Michael Penn is the CEO of Shingetsu News Agency, a well known journalist, who also served as vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. He is always on the frontline, when it comes to the hot topics in politics etc. and creates content from the perspective of a scholar with a very knowledgeable background. His latest book is: “Japan and the War on Terror: Military Force and Political Pressure in the US-Japanese Alliance”
1. Mr. Penn, We approached you long before we had a website or a written concept and still you were willing to cooperate with us idealists. In November 2014, you also did us the great favor of being our guest speaker at our founding event. Your interns from us so far have been very pleased with the experiences they could make. Thank you very much. Please tell us a little about who you are, your mission, Shingetsu News Agency and the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan.
I am an American from Los Angeles. My academic background is in Middle Eastern Studies. I've lived in Japan for almost 19 years now. I'm not sure that I have just one mission, since life is complex, but as a journalist I believe what needs to be highlighted is a commitment to the principles of democracy. A true journalist should be searching for instances of unfairness or injustice and bringing them to public attention. The news media, in my view, has an innate responsibility to use its authority to combat abuses of power.
The Shingetsu News Agency, which I founded in December 2010, is just my modest platform for doing my work in journalism. It is my brand, so to speak.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, on the other hand, is a much larger organization with a 70 year history. It's most important function is to host press conferences in the English language and thus serve as a crucial communications gateway between Japan and the world.
2. Is there any deeper meaning about the name “Shingetsu” 新月 “new moon”, related to your academic background maybe?
Yes, the name refers to the fact that I am an academic specialist in Japan's relations with the Islamic world. This name was also used by a pioneer of Japan-Turkey relations named Torajiro Yamada, who was active about a century ago.
3. One of our first Success Stories from 2014, Leo, was your intern. Tell us about the time with him. What did you teach him, what did he do?
Well, Leo himself describes some of that himself, but what I can say is that he was my first intern from Internship Japan and it was indeed a very successful experience. Leo made a real contribution while he was here and I think we both were very happy.
4. At our Christmas Networking Event you met a prospect intern. How did that work out?
Again, he was a high quality intern, but in his case he had less time to spend with me before other tasks took him away.
5. You had quite a few interns already. Tell us why you teach young people and take them with you to experience where the real news are made. You seem to be a born teacher. Great thing that, giving back. Shouldn’t many more entities take interns and teach like that?
Very small organizations like mine receive as much benefit from interns as we impart. There are always important tasks to be performed as we lack manpower. If the intern is bright and engaged, they can make an impact right away.
Yes, I have over 12 years experience as a university lecturer, and journalism itself in some ways like teaching, so I suppose it comes naturally at this point.
I don't think there's any big secret. I just treat interns like they are intelligent people (which most of them are) and discuss my approaches and problems with them openly. I believe they come away with a very real picture of the work of independent journalism, it's good points and its bad. That glimpse at the reality is the education.
6. When we first met, you had some doubts concerning having an intern while not yet even having an external office. Many small entities are the same. Yet, we proved many times that internships especially in smaller entities are the best learning experience. What do you say about that?
Totally agree. Small organizations are the ones that really need the interns and so that puts them right in the middle of the real work. There's no serving green tea around here!
7. How did you first come to Japan and why? Your profile states that back in 1997 you came over, studied Japanese and in April 2000 you accepted a full-time position at The University of Kitakyushu. What happened in those first 3 years?
I came to Japan initially as an English teacher for a large company. In my private time I studied about Japanese-Islamic relations. About a year later I was asked to work part-time at a university. For that initial period I was based in Kanagawa Prefecture's Miura Peninsula, near Hayama. When I got the full-time position at The University of Kitakyushu, I moved out there. I spent 10 years in Kyushu as a university lecturer, but moved to Tokyo and became a television and print journalist in early 2010. And here I am still.
8. Did you have an opportunity like an internship at Shingetsu News Agency? If so, how did you approach it?
No, I started working part-time jobs from around age 16, but never did an internship.
9. What kind of changes would you like to see in Japan concerning foreign youngsters coming here? Well, if you ask what I'd like to see, it would be for the Japanese government to begin taking a more realistic approach to its immigration policy. The current situation is basically hurting everyone.
10. To offer scholarships, we as an NPO need to make money. Any ideas on that?
Ah, money! Since I've been struggling on the money front myself for several years, I'm not sure you want any money advice from me!
11. You have also heard our presentation about our future. How can we do better in the future?
While you know your challenges better than I do, my impression has been that Internship Japan is already doing great work. I realize that's only because of selfless efforts by a few people like yourself. Obviously, you just need to gradually expand your network and hopefully gain supporters with some money who understand your vision.
12. What is your message to internship-prospects, what do you want to tell those youngsters willing to come to Japan?
Do it. Life is short and a bit of time in Japan is almost certain to be an excellent learning experience. It's a pretty safe country to live in and you will most likely gain some fond memories for your future life.
13. What do you want to tell to the Japanese youth? Shall they go abroad and see what the whole big world has to offer?
Yes, of course. Japanese young people tend to do well overseas, and when they come home they are usually broader minded and help make Japan itself a better society.
14. At our first event, you mentioned that a career in media is a difficult choice to make from a financial standpoint. Could you elaborate a little more?
To put it simply, if having money or stability is important to you, then journalism is not the career you should choose. The industry is in a structural crisis globally, and that's not likely to change. Frankly, I'm not even sure how much longer that I can survive in this industry, as my finances have been going backwards rather than forwards. Working for a larger news organization is no refuge either. I know a number of good people laid off in just the past few months.
So being a journalist is not unlike being an executive of Internship Japan -- you've got love what you're doing and be willing to sacrifice for it.
I suppose the good news is that almost all of the skills you will learn being a journalist can be applied and used in other fields with excellent effect once you tire of your honorable poverty. Plenty of "ex-journalists" move on to jobs where they do make money and gain more tangible material rewards.