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  • Public Opinion, Propaganda, Ideology: Theories on the Press and Its Social Function in Interwar Japan, 1918–1937 by Fabian Schäfer
  • Barak Kushner (bio)
Public Opinion, Propaganda, Ideology: Theories on the Press and Its Social Function in Interwar Japan, 1918–1937. By Fabian Schäfer. Brill, Leiden, 2012. x, 191 pages. €99.00.

Fabian Schäfer takes the reader on an intellectual journey, during a period pregnant with meaning, concerning the idea and uses of a public press in Japan. He details the academic debates surrounding these themes in six fairly disparate chapters, ranging from the Taisho era and the explosion of popular media in Japan, through the interwar era after World War I until 1937 and the moment just before total war completely inhibited and stunted Japanese publishing discourse. As the author tells us, this era of almost two decades was in some ways the high point of intellectual development during prewar Japan regarding public media. At times Schäfer’s thesis is clear: he aims to dissect the debates around which Japanese intellectuals conceived [End Page 431] of and understood the press. This is an admirable goal that he attacks with relish, leaving no citation unused and no archive untouched. Unfortunately, at the same time, Schäfer occasionally gets sidetracked by the minutiae of the individuals he analyses, so readers are fed more information on the ideology angle and less on how these discussions later developed into propaganda plans or influenced the evolution of public opinion. This is also a book centered on the key intellectuals who staffed the debates. Men who worked in the media and for the government as well—such as the former editor of the Asahi shinbun, Ogata Taketora, and others—are left out of the picture. What remains in this fine exegesis is a philosophical melange of how the Japanese intelligentsia viewed the emerging social and political roles of mass media. I am not sure all the chapters necessarily connect in terms of offering a strong narrative to a neophyte reader and that might be why the title has several commas—to show the interconnection among these disparate fields. Schäfer assumes a fair amount of historical knowledge, and consequently this book will be accessible mostly for higher-level graduate students or researchers, but it is of great value to the field and impressively researched.

Meiji men of talent, such as Fukuzawa Yukichi, talked about the media, a new element of modern Japanese society, and claimed it was one of the four tools of enlightenment. Tsuda Mamichi saw the press as a great moralizer, while Fukuchi Gen’ichirō announced that the press was necessary for democracy. None of them could foresee what the press would become in Japan—simultaneously a tool of the state and merely a quotidian account of events—but they never set the fourth estate in the United States and Europe as its model. The formation of modern media in Japan came with the Meiji Restoration. At first the government tried to quell these moves, but by 1870, with the appearance of the first Japanese daily, Yokohama mainichi shinbun, and in 1872 the Tōkyō nichi nichi shinbun, the authorities realized media could also be used as a weapon of the state to corral the newly minted imperial subjects. As the Meiji era advanced during the 1880s, and as calls for a national Diet and constitution grew, so did party-sponsored newspapers that also faced an escalation of press laws designed to squash the popular rights movement. Schäfer notes that while Japan may have been slower in its industrial rise, the pace of the birth of its modern media was not that far off from other countries.

It is perhaps the chapter on transnational contexts, outlining the intellectual flows during the 1920 and 1930s, where Schäfer’s expertise lies in proffering more in-depth insight into how the Japanese modeled their mass media on German foundations. Ono Hideo, the grand “meister” of media research, who ultimately was able to create the first institute for the study of newspapers at the Imperial University of Tokyo, believed the press had two functions: mediatory (rapidly broadcasting news about current...


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pp. 431-435
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