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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

An Appreciation: Susumu Awanohara, 1945-2018

Updated: Jul 26, 2018

Susumu teaching me how to be a journalist, Hong Kong, New Year's 1974.

Foreign correspondents of a certain age still occasionally raise glasses in a time-honored toast: "To absent friends." This is my toast to one of my oldest friends and comrades in our beloved craft. A version of it appears in the July edition of Number 1 Shimbun published by the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Tokyo.

Susumu Awanohara didn’t fit the image of the impulsive, daredevil foreign correspondent you see in Hollywood movies. Not by a long shot. Susumu was a big-hearted, beautifully rumpled man, who observed the world from behind smudged glasses, his incisive mind working to crack its puzzles with the instincts of a great detective.

A respected former denizen of the FCCJ, Susumu spent two decades covering Asia and its role in global affairs for the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review. He alternated between editing turns in the Hong Kong newsroom and bureau chief postings in Tokyo and Jakarta in the 1970s and Singapore and Washington in the 1980s and '90s.

Armed with a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University (and an undergraduate degree from Tokyo University) Susumu immersed himself in transformative, large-canvas stories. What would China’s economic awakening mean for the world? How would rising economies in Southeast Asia alter the face of business and politics? Whither sprawling, complicated Indonesia? A dogged field reporter with a knack for languages, Susumu loved to repair to a desk strewn with newspapers and reference books to tease out clues as to the shape of things to come.

A big-hearted, beautifully rumpled man.

In the mid-1990s, Susumu embarked on a second career as a financial policy maven. After a stint at the Nikko Research Center in Washington, he moved to New York, a job as analyst of Asian business and economic trends for Medley Global Advisors, and lived in Manhattan’s East Village with his wife, Mary-Lea Cox. He had been retired for several years when he died of pancreatic cancer at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx on June 11, at 72. In addition to Mary-Lea, he is survived by children from a former marriage: son Gen (and wife Meagan) and daughters Mika and Yuri; two grandchildren, Max and Elle Awanohara; an older brother, Kan Awanohara; a nephew and two nieces; and many friends across the globe.

Susumu and I chasing stories, Tokyo, circa 1978.

My own debt to Susumu is profound. In 1976, when he opened the Review’s first stand-alone Tokyo bureau in the Nikkei Shimbun’s infamous “Gaijin Ghetto,” he hired me as his back-up reporter. New to journalism, I neither knew how to do it nor why it was done, and Susumu pulled double-duty teaching me the craft. He showed me how to block a story and fashion those pesky ledes and nut grafs. He also taught me a good reporter covers not just the “what” of the news but also the “why”—and is a tireless student of any beat, inhaling its history, politics and the intricacies of its social fabric.

Susumu was expert in looking out for his friends. When the Review asked Bradley Martin, then of the Baltimore Sun, to replace Susumu as Jakarta bureau chief, Susumu told him not to come—Jakarta was no place to take a wife who was recovering from a serious illness. “Besides being one of the best-educated journalists I’ve ever met,” said former Review colleague Mike Tharp, “Susumu was one of the nicest … not in a saccharine sense … but in caring about people both individually and in sum.”

He taught me a good reporter covers not just the “what” of the news but also the “why.”

If Susumu covered Asia at a transformative time, he was born into a turbulent one-- in Japanese-held Manchuria in August of 1945. His maternal grandfather, Tsutomu Nishiyama, had been serving as president of the Central Bank of Manchou, but with Japan’s defeat, the Russian army swarmed across northern China. In the chaos, Susumu and his twin brother, Shinji, were spirited back to Japan, where Shinji soon died of malnutrition. The dramatic circumstances of Susumu’s birth contributed to his desire to get to know Asia, in all its complexities.

Susumu was a man of charming eccentricities who modeled himself after the artfully fumbling 1970s TV detective Columbo. A Medley Advisors colleague fondly recalls him carrying a hardboiled egg in his suit pocket; he won office prizes for “most bad hair days” for his prodigiously spiky mop. Yet his unflappable, cerebral demeanor also masked a courageous spirit. When right-wing extremists phoned in threats to the Tokyo bureau over a Review cover of Emperor Hirohito, Susumu didn’t flinch.

Former Review editor-in-chief Philip Bowring recalls a hard trek through Kalimantan in the early 1980s with Susumu’s “relaxed good humor overcoming innumerable obstacles.” When the pair was ready to fly on to Manado in Sulawesi, “the plane we were supposed to take crashed on landing at Balikpapan and after three days waiting in vain for a relief plane we had to return to Jakarta. Susumu kept me sane and smiling.”

When I visited Susumu’s hospice in the Bronx, a pilgrimage other Review alumni made, as well, he and I reviewed the magazine’s gallery of memorable characters for a last time and traded a few laughs and barbs. Mary-Lea, watching us from across the room, said it best: “There will never be another Susumu.”

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