JACK LONDON’S COVERAGE OF THE RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR AND HIS FUTILE BATTLE WITH JAPANESE CENSORSHIP
Daniel A. Métraux
Mary Baldwin College
Jack London came to the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 looking for excitement. Having just been hired by the vast Hearst newspaper chain to cover the Russo-Japanese War as its chief correspondent, London eagerly accepted the assignment. He longed to be in the thick of battle, dodging bullets and risking mortality. He wished to hear the sounds of rifles and guns, the bursting of shell and shrapnel, and to hear the voices of competing soldiers as they fought to the death. He wished to witness hand-to-hand fighting between Japanese samurai and Russian Cossacks, to view wave after wave of Japanese troops charging Russian fortifications and see the horrible death and destruction that so characterized this first of the deadly wars of the twentieth century.
London wanted to transcribe everything he saw and heard and convey all this in glowing prose for his newspaper readers in the United States. The war would not only energize him, but also give new vitality to his writing. He could win a whole new group of readers because of the wide circulation of Hearst newspapers. London was also leaving a failing marriage and the war provided a perfect excuse to escape the difficult period of transition that often comes with divorce.
Alas, London’s dreams were never fully realized. London did send a stream of feature articles to the Hearst newspapers, twenty-two of which were published along with pictures of daily life in Korea, but they contain very limited news of actual military action. He was in close proximity of several battles in Manchuria early in the war, but never saw any action and garnered very little practical information from Japanese military sources for his newspaper dispatches. The problem, London soon found, was in Japanese censorship and obsession with military secrecy. Japanese policy during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) was to totally control the flow of news and by so doing to create a great propaganda show for the West. Reporters successful in their efforts in getting away from Tokyo found themselves kept in camps far from any real action and fed a constant stream of news of Japanese victories and achievements without any firm details and no real comprehension of what was actually going on.
London’s Expectations as a Correspondent
While marching north following Japanese troops northward through Korea up to the Yalu River where the first fighting was taking place, London reflected on the reasons he had accepted the chance offer of his present employer, the Hearst newspaper chain, to cover the war:
Personally, I entered upon this campaign with the most gorgeous conceptions of what a war correspondent’s work in the world must be. I knew that the mortality of war correspondents was said to be greater, in proportion to numbers, than the mortality of soldiers. I remembered, during the siege of Kartoum and the attempted relief by Wolsely the death in battle of a number of correspondents. I had read “The Light that Failed.” I remembered Stephan Crane’s descriptions of being under fire in Cuba. I had heard—God what was there aught I had not heard of all sorts of and conditions of correspondents in all sorts of battles and skirmishes, right in the thick of it, where life was keen and immortal moments were being lived. In brief, I came to war expecting to get thrills.1
Three months later he was ready to leave Korea and Manchuria. “My only thrills have been those of indignation and irritation.” Even though he had spent over three months with Japanese forces as they moved northward to confront the Russians, he saw no real action and was frustrated every time he tried to pry information from Japanese officers. He grew bored being led on fruitless walking tours Japanese camps far from the front as if he were a Cook’s tourist being led about Rome or Paris. He wrote that when the correspondent
has described two or three invisible battles and has had his conjectures trimmed down by the sensor, he is done for. He can’t go on describing the sounds of rifles and guns; the bursting of shell and shrapnel, and the occasional moving specks for a whole campaign. Nor can he go describing the transport trains in the rear; the only thing he sees too much of and which as yet have not been placed under the taboo of military secret.2
He sarcastically commented on what the Japanese regarded as the role of a foreign correspondent:
The function of a war correspondent, so far as I can ascertain, is to sit up on the reverse slopes of hills where honored guests cannot be injured, and from there to listen to the crack of rifles and vainly search the distance for men who are doing the shooting, to receive orders from headquarters as to what he may or may not do; to submit daily to the censor of his conjectures and military secrets and to observe article 4 of the printed First Army Regulations—to wit: “Press correspondents should look and behave decently, and never should do anything disorderly, and should never enter the office rooms of the headquarters.”3
London’s Experience as a Correspondent
London’s dispatches from Korea and Manchuria make much of his annoyance with Japanese censorship and harassment. He writes at great length of his experience in Japan where he was detained by military authorities for taking what they deemed to be unauthorized pictures. Later he chafed at the inability of the correspondents to interview Japanese troops, to see any action, and to send out uncensored dispatches. Photography was not permitted even of the most benign subjects.
The Japanese in Tokyo always promised that the reporters would be able to see action in the near future, but a week or even a month later most correspondents still found themselves sitting in Tokyo, attending banquets and listening to Japanese government propaganda proclaiming the excellent progress of the war. Most of the correspondents seemed content to remain there, enjoying the great comforts of Tokyo, being spoon-fed propaganda by Japanese government and military officials while they grew fat on endless delicacies served at one banquet after another and chased after geisha girls whenever they could.
After only a few days after his arrival in Tokyo, London made a daring escape from the hotels and social whirl of the Japanese capital.. After an arduous voyage on several small unwieldy ships, London succeeded in arriving in Seoul in late February, 1904. He surprised Japanese officials by suddenly showing up in Seoul just as Japanese troops were set to begin their long march through northern Korea to engage Russian forces waiting for them along the Yalu River that divided Korea and Chinese Manchuria. He observed Japanese forces marching north, but he and the few other reporters who had worked their way into Korea had little access to the Japanese military. He found Seoul to be a most dreary place, endless rows of mud hovels inhabited by over two hundred thousand impoverished citizens and a miserable excuse for an imperial palace where coolies dug a cesspool for a latrine and brought brushwood to heat the structure on a pack train of ponies.
Finally in mid-April, London and the rest of a small group of Seoul-based reporters received word that they would be allowed to move across the Yalu River into Manchuria, but they soon found that their access to the actual fighting was still very limited. They spent much of their time in an isolation center near Antung. By early May they were finally allowed to observe some fighting from a distant vantage point as Japanese forces crossed the Yalu while receiving fire from entrenched Russian forces endeavoring to halt their progress.
Although London traveling across Korea in the dead of winter on bad roads in tandem with the Japanese army and sorely missing the creature comforts of Tokyo, he was no closer to realizing his dream of being in or near the real action. While he and a few other reporters were in Korea and Manchuria, they sat in beautifully made up camps with nothing to do but play bridge and go swimming. Their freedom of movement was generally restricted to the confines of their camp. The Japanese told them that they were close to the front, but London remarked that they were in fact so far away that he could not be certain whether he could actually hear the noise of battle.
The Role of Censorship in the Russo-Japanese War
Japanese censorship during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) provides a sterling example of the problems journalists face when a government attempts to restrict and manage the news. The Japanese government attempted to control the movement of reporters and to impose strict censorship with considerable success. The goal of the Japanese was to keep all foreign journalists as far away from the combat zone as possible. The small handful of reporters like Jack London who were able to surreptitiously link up with the Japanese military found that they were kept far from the front. When they filed reports they had to first clear them with Japanese military officials and they often found that the telegraph transmission and the mailing of their stories had been blocked for days or weeks. The result was that much of the news that readers in the West received was little more than propaganda furnished by the Japanese.
The Japanese saw the dissimulation of news as a form of propaganda that would only benefit their cause. They endeavored to control the flow of news stressing the importance of national security. They contrasted their practices with those of the Russian military which allowed the Russian press to post information about military maneuvers which were of crucial interest to the Japanese. The Japanese military attaché in the Japanese embassy in Berlin routinely read Russian newspapers and telegraphed their news to Tokyo to the benefit of the Japanese military.
Jack London’s personal notebook4 is full of examples of Japanese censorship. There was first the process of trying to get news from the front back to the West. Reporting from the front in the Yalu River region between Korea and Manchuria, London would write a dispatch and give it to a Japanese censor who would take his sweet time before handing back an emasculated version to London for transmission. London would then have to hire a Korean runner to take the dispatch 200 miles south to Pin Yang (now Pyongyang) where there was a Japanese-manned telegraph station. There the dispatch would be wired to Tokyo where another censor might examine it before allowing transmission to San Francisco.
That process was already slow, but Japanese authorities very often put temporary bans on the flow of ordinary mail and telegrams from Korea to Japan. There were also bans on personal travel out of Korea which meant that no Western reporter could carry news on his person for outside dissemination. One such delay occurred between April 27th and May 6th, 1904 when the first fierce battles were occurring along the Yalu between Japanese and Russian forces.
At the same time, dispatches from the Japanese military were sent immediately and directly from the front to Tokyo. Western reporters in Tokyo would therefore hear about a battle very quickly, a full week or more before highly censored dispatches from London and his colleagues would begin to arrive. The problem with the initial reports, of course, is that they came directly from Japanese military sources without any independent verification from more objective Western correspondents.
London in his personal notebook comments that Japanese censors wanted the correspondents’ dispatches to reflect a Japanese point of view. Therefore, while Western reporters in Tokyo very quickly got a Japanese version of some major event, censors were very interested in having dispatches from correspondents like London to verify and further develop the points of view expressed in the initial reports. If the correspondent’s report differed from the official Japanese line, then the transmission or mailing of the article would be held up or even returned to the sender. At other times London felt that the Japanese deliberately garbled messages from the correspondents so as to make them “unintelligible.”
Everything is a military secret
Another matter which greatly annoyed London and his colleagues was trying to pry information from the Japanese military. Everything about the Japanese military mission was a virtual state secret. London commented that:
This [situation] would not be so bad if they did not consider practically everything a military secret. Apropos of this, on his way up country, [this writer] arrives at the village of Kasan. A month has passed. The front had moved up a hundred miles. The correspondent saw a few graves on the hillside. “How many Japanese ware killed?” he asked an officer. The officer was a major. He replied, “I cannot tell you. It is a military secret.”
This may seem far-fetched, but it is not. It is merely typical. On every side is the military secret. The correspondent is hedged by military secrets. He may not move for fear that he will pop on a military secret, though what he may do with a military secret only the Japanese know.5
Once when the Japanese were confronting the Russians near the Yalu, London and his colleagues waited four hours for a briefing from an intelligence officer who finally came to inform them: “At some place, not indicated, ten Japanese cavalrymen saw two squadrons of Cossacks and charged them with drawn sabers. The Cossacks fled.”6
The reporters had to be very vague about what they wrote, but at times these restrictions reached the ridiculous. Even the most benign statement could be interpreted as spreading a military secret. London uses as an example the Japanese building a bridge over the Yalu in plain sight of the Russians. It was in fact a Trojan Horse-style decoy as the Japanese were secretly building another bridge downstream, but London could not write about the decoy bridge. Ironically, he could say that the Japanese were working with timbers by the river—which even the slowest of readers should understand to mean that they were involved in bridge construction.
By late spring London concluded that it was useless to waste one’s time trying to cover the war at our near the front. His frustration comes out in his notebook when he writes: “Japanese authorities in repeatedly censoring dispatches at successive points causing great delay [with] letters and rendering messages unintelligible, with restrictions making independent observation by correspondents impossible except in small area.” The idea of sending reporters to cover the war was good, but if their coverage was greatly restricted and they were fed nothing but propaganda, then it was hardly worth the great expense of sending a correspondent to the scene and a total waste of his time.
The Japanese Mind
London blamed Japanese intransigence when dealing with foreign correspondents with the idea that Japanese and Westerners come from very different cultural traditions which makes intercultural understanding difficult at best. London in his personal notebook writes that there is no tradition of Western journalism in Japan and that the traditional role of the media is very different in Japan than in the West. Japanese, according to London, have an Asiatic mindset that readily accepts Western science and weaponry, but very little else. These cultural barriers make fruitful communication very difficult and honest unbiased reporting virtually impossible.
London thought long and hard as to why the Japanese behaved in such an odd manner in their treatment of foreign correspondents:
The Japanese does not in the least understand the correspondent or the mental processes of the correspondent, which are a white man’s mental processes. The Japanese is of a military race. His old caste distinctions placed the fighting man at the top; next comes the peasant; after that the merchant, and beneath all the scribe. These caste distinctions are practically in force to-day. A correspondent from the West is a man who must be informed by printed instructions that he must dress and behave decently.
The Japanese cannot understand straight talk, white man’s talk. This is one of the causes of so much endless delay. The correspondent talks straight to the Japanese, but he cannot realize that it is straight talk. He feels that there is something at the back of the correspondents’ mind, and the Japanese must have a day or a week to meditate on what is at the back of the correspondents’ mind. Having done this, he has another talk’ but again he must go away and meditate upon what is behind this new talk, and so nothing is accomplished from the correspondent’s point of view.7
The Value of London’s Wartime Reporting
Although Jack London was clearly bitterly disappointed that he missed out on the fighting in Korea and Manchuria, his twenty-two dispatches provide a detailed look at life in Korea and Manchuria at the turn of the last century. London was also a brilliant photo-journalist whose pictures also give one a good impression of the poverty and backward nature of Korean society in the early 1900s.8 What we have in these articles is an example of brilliant feature writing and an in-depth view of the daily lives of Koreans and of Chinese in Manchuria, the disruption that the war brought to the Korean countryside, and the attitudes of the common Japanese soldier as he marched northward towards his confrontation with the Russians.
Just over a year before London went to Korea, he had accepted a job offer to cover the Boer War in South Africa, but the war ended by the time he reached England en route to Africa. Rather than returning to the United States, he spent a month living in London’s impoverished East End to observe living conditions there. His experiences there led to perhaps his most brilliant book, The People of the Abyss. At the time when London wrote this book, the phrase
“the Abyss” was used to refer to the lower strata of society. London here exposes the poverty, starvation and desperation of tens of thousands of people living in the wealthiest city in the world, the very heart of the British empire.
London was a professed socialist whose own impoverished background drew great sympathy for the poverty and hardships of the common laborer in every region he visited. London’s literature presents a very sympathetic view of the common man and a general castigation of the wealthier classes that exploited him. London brilliantly develops this point of view in People of the Abyss. A careful reading of London’s Russo-Japanese dispatches will show that they closely parallel the themes of the Abyss and if published together as a book could rightly be called Koreans of the Abyss.
London in his pictures and dispatches gives a highly sympathetic view of Koreans. He sees them as wretched victims of social and political corruption. Korea was governed by a rigid conservative elite class (yangban) that totally dominated every aspect of life in Korea.9 They owned most of the land, controlled all levels of government, held most of the wealth, and dominated the economy. The common class people (sangmin) and lowborn servile (ch’ônmin) people lived in poverty and had whatever resources constantly taken from them by the local yangban.
London in his dispatches went to great lengths to describe the material poverty of the common man in Korea. He discusses their impoverished villages, starvation diets, lack of education, and poor health. He criticizes their timidity, their lack of a hard work ethic and the like, but does not blame them for their lowly state. The fault, London declares, lies with the corrupt and greedy yangban. London cites as an example the case he witnessed where a company of Japanese soldiers requisitioned some grain and livestock from the peasants of a small village. The Japanese come back to the village to pay for the things they took, but they are told to pay the money to the local yangban ruling official. The official keeps a major portion of the money, only remitting a small pittance to the villagers who sold their goods to the Japanese.
London, who was staying in the village at the time, went to the official’s residence and scolded him. He promised London that he would give the rest of the money to the villagers, but deep down London knew that this was a lie.
Readers interested in the military history of the Russo-Japanese War are advised to peruse Frederick Arthur McKenzie’s 1905 book, From Tokyo to Tiflis: Uncensored Letters from the War.10 McKenzie, a special correspondent for the British Daily Mail, arrived in Korea around the time London came to Seoul, but he stayed much longer and was able to get a much deeper sense of the actual combat than did London. Overall, however, London’s dispatches are of much greater interest because of his focus on the people and living conditions of Koreans and Manchurian Chinese and the effect that the war had on them.
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