FOREIGN JOURNALISTS ON JAPAN
"GUSH AND MUSH"
(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO and Friends Mon, 13 Apr 1998, updated April 20, 2007)
In a recent exchange questioning the local knowledge of expat reporters in Japan on Fukuzawa:
In a message dated 98-04-10 KG writes:
<<I 'd be curious to know other's thoughts on this matter, but I have often wondered how Stephanie Strom got her job writing for the New York Times in Japan. How long has she been there? One year? Eighteen months now? In any case, she seems to have little knowledge about Japan, and appears to take at face value what she is told by her Japanese colleagues or the foreign elite in Tokyo. I never trust her writing because I never have the feeling that she had the courage or wit to look under the blanket statements she'd been offered. >>
These are pretty serious charges. Do you have any facts to back them up?
As a journalist, I can say, it is not pleasant to be called an amateur, but I am sure that even NYT reporters like to learn from their mistakes, so please do show us some examples of what you mean.
Alright, I'd like to throw my hat into the ring on this one. I too have felt at many times that expat reporters have gotten their analysis on Japan, in a word, wrong. And not simply because they lacked knowledge of their surroundings. Although I am not a journalist myself, I would like to make a case for explaining the noise in their equations. Corrections from the pros are welcome (believe me, my intent is not to alienate them--merely to shine a bit of light on an issue that matters immensely in the international arena--that of information exchange and image control).
My essay is structured thus:
EXAMPLES OF SPOTTY JAPAN COVERAGE The New York Times and The Economist
REASONS WHY JOURNALISTS CAN BE FAULTED
REASONS WHY JOURNALISTS CANNOT BE FAULTED
DISCLAIMERS AND CONCLUSION
EXAMPLES OF SPOTTY JAPAN COVERAGE
We can cite the old anecdotes about the pronouncements that "Japan Is Changing"--Newsweek putting Doi Takako on the cover and touting her as a future prime minister, the feminization and diplomaticization of the Imperial Household due to Owada Masako's marriage to the Prince Regent, not to mention portrayals of former PMs Hosokawa Morihiro, Kaifu Toshiki, Mizazawa or even Nakasone as more personable and open-minded because they spoke English, threw baseballs out at American games, or were on first-name bases with US presidents. Then, usually, observers watched in frustration as things didn't really change after all.
Still, that's not a phenomenon unique to Japan--more the effect of headlining and "pegging". Even the domestic press has made premature pronouncements ("Dewey Defeats Truman", "The Sexual Revolution is Over", Jesse Jackson on TIME's cover as a possible Democratic Party nominee, or the near-weekly predictions of Thatcher's fall in The Guardian for over a decade). Much of it was, I daresay, whistling in the dark.
But the difference here is that this is the vernacular press reporting on itself (America on America, Britain on Britain), whereas the issue I want to deal with is foreign correspondence--expat journalists sent over here to cover local events--and how they seem unable to filter noise from their analysis, winding up with what I call "gush" or "mush".
"GUSH": NICHOLAS KRISTOF OF THE NEW YORK TIMES
In a 5-page glossy article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine (August 17, 1997. You can page down read the text of the entire article here), Mr Kristof, NYT Tokyo Bureau Chief, proclaims in the title:
"WHERE CHILDREN RULE"
"WHY ARE JAPAN'S PRIMARY SCHOOLS BETTER THAN OURS? STUDENTS LEAD CLASSES. THEY EVEN CLEAN THE BATHROOMS. EVERYTHING THEY LEARN THEY TEACH THEMSELVES."
which in itself is hyperbole. "Everything"? Cleaning toilets makes primary schools better? Do students really "lead" classes when the educational goals are still set by Monbushou?
Mr Kristof's evidence is from research he gleaned after, as he writes,
"My two children have gone through Japanese nursery school, and my older son... has just completed kindergarten.", "I've been visiting Omiya [Takahara Elementary School] regularly for two years now, and I know many of the teachers and parents", "[a]s a Tokyo resident for the last two and a half years"
[a duration of time which makes a lot of people who have been here for a good third to half of their lives--sorry--scoff; you've only just begun to see things.]. And he's also hobnobbed around Azuma school in Yokohama and Aso Elementary school in Omiya. That's apparently all.
Right here I feel there's some bad science, even if it is softer "social science", going on here. Respectable surveys usually need a base of at least 100 responses (and phone polls usually go for a thousand) before generalizing about societal trends. The professional statisticians need this much sampling for anything approximating a "normal curve". The professional Anthropologists, who are trained away from making fallacious attributions, wait at least a year before saying anything, and even then, in my experience, the most respected shy away from this much hyperbole.
Samplewise, Mr Kristof gives no clear numbers (three schools are all that's mentioned), nor of the level of the schools (they might be exceptionally well-esteemed and have a reputation for getting brighter pupils: there IS such a thing as elite grade schools, after all). I understand that in a newspaper, space is at a premium and concision is mandatory, but in the article I don't see the fruition from efforts teasing out the data and avoiding caveats. Moreover, these claims are--in a word again--"fishy", to anybody else I've talked to (especially the non-Japanese community) concerning their experiences in Japanese grade schools.
To be fair, Mr Kristof's point is this:
"It is indeed pretty clear that Japan's education system falters beginning in junior high and on through the university years. The secondary schools are often unhappy pressure cookers where kids memorize plenty of facts but never really learn how to think. (On the other hand, my mother teaches art history at an American university, and says she faces many students who have neither learned basic facts nor how to think).
"In any case, the criticisms of Japan's education system miss the point about its primary schools. They do not use school uniforms or strict rules--they nuture the enthusiasm and creativity that junior high schools later do their best to destroy. The tragedy of Japan's school system is that it produces cheerful and outspoken fifth graders who in junior high become surly critics."
But even there the excerpt is spiced with overgeneralization: Some primary schools do in fact have school uniforms, and "strictness" is a term laden with value and cultural conceit. Although I hate being relativist, his assertion cries out for just that kind of counterargument--conditions depend on the school and the students. Of course. Moreover, the needle from his mom, not substantiated further in the article, just lies there at the end of the paragraph, IMHO, as just plain unwarranted.
As for the rest of the article, Mr Kristof's otherwise good points (about American tendencies towards crediting innate intelligence and Japanese towards hard work, sarcasm's inability to undermine saccharine goals because it doesn't work as a source of humor, the power of hansei) are overshadowed by more careless statements in the absolute:
"[Tokyo]... is too boring",
"Japanese schools have no janitors",
"[Japanese] teachers are the most masterful manipulators imaginable",
"there are no substitute teachers in Japan" (he then contradicts it two paragraphs later by admitting after a month a "substitute" will be found),
"...I'm convinced that Japanese people are, by and large, the nicest and most responsible people in the world."
Like grist in a sausage or glass in a cake, statements these make you want to throw the entire meal across the room.
Especially when you hear that his son, who "[a]fter two and a half years of Japanese preschool, ...has become pretty much a Japanese boy" languagewise, has been enrolled in an international grade school. (Reason given: he asked if they play baseball in America.) I'm not trying to get personal here, but what I'm trying to say is that if Mr Kristof is going to gush this much about Japan, why such detachment? Why doesn't he put his eggs into the basket as well, like many of us Permanent Residents do, and really see just how apparently-egalitarian and self-taught the primary education system is?
To be sure, I do not have evidence to the contrary of what Mr Kristof says (because my children are just entering school themselves). But that's precisely my point. Despite ten years over here and bilinguality, I know that I have very little evidence to make a case about this particular topic either way. And until I do I'm going to keep my mind away from pronouncements like these. The very fact that his headlines and points are leaning towards proselytization is all the more reason why they become suspect.
MUSH: THE ECONOMIST ON JAPAN
I have been subscribed to The Economist for around 11 years now, and my respect for their Japan reporting has been in inverse proportion to my awareness of Japan as a resident. Certainly, some of their reporters do get it right (the Finance section on Japan is the only one worth reading, and reporter Sebastian Mallaby, who wrote a very good Survey a few years back, demonstrated to me that he had the goods and the ability in our conversations. Unfortunately, he got transferred.).
But The Economist's Leaders and Asia pages are often worse than chaff. Examples: See their take on the Kobe Earthquake at http://www.debito.org/kobequakeeconomisteditorial.jpg , and my response (published in their Letters Page) at http://www.debito.org/kobequakeeconomistletter.jpg
All too often I've heard The Economist take up contemporary accusations of predatory trade (dumping, covering overseas market-share grabs by milking a home captive market, closed overregulated domestic markets) and dismiss them as "invisible hand" issues of quality, taste, market cycles, and of course, competitive advantage. And thus shikata ga nai. Only recently (within this decade) have they come to realize the existence and effects of a pervasive Japanese bureaucracy that actually has done some productive steering--in exception to their mantra that almost all market intervention causes uneconomic aberrations.
But still they miss. A few weeks ago, the cover story was on "The Japan Puzzle" (March 21, 1998). They did a Leader, a 3-page Special on future scenarios, and an analysis of the amount of debt in the Finance pages. However, the Leader offered a lot of financial analysis, but no concrete policy prescriptions. The Special just took the words of a domestic thinktank and said that either Japan was going to get better, get worse, or stay Japanese. The Finance pages were better, but nowhere in the magazine was the hottest topic in the Japanese media even MENTIONED: Kan-Min Settai. Debt is a drag on the economy, but so is corruption--and if The Economist is going to talk about market confidence but ignore the lack of confidence in the Ministry of Finance's mandarins--it calls into question just how much attention they pay to the domestic affairs of the world's second largest economy. Moreover, relying on the hearsay of somebody domestic without offering their own policy analyses (that's what the Economist Intelligence Units are for, right? Why not crib from them?) smacks of analysis running on fumes, and getting nowhere.
I'm sure there are more stories about other publications, but these are the two
I can substantiate best. So let's go on from here and talk about reasons why this
REASONS WHY JOURNALISTS CAN BE FAULTED
I state at the outset that I do not believe that journalists are creatures of ill-will. They, in every case I have ever encountered, understand their professional responsibilities. Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of the profession which do give rise to the chaffy reporting I mentioned above:
1) THE NEED FOR A "PEG"
Newspapers are part of a market, and as such rely on reader interest to support them. Of course. But it's hard to generate reader interest in a story without some event to "hang" it on. This will often preclude follow-up stories (The Economist, say, despite its mushy stance on how inept the Kobe and national governments were at saving lives, has not even bothered to backpedal and do something on how inept things still are even nearly 2.5 years after the event), exclude topics from "out of the blue" (I've been told by overseas newspapers numerous times that "Ninkisei" is a non-issue there--which is why Ivan Hall, in CARTELS OF THE MIND, is trying to make it one in the book world), and be exposed to sudden shifts in the direction of the public eye (sports exclusives, say, blocking out real news, as happened in the Kume Gaffe issue--see http://www.debito.org/kume5tvasahibroadcast.html)
2) THE NEED FOR A "TAG"
Credibility is everything, and untrustworthy information and bad sources are to be avoided. Of course. But then it's harder for an unknown, with no moniker or company name, to be used to back up the veracity of a statement. Working for, say, Merrill Lynch or ING Barings is certainly going to be more likely to get a statement published on Japan's financial markets. But when it comes to more ephemeral matters, say, Japan's education system's effect on social norms or corruption's pervasiveness, who are you going to trust? Some big-name think tank? Some punk who works for, um, some podunk university in Hokkaido? Or the good word of one seasoned reporter doing hopefully good research? I can speak from personal experience that when I have broken a big story on Fukuzawa (the Kume Gaffe or the Tanii Suicide: see http://www.debito.org/kume3datribartcl.html and http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#taniisuicide), despite being the primary leaker, I have never been mentioned in the overseas English-language press as a source (losing out to even Dave Spector). I have no "Tag", and that's that.
Pass this point off as sour grapes, if you will (I do admit gnashing of teeth), but the bottom line is that if you do not have a "personal peg" for them to hang the story on, the information often gets lost or consigned to anecdotery. This makes for reduced information flow from those who often live and breathe a different world than that seen by the journalists and the big-names.
3) THE LACK OF NEED FOR PREVIOUS AREA STUDIES
I have no concrete evidence for this (so DFS journalists, please correct me if I'm wrong), but I think there is a tendency for overseas newspaper bosses to either
1) assume Japan is a modern country and thus researchers can get by in English,
2) assume that research done in English or through Japanese sources will be enough.
We've discussed this issue, "Japanese language as a prerequisite for good reporting", at length before on Fukuzawa. We reached no conclusions--ultimately dividing ourselves into camps finding exceptions within each others' claims. Which shows me that the axioms are not set yet. Still, language still seems to me to be an "elective course" within the journalistic community, meaning nice to have, but not discrediting if you don't.
Anyway, we know better than our editors. Assertion one above, "English is bountiful in Japan", is fallacious from even jet-lagged first impressions. Assertion two, "Japanese sources will be enough", is even worse, because as I will get into below, Japan, perhaps more than any other country, knows the power of the public image and the media's role in reenforcing it, and thus will take steps to sweeten your view if they know you are a journalist.
This brings us to:
REASONS WHY JOURNALISTS CANNOT BE FAULTED
There are also systematic problems that bring forth chaff.
1) THE URGENT NEED FOR A STORY
Newspapers don't have the time or patience to wait for a neophyte journalist to get acclimatized. You have to earn your salary toute suite (especially with the cost of living over here), which means that very often journalists are going to do "rubbish" stories. Gems include "high-pitched voices in Japanese salesladies" (complete with sociologists they've dug up from somewhere to echo their points, who have the "tag" of being Japanese), "vending machines" (a perennial favorite), or even "garbage collection" (how the scary neighborhood obasan search for nonburnables in burnable trash). Which have nothing at all to do with the price of tea in Japan but do catch eyes and form images. Then often as the reporters come up to speed, they get transferred away and the cycle repeats.
The reason why this matters is because in Japan it is so much harder to come up to speed, because, if you have to rely on the hearsay of a few uncharacteristically vocal critics or gaijin handlers, your view as a journalist is going to be controlled until you begin to read things in Japanese for yourself.
This brings me to the bigger, conspiratorial issue: information control.
2) THE GOJ WILL TRY TO CO-OPT JOURNALISTS IN PARTICULAR
Japan is very sensitive about its image overseas, and things that get leaked to the Western press get taken very seriously. Many stories were buried until the New York Times published them (Recruit, Lockheed), and after that they gathered steam domestically and toppled cabinets. Reporters themselves can become part of the "gaiatsu" and "counter-gaiatsu" phenomenon (as Reporter Stephanie Strom and BW have noted). But anyway, who has the image of power and who is a horsetrader makes a difference in a country that feeds on trends. (How many times has a few POLITICAL PULSE-type stories, predicting Ozawa Ichiro's rise, breathed new life into his ineffectual campaigns? And who would remember Morita Akio or Sakakibara Eisuke without their guru status overseas?)
Of course, this image control is not solely directed at expat journalists: The bureaucracy trades privy information for favors with domestic actors all the time, which is exactly what kan-kan and kan-min settai is all about. If that info was freely available in the newspaper, bang would go the rents-seeking.
But my point is that foreign journalists are a particular target, and here is my evidence:
Dave Barry (a humor columnist, yes, but remember he got a Pulitzer) comes to Japan to write a book. He gets assigned an interpreter (I read "gaijin handler") Ishikawa Hiroshi, from the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo, and winds up doing some pre-arranged interviews. Dave was just over here looking for materials, finding humor in whatever came across his eyes, but his eyes got targeted by the Japanese government:
From DAVE BARRY DOES JAPAN:
"Anyway, Hiroshi understood that I was a humor writer. But as a representative of the Foreign Press Center, he seemed to feel obligated to help me acquire Significant Japan Facts. He was constantly giving me official information booklets, including 'Education in Japan', 'Leisure and Recreational Activities', 'Japanese Women yesterday and Today', 'Facts and Figures of Japan 1991', and 'The Current State of Japanese Industry'. Unfortunately, I was unable to read these because they appeared, on cursory examination, to contain large numbers of words.
"But I did interview the head of the Japanese FOEO, which is called the Keidanren. This interview was not my idea: Hiroshi made me do it. One day he left a note at my hotel stating that he'd made an appointment for me to meet with the president and director of Keidanren, who was going to 'brief' me on 'Japan's economic success and the present and future Japan-United States trade relation.' There was no way for me to get out of it; at that point in the trip, I didn't know how to operate the telephones. Or how to scream HELP!
"...[O]n the appointed day, I put on a tie, got into a taxi, shoed the driver the introductory note that Hiroshi had written for me... [and soon] we arrived at the Keidanren building. "...I realized that I should have done some research on Keidanren. Now 'Keidanren' is a scary-sounding name. It sounds like one of those powerful high-tech international crime operations that was always trying to kill James Bond...
[NB: jeez, Dave Barry likes to go off on long humor riffs! It's hard to cite him!]
"... a young man in a business suit came in, bowed.. and handed me his card... It said he was Fumitaka Urano, Special Assistant, Office of the Chairman. ...[h]e sat down and gave me a Keidanren brochure, which had pictures of the officers... The brochure said: 'Keidanren plays an active and influential role in the achievement of harmonious economic prosperity for all mankind.' "...Mr Urano informed me that there was a brand-new Keidanren division, not listed in the brochure, called the Social Philanthropy Department. I gathered that this was a response to the often-voiced criticism that Japanese businesses don't care about social issues, or the environment.
"...A few minutes later, in came the Big Tofu himself, Masaya Miyoshi, an urbane man who had been a Fulbright Scholar and spoke excellent English.
"...Now it was time for me to ask a question....Fortunately, as it turned out, Mr Miyoshi didn't really expect to be interviewed. He expected to make a presentation on the Japanese Economic Miracle, and as soon as I shut up he launched into it.
"Basically he said that Japan has been very lucky to do so well, and owes a big debt of gratitude to the United States. "'We had a very good start thanks to the guidance we got from the United States,' he said. 'We are the pupil who has faithfully executed what he learned from the teacher.'
"He said that although there have been misunderstandings between the two countries, Japan really WANTS the United States to be the world leader. The United States has had some problems, he noted, but all we have to do is restructure the economy, reduce the deficit, strengthen our industry, reorganize the educational system, and, bingo, we'll be right back on top.
"'Your goal is to guide the entire humanity,' he said.
"'But we don't WANT to guide the entire humantity' is what I should have said. 'Why don't YOU guide the entire humanity for a while, and WE'LL get rich making VCRs?"
"But I didn't say this, or anything else, because Mr Miyoshi was in deep lecture mode, making a detailed presentation on the Japanese Economic Miracle, complete with charts..."
(DAVE BARRY DOES JAPAN pp 98-105 . Scissored all over the place, so get the book if you want the unabridged wit.)
Dave's specialty is dressing serious points up as palatable humor, and it's providential that he was so frank about what happened. He makes all my points for me--particularly the fact that even as a journalist who was not even here on a serious mission, he was treated with utmost seriousness by the gaijin handlers using every trick in the book.
It makes you wonder how even the most earnest reporter gets introduced to his or her information--like, say, how did Mr Kristof find his primary schools? With this tendency within the Japanese government to dress things up in Grand Kabuki for foreign guests, how certain can we be that those schools weren't introduced to him precisely because they were "model schools" with "model pupils"? With great images to send back home. I trust he can discern that for himself, but his gushing doesn't feel to me like he has. It almost feels hooked-lined-and-sinkered.
Journalists out there reading this, could you please let us know if you got "briefed" like Dave Barry did?
3) ORGANIZED INFORMATION CARTELS ARE THE NORM IN JAPAN ANYWAY
We all know about the kisha kurabu in Japan--it's well documented in Ivan Hall's CARTELS OF THE MIND. Also in JPRI's Working Paper No. 18 (April 1996) "Japan's Press Clubs as Information Cartels", by Laurie A. Freeman (available here). So I won't go into detail here.
The point is that there are established filters in the Japanese media for what does and does not become public. When a journalist comes in contact with Japan, the filters will naturally seek to co-opt him or her as well. How any journalists recognize and deal with it is precisely the problem.
Will they end up with mush or with gush? Or with something of substance? Substance requires extra effort to overcome barriers not seen in many other countries, and special training that I'm not sure the overseas media understands yet.
DISCLAIMERS AND CONCLUSION
As I said, I am not a journalist, and I have not seen first-hand the dynamics involved in bringing a story to press. My intent was, believe me, not to alienate, but I have given my analysis and substantiation to the best of my ability. If I am in error, I would appreciate corrections from those in the know.
The bottom line is that one fears for the abilities of a journalist (who is, after all, human) to see through the systematic smoke in an environment such as Japan. Are they being flinty-eyed, or doe-eyed? JW writes that within, say, the NYT: "I believe there was a posting on DFS several years ago that explains this. Someone (perhaps even a NYT reporter) noted that they make a point of sending their reporters over without any briefing from their predecessor. Apparently they are discouraged from reading old clips, etc."
If this is true, this is dangerous. Predecessors not sharing information with the newbies means unnecessary learning curves, and an unspecified period of being at the mercy of hearsay and the Japanese government's gaijin handlers. One would hope that the Western press will recognize the Japanese (or the Korean or Singaporean, for that matter) media system for the subtle but oppressive maze that it is, get handed a veteran's map, and forgo the gush and mush.
Otherwise, they are going to wind up sounding like Billy Graham. Remember when he visited Brezhnev's (formally athiest) Russia, and found it more religiously open than the US? Severe noise in that equation!
(to see some responses I got to this controversial email, click here)