"TELEVIEWS", NOV 10, 1996

(originally posted to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends on Wed, 13 Nov 1996)
click here to see previous parts to this series)

The "Kume Gaffe" issue made it to the "Televiews" column of the English-language Yomiuri (Sunday, Nov 10, 1996, p. 17), where long-running Japanese TV pundit William Penn had a few words to say.


What's the best way to get the networks to listen to my complaints? Quite a few readers have written to ask that question this past year. Lately I have been favoring pleas tothe sponsors, but there now seems to be an even better alternative. Unload those complaints by uploading them.

This week I bring you a change of pace, a tale from cyberspace--an example of positive protest in the age of the Internet.

It all started on Oct. 14 on Hiroshi Kume's News Station. Once one of the finest ad-libbing emcees around and a master of the quick quip, Kume was always capable of raising the ire of politicians but he has become rather bland and silly in the last year or so.

You may remember it was in July when he capped off a pre-Olympic report on a Japanese restaurant in Atlanta by calling the American proprietor a "henna gaijin". Well, on Oct 14, he did it again. After an Indian restaurant owner in Tokyo gave a comment in extremely fluent Japanese, Kume quipped: "It is better when non-Japanese speak broken Japanese" (katakoto no ho ga ii yo ne).


Actually, he used the "G word" for non-Japanese but bringing that into any discussion sidetracks it into an endless debate on whether the term is or is not discrimatory (which is a matter of context anyway). No one is going to ever totally resolve that issue. It has been around since Adm. Perry got his first peek at Shimoda (or Uraga for those who prefer to be precise). Such discussions usually serve to obscure whatever the main issue was in the first place.

And the real question here seems to be: Waht logic led Kume to reach his rash conclusion on the joys of linguistic dysfunction? Or was it just one of those attempts at humor that do not translate too well?

It is hard to believe Kume really meant it, for his show, more than any other on the air, has provided opportunities for quality reporting to non-Japanese, including David Zoppetti, TV Asahi's first full-time foreign employee, and even to The Daily Yomiuri's own nature columnist, Kevin Short.

But, as the umpire's baseball championship found out to their embarrassment, the video replay never lies. And as Kume knows so well, once one has inserted one's foot into one's mouth, it is pretty hard to extricate it without attracting an audience and some reaction.


It seems that the little quip got to a few people who have been doing their best to master Japanese-language skills in pursuit of a life here.

A Hokkaido viewer called TV Asahi to complain, which was similar to riding on the Yamanote Line (you go around and around). He then posted a report on the Internet discussion group called the Dead Fukuzawa Society (DFS for short) and a lively exchange soon ensued.

Another nonprofit organization called Issho, a computer networking project to facilitate intercultural awareness, got involved and, along the way, TV Asahi's email address was discovered and the network's email box began to overflow.

All the Internet action attracted a Chicago Tribune reporter who put together a story for the paper's Oct 27 issue titled "When in Tokyo, Don't Speak as the Japanese Do", which is full of pithy quotes from everybody from former Chicagoan Dave Spector to an anonymous office lady who, when confronted with a fluent Japanese-speaking non-Japanese on a train, let out a great big "yadaa", which is accurately translated in the story as "yuck".


Anyhow back to TV Asahi where the little quip, quickly taking on a life of its own, suddenly begins to attract some internal attention as well. The network assigned David Zoppetti to do a piece on the incident and the term gaijin, and sent him up to Hokkaido where the protest started.

TV Asahi has also hired a company to do a public opinion survey among Japanese on the thorny term and Issho has been circulating an English version of the same survey in cyberspace.

Zoppetti hopes to wrap it all up and have his report ready for airing sometime during the week of Nov 18. The exact broadcast date has not yet been set.

All this emphasis on the "G word" could discussion from the issue yet again, but Zoppetti and everyone else I have talked to assured me they will be doing their best to keep the "katakoto" issue on track.

It will be interesting to see how TV Asahi tackles it and whether Kume comes forward to set the record straight and tell us all just what he really meant in the first place. So stay tuned folks. This oughta be good.


For those of you who get the Daily Yomiuri, look for a follow-up article in this coming Sunday's Televiews (Web access at http://www.yomiuri.co.jp --but only on day of issue, and as far as I could tell they don't archive).

As Mr Penn notes, I did indeed meet Mr Zoppetti, a very interesting fellow who looks like a younger Bruce Springsteen without the steel-mine chat lines (he sings a mean karaoke--even at 4 am in Susukino). We had a chat on camera in the oddest places--on our plot of land with menacing snowclouds massing in the background, and in our home watching our daughters spar with each other. Here I was trying to make a serious point about assimilation on national TV, and everything--from the elements to myoffspring--was conspiring to distract attention from the issue.

[NB: I'd soon realize just how right that feeling was.]

So as you can see, protest is not always fruitless. People out there--and not just the marginal "gaijin subculture" hanging out in Roppongi or Hiroo--are really thinking about this issue. There was a letter to the editor on the subject in Nov 12's Daily Yomiuri, and, I have it on good authority, even the "what, me worry?" Japanese have been writing in to the Yomiuri Shinbun to set the record straight on what exactly Kume meant (with indicative references to the sekai no gaikokujin--"those foreigners all over the world").

Reminds me of the old Monty Python skit, where one of those angry British beachcombers (with a bandanna tied at all four corners on his head and Wellingtons on his feet) shouts at the camera:

"I think there should be a tax on all foreigners in their own country"


Dave Aldwinckle

(click here to read the conclusion to this issue--TV Asahi's broadcast on this very subject on Nov 28, 1996)