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Monday, March 8, 1999

The view from the 20th floor

Staff writer
FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS IN JAPAN, edited by Charles Pomeroy, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1998, 367 pp., 3,700 yen (cloth).

The image Japan projects abroad comes not only from the government or big business; it also arises from a certain private club occupying the 20th floor of a building overlooking the Ginza in Tokyo.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan was organized by and for the journalists who report on this country to news organizations around the world. To commemorate the club's 50th anniversary, a group of members got together and compiled this year-by-year account of its history.

For the average reader, such a book offers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at all the big postwar news stories. For the news people themselves, however, flipping through these pages must be like looking at an old college album. Journalism's Japan hands can enjoy the same nostalgic self-congratulation, recall the accomplishments of honored predecessors and perhaps even find their own names duly mentioned.

Back in 1945, when it all started, the foreign correspondent was invariably a war correspondent. Reporting on World War II battles gave way smoothly to reporting on the Occupation, and some 35 to 40 newspapermen actually lived at the newly established club, since few other habitable buildings were available.

Things had scarcely started getting comfortable in Japan before the Korean War broke out in 1950. Frank Gibney recalled, "We all became war correspondents -- which most of us had been for starters -- and with a mixture of excitement and reluctance got the old uniforms out of the mothballs." Day Inoshita added, "It was like 1945 again, only more so, as correspondents and photographers came pouring in from America, Europe and Asia." During the three-year war, 18 correspondents were killed.

From the late 1950s on, however, the club settled down to a slow transformation into what it is today, a comfortable and even dignified place to meet professional peers. The reporters all moved out into their own apartments, making room for nicer restaurant and bar facilities as well as the library. The club had constant financial worries and moved several times. And it held regular meetings and parties, each apparently a little less rowdy or bawdy than previous ones.

In many places this book gives a truly absurd juxtaposition of momentous news events with petty squabbles at the club. Concerning the fall of Saigon in 1975, for example, one report stated: "FCCJ members who fled Vietnam barely had time to catch their breath before being flung into yet another fracas -- the club's annual elections in June."

To be fair, the club's administrative activities have also included such useful efforts as lobbying against censorship and breaking down the barriers set up by the Japanese "kisha clubs."

Today just about anyone can join the foreign correspondents' club with a bit of persuasion and about 200,000 yen. It isn't necessary to be a journalist. Perhaps the biggest attraction of the club is the chance it provides to rub shoulders with the famous and the influential.

Speakers at club functions have included just about every world leader imaginable as well as movie stars, athletes, astronauts and intellectuals. The journalist members themselves have included many Pulitzer Prize winners and such well-known names as novelist James Michener and Terry Anderson, who spent some seven years as a captive in Lebanon.

The unique charm of journalism as a profession is that it lets ordinary hometown folks experience the news firsthand or even make the news rather than just hearing about it. Not everyone can be a Dan Rather, but at least it is possible to read this book and reminisce like an old veteran.

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