(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Thursday, Dec 26, 1996)

I opened my Christmas Day Daily Yomiuri to page 17, and what did I see? Another Kume article lookin' back at me. Taking up just about a third of a page, here's what it said:


by Chizuko Muranaka, DY Staff Writer

It all started with a quip--"Shikashi, gaijin wa katakoto no hoga iiyone" (But, isn't it better if foreigners speak broken Japanese?)--during Japan's one of the most popular prime-time television news programs.

Hiroshi Kume, anchorman of "News Station", made the remark on the show's Oct. 14 broadcast after an Indian restaurateur in Tokyo offered an opinion in fluent Japanese about the opening of the first McDonald's restaurant in India.

Kume is known for his outspokenness and clever sound bites, which are mainstays of the TV Asahi program.

This time, however, Kume's honest, in-your-face style may have cost him. His apparent view that some foreigners speak Japanese a little too well has ruffled feathers among the non-Japanese community and inspired debate on the Internet.

"I saw sparks when I read some of the letters," said Tony Laszlo, who heads Issho Kikaku, a non-profit group trying to raise intercultural awareness via the World Wide Web.

Laszlo posted several letters to his group's Web page from the Dead Fukuzawa Society, an online discussion group that focuses on Japanese economics and politics. He also e-mailed the letters to about 340 members of his group. Circulation of the letters grew exponentially as many were reposted on network bulletin boards.

"Then it gained speed and people began to come out," Laszlo says.

One letter that caused "sparks" was written by Glen Fukushima, a former US trade official and currently vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Although he did not see the original boradcast, Fukushima discussed Kume's quip.

"I thought it was interesting because it reflected the attitude of some Japanese people, and a couple of specific incidents came to mind," Fukushima wrote.

He went on to describe the time a Japanese politician told him that his Japanese had become too fluent and "would no longer be considered 'kawaii' (cute)"

David Aldwinckle, a university lecturer in Hokkaido, called TV Asahi a couple of days after the broadcast when he read about Kume's remark.

"The letter was just complaining about the situation. So I thought, 'Why not act and express our discontent?'," Aldwinckle said.

In a letter posted on the Internet, Aldwinckle recounted his efforts to complain to the station. He telephoned the station and spoke with someone associated with the program, but ended up getting into an argument after Aldwinckle said he felt "uncomfortable with the use of the word gaijin."

According to Aldwinckle, the TV Asahi staffer responded by saying, "That's only your opinion. I don't think there's anything wrong with (Kume's) comment." And with that, the station employee abruptly hung up, Aldwinckle said.

He phoned again and spoke to the network's viewer complaint center, explaining how he had been treated rudely by the staffer and dismissed as if his opinion counted for nothing.

Aldwinckle said the complaint center apologized for the incident and assured him that his complaint would be forwarded to relevant departments.

A man at the center said Kume had not intended to be discriminatory. "It is too bad that there was a misunderstanding (between the newsroom staff and Aldwinckle)", he added.

The station employee seemed to believe the matter was resolved, but Aldwinckle was not satisfied. He said he was resigned to accept the situation, knowing his criticism was not likely to be addressed in any more serious way.

"Kume's comment was intended as a compliment to the Indian for his fluent Japanese," said an offical at TV Asahi's public relations department. "It is his style not to say things straight."

Nevertheless, the station decided to produce a follow-up segment for "News Station" that apparently was intended to defuse the incident. David Zoppetti, a full-time foreign employee of TV Asahi, was assigned to produce it.

Zoppetti could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for the network described the follow-up piece as "a new project that is amed at conveying the message--'hey, let's not use the word gaijin.'"

The story, titled "History Special: Looking back on the 20th Century--A time when the word gaijin still existed," aired Nov. 28.

The 11-minute piece is set in the year 2016. It focuses on Japanese who have used the term, and also gauges the feelings of foreigners who have heard it used.

Laszlo was asked to conduct a survey among Tokyo's non-Japanese community in order to get their views about the term. Appearing in the piece, Laszlo stressed that some respondents said they were not bothered by it, while others were resoigned to accept it as part of the Japanese lexicon.

Zoppetti interviewed Aldwinckle and several other bilingual foreigners about Kume's controversial quip, but heir responses were left out of the final segment, which only dealt with the word "gaijin".

Right after the segment, Kume said he "praised" Zoppetti, who is also the author of a prize-winning novel in Japanese, "Taishita monda gaijin nanoni" (Well done, even though you're a foreigner).

Aldwinckle sighs when he is reminded of the segment.

Laszlo has written two open letters to Kume, asking him to explain what he meant by his Oct. 14 coomment and his views concerning the word gaijin. He has yet to receive a reply.

Kume has no comment on his remarks, his secretary said when The Daily Yomiuri tried to contact him.

The producer of "News Station" insists that "we deal with the broadcast in the broadcast," adding that "no other program responds this way (by producing a follow-up story)."

The producer bristled when asked whether he told Zoppetti not to mention Kume's quip in the follow-up story. "I feel offended when someone accuses me of censorship," he said, raising his voice.

"Our decisions are part of the production process between director and producer and I have no need to reply."

While some argue that Kume's comment was taken out of context and blown out of proportion, Laszlo believes it deserves criticism.

"I can't condone it," he said. "The use of the word 'gaijin' is not appropriate either at the official or individual level."

He argues that gaijin is a vague word that can be used as a short form of gaikokujin (foreigner), but also a euphemism for outsider.

Fukushima adds calmly that it is "a fact of life in Japan" that some Japanese are made uneasy by foregners who speak their native tongue with ease.

This notion "reflects the insularity of Japan," Fukushima said, adding that such a mind-set is encountered "particularly among the elite in the society who want to conceal things."

Aldwinckle takes a positive view that the discussion showed that non-Japanese are not a silent minority.

"Television tends to use non-Japanese as images and not as people with feelings. We want to be respected," he said.


Well, well, what a nice way to round out the year. Merry Christmas, all.

Dave Aldwinckle