I was surrounded by three Yomiuri staff at the interview in midtown Manhattan – including Kato-san, my future senior colleague. The interview, initially in English, was now taking place in Japanese.
“We’re always skeptical when people put on their resume they’re fluent in Japanese. Most of the time they’re exaggerating.” I was obviously an exception as they jolted when I began speaking to them; even veteran journalists for an elite Japanese organization like Yomiuri were unaccustomed to an American this fluent.
As the interview wound down, Kato-san, who had thrown several challenging questions at me, asked if I had been nervous. Without missing a beat I said, “Of course! Couldn’t you tell?”
“Brilliant. Yes I could.” He liked my answer.
After submitting my references, several days later I received a call from Yomiuri’s Council. I got the job as their UN reporter.
I began work the following Monday. Kato-san took me to the conference room and made it clear what the expectation was.
“Your main job is to get your hands on the confidential annual report on North Korea. It’s one of the hardest to get at the UN. Your predecessor failed. Kyodo and Asahi"--Yomiuri’s main competitors--"have been consistently beating us the past several years, and this can’t go on. Their entrenched institutional sources at the UN give them the upper hand. I hired you because you’re likable and you’ve done well in sales before. And you speak Japanese.
“We’re counting on you.”
So began my two-year adventure at the UN. I was single-handedly representing the newspaper with the world’s widest circulation: 13 million subscribers, with an estimated readership of 26 million. Nearly a quarter of Japan was now depending on my work.
The first year did not go well.
On my first day, Kato-san took me to the UN headquarters. After securing my UN pass, he dropped me off at my new office and left me there. I knew no one at the UN and had no experience in journalism. I had, however, read "Tokyo Vice," a book by Yomiuri’s first western journalist, who was assigned the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) beat in Tokyo. It was a great read, although Yomiuri staff later told me he took some creative liberties.
I began introducing myself to UN officers and diplomats from the UK, France, the US, Lebanon…anyone willing to meet me. I quickly realized there was a hierarchy of media at the UN. At the top you had organizations like The New York Times and Reuters, whose representatives didn’t hide their awareness of their top status.
Japanese media, with nearly a dozen companies—the most of any member state—was lower mid-tier. Though in Japan Yomiuri was the most influential, diplomats and UN staff couldn’t give a damn. I was given short shrift: doors slammed in my face and people hung up when I called. Western diplomats lumped us all together as “the Japanese media.”
I also received advice ill-suited for the UN.
In Japan, Yomiuri journalists are known to call people every 10 minutes until they relent, or to walk into people’s offices demanding attention and information.
Such persistence works well in Japan, where Yomiuri has the name and status to pull it off. However, it was not suited to the UN. Nevertheless, Kato-san insisted I follow in Yomiuri’s tradition. I called diplomats over and over, and I walked uninvited into the offices of high-ranking UN staff. My reputation at the UN did not get off to a good start.
One night, he called me at 11:00 pm. The annual report of the North Korean Sanctions Committee was out, and our competitors had got their hands on it. He was desperate: “Call everyone.”
I did. To no avail. I failed to get my hands on a copy of the report that first year. Asahi and Kyodo scooped us yet again.
However, I was not quitting.
Later on, after the report was made public, the South Korean mission organized a press conference based on it. Kato-san called me beforehand with a terse order: “Read it.” The report was dense, 100s of pages long. I took the time to read it cover to cover.
Along with the South Korean UN ambassador, the head of the North Korean Sanctions Committee and the Korean Peninsula expert from the Council on Foreign Relations spoke. Media and high-ranking diplomats from around the world attended the event, and who knows how many people were watching via television and the internet.
The speakers finished, and it was time for questions. Determined, I raised my hand, but wasn’t picked. Kato-san, sitting next to me, was visibly nervous.
I raised my hand again. And again. Finally, I was picked.
“Hi, my name is Matthew Carpenter, a reporter for Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper. Earlier you said cooperation from the international community towards your work has been increasing the past 15 months. Now, in the report, it says there is a general lack of awareness among the import/export community regarding the Security Council sanctions against North Korea. My question is, if cooperation from the international community has been increasing the past 15 months, is the awareness among the import/export community regarding the sanctions increasing also, and if not, what are you doing about it? Thank you.”
Kato-san’s head bowed low and deep. Momentarily, I panicked. “Was that a bad question?!” However, I knew something different had happened as the head of the Sanctions Committee began speaking. His voice sounded nervous and his body language showed a loss of confidence.
Afterward I asked Kato-san if he liked the question I asked. He just nodded.
At the reception, veteran journalists walked up to me and congratulated me for having asked the best question at the press conference. When I introduced myself to the Council on Foreign Relations Korea expert, he glared at me: “That was a hard question!”
My reputation at the UN changed overnight. I began asking more questions.
Word began getting around the UN that I asked good, tough questions.
I knew there had been a shift in the attitude the international community showed me when the Ambassador of the League of Arab States invited me to a luncheon. As it turned out, I was the only Japanese media representative there.
I arrived 15 minutes early. The ambassador walked up to me, looked me in the eye, and without preamble asked, “What is the difference between US foreign policy in the Middle East and East Asia since WWII, and what generates the difference?”
I was being tested.
Nervously, I answered, “Well, we incorporated East Asia into our alliance structure and industrialized those nations to protect our sea lanes of communication, while in the Middle East we play balance-of-power politics to keep a dominant power from emerging. What generates the difference is the presence of the Soviet, or Russian, threat.” He nodded, and without another word returned to his seat. Without my knowing if I had passed the test or not, the luncheon commenced.
By this time Yomiuri management had replaced Kato-san with Mizuno-san, my new boss. My performance for Yomiuri was accelerating. I was producing results, including several front-page scoops. With the one on the Russian resolution against ISIS funding, I even beat The New York Times and Reuters.
I was having fun, and at times the answers I extracted generated headlines around the world. Here is an example.
The chief architect of the General Assembly gave a tour for international media after reconstruction finished. With the coming Scottish vote of independence in mind, I asked if he had left seats open for possible new member states.
“Hey, good question!” The New York Times correspondent was impressed. The architect smiled hesitantly and after a pause informed us that while there were 193 current member states, the new General Assembly hall could accommodate 206. Journalists pulled out their cell phones and began spreading the news around the world: the UN had room for 13 more new member states.
Journalists from international media began seeking my opinions. For example, the writer and founder of PassBlue interviewed me on why I thought US Ambassador Samantha Power was not appearing at press conferences despite her background as a journalist. Not only were my quotes heavily incorporated into her article, but the writer included that the USUN Mission had told me “we’ll always take your phone call.”
These quotes hit a nerve with the Deputy Spokesperson of the USUN Mission. My analysis was that Ambassador Power probably was under White House orders to keep her interaction with the press minimal. He ran up to me at the UN, shoved his finger into my face, and yelled “Interesting quotes!” However, after he gathered himself, he did acknowledge I was the fairest in my analysis of Ambassador Power. I asked if my analysis was correct. He was silent, then declined to answer. His body language told me that I probably did hit the nail.
Then the crucial moment came again: the annual report on North Korea was out. Reuters got their hands on it and wired about it. Mizuno-san called me with a trace of urgency in his voice.
I called my best source. He sent me a document we both knew was not the one I was looking for. Undeterred, I called him again. This time, he gave me the holy grail of the Japanese media. At long last I was able to acquire the report on North Korea that had eluded Yomiuri's grasp for several years.
My two years at the UN were perhaps not the best years of my life, but certainly they were the most thrilling. A novice surrounded by diplomats, UN staff, and journalists representing countries from around the world that dislike each other to the point of many killing each other through wars and genocides, I was scooping not only my Japanese competitors but, on occasion, top Western organizations like the New York Time and Reuters.
My competitors at the UN all had entrenched institutional sources and/or status that Yomiuri as an organization lacked. At the same time, my work ethic and enthusiasm became respected by the international community at the UN. Working from scratch, I not only cultivated strong, trusted sources but built friendships that will last a lifetime. I was treated by the international community's best and the brightest as their intellectual equal. Not all journalists at the UN were. I had off the record conversations with representatives from, but not limited to, the US, Russia, UK, France, China, Japan, Germany, Lithuania, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, and more.
In my career onwards, doubtless I will encounter environments and challenges where what worked for me at the UN will not apply. However, I know I can generate rapport with Japanese, American, and international professionals no matter where I am. I have the tenacity and flexibility to learn the rules of the game in varying environments.
I have, can, and will, deliver the world to you.