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Fighting words: Why is military language rife in Japanese media?

Newspaper journalists are seen playing Go at their local bureau during a break in their coverage of army exercises held in Hokkaido, in October 1936. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Troops, reserves, unit 1, unit 2 -- you hear these words and assume we're talking about war, but actually they're all still commonly used jargon in Japan's mass media industry. With a little reflection, it's apparent that it's not just mainstream media using terms like tactics, logistics and even big guns; it appears, actually, that words of a marshal origin have been rife in our daily lives for some time.

    But how far should we allow the use of the language of warfare? With this in mind, we decided to interrogate that idea as two reporters who are part of the same media industry.

    "Do you know what they'll call you once you've been assigned? Troops. If you're in a newspaper firm, think of yourself as joining the military." I (Shu Furukawa) was told by an older, male journalist before I joined the Mainichi Shimbun eight years ago. I was skeptical, and thought: "The military? In this day and age?" But when I got into the company, I was shocked.

    Military language was in use everywhere. Reporters without a fixed area of reporting were called "reserves," groups of reporters investigating the same story were classed as "Unit 1" and "Unit 2." When a serious incident or natural disaster took place, the reporting base at the scene was called "front-line headquarters."

    In this file photo, reporters are seen covering the conflict between police and the United Red Army during the Asama-Sanso hostage incident in the town of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, in February 1972. (Mainichi)

    Though it feels a bit anachronistic, these terms are still used inside newspapers. Both of us (Furukawa, Kazushi Machidori) were "troops" in our first postings covering police activities, and in doing so were "combatants" in the "reporting battle." Additionally, an acquaintance in the TV news business has confirmed they also use the "troops" and "reserves" terms at their workplaces.

    We decided to find out where this trend comes from.

    When ties between newspapers and the military are mentioned, what comes to mind is the way papers effectively became propaganda leaflets for the military during World War II. Wasn't it in this period that militaristic language entered the business?

    But when we spoke to Reiko Tsuchiya, a media history specialist and professor at Waseda University, she cited an unexpected origin. She prefaced her remarks as her theory, before going on to say that the appearance of military jargon in the newspaper business likely dates back more than 100 years, to the period after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).

    "The Russo-Japanese War was, for the newspaper business, a huge event that you might say was a watershed. Newspapers first established city news departments after the Russo-Japan War," she said.

    Then Minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games Seiko Hashimoto, right, is seen speaking to gathered reporters after tendering her resignation to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, at the prime minister's office in February 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    As the newspapers which first came to prominence in the early Meiji period (1868-1912) began to see greater sales, they found that what readers wanted from them was news on the state of wars, crimes and other society-related topics. Newspapers sold particularly well during wartime. According to Tsuchiya, the major newspapers saw sales jump from some 50,000 copies each to around the 100,000 mark after the Russo-Japanese War. It was then that the societally focused city news departments were set up in newspapers.

    During the Taisho period (1912-1926) new businesses, including event-related ones such as high school baseball tournament organizers, began to emerge while the arrangement of editorial departments progressed. For Tsuchiya, it's possible that this period, when what we see as the basic shape of Japan's newspaper companies today was coming together, is when military language started to become part of the industry's jargon.

    "The Russo-Japanese War was when the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy worked together to fight large-scale battles at sea, and the use of machineguns and other factors put the conflict at the technological forefront of warfare in terms of military history. With that timing, it seems possible that the uptake of military jargon in Japan's newspapers started there. I think perhaps they felt there was something appealing about using the cutting-edge military's words," Tsuchiya said.

    But why are these military terms still used today? Didn't Japanese newspapers start over after World War II, reflecting on their roles in fueling militarism? On this question, Tsuchiya gave a stern response: "Newspapers may have a weak sense of developing staff as individual journalists. It suggests they are ultimately one part of the company, a member of a troop. Whatever way you look at it, the word soldier suggests a sort of institutionalized figure under command, who must do as they are told."

    She added that it appears to have a connection with longstanding and often-highlighted issues in the newspaper industry, including the culture of long hours and limited numbers of female staff and senior employees. "That this kind of male-oriented social system, which doesn't reject working long hours or out of hours work, hasn't been changed is probably linked to the continued usage of militaristic language."

    What we learned about the events behind our use of militaristic terms in mass media and the emphasis on its problematic elements made sense. But military language isn't just used in the newspaper business and other mass media, it's pervasive in everyday life, too. Among those widely used across various fields are, in the business world, the words "tactics," and "front line," in sports there's "crush the enemy," "main guns," and in elections there's "marching to war ceremony" (meaning "campaign kickoff ceremony") and "duels" for referring to a head-to-head race.

    How far should we go to avoid using marshal terms? Hiroaki Iima, a Japanese language scholar and dictionary editor, commented, "Calling journalists 'troops' gives the impression that people are treated lightly, it's not good usage. It should be avoided." But he rejected the idea that military language needs to be expunged once and for all from daily life: "Terms like 'marching to war ceremony' and 'duels' have become a fixed part of how we talk about elections and other topics, and I think it would be impossible to try to go that far to change those terms. There's no need to go out of our way to avoid words used commonly."

    He explained further, "It's not uncommon for words that were in use in a certain field to spread and take root in general usage. They include expressions from the board game Go, like letting someone take the first move (which now means respecting someone), or the now general negative term 'dame,' which refers to a piece neither player can use, or the sumo terms to seriously compete or to make an unexpected comeback in a bout, among other words, as well as other terms whose origins can be traced to field-specific jargon used in sports, performing arts, the stock market and elsewhere. Rather than thinking of these as fixed concepts, it's probably best to consider the suitability of the terms in each situation."

    It's not just a case of only having to totally exclude military language. What seems to be important is using a word as necessity requires. Given this, how should those of us in the reporting business approach our use of military terms?

    Iima offered this advice: "It's forward-thinking to want to consider ways of reporting with new words. But, what I want you to be careful of, is that it won't do even if you just straighten up the words you use. If, for example, behind an election, a campaign provides cash to voters, but the words flying around to describe it are clean ones, then they'll have no meaning. Even if only the words are clean, reality won't be."

    We should stop casually using military terms that are big on bravado but lack necessity. At the same time, in the background of this is a need to look again at this outdated state of affairs, and we want to keep that in mind as members of the industry.

    (Japanese original by Shu Furukawa, Political News Department, and Kazushi Machidori, Tokyo Contents Web Operation Center)

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