World of Difference: Ko Shioya
“WPI made me want to be a bigger fish in a bigger pond.”
Ko Shioya, 1967 WPI fellow from Japan, was North American bureau chief, editor-at-large, Bungei Shunju, Ltd. (Japan’s leading publisher of books and magazines) in New York, when interviewed for this story.
by Frank Jossi
Chicago stands out in Ko Shioya’s memory as the place where he had a chance to investigate the way Americans live as well as the country’s Japanese heritage. While working for Chicago’s Associated Press bureau in February 1967 as part of the WPI program, Shioya, then 26, spent an entire week of nights with a city police officer, visiting skid row and seeing the tragic state of many alcoholic Native Americans who lived on the streets.
He was busy during the days, too, interviewing such people as the legendary Mayor Richard Daley and Tokyo Rose, the bilingual Japanese American woman whose propaganda-laden radio broadcasts during World War II were more funny than effective in their attempts to influence American GIs. (The woman he interviewed, he learned, was one of 14 Tokyo Roses used by the Japanese government for propaganda.)
In and around Chicago, Shioya met with many Japanese and Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps by the U.S. government during the war, and many Americans who thought dropping the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities had been a horrible idea. “Americans can entertain various ideas and opinions. Not everyone thinks similarly, as is the case often in Japan,” he says. “I was relieved many people felt badly about the war itself….There’s a pacifism in America that I didn’t know before I came.”
Shioya took classes at Macalester and spent many nights talking about America with Bob Elliott ’42, a business attorney. Bob, who died of cancer the following year, and Betty Flad Elliott ’42 and their four children were Shioya’s host family in St. Paul. The Elliotts “gave me good feelings for America that have influenced my dealings with Americans ever since,” Shioya wrote in a 1990 tribute to them. “We Japanese are profoundly family oriented, and the Elliotts made me part of an American family.”
Traveling and living with journalists from other countries was both frustrating and enlightening, although Shioya prefers to recall fondly the deep friendships he developed, especially with the Finnish writer Veikko Pajunen and the Ethiopian Kebede Anissa. Anissa was killed while covering a coup in his country a few years after Shioya visited him in Ethiopia in 1970. Not long ago, Pajunen called to ask what Shioya recalled about meeting President Lyndon Johnson. In the midst of writing his memoirs, the Finn had only a dim recollection of the interview and Shioya himself had trouble remembering anything significant Johnson said. They agreed that the president looked like a tired man caught in a fractured decade. They shared a laugh over the fact that the most influential person the WPI group had met turned out to be one of the least interesting.
After the program ended in June 1967, Shioya spent a few years in the New York and Tokyo bureaus of AP before becoming editor of the Reader’s Digest Japanese edition. He later worked as an independent journalist, covering the Gulf War and the collapse of Yugoslavia for Japanese magazines. He now serves as editor-at-large and bureau chief in New York for Bungei Shunju, Ltd., publisher of nine magazines, including Bungei Shunju Monthly, an influential general interest magazine with a circulation of half a million.
Reflecting on his time with WPI, Shioya, now 58, says the most important lesson he learned was how to be an aggressive reporter willing to dig beneath the surface to explore every angle of a story. Japan has a notoriously timid press, unwilling in most cases to deeply question government officials, authority or cultural figures, he says. He came to the U.S. as a boy wonder of Japanese journalism and left a humbler man who knew he had just received great instruction. WPI also added fuel to the fire of his ambition, making him want to go beyond Japan and cover international issues.
His work habits changed, too. “I saw how some of these guys were better researchers than me; they left no stone unturned in the investigative reporting they did. I learned from them sometimes you have to be confrontational with people you’re interviewing. In Japan you try to be a nice guy but in that way you never get the real story. Now I have become accustomed to asking very pointed questions, which often rub them [interviewees] the wrong way. I have become very inquisitive–and don’t mind being confrontational when necessary. However, I believe there is basically a way for journalists to be inquisitive without being overly confrontational and unpleasant, and that’s something I learned in the U.S.”.