Date: Oct 6, 2004
From: Arudou Debito <debito@debito.org>
Subject: FWD: Stupefying SF Chronicle article on Japan
Cc: adamstyle@aol.com


Forwarded from a reporter friend, who calls this article, appropriately, "parachute journalism". I would just call it awful retro foreign correspondence.

I thought we saw the last of these types of "gush" articles (i.e. starry-eyed and far divorced from reality) about Japan back in the Eighties. I would also have thought the editors at the San Francisco Chronicle would have known better by now. They already have perfectly good foreign correspondents in the know (Charles Burress and Catherine Makino), so why this screed? Time to call for some quality control.

Read what I wrote some years ago about this type of journalism (I call it "gush and mush") at

Anyway, for those of us who actually live here in Japan, read on to see how good we apparently have it (and how supposedly supportive the Japanese public is of Bush). Feel free to email the author (and the newspaper) your comments. I already have. I insert some comments in italics. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

Living And Dying In Tokyo

By Adam Sparks, Special to SF Gate
Monday, October 4, 2004
Author emailable at adamstyle@aol.com
SF Chronicle emailable at http://www.sfgate.com/feedback/

My mother-in-law passed away last week, and I attended the funeral in Tokyo.
The five-day wake was a mind-blower in so many ways. It made me think of
just how different Japan is than the United States and how, in so many ways,
it is so far superior, both culturally and technologically. We have much to

(Comment: A five-day wake? The longest I've ever experienced is three days (see http://www.debito.org/japanesefuneral.html), and that was due to the fact the deceased had committed suicide and his wake fell on a tomobiki day.)

First, the treatment of death is much different. My mother-in-law's body
went directly from the hospital, where she passed away, to the home of her
husband. There, the body was placed on the floor in the home's tatami room,
a traditional chamber, lined with woven straw matting, that doubles as a
living room and an ancestral shrine. There was no coffin; the body, covered,
except for the tranquil face, in only a simple white shroud, lay beside the
ancestral altar that accents every Japanese home.

(Comment: Not "every Japanese home" has these ancestral altars. There are Christians, agnostics, and of course iconoclasts in Japan. Anyone with an iota of cultural sensitivity avoids absolutist blanket statements like these.)

Incense was burning, and the deep, droning pattern of the prayers the
mourners offered made them sound like Gregorian chants. Relatives, friends,
neighbors and the local Buddhist monk all made a pilgrimage to pay their

Finally, the body was taken in a solemn procession to the cremation ovens
within a sprawling funeral parlor's compound. Outside of the cremation area
was an idyllic Japanese garden, replete with swaying, young bamboo trees and
a rock garden. (To the Japanese, this is already a classic view of heaven.)
Groups of mourners silently waited behind glass doors for their turn to have
their loved ones incinerated. Each group looked as though they were waiting
for St. Peter to open heaven's gate for them. The scene was surreal.

(Comment: A lot of Japanese do not believe in a "heaven" per se, let alone an afterlife. The author might claim he was speaking figuratively, but this still smacks of cultural transposition. Especially with St. Peter lurking in the wings.)

At the conclusion of the wake, the body was put into a high-tech oven
heated to some 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

(Comment: We have "much to learn" from this factoid too? Japanese crematoriums are more suitably hot? Why is this part of the article?)

The ritual of the long wake, in which the body is kept at home, seems at
once primitive and cathartic: It offers the proper amount of time to mourn.
American funerals, by contrast, are sterile. Often, the body is never seen
again, or at any rate spends little time with the surviving family members.
The Japanese ceremonial style, however, feels right. It's a very long
good-bye, but why not?

(Comment: While I do agree with the author about the existence and appropriateness of the "long goodbye", the analysis still overgeneralizes. Even with houses up here in rural Hokkaido larger than average, most people place the body in the local saijou, or funeral parlor. It's much less trouble all around. The rich elites, with larger houses down south, might indeed house the body, but this example is definitely unindicative of the average rite.)

Ancient Culture Alive And Thriving

The antiquity of the Japanese funeral ritual is strong part of the culture.
The Japanese, despite their renown for high tech, are themselves a living,
ancient culture. They're one of the few civilizations in Asia that have
never been colonized. They can trace their roots back some 3,000 years,
compared to a mere 230 years for us cowboy Americans. And longevity matters:
When a culture has stewed and simmered for that long, it tends to evolve
into a very fine broth.

(Comment: Aside from the apocryphal overestimation ("3000 years unbroken" is a prime tenet of the long-debunked pseudoscience of Japanese uniqueness called "Nihonjinron"), the United States is certainly older than 230 years; a society is not merely a nation-state. Even under this yardstick, the "nation-state" of Japan was not around three millennia ago. Sloppy assertions for the sake of snappiness.)

The police there ride around on bicycles, and they don't carry guns. Why
bother? The crime rate is among the lowest in the civilized world. The few
criminals the Japanese do have often turn themselves in within a week; they
simply feel too guilty, and honor dictates that they face the music of
justice rather than hide.

(Comment: What is the source for his claim that Japanese "often" turn themselves in within a week? Dubious. Especially out of "guilt". A lot of the canon on Japanese culture asserts that Japan is a "shame culture", while the West in fact is a "guilt culture". I don't particularly agree with this paradigm myself, but it is clear that the author has not been exposed to Japanese Studies. Top it off with the glaring error that police don't carry guns, and you know the author has not done even basic research!)

There is a strong samurai-like fidelity of the Japanese to both their
family and their work. It's normal for an employee to be loyal to his first
company from the time of his college graduation to his retirement. Loyalty
and honor still matter. Ritual suicides for those who gravely dishonor
family or company still occur: Now, that's accountability.

(Comment: Uh... clearly the author knows nothing about the slow death of the nenko jouretsu seido, with corporate restructuring and tendencies towards part-timing and temp work throughout the Japanese economy. Ritual suicides?? Like who, recently? Still waiting for a number of disgraced politicians and businesspeople to follow through and off themselves.)

There is no graffiti on school walls. That's due in large part because
there are no janitors. The schoolchildren do all the custodial work. They
clean their classroom, the hallways and the bathrooms. Children are unlikely
to vandalize that which they must repair the next day. That can't happen
here, though: The unions might scream, "You're taking away our jobs!" or the
ACLU might cry, "Unconstitutional -- it's forced labor!" But it works,
inculcating in children a respect for property.

(Comment: Yet more absolutism. There is plenty of graffiti in Japan, including on school walls. And this poke at the Left in America is again an unwarranted transposition of political attitudes.)

And schoolchildren stand up when the teacher arrives in the classroom,
greeting him or her with a deep bow. The respect for others is also already
transparent in the deep bows offered at every greeting. The older the person
you're greeting is, or the more senior he or she is in status, the deeper
one bows.

(Comment: Introductory Japanese Culture 101, brought before a starry-eyed foreigner who believed everything he was presented without enough experience for more sophisticated analysis. "Deep bows at every greeting"? People in populated areas must have back problems.)

Homeless? No Problem

The nuclear family is a tight-knit unit; the mother still generally stays at
home to care for the young children. And offspring usually stay at home
until they marry; it's not uncommon for three generations to live under the
same roof. Furthermore, the village, akin to our neighborhoods, is like a
city-state. It helps in medical emergencies, senior problems and family
tragedies, and Tokyo is essentially a conglomerate of hundreds of very old,
extremely cohesive village units.

(Comment: Tokyo is often compared to New York City--by people around me who live in the provinces--as a place where everyone is from somewhere else, and neighborhoods are largely anonymous. And three-generation families are becoming much less common, especially in a place like Tokyo, where most people (save the elites, which the author seems to have gotten his impressions from) have little space for three generations!)

Why does this social structure matter? It helps explain why there are
virtually no homeless people on the streets. Families will not tolerate it;
nosy villagers would notify any kin, who would get their relatives off the
streets. In the rare circumstances in which a homeless person has no family,
the home village will take responsibility to make sure he or she has a home
and any rehabilitation treatment he or she needs. That system works in Japan
because of a strong sense of self-respect and self-worth, a strong moral
upbringing and work ethic and a loving caring family and village unit.

(Comment: Clearly the author has not visited too many of the nation's major city parks. Homeless abound in Japan, which brings into doubt this alleged social structure.)

In the United States, by contrast, there is no stigma to being homeless. In
cities such as San Francisco, homeless people are celebrated and even have
lobbyists called "homeless advocates" who grind out press releases and
control budgets in the millions. Go figure. Also, we are so isolated and
disconnected from our families and our hometowns, and the only "help"
homeless people get is from the ACLU and the courts, which declare that
these people have a right to panhandle aggressively and to sleep, defecate
and die on the streets. This is the tragedy of misplaced American

(Comment: Yet another unwarranted poke at the American Left. The author is unable to think outside of his own cultural context---a common flaw in a viewpoint from a person who parachutes into a society without being able to speak the local language.)

Against the backdrop of ancient thinking, the Japanese are, by far, the
most advanced society technologically. Their bullet trains speed around the
country at 130 miles per hour, boasting service, seating and amenities that
compare to those of first-class airline service, right down to the back
rubs. Compare that to our Amtrak trains, which lumber down the track at
about 40 mph and still derail somewhere about once a month.

(Comment: Exaggerations and hyperboles abound here, and they cannot simply be dismissed as humor. Back rubs? Still waiting for one on a shinkansen, and I've taken more than a hundred.)

Taxi doors open and close automatically, and cabs are no more than one year
old. Compare that to some of our cabs, which look like they have survived a
demolition derby. Cars are hoisted three levels high on mechanical lifts in
crowded parking lots to make the most of their limited space.

Japanese cell phones already have video conferencing, and can convert into
televisions. Similarly, the global positioning systems in their new cars can
also be used as TVs that turn off instantly whenever the gear is moved out
of neutral -- great for traffic jams.

(Comment: Yes, these are advances. But the writer comes off as George Bush Senior marvelling at bar-code readers at supermarkets.)

Caring for the Earth

Environmentally, too, the Japanese are far ahead of us. Household recycling
is mandatory: There's not enough landfill. Water from bathroom sinks flows
into toilet tanks for reuse. Not only are toilet seats heated, but toilets
universally include a bidet or a more general water spray from below -- your

(Comment: Recycling is not mandatory everywhere, and widespread dumping occurs where it is (since the local government often charges a recycling fee). More below about environmental problems, but Japan is hardly a paradigm of landfill use. "Bidets universal"? Seems proof positive that the author wasn't in Japan long enough to go to the toilet too many times.)

The high-speed trains are the primary mode of transportation. Bicycles get
you to the train stations scattered throughout Tokyo -- where few of the
thousands parked there are locked -- and apartment buildings feature
two-story-high covered carport-type units at their apartments for bicycle
storage. The cars there are much smaller than Japanese vehicles sold in the
United States. The homes are tiny and minimally furnished, and a typical
family lives in a home the size of a one-bedroom apartment here, using up
less electricity and gas. All faucets are hooked up to water heaters that
provide hot water on demand, rather than continuously, to prevent water from
needlessly being heated all day long.

(Comment: No difference seems too small to ignore, or unworthy of praise as superior, to the author.)

Architecturally, it's as if the Japanese have given the world's most
brilliant architects carte blanche. High-rise buildings appear in all
shapes, including the letter T. Some buildings have their own underground
cities, where people can live, sleep and shop in eight-story underground
malls. Everything is computerized, miniaturized, sanitized and high tech.
It's like visiting the Jetsons' hometown. All this infrastructure, however,
is set against a backdrop of a pure and ancient culture, where kimono-clad
women still head off, giggling, to the temple to offer their obeisances.

The Japanese middle class is dominant. Few are mired in poverty, and there
are few large, ostentatious homes, as the upper class is small. Middle-class
homes are furnished in a spartan manner despite the ubiquity of high-tech
gadgetry throughout the society. The Japanese have traded the
bigger-is-better philosophy of the struggle for ever more material goods for
a lifestyle of simplicity, meaningful relationships and societal harmony and
security -- all of which they have in spades.

(Comment: Where to start? What a utopia Japan must be. Somebody take me there.)

Let's Party

Entertainment districts consisting of what appear to be office buildings but
are in fact "entertainment" buildings feature bars, parlors for playing
pachinko (the Japanese version of slot machines), restaurants and
nightclubs. Tokyo boasts about eight major entertainment neighborhoods, each
the size of downtown San Francisco. The Shinjuku district -- which makes New
York's Times Square look like a sad little plaza in Sacramento -- is filled
with flashing lights throughout the pedestrian malls, and wall-to-wall mobs
of people bustle about.

Tokyo has more daily newspapers -- eight -- than any American city.
Tokyoites, an intellectually curious people, read insatiably and have a
healthy, open respect and admiration for Americans -- and you can't say that
about too many cities in the world. And, despite the fact that we bombed two
of their cities to smithereens in World War II, ironically, they thank us
for rebuilding their nation and bringing them into the community of
advanced, civilized nations. They still have respect and honor for us. This
is one of the reasons Japan is now an ally of ours in Iraq. Another reason
is that they can easily relate to President Bush, whom they perceive as a
simple, honest and straight-talking, straight-shooting country cowboy. It's
time we learned a little from them.

(Comment: And they like Bush too! They must be sensible people! Well, Koizumi does. Thanks to geopolitics. Very few people I know here can "relate" to Bush.)

Adam Sparks is a Bay Area writer. He can be reached at adamstyle@aol.com
SF Chronicle emailable at http://www.sfgate.com/feedback/


Delivered-To: debito.org-debito@debito.org
From: JT
To: "Arudou Debito" <debito@debito.org>
Subject: Re: FWD: Stupefying SF Chronicle article on Japan
Date: Thu, 7 Oct 2004 17:26:38 +0900

Hi Debito,

Thanks as always for all your interesting emails! I would not have come
across this article on my own (as the only US paper I tend to check are the
LA and NY Times)..

All I can say is: reading this article was surreal! Although I tend to agree
that Japanese funerals are better than US ones for closure, the rest of the
article was just one big misconception (maybe lie would be more accurate?).
I wonder if the author has a spare pair of rose-colored glasses, maybe I
could borrow them the next time I go to the station in Matsuyama so I too
can avoid noticing the homeless who live there! I am going to be sending off
a note to the author, but just wanted to say hi and thanks, as always JT.

To: adamstyle@aol.com
Cc: Arudou Debito <debito@debito.org>
Subject: Re: FWD: Stupefying SF Chronicle article on Japan
Date: Wed, 6 Oct 2004 16:44:56 +0900

Dear Adam:

The generalizations in this story are outrageous. It seems as if your
Japanese family lives in a privileged area of Tokyo, but Osaka and many
areas of Tokyo have PLENTY of graffitti and loads of homeless which I pass
by every day going to work. As to neighborhoods, my old neighborhood in
.... California had some of the friendliest most helpful people I
have ever met in my life compared to the cold, empty gazes I get from a
majority of my neighbors in Ashiya, Japan. Speaking of technology, why
the hell are almost all Americans racing back to the States for even minor
surgery... Take a guess at which country uses high-tech more effectively.
Finally, as to the environment, I am shocked at the complete lack of
respect most Japanese have in littering their beaches, rivers and public
areas which are shamefully dirty compared to the beaches in California and
Florida that I have seen.

I have just written the tip of the iceberg as to the inaccuracies in your
article. I suggest you write about what you know, which in this case is
certainly not "Japan" but rather your vacation in Japan. Better luck next
time. If the SF Chronicle wants to publish stories about the real Japan
please let me know.

RK (6-year Japan resident, currently living in Ashiya, Japan)

Delivered-To: debito.org-debito@debito.org
From: "MD"
To: <adamstyle@aol.com>
Subject: Adam let's make a deal
Date: Wed, 6 Oct 2004 17:56:08 +0900


I am a Tokyo-based writer and I just finished your piece "Living And Dying In Tokyo."

First, my condolences on the loss of your mother-in-law.

Now, how about we make a deal: I won't write about America, and you don't write about Japan?

We would, I can assure you, be doing our readers a great service.

Regards, MD

PS: regarding the bit "there are virtually no homeless people on the streets" -- If I send you a photograph, taken this week, of several hundred homeless people, huddled round in a filth-filled Tokyo concrete park with an area roughly half the size of an American football field, would you and your paper kindly help notify the home village so they can take responsibility to make sure these homeless people all have a home and any rehabilitation treatment they need? Because their kin apparently didn't read your article.

Date: Thu, 07 Oct 2004 20:20:55 -0700
Subject: Goofball Article on Japan

Hi guys, A. in Tokyo here. Hope all are doing well!

Well, I wrote Adam of that silly SF news article fame. Not mean-spirited or
anything, but just said the article was misleading and sometimes just wrong.

He wrote back that he has heard from several of us on this list, and that
he noticed that they are all Democrats and have an anti-Bush slant.
"Coincidence?" he asks. "I don't think so."

No kidding, this guy is living in a fantasy land. Sounds like something he
may have overheard on a bus on his way to work. Just plain silly!


To see how I reported a Japanese funeral instead (without blowing it up into a screed against the American Left), see http://www.debito.org/japanesefuneral.html. Arudou Debito

Back to the Cover Page

"The Community" Page

Go to the "Residents Page"

Go to the "Activists Page"