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Takashi Oka, Journalist Who Interpreted Japan for U.S., Dies at 96

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Takashi Oka, a journalist who illuminated a rising Japan for American readers during a long career at The Christian Science Monitor and as the first Japanese-born Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, died on Dec. 2 at his home in New York City. He was 96.

His daughters, Megumi and Sakuya Oka, confirmed his death.

In six decades as a journalist, Mr. Oka spent many years as a foreign correspondent, reporting from countries around the world in both war and peace and interviewing leaders like Emperor Hirohito and Margaret Thatcher.

But much of his professional career traced the postwar history of Japan. He began as a young interpreter at the Tokyo war crimes trials; continued, in many ways, as an interpreter of Japan itself for Americans as a correspondent for The Monitor and The Times; launched a Japanese version of Newsweek; and later left journalism to represent one of Japan’s political parties in Washington.

Still energetic later in life, he went on to earn a doctorate at 84.

Mr. Oka started his journalism career as a correspondent for The Monitor in Hong Kong in 1959, having just earned a degree from Harvard. His work took him to Moscow and to Vietnam to cover the war. He then joined The Times in 1968 as Tokyo bureau chief, and was the first in that role to have been born in Japan. (The second was Norimitsu Onishi, in 2003.)

Mr. Oka won praise from both colleagues and readers for penetrating the stereotypes that often clouded American reporting on Japan, presenting a cleareyed picture of the nation that was transforming itself from a war-ravaged ruin into an economic power that challenged American dominance.

Takashi Oka was born in Tokyo on Oct. 21, 1924, and was raised to be bilingual; he learned English from his mother, Fumi Yamada, who had grown up the daughter of a diplomat in the United States and Canada. His father, Masakazu Oka, was the head of the record company RCA Victor Japan.

Having attended international schools from a young age, Mr. Oka dreamed of going to college in the United States. But with the onset of World War II, he was conscripted to work on a farm and later in a munitions factory.

After the war, his facility with English helped him get a job with the legal department of the American occupying authority, and in 1946, at 21, he became the youngest interpreter at the war crimes tribunal, assigned to translate for Hideki Tojo, the imperial army general and prime minister who was ultimately convicted of war crimes and hanged in 1948.

A lifelong Christian Scientist who later became an American citizen, Mr. Oka joined The Christian Science Monitor in Boston in 1954 after completing a master’s program in regional studies at Harvard University.

After leaving The Times in 1971, he worked for The Monitor on and off until the early 1990s, remaining a contributor until 2010. He was one of the first American reporters to enter China after the restoration of diplomatic relations in 1979.

He was later named editor in chief of the Japanese version of Newsweek magazine, which was introduced in 1986, published by a Japanese book and encyclopedia company, TBS-Britannica, with oversight by Newsweek.

After leaving journalism, he became a representative of Japan’s Liberal Party in Washington for three years, beginning in 1999.

At the age of 84, he capped off his career with a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford University, where he wrote a dissertation on Japanese politics.

In addition to his daughters Megumi and Sakuya, he is survived by his wife, Hiro Oka, whom he had met in New York City and married in 1956; and four grandchildren.

Susan Chira, a former Times correspondent and editor who headed the paper’s Tokyo bureau in the 1980s, said Mr. Oka was “one of the wisest and kindest of that era and a mentor to both Japanese and American journalists.”

He expressed some of his wisdom in a 1991 report on American news coverage of Japan. “Don’t rush to conclusions,” he was quoted as advising fellow journalists. “Be tactful. If you are new to Japan, you will be overwhelmingly aware of the differences with the U.S. But these differences are less important once you go below the surface.”

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