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From: DL (a journalist on a major Western newsmagazine)
Date: Sun, 19 Apr 1998
Re: Journalism. Just the facts, m'am, nothing but the facts

GFM wrote: (in a message long removed from the original topic Dave Aldwinckle brought up)
> > I don't know how the duo of Sullivan and Jordan (married, how cute) and Sandra Sugawara (an American-Asian with NO Japanese speaking ability at all, by her own admission in print)...can look at themselves in the mirror.

This is really getting a bit much. An attempt at objective analysis is one thing. Gratuitously mocking the marital status of hard-working people, whether you consider the results of their hard work to be brilliant or pap, strikes me as childish. The descent of the debate to this level, however, does allow me to finally break listserv silence with a childish rant of my own.

I spent 15 years in Japan, 10 of them in journalism, three with one of the top 10 American print news organizations, 7 with Japanese news organizations, from "lightweights" to "respectable." I still work for one of them in Washington. Many on the list have probably not seen much if any of my hundreds of articles large or small because most of them for the past decade has been translated into Japanese for the Japanese market (In Japanese I have only written the occasional "oh my, isn't Japan hard/nice/different" dopiness -- topics chosen by Japanese editors, not me -- for clunkers like Honyaku no Sekai). When I wasn't doing journalism, I was translating -- company reports, Gaimusho speeches, newspaper articles. I read the Japanese press; I interview in Japanese in all but specialty areas like medical science and the more arcane ends of finance, or when confronted with those Japanese opinion leaders and officials we all know and love who refuse to speak anything but fractured English to a foreign reporter, or when somebody is clearly far more fluent in my language than I am in hers. My sources have ranged from the annoying martinets Gaimusho often put up as foreigner handlers when I was still based in Tokyo (I can't imagine it has changed much since ) to pre-war anti-Imperial Army protestors near Mt. Fuji, JASDF fighter pilots, autopart sub-sub-contractors in Kawasaki, underground theater directors, Okinawan high school teachers, former prime ministers and my personal favorite, a cheerful sento-ha leader inside Kakumaru-ha's quaint old steel-plated fortress (now gone, alas) near Ikebukuro who complained that his followers, darn it all, just weren't ready yet to kill to effect social change. So, while none of what I have written is Pulitzer stuff, and very little of it has seen print outside of Japan and the Pacific editions of American magazines, it covers the spectrum of usual media concerns, and some that are less usual (Japanese lesbian chic; Japanese child abuse). I also spent quite a few hours with foreign press at the FCCJ and know the fetid secrets (well, some of the secrets) of who kin talk Japanese real good, and who don't... So those are the credentials for the following observations. Take them or leave them at your pleasure.

1. For a foreign reporter in Japan, speaking Japanese does:

These things are good. So of course it's better for a reporter to be fluent in Japanese than not to be. And there are, in fact, many, many more foreign reporters in Japan today who are quite fluent in Japanese, written as well as spoken, than there were when I was there, although many of them labor in the lower echelons of the foreign press corp instead of at the top for reasons I'll mention below. That said...

It is also sadly true of reporters like me that speaking and reading Japanese does not necessarily make you:

And, even assuming that you speak Japanese and have at least two of the above job skills, that still will not guarantee that what you write will not be:

And lastly, even assuming that you speak Japanese and your sources are not the usual gaijin-handlers, please remember that talking to different sources than everyone else does not automatically ensure that:

All of which is to say, not that the world doesn't need better foreign correspondents, but rather that journalistic institutions tend to choose their foreign correspondents as much on the basis of their track record of success inside the publication itself or at least inside the journalistic community than on the basis of their area specialty or language ability. They do that for a reason. The reason is simply that there are a whole bunch of primary needs that need to be present in a staffer before the perceptiveness of their reporting even heaves its flabby, subjective bulk into view -- i.e., she can and does write to space and on deadline. We can trust her to be available whenever we need her, day and night. She doesn't throw a hissy fit and piss me off every time I rewrite her prose. She was cheaper than that other guy. The editor-in-chief prefers blondes. She told this hysterical story I'll never forget about scatological Japanese advertising slogans when she was back in New York, when was that, a coupla years ago, yeah. Anyway, she's a great gal, perfect for the job...

These kinds of "needs" -- some of them mechancial, some of them sub-cultural -- exist in virtually all institutions and it really is too bad that they do. But a newspaper/magazine/TV show is also a product that has to be designed, built, and distributed every day or week at a precise time without any big white holes in the middle of it and without immobilizing the office with political infighting, and that means that the first hiring concern has to be finding staff who can meet these "needs." It's preferrable that they know the country to which you post them and speak the native lingo, but it's not essential. Afterall, a core, definitional mythology (you gotta luv them syllables) of journalism sub-culture in America, at least, is that a good journalist can land on his feet and do a story, anywhere, any subject, any time of day or night. In other words, the skills of our profession, we like to reassure ourselves, are transferrable to all situations and cultural milieu. If we start doubting that mythology, our whole profession goes down like a house of cards. So, a primo journalist should be a "quick study," and if she's a bit short on Japan experience now, she'll pick it up. If she can't, you don't want her on your payroll.

All of which is to say that, even if Seidensticker himself was writing daily news for the Chicago Tribune (and seriously now, would anyone with that depth of knowledge and experience want to be chained to 24-hour deadlines churning out daily news about fluctuations in the Nikkei?), what got into his paper would still be determined largely by the conventions of the trade as they exist in the media's home country.

Some of those conventions in America: funny sells, and pleases more readers than it displeases. Dog bites man, bad; man bites dog; good. Keep it simple, please, and drop this stuff about "habatsu" and "ho-ho" coalitions, will you? Deadline first, content later. The word-count is king. That's not what the New York Times said about it this morning, get us what the New York Times said about it this morning, the editor-in-chief just chewed me out about this weird stuff you keep sending us all the time so get it right for once, dammit!

It does not take a conspiracy to homogenize news coverage. "Manufacturing Consent" does quite well at spelling out the empirically obvious ways in which the homogeniety of institutional conventions and editorial "joshiki" about content can channel everything that finally gets into print in the same direction, regardless of who has been sent out to the field to report it, or what they sent in once they got there. Editors back home can and often do take even the best work of the best correspondent, and reduce it to a box of ticky-tacky that meets the conventions/standards of the publication's own "journalistic culture." And while Japanese fluency in my opinion should be mandatory for a foreign correspondent in Japan, just as all those other attributes of a good reporter and news writer should be mandatory, when you are churning out 400 words about Forex on a 60 minute deadline (and what an unimaginable luxury 60 minutes would be in most wire bureaus today), the ability to speak Japanese does not make much difference at all, while the "mechanical" attributes make all the difference in the world in getting the product to market on time.

Which is my explanation of why tenditious and long-winded "Japanophilics" like myself do not become bureau chiefs and top editors, and why what we would write if we did would almost never see print the way we wrote it in any case. Heinlein and how many other people have said: "90 percent of all _____ is crap." This is true of journalism about Japan, too, and Fukuzawans who truly despair of good coverage of Japan should cast their net wider in search of the readable 10 percent. There's good stuff out there. Pollack's material on Japanese pop culture in Wall Street Journal is a rare pleasure -- the man reads those comic books before he writes about them (for instance, just to grab one that comes immediately to mind without taxing my get-it-slopppy-but-get-it-on-time journlistic mind).

And also remember, an article is not automatically badly reported and wrong-headed if it doesn't agree with your opinions; you may occasionally be -- saint's preserve us -- under-reported and wrong-headed yourself. So, you want a revolution? In that case, I personally think the focus of attack should be on the editorial process and the "gatekeepers" back home rather than on the correspondent in the field. As for changing that system, good luck. But please try.

Frankly, though, I think one area where people on this list could possibly have a quicker impact on the way Japan is covered -- other than worming into responsible journalism jobs themselves -- is in the world of those betwixt-and-between "policy-lite" publications like Atlantic in the U.S., or in the guest columns and articles on newspaper op-ed pages. These are the articles Congressmen wave for the cameras when they're passing simplistic resolutions about Japanese macroeconomic policy. There, a concerted wave of effective letter-writing might actually discredit some people whose bylines make you sick to the stomach, and could eventually lead editors to think, hmm, do I really want another opinion piece from this DL woman? Neh?

Journalist for a major Western Newsmagazine

Dave Aldwinckle responds: Touche there. I understand the systemic obstacles facing journalists far better now. This is the reason I write such controversial posts--in hopes of getting informed input to this degree. Thanks very much for your input, DL.


Some months later after this exchange, I had a beer with a journalist up from Tokyo, and of course we talked about what had transpired in this debate. To paraphrase, he said:

"What you said in your essays about the quality of journalists in Japan was for the most part true. Too true for comfort. That's why hardly any journalists responded--who would want to stick their neck out and insinuate that their colleagues are unprofessional? It's a tight-knit community among the foreign journalists in Japan, and you were saying things that ought to be said but nobody in the know will admit publicly."

I have to admit I feel a bit vindicated.

Dave Aldwinckle


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