In July 1937, Amelia Earhart, American aviator lionized for her bravery, and navigator Frederick Noonan leftÂ New Guinea, then aÂ territory of Australia, for the tinyÂ United States-owned outpost of Howland Island.
The two were attempting to fly around the world and were in the middle of the most perilous leg of their journey: the island-hopping crossing of the vast Pacific Ocean.
American aviator Amelia Earhart, left, and her navigator, Fred Noonan, right, pose beside their plane with gold miner F.C. Jacobs at Lae, New Guinea just before Earhart and Noonan took off in a flight to Howland Island on July 2, 1937. (AP)
En route to Howland Island, however, their plane disappeared. No clear evidence of their fate has ever been found. There are many theories, but no definitive proof, about what happened to the two between New Guinea and Howland.
Recently, though, someoneÂ found aÂ photo that some alleged was taken somewhere inÂ theÂ Marshall Islands and showed Earhart and Noonan. This photo led to aÂ special History Channel program and muchÂ media coverageÂ by outlets such asÂ CNN. The news reported thatÂ Earhart and Noonan had beenÂ captured and killed by the Japanese military. The photo was used as evidence to support that claim.
This undated photo was aired Sunday, July 9, 2017, on the History channel, argues that Earhart and her navigator, Fred NoonanÂ had beenÂ captured and killed by the Japanese military.(Office of Naval Intelligence/U.S. National Archives via AP)
Giff Johnson, editor-in-chief of theÂ Marshall Islands Journal, took to Facebook with this issue. There, commenters argued that surelyÂ theÂ Japanese government would have records of this capture if it were true, and so must be made to release those records to the public.
Attempt to Sabotage Japan-US Relations
The theory that the Japanese military had taken Earhart and Noonan prisoner had been discussed long ago, but rejected as untrue.Â So why have the same suspicionsÂ and false storiesÂ returned, despite having been thoroughly disproven? Was someone tryingÂ to destroy Japan-US cooperation in the Pacific?
The possibility is not at all far-fetched. Professor Yoichi Hirama, a retired professor at theÂ National Defense Academy of Japan, wroteÂ in a scholarly paper thatÂ the story of Noonan and Earhart having been taken prisoner by the Japanese has repeatedly been ginned up to coincide withÂ tensions between Japan and theÂ US over other issues.
This time around, my suspicions of sabotage were aroused because I hadÂ just discussed withÂ a policymaker friend theÂ possibility of Japan-US cooperation for the Pacific Islands, and in particular at the Eighth Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM) to be held inÂ 2018 and hosted by the Japanese government.
Encouraged by this friend, I had in fact presented aÂ lectureÂ at a special Pacific Islands study committeeâwhose members hailed from the Japanese Dietâwhich stressed the need for Japan-USÂ cooperation in theÂ Pacific Islands. Given the clear push by the US and Japanese governments to enhance their cooperation efforts in the Pacific area, the timing of the photographâs release to the media was too pat to be coincidental.
I visited Giff Johnsonâs Facebook page and wrote, under the posting about the alleged appearance of Earhart and Noonan as prisoners of the Japanese, âThis is fake news.â This in turn attracted intense denunciations by people who claimed they had actually seen Earhart inÂ Saipan or elsewhere. I replied that this was not a rational discussion, andÂ that this is exactlyÂ what had happened previously when attempts were made to stymie cooperation between Japan and the US in the Pacific.
A few days later, aÂ Japanese blogger revealed that the photograph in question was from aÂ photobook published in 1935, two years before Earhart and Noonan disappeared en route to Howland Island. The people in the photograph, whoever they were, could not possibly be the two missing aviators. The Guardian newspaper even wrote up the story.
The photobook containing the contested photograph isÂ easily found in the online Japanese National Library Digital Collection through a Japanese-language search. Ten seconds or so are enough to find the image, clearly dated and labeled.
I told the skeptics on Johnsonâs Facebook page about this photobook, butÂ a few people in the Marshall IslandsÂ who wanted to become rich and famous by breakingÂ this story slandered me. The Marshall Islands Journal itself even carried calumnies such as these.
Yellow Journalism, Then and Now
In general, I do not waste my time trying to disabuse people of their adherence to wild, easily-disproven conspiracy theories. However, I began to see that, at heart, this issue was not about theÂ disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, but about making false accusations against theÂ Japanese military. In other words, the âNoonan and Earhartâ photograph, although obviously a hoax, is part of a much larger pattern of yellow journalism, which has been used for decades to sow discord betweenÂ Japan and the US.
Fake news, it turns out, is old hat. This allÂ happened more than a century ago, in fact. Dr. Inazo Nitobe, who had been trying to improve relationsÂ between Japan and theÂ US, had identifiedÂ yellow journalism as a major hindrance to such efforts.
Dr. Nitobe was the first Japanese to studyÂ Japanese-US relations at Johns Hopkins University, and was also the Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Nations. Nitobe was married to Mary Elkinton, an American from Baltimore, and had the distinction of having been both a Quaker and aÂ samurai.
From Nitobeâs time until today, there has persistently been a segment of the public which needs very little encouragement to believe the absolute worst about Japan. The same baseless stories keep circulating, but they are swallowed hook, line, and sinker, time after time.
Immigration and Envy
One reason why Americans have tended to view the Japanese with suspicion may be because of Japanese peopleâs well-deserved reputation as very industrious immigrants. Around the turn of the 20th century,Â Japanese immigrants hadÂ spread to the north coastÂ of Australia, theÂ westÂ coast of theÂ US, Hawaiâi, and other Pacific Islands. As a virtually endless series of monographs, articles, books, and anecdotal evidence all attest, the Japanese succeeded, sometimes failed, but wereÂ widely discriminated against in either event.
Recently, for example, I read Professor Manako Ogawaâs âJapanese pioneers in the fishing industry of Hawai’i, 1900-1920âÂ and Masaaki Horiâs âPirate emigrants to Hawaiâi: The history of immigrants fromÂ SuÅ-Åshima.â These works are about Japanese immigrants to Hawaiâi from the Seto inland sea of Japan.
The immigrants from Seto and their ancestors had worked as fishermen for hundreds, even thousands, ofÂ years. As immigrants, after finishing their work on theÂ sugarcane plantations, they went out to fish in the sea.
By 1910,Â the number ofÂ Japanese immigrantsÂ to Hawaii had increased toÂ about 100,000, and some of them started deep-sea fishing, eventually establishing the firstÂ fishery companies in Hawaiian history. At that time, only the local Hawaiians fished, but they stayed less than a mile off the coastÂ and theirÂ catch was only around 190 tons a year. The Japanese immigrants turned fishing from a very small-scale activity into a large industrial enterprise.
In addition to this personal initiative, and also partly as a result of it, the growth of the HawaiianÂ economy strengthenedÂ theÂ position of theÂ Japanese immigrants in Hawaiian society. This led toÂ jealousy and suspicious feelingsÂ on the part of theÂ Europeans who had colonized Hawaiâi before theÂ Japanese arrived.
Spies in Paradise?
After the first wave of Japanese immigration, more immigrants arrived from Japan, many of them military veterans of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), and World War I (1914-1918). This influx of former military men increased latent fears among Europeans that many of the Japanese were actually spies. These fears were not allayed by the fact that manyÂ Japanese parents in Hawaiâi wanted their children to have a Japanese education backÂ in Japan. The practice of raising children partly in Hawaiâi and then sending them back to Japan made Europeans suspect thatÂ Japan was somehow secretly preparing for war.
It was the combination of these different strands of ungrounded fears which drove theÂ anti-Japan movements, which Dr. Nitobe also witnessed and analyzed. And it is the same anti-Japanism which today provides the subtext for the outlandish âEarhart and Noonan as Japanese POWsâ theory, which has recently bested Earhartâs own record by flying swiftly around and around the world.
There have been many otherÂ similar stories, in fact, such as the one about aÂ US citizenÂ who died in Palau in 1923. AÂ rumorÂ spread that theÂ Japanese military had poisoned him. The rumor had no basis in fact, but it fit in very nicely with the anti-Japan sentiment which blanketed the Pacific and the west coast of the US at that time.
Racism Leads to War
These cloak-and-dagger tales notwithstanding, Lieutenant ColonelÂ Earl Hancock Ellis of theÂ US Marine Corps was aÂ real spy sent by theÂ US government to Japan and its mandate territory in the Pacific. His ideas were incorporated in âPlan Orange,âÂ the US military strategy, first drawn up in 1924, to defeat Japan in a war. In 1992, theÂ US Marine Corps reprinted this document, which included the following passage in the Foreword:
âThese racist views [against the Japanese] had tragic consequences. They helped precipitate the diplomatic climate which contributed to the outbreak of war in the Pacific.â
Unlike many so-called ânewsâ outlets today, theÂ US Marine CorpsÂ understood long agoÂ theÂ real motivation of the kind of yellow journalism which has been with us for more than 100 years. Unfortunately, this yellow journalism is still with us, and has most recently found new life as a disturbing fairy tale involving Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan, and a fictitious kidnapping in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Rieko Hayakawa holds a PhD from the University of Otago in New Zealand. Since 1991, Dr. Hayakawa has managed the Pacific Islands Fund of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Her duties included launching the Micronesia Maritime Security Project. She is currently researching the International Ocean Law at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.Â