’ichi and Managing Director and Executive Vice President Tanaka Akihiko, a group of scholars and researchers in the fields of international politics, area studies, and the history of diplomacy issued an appeal for continuation of the Foreign Ministry’s purchases of Gaiko Forum and Japan Echo. In addition, informal contacts were undertaken with Minister for Foreign Affairs Okada Katsuya, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Fukuyama Tetsurô, and others to explain the importance of these two publications and urge that they be kept alive.

These efforts seem to have had some effect. In mid-December, the discussions between the Foreign Ministry and MOF reached a conclusion regarding Japan Echo. The relevant appropriation would be reduced by 30%, and purchases of the journal by the Foreign Ministry would be halted. Instead the ministry would commission production of a similar English-language periodical as an online publication by an outside organization—to be chosen not under a single-tendering contract but through competitive submissions of plans.

LOOKING BACK The first issue of Japan Echo was published in September 1974. The first editor in chief, Seki Yoshihiko, related the events leading to its launch in his memoirs, Watashi to minshushugi (Democracy and I), as follows: In April of that year, Hasegawa Kazutoshi, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Overseas Public Relations Division, approached Seki, who was a professor emeritus at Tokyo Metropolitan University, and asked him to take charge of a new quarterly journal that would present English translations of articles from Japan’s major monthlies so as to introduce Japanese intellectual activity to foreign readers. Seki agreed, subject to three conditions: (1) Steps should be taken to assure continuity and avoid letting the new publication suffer the fate of the many bureaucratic undertakings that end when the head of the bureau or division in charge is transferred. (2) In order to keep the publication from being government propaganda, though the views of the Foreign Ministry are to be considered, the editor in chief is to have final say over the editorial content. (3) The publishing organization will not provide amakudari (literally "descent from heaven," also known as "golden parachute") jobs for ex-bureaucrats.

Over the 35 years since then, Japan Echo has fulfilled its original mission, offering non-Japanese readers translations of articles, essays, and dialogues printed in such Japanese publications as Chûô Kôron and Bungei Shunjû concerning politics, the economy, society, culture, and other topics. From 1974 through 1996 it was published as a quarterly, along with special issues, which generally came out once a year. Since 1997 it has been published on a bimonthly basis. And the conditions set by Seki Yoshihiko have been observed this entire time.

Eight people have served as editors in chief of Japan Echo, starting with Seki, who held the post from 1974 through 1983. Two who served especially long periods were Kumon Shumpei (1986–88 and 1991–94) and Iwao Sumiko (1997–2008). Also, among the current members of the editorial board, Takashina Shûji has served for 26 years, Nariai Osamu for 13, and Kondô Motohiro and Kojima Akira both for 12. Japan Echo could not have survived all this time without the contributions of such people. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them.

LOOKING AHEAD As I noted above, Japan Echo is due to be reborn as an online publication sometime during the year ahead. Though this will be the final issue of Japan Echo as a paper journal, I am glad that at least there will be a forum for the dissemination of English translations introducing some of the various discussions taking place on the pages of the Japanese media about Japan’s politics, economy, society, and culture. I hope that the new online publication wins a wide readership. And in closing, I would also like to express special thanks to Hayashi Teiji, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Planning Division, for his great contribution in making this "rebirth" possible. (Shiraishi Takashi)

© 2010 Japan Echo Inc.