JT’s Philip Brasor on BBC QI show and atomic-bombings and “victim ownership of historical narrative”


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Hi Blog.  Here’s an excellent column on the recent “humor” segment on the BBC show QI, derided by officials and family as “insensitive” because it was connected to the Japan atomic bombings.  The author then links it to the issue of DPRK abductions of Japanese, where deviation from the official line of “they’re still alive over there” is taboo, and comes up with an interesting conclusion:  He who owns the “narrative” on this history (particularly as a victim) gets to dictate how it is represented in the media.  Very insightful indeed.  I can see how this analytical paradigm can be applied to the realm of human rights and racial discrimination in Japan — how NJ are often not allowed to “own” their own narratives in Japan.  Worth a think about.  Arudou Debito


Cultural insensitivity no laughing matter

The Japan Times, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011

The tempest in a teapot whipped up by a segment on the British quiz-cum-comedy show “QI” has prompted debate on cross-cultural sensitivity. The BBC has apologized for the segment, which, contrary to a statement issued by Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, did not make fun of its subject, the late Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who was a victim in both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. If anything, it made fun of the British railway system, which was found wanting in comparison to Japan’s.

The main complaint is that any exploitation of the atomic bombings for the purposes of levity is hurtful to the survivors, their families and the Japanese people in general, regardless of the content or target of the joke. The laughs, in this instance, were evinced by the irony of the situation: A man who was burned in one atomic bombing was able to board a train to go to a city where he suffered — and survived — another. Depending on your threshold for humor, insult was added to injury when some of the guests on the show tried to make jokes (“He never got the train again, I tell you”), which is what they’re paid to do.

Just as there’s no accounting for taste, it’s difficult to make a case for comedy that may strike some as being in bad form, especially when the gag isn’t particularly funny; but the argument here is not really about whether Yamaguchi’s fateful journey qualifies as a cosmic joke. The point is: Who gets to say how people should react to it?

Yamaguchi’s daughter told Kyodo News that her own family had joked about her father’s experience, but that doesn’t mean British people can do the same. The reason they can’t, she said, is that Great Britain is a “country that has nuclear weapons.” But it’s not within the purview of “QI” to make such distinctions. Britain may possess nukes, but the guests on the show certainly don’t; and for all we know they may be opposed to their country’s policy of deterrence. No, the real reason they don’t have a right to joke about Hiroshima, at least from the Japanese critics’ point of view, is that they aren’t atomic bomb victims themselves.

Rest of the article at

13 comments on “JT’s Philip Brasor on BBC QI show and atomic-bombings and “victim ownership of historical narrative”

  • Just saying what we know says:

    Black people can use the “N-word”; other s can’t. Jewish people can make jokes about being bad at sports and sharp financially-others can’t- and so it goes……

    — Again, who “owns” the narrative. It’s a very powerful analytical tool.

  • As a descendant of a victim, I must protest about the way the Bataan Death March is portrayed in the Japanese media; i.e. not at all!

  • I can understand why Japan would be upset about Brits gettings laughs out of the atomic bombings. They found it offensive, and I can understand stand. What I can’t understand is how Tahara’s comments could be the basis for a lawsuit. The idea that the abducted Japanese might be dead was not created by Tahara. The abducted Japanese have not been proven to be alive, so the fact that they might be dead is just the cold reality of the situation. That the Arimotos could pin that reality on Tahara and get some traction in the courts is chilling. Of course it was politically motivated to keep the Foreign Ministry on the case, but wielding the victim-approved narrative proved to be powerful and dangerous indeed.

  • Very interesting perspective on “owning” a narrative, Debito. I can see how the double standards would apply to NJs in reverse, i.e. if the Japanese claim and believe there’s no discrimination, then really, there’s none, and please believe that too, rest of the world! However, I’m willing to bet my meager salary that while the QI incident can justly be written off as a misunderstanding (part lost in translation and part over-sensitivity), most of the issues pertaining to NJs are a lot more than that.

    — I think that might be part of the reason why there was such an odd groundswell of resentment (especially from the complacent “don’t rock the boat” NJ crowd) — because we effectively “stole” the narrative on the discourse regarding RD in Japan through the Otaru Onsens Case. It was no longer under regular control. For a while at least. But anyone who tries to “steal it back” runs the risk of looking at least ignorant, at worst obscurantist, thanks to an indelible court decision.

  • A very interesting insight, to be sure, but the point is moot since there was never any point during the QI program where Stephen Fry or any of the other panelists were making fun of hibakusha. They were ribbing the British rail system. Our Man in Abiko even has a link to a blog that explains each joke, in Japanese, and shows how they were never making fun of atom bomb victims.


  • mark in kanto says:

    And isn’t it ironic then, that the narrative, literally, of suspected murderer Ichihashi Tatsuya take on the murder of Lindsay Ann Hawker is “owned” by Ichihashi and the publisher. I don’t here any great public outcry on that. Nobody in Japan seems “offended.” Nobody is in “mental anguish.” Nobody has taken it to court, so far as I know.

    Free speech for some, but not others.

    What matters is which is to be master, that’s all….

    — In my view, the book is a clear attempt by Ichihashi to “seize the narrative”.

  • Well Stephen Fry’s trip to Japan has been scrapped. See BBC link:
    3 February 2011 Last updated at 20:55 GMT

    Stephen Fry Japan trip scrapped after A-bomb joke

    Plans for Stephen Fry to film part of a documentary series in Japan have been shelved after complaints about nuclear bomb jokes in his quiz show “QI”.

    The programme featured a discussion about a man who survived the blasts at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

    The Japanese Embassy accused the BBC of making light of the attacks, which killed up to 250,000 civilians.

    The BBC, which later apologised, said the cancellation of the filming was due to the “strength of feeling” in Japan.

    The offending episode of QI was broadcast last month and featured a discussion about Tsutomu Yamaguchi – the only person known to have survived both bombings.

    Mr Yamaguchi was burnt in the Hiroshima explosion – only to travel by train to Nagasaki to be caught in the second attack three days later.

    During the programme Stephen Fry and two fellow comedians discussed Mr Yamaguchi’s survival.

    Alan Davies suggested an A-bomb had landed on Mr Yamaguchi and “bounced off”.

    And Stephen Fry expressed amazement that the Japanese trains were still running after the blast.

    The episode prompted a complaint to the BBC from the Japanese Embassy who accused the broadcaster of making light of the attacks.

    The BBC responded by apologising, acknowledging the sensitivity of the subject for Japanese viewers.

    The broadcaster has cancelled some of its plans to film a programme featuring Mr Fry in Japan, after recognising the “strength of feeling” that had been caused by the show.

    A BBC spokeswoman said the filming schedule of the documentary about language – “Planet Word” was now being altered.

  • As I said earlier, this will lead to less coverage on Japan by the BBC (who don’t want trouble),and sure enough:

    “A BBC spokeswoman said the filming schedule of the documentary about language – “Planet Word” was now being altered.”

    The unspoken feeling of why Japan gets excluded from certain events from fashion design to free entries for Japanese companies in Eureopean directories (my old job), to serious TV coverage is because Japan is perceived as being “difficult”

    As for the seizing the narrative, this seems to be a case “who abducts, wins”. Now where have I heard that phrase before? Seems to be a pattern of behavior arguably emerging across the board…..

  • The sad thing about this incident is that it really wasn’t as bad as many people suggested with their responses to it. I suspect most people who complained about it have not actually seen it or did not have enough understanding of English to properly follow it.

    I would be the first to complain to the BBC if there had been a really sick incident as the complainers made out, but when I actually saw it, all participants, particularly Stephen Fry made great efforts to try and steer clear of saying anything offensive.

    Of course it was a mistake for the researcher or producer who came up with the question in the first place as it was too risky and invited a misunderstanding such as this, but what the resulting interchange actually demonstrated is how aware the panellists were about the bombings and how sensitive they were about them.

    In the end, because so many people complained blindly, they have damaged the reputation of the Japanese and the British unnecessarily.

    Original video:

  • “.. No, the real reason they don’t have a right to joke about Hiroshima, at least from the Japanese critics’ point of view, is that they aren’t atomic bomb victims themselves…”

    That is what occurs when one wishes to bury ones head in the head sand and expect the rest of the world to follow suit. Denying ones past and control of such information about ones past to others and how it must be perceived by others.

    Funny, (no pun intended)…all those “victims” of the Blitz and other endless acts by the Germans et al in WWII…the Brits who suffered just as much if not much more, all joke about the time. It is a source of endless humour today.

    The only real difference between a good joke and a bad joke, about real events, is the passage of time.

    There are now many jokes about 9/11, made by Americans. At the time of the event, Americans had the same reaction as the Yamaguchis upon hearing such jokes. The passage of time allows jokes to be made and by victims themselves. Humour helps to heal.

    We make jokes about my mothers past, a victim of communism, and some really horrific events. The passage of time allows this, whether one is a victim or not.

    This is just another example of Japan controlling its citizens. And as jonholmes noted, leaves the impression of Japan being “difficult” and hence is slowly ever more being ostracised by the world community. It is creating, yet again, its own self imposed isolation, this time driven by not wishing to engage in events it cannot control.

  • If you watch Ricky Gervais’s latest standup, “Science”, he makes an even worse joke involving the atomic bombing of Japan.
    Interestingly, I haven’t heard any calls for the DVD to be banned…

  • Im sure that if you were in anyway affected by these bombs, you would also find it disrespectful. When I was younger and blissful of ignorance I found Atomic Bomb jokes to be humerous. But as I have aged and hopefully wised up more I find it not only tasteless, disrespectful and utterly inhuman to even poke fun of it. We should all be lucky that we were not recepients of one of the most devastating and destructive WMD of all time. We should pay our respects to those dead innocent people.

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