Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War

Jack London, center left, negotiates passage with a Japanese officer in Korea during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. (Public Domain / Huntington Library)

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship.

Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War: The End of the Golden Age of Combat Correspondence
Michael S. Sweeney and Natascha Toft Roelsgaard
Lexington / Rowman & Littlefield
November 2019

For a war that’s not much talked about these days, the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War was pivotal not just for its antagonists but for the entire world. It launched victorious Japan, the first Asian power to defeat a European one in the modern era, on its destructive path toward imperial expansion, which eventually morphed into World War II. For the Russian Empire, soundly trounced in battle after battle, the defeat marked the end of its military aspirations in the Far East and helped trigger the 1905 Revolution, which led to the 1917 Revolution and all that followed.

Journalism scholars Michael S. Sweeney and Natascha Toft Roelsgaard argue that it also triggered another key historical development in helping to shape the rise of modern forms of propaganda and censorship, particularly as practised in wartime.

In their superbly researched study Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War, they argue that Japan’s then-unprecedented treatment of Western war correspondents helped establish a template that has persisted around the world to greater or lesser degrees to this day.

As newspapers grew and flourished throughout the 19th century, war correspondence was integral to that growth. American and European reporters who covered some of the major conflicts of that century – the US-Mexican War, the American Civil War, the Boer War in South Africa – were able to do so fairly freely. The armies hosting war correspondents imposed varying levels of oversight so as to ensure strategic secrets were not let out prematurely, but outside of that they allowed war correspondents fairly free rein.

That trend changed profoundly in 1904. With the war against Russia imminent – the two expanding powers were increasingly in each other’s way as they sought territory and influence in mainland Asia — Japan was unprepared for the arrival of more than a hundred American and European reporters who descended on Tokyo, expecting to be supported in their efforts to get to the front lines and cover the war for their respective nations.

Unlike Western countries, Japan had never had anything like a free press. The early spate of Japanese newspapers that appeared in the mid-19th century had only a few years of freedom before the new Meiji Imperial government clamped down on them, arresting editors and shutting the offices of any critical opposition voices. Those that remained were docile and followed the official government line. The formation of press clubs, conduits of official information between the government and the public, helped facilitate this process.

So the sudden arrival of hordes of Western journalists, with their expectations of press freedoms, posed a dilemma for the Japanese government. On the one hand, it wanted the respect of its Western peers and also needed the war loans it was receiving from allies like Great Britain. Yet Japanese officials were unwilling to accede to reporters’ demands for access to the front lines. For the first several months of the war, journalists remained stuck in Tokyo, treated immeasurably well by the Japanese government (which put on grandiose parties, lavish entertainment, and tours of the islands) but immensely frustrated at their inability to cover the war as they had set out to do.

Eventually, grudgingly, after several well-known reporters gave up in frustration and left, the Japanese government somewhat relaxed its position. This was the result of several factors. Journalists lobbied their respective governments to bring pressure to bear on Japan and collectively threatened to stop reporting official government releases unless they had freer access to do their own reporting. Access to European war loans was threatened if freer coverage was not allowed.

Change was also the result of a Japan buoyed by tremendous victories, which earnestly wanted to share its good fortune with the world and needed a cooperative Western press in order to do so. At the same time, its muzzling the press meant that when Japan complained – rightly – about war crimes and atrocities being perpetrated by the Russians, western countries did not believe them because there were no reporters on site to provide independent verification. Russia, meanwhile, allowed reporters accredited with its government much freer access to cover its side of the conflict, and this increased pressure on Japan to do the same, lest it lose the goodwill of eager war correspondents and the nations they represented.

At times, cooperation helped journalists advance their cause: they signed joint petitions of complaint to the Japanese government or called on officials in their home countries to bring pressure to bear on Japan. At other times, professional jealousy and competition held sway. Famed novelist Jack London, on assignment for the Hearst newspaper chain, managed to make it to the mainland stomping grounds of the two armies on his own but was sent back to Japan at the demand of his indignant colleagues in Tokyo, who were jealous of his ability to cover the war while they sat waiting for proper authorization that never showed up.

Meanwhile, Colliers Weekly photographer Robert L. Dunn took advantage of his being the first photographer to arrive on the battlegrounds of mainland Asia to buy up all the scant photographic supplies to be had in the region. His goal was to equip himself and deprive the other news photographers of vital supplies.

Reporters showed tremendous initiative, not only in getting to the story but also in getting the story out. The war coincided with early experiments in radio technology, and journalists like Lionel James (reporting for the Times of London and the New York Times) sought creative ways to apply the technology, never-before-used in journalism, to their work. The existing use of telegraphs to transmit stories meant that stories were vulnerable at every telegraph relay station to be altered or censored, and often what arrived at the reporter’s press agency was a very different story from the one they initially wrote. Radio promised to shorten and circumvent this circuitous arrangement.

James jury-rigged a makeshift radio transmitting tower on a boat, and then trawled the seas and coastlines for signs of battle which could be transmitted quicker and more directly to waiting newspapers. It was an ingenious display of creative, DIY journalistic ethos. Both Japan and Russia were initially caught off guard by the new technology, but hastily sought to clamp down on it. Russia bluntly forbade the use of radios by journalists, threatening them with espionage charges (and possible execution) if caught. Japan also moved to constrain the free movement of James’ radio vessel, and in the end the creative and enterprising reporter gave up in frustration. But the technology itself had been shown to work surprisingly well, and this helped pave the way for its further commercialization in the years that followed.

The ways in which war correspondents were perceived at home bore both similarities and differences to the present. During major conflicts (the US wars on Iraq come to mind) war correspondents for major networks often still become household names, now as then. But the war correspondents commissioned by major newspapers in those days weren’t necessarily career journalists (although some were); several were popular and bestselling novelists of the day (Jack London, Richard Harding Davis, John Fox Jr., among others). The newspapers hoped that by dispatching famous writers, it would help generate interest in their papers and sell copies. In a world where video coverage of conflict did not exist, the novelists put their full narrative flair to work in depicting scenes of battle for readers. Indeed, some papers announced their impending war coverage with all the marketing pizazz of a new blockbuster adventure fiction series.

The Russo-Japanese war took place at a time when photographic technology was rapidly advancing, and in many ways it was the first conflict where both photographers and illustrators were able to compete for pride of place, helping to fuel interesting public debates on which was the superior method of visually reporting a war. The authors include brief biographies and accounts of the exploits of photographers and artists who helped cover the war, in addition to prose journalists.

The conflict prefigured later wars in eerie ways, had anyone the foresight to realize. While the First World War is often referred to as the first ‘modern’ war, it was in fact the Russo-Japanese War that first demonstrated the horrendously devastating impact of modern war technology, including use of machine guns, high-explosive rounds, and trench warfare. The horror of these new tools and methods of warfare were extensively reported on by journalists in the field, and the world would come to know them to even more devastating effect when they were deployed in Europe a decade later.

The war also revealed to western reporters the increasingly manic ethos of patriotism and self-sacrifice that was being inculcated in Japan. The solemn preparation for suicide attacks, prefiguring those of kamikaze squadrons in World War II, were observed by reporters who at the time thought them admirable and romantic. Japanese commanders, meanwhile, flagrantly sacrificed their soldiers’ lives in daring yet strategically stupid frontal assaults on Russian positions. The Western reporters noted that less flamboyant attacks would have saved the lives of many Japanese soldiers, but the Japanese commanders wanted to show off their troops’ iron discipline and courage to the Russians and the Western world, no matter the unnecessary cost in lives.

“The only mystery involved is the motive for the decision which caused the Japanese to make the immense sacrifice of life which was bound to result from frontal attacks on impregnable positions,” wrote correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett of the Times of London, who was assigned to the Japanese Third Army besieging the Russian fort of Port Arthur.

Two conflicting principles were at play in the coverage of the war: on the one hand, Japan’s efforts to deploy an unprecedented degree of censorship on war reporting, and on the other, the swashbuckling ethos of the period’s war reporters. Jack London, who got tired of waiting for the bureaucracy to work and made his own way to the war zone, was one example. Another was Hector Fuller, who was sent by the one of the smallest publications on the scene – the Indianapolis News – but wound up with one of the biggest scoops of the war.

Like London and others, Fuller was frustrated by months of waiting for permission to travel to the front, so he undertook a dramatic effort on his own. One of the war’s key battlegrounds was Port Arthur, the Russians’ main base in the Far East, whose port had been blockaded by the Japanese navy (the Japanese army would eventually also lay siege to the city, which surrendered in January 1905). Fuller commissioned a Chinese boat and managed to sneak through the Japanese naval blockade, landing in Port Arthur to the surprise and shock of both sides. The Russians arrested him under suspicion of spying, but he was eventually released. Upon return to Japan his credentials and passport were revoked by the indignant Japanese government, but he’d managed to pull off the biggest scoop of the war by sneaking through the Japanese lines and reporting on the state of the Russian city under siege.

“If I get caught by either side there will be the deuce to pay, but anything is better than this inaction and utter failure,” he wrote to his editors prior to undertaking his adventure. His comments reflect the broader attitude of journalists in that war – a dedication to their craft, coupled with a certain swashbuckling romanticism, but above all an irate sense of indignation at the thought of accepting such an unprecedented level of state-imposed restrictions on their reporting. (Fuller’s story is also an enduring testament to the fact that an intrepid and innovating spirit sometimes matters more than the backing of a big-name paper.)

Italian reporter Luigi Barzini Sr., reporting for the Corriere della Sera, demonstrated a different approach to pulling off good coverage. In contrast to the swashbuckling impatience of American reporters, he played the long game: patiently respecting the Japanese bureaucracy, getting to know Japanese officers, and establishing a cordial connection with his hosts. While other reporters left in frustration, he stuck around, biding his time. It paid off: when Japan finally loosened up on its censorship, he was among the first reporters authorized to head to the front, and his coverage of the later phase of the war, including the Battle of Mukden, is considered perhaps the war’s best.

Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War is a fascinating study of how journalism was conducted in that war (it includes a chapter on the experience of journalists who chose to embed with the Russians as well). It offers brief biographies of some of the fascinating reporters who covered the war, and explores how they navigated the professional and ethical demands of their still-young but very proud discipline.

However entertaining these episodes, the authors’ broader point about press censorship is important in revealing the complex and deliberately constructed nature of contemporary controls on wartime journalism. Japan pioneered all the elements of modern war-time censorship: assigning reporters to embed with particular units, supervised by ‘minders’; restricting information flow through hierarchical formations such as press clubs and daily press briefings; and reviewing and censoring journalists’ submitted articles to a degree never seen before, in an effort to shape public perception about the war.

The Japanese government also pioneered early forms of ‘manufacturing consent’, the authors argue, using a docile domestic press to help inflame patriotic passions and a thirst for war with Russia, and then controlling and rewriting the facts reported from the front lines, in particular those pertaining to casualty numbers and military setbacks. Some reporters, like London, adopted the racist argument that this reflected a fundamental difference between East and West. It did not, as evidenced by the fact that European and American military attaches eagerly absorbed what they observed and learned about Japanese censorship and propaganda in that war and immediately deployed it in almost identical form in their own future conflicts, including the two world wars. It was, lamented many of the reporters, the end of the ‘golden age’ of war correspondence.

Sweeney and Roelsgaard offer a fascinating, engaging, and erudite study of this process, shining an enthralling and thought-provoking light on an often-forgotten conflict, the reporters who covered it, and the impact that war had on shaping the journalism we know today.