From J School to Japan: A Reporter Looks Back

A commentary by Dan Southerland
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UPI Tokyo presents a farewell gift to editor Art Higbee, a champion of tight news leads, 1965.
UPI Tokyo presents a farewell gift to editor Art Higbee, a champion of tight news leads, 1965.
Photo courtesy of Hiroshi Takanose

Following graduation from the Columbia Journalism School in the spring of 1963, I looked for a summer job and then planned to go straight to Asia.

I wanted to be a foreign correspondent using the Asian languages that I’d studied in graduate school.

I had met Henry Minott, the Boston-based United Press International manager for New England. I told him about my study of Chinese and Japanese.

I thought my language skills might be useful to UPI.

Minott made clear that he wasn’t much impressed with my background. For one thing, I had no journalistic experience.

As an undergraduate, I had published a few stories for The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina, but that didn’t count for much.

Minott asked how fast I could type, and I told him.

“Not fast enough,” he said.

But I didn’t give up. A veteran journalist told me that if I got to Tokyo on my own, UPI might pick me up there.

Another failed pitch

Apart from the Cold War, the big story in the U.S. at the time was the struggle for civil rights, particularly in the South.

Seeking a summer job before leaving for Japan, I put in a call to the most famous southern publisher I could think of: Hodding Carter II.

Founder of the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Mississippi, Carter was famous for battling intolerance.

I couldn’t reach Carter but did try to persuade an editor at the paper that I would work hard as a volunteer reporter for several months even if I didn’t get paid for it.

He told me that Hodding Carter already had enough volunteers working for him.

Not everything turned out badly, though.

The Washington Star offered me a job in Washington, D.C., as a general assignment reporter.

I knew the paper well. My parents read it regularly, and in earlier years I had been a paperboy delivering the Star on foot to my neighborhood.

But I didn’t want to work my way up the traditional way—from general assignment reporter to the city hall beat and then up the chain until I could finally get assigned overseas.

I had developed a taste for travel and adventure. I wanted to go places fast. I turned the Star down.

Heading to Tokyo

UPI’s Asia headquarters was located in the Mainichi Shimbun Building  near Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. RFA Graphic
UPI’s Asia headquarters was located in the Mainichi Shimbun Building near Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. RFA Graphic UPI’s Asia headquarters was located in the Mainichi Shimbun Building near Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. RFA Graphic
By now I had saved just enough money to survive in Tokyo for a few months.

Tokyo in the fall of 1963 was not the expensive place that it is today.

But my first approaches to UPI Tokyo got me nowhere. So I played bit parts for a month or two in a couple of very bad Japanese movies.

I would show up in the morning in downtown Tokyo, and Johnny the Turk—the only Turk I knew in Tokyo—would pick a few foreigners out from our line-up to play in a movie.

A bus would drive us to the outskirts of Tokyo where the filming took place. I never got a speaking part. I was just a foreigner sitting in the background for the films.

UPI finally gave me a call.

They offered me a test that involved covering more than half a dozen American governors as they traveled around Japan.

This was not a big story, but I began filing dispatches day and night as we moved by bus from Tokyo southward.

A piece  I filed about the governor of Kansas drew attention back in Kansas City, because the governor had praised Kobe beef, saying that what he tasted beat the product back home.

He wasn’t happy about the story, but I got it right.

Governor George Romney of Michigan was upset when I reported that he had attended a geisha party, although the geishas had entertained the governors in a most respectable way.

The most raucous thing that occurred at the party was a game involving a pillow fight. But that didn’t play well back home, according to Romney.

I pointed out to the governor that I didn’t see or report that anyone was drinking or doing anything else that might have been seen as objectionable back on the home front.

Romney calmed down enough to keep talking with me. He even gave me an expert industrialist’s view of the Nagasaki shipyards, where he found the assembly line to be impressive.

As he described it, Japan was already ahead of the United States in shipbuilding and was about to “kill us.”

At one point late in the trip, the Associated Press sent in a veteran reporter to compete with me. I then stopped sleeping more than a few hours a night and stepped up my production of stories, knowing that I had a job on the line.

A job at last

One night, the editor on the desk in Tokyo, told me that UPI was going to offer me a job for $100 a week. He advised me to try to get $110.

They ended up paying me $105.

I think it was Bill Wright, a UPI veteran and Asia overnight editor, who kindly advised me to ask for a bit more in pay. I’ll always be grateful for that.

Five dollars in additional pay per week made a difference in those days.

I was assigned to the night desk at UPI’s Asia headquarters in Tokyo, located in the building housing the Mainichi Shimbun, one of the big three Japanese newspapers.

One of my jobs on the “overnight” was to carefully monitor China’s official Xinhua News Agency.

American news agencies couldn’t get into China, so this was the only source of official Chinese news that we had.

Watching the Xinhua wire was for the most part a boring job.

But in 1963 Japan was an exciting place to be.

Tokyo Olympics 1964 Opening Ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Tokyo Olympics 1964 Opening Ceremony. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
It was 18 years after the end of World War II. The country was recovering from a devastating defeat, regaining its confidence, and gearing up to host the Olympic Games—the first to be held in Asia.

Tokyo was cleaning up its act before the games. The government shut down pornography shops, and a rising class of entrepreneurs built new hotels, roads, and office buildings.

In addition to working on the UPI night desk, I got to report on a variety of issues and wrote features on an American who became a Zen priest and a Japanese artist who specialized in nothing but creating sculptures of human ears.

I visited the poet Gary Snyder, who was living in Kyoto, and got to know John Nathan, a Japan expert who translated the novels of Yukio Mishima.

John became a wonderful source regarding Japan’s literature and culture.

On a meager income, I was able to rent two rooms in a small Japanese home in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

Too long for a wire service

But my biggest problem with UPI at this point, it seemed, was using an excess of words in my news stories.

One evening I arrived in the office to find a copy of one of my stories with a note marked on it from Art Higbee, one of the top editors in Tokyo.

Higbee must have decided that I needed a wake-up call.

“You used 23 words to write the lead to this story,” said Higbee. “You could have written it in 13.”

I felt that my writing had improved during my year in journalism school, but obviously I was still not writing in the concise style required by a wire service.

And I was now learning that no matter how accurate or informative your reporting is, you can always use an editor.

Higbee's words stayed with me for life.

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