Henry Scott Stokes, a tweedy British-born journalist who demystified Japan for English-speaking readers as Tokyo bureau chief for three major newspapers and as the author of a comprehensive book that evoked its venerable samurai values and right-wing nationalist elements, died on April 17 in a Tokyo hospital. He was 83.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his son, Harry Sugiyama Scott-Stokes, said.
In 1964 Mr. Scott Stokes, three years out of college, moved from London to Japan to open the Tokyo bureau of the Financial Times, which he headed until 1967. He was bureau chief for The Times of London from 1968 to 1970 and for The New York Times from 1978 to 1983.
After leaving daily journalism, he courted controversy with comments seemingly sympathetic to the views of right-wing Japanese nationalists, one of whom he had portrayed in his most well-known book, a penetrating biography of the aristocratic novelist Yukio Mishima. Mr. Scott Stokes met Mishima in 1966 in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan and later bonded with him over brandy at Mr. Scott Stokes’s preferred refuge, the Orchid Bar at the Hotel Okura in Tokyo.
In “The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima” (1974), Mr. Scott Stokes explored the novelist’s wrenching evolution from a lonely child to a raving nationalist who in 1970 mustered four members of his private unarmed militia, invaded a military installation, kidnapped the commander, pleaded vainly with the base’s indifferent troops to restore the sacred traditions of emperor worship, and then committed the ritual suicide known as seppuku, disemboweling himself. He had ordered a follower to sever his head afterward.
Mr. Stokes Scott raced to the scene but arrived too late to save his friend.
Describing Mishima as “the most famous Japanese of his day,” he wrote: “There is a saying here. ‘The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down.’ Japanese people don’t like to stand up and shout, for fear of being hammered. The paradox is that Mishima, when the moment came, hammered himself down.”
Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that it “begins with Mishima’s end, and naturally one devours Henry Scott Stokes’s study in search of an explanation for that end.” (“The explanation for Mishima’s death,” Mr. Scott Stokes concluded, “lies in his entire life.”)
Throughout his career, most of it spent in Japan, Mr. Scott Stokes could barely speak or write Japanese. That handicap contributed to a major controversy.
It involved the 2013 book “Fallacies in the Allied Nations’ Historical Perceptions as Observed by a British Journalist,” which was published in Japanese and embraced by right-wing apologists for atrocities committed by the Japanese military during World War II. It sold an estimated 100,000 copies within a few months.
While the book had the imprimatur of a credible Western journalist, in fact, according to Mr. Scott Stokes, it had been synthesized from 170 hours of interviews he gave to a Japanese translator associated with an educational organization that supports revisionist history. Moreover, Mr. Scott Stokes said, although the book was credited to him, he had never even read it, much less written it.
The book’s most explosive passage was its conclusion that the Nanjing massacre, which most historians said resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Chinese civilians in 1937 by rapacious Japanese troops over six weeks, “did not take place,” but rather had been inflated or even fabricated by Chinese nationalists and later by communist propagandists.
Mr. Scott Stokes told a Japanese news agency that he was “shocked and horrified” by what he called a “rogue passage” in the book. Then he reversed himself, issuing a statement through his publisher in which he effectively stood by the offending passage, calling the massacre an “incident.” In subsequent interviews he backpedaled again, agreeing that “ghastly events” had occurred in Nanking but that the Japanese were not solely responsible.
As recently as 2017, he was quoted as saying, “The notion that Nanking was fabricated, as a historic incident, really is difficult to sustain because of the eyewitness reactions.” But he also expressed the view that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States were “monstrosities,” calling them “war crimes on a scale that made the alleged crimes of the Japanese in that war appear absolutely minor.”
“Henry was both talented and controversial,” Bradley K. Martin, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Asia Times, was quoted as saying in an obituary about Mr. Scott Stokes published by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “I came to appreciate his willingness to rethink his own position if he concluded he had been in the wrong, and to try to make amends.”
Henry Johnstone Morland Scott-Stokes (as an adult he rarely used the hyphen) was born on June 15, 1938, in the town of Glastonbury, Somerset, in southwest England. His parents were Quakers — his mother a pacifist and his father, who served in both World Wars, a businessman.
After graduating from New College, Oxford, he joined The Financial Times in 1961 and was posted to Tokyo with his new wife, Charlotte, three years later. The marriage ended in divorce.
He is survived by his second wife, Akiko Sugiyama, who served as his unofficial translator, in addition to their son, a television talk-show host and commentator in Japan.
Mr. Scott Stokes also edited, with Lee Jai Eui, “The Kwangju Uprising: A Miracle of Asian Democracy as Seen by the Western and the Korean Press” (2000), about the violent quashing of a popular revolt against an unelected South Korean government in 1980.
In addition to writing books, he collaborated with the artists Christo and Jeanne Claude on their joint project to install hundreds of giant umbrellas — nearly 20 feet high and more than 28 feet in diameter — in Japan and California in 1991. Blue ones went up in rice paddies near Tokyo, and yellow ones sprouted on California hillsides. Mr. Scott Stokes was the project director in Japan.