Obituary: John Newman
Friday 21 May 1993
JOHN NEWMAN was for 21 years the Head of the BBC Japanese Service. He was widely respected in Japan and several times voted 'Foreign Broadcaster of the Year'.
In 1970 the great triennial international trade exposition was held in Osaka in central Japan. The Soviet exhibition was an aggressive display of modern technology. By contrast the American pavilion was a deliberately low-key affair, in a plastic building held up by internal air-pressure. In the first room there was nothing but a large crop of 19th-century wooden golf clubs stuck in the ground. This hooked the Japanese visitors immediately, and it was difficult to persuade them to move on through a collection of New England wind-vanes, and other interesting but unassuming objects, to the last room. There they saw a module which happened recently to have landed on the moon and returned safely.
For many Japanese the main attraction of the British exhibition at Expo 70 was not the novel design of the building nor the ingenious desalinisation plant on display but the tall, genial man who was in charge of the BBC stand. Newman-San, who was then the BBC Japanese Programme Organiser, was known and respected for his exceptional prowess at judo. He was a 5th Dan. He also spoke excellent idiomatic Japanese. With his big black beard he was immediately recognised because of his frequent appearances on Japanese television in programmes featuring Expo 70.
John Newman was often stopped and asked for his autograph when he kindly conducted me round the tranquil ancient Japanese capital, Kyoto, and showed me where he had spent four years, between 1958 and 1962, teaching English and studying judo. He had then taken a dlploma in Japanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and returned to Tokyo to work with NHK, the Japanese equivalent of the BBC.
He went to work at Bush House in 1969 and two years later was made Head of the Japanese Service, which he ran with great efficiency. He was a gentle person, much liked and respected by his Japanese staff. He appreciated the finer points of Japanese protocol and was an exceptionably felicitous interpreter.
In 1991 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office decided to close down the BBC's services to Malaysia and Japan. This, of course, the FCO had a perfect right to do. But Bush House was not given the option of saving funds elsewhere in order to continue, perhaps on a similar scale, a service unbroken since the Second World War and which still had many devoted Japanese listeners. The savings effected - pounds 300,000-400,000 - were minuscule compared with the amounts of money Japanese firms were preparing to invest in the forthcoming Japanese Festival in Britain and the decision was taken by many Japanese as a cultural rebuff.
John Newman accepted what was a bitter blow with dignity. He managed the dispersal of his talented Japanese staff without losing their respect. He himself returned to Tokyo to teach English at Nihon University School of Medicine. He became ill in February of this year and returned to London for treatment.
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