From: Olaf Karthaus <>
Date: Wed May 3, 2000 6:55pm
Subject: NHK images down non-Japanese on national TV

The social imaging-down of non-Japanese continues...


By Olaf Karthaus (with input from Dave Aldwinckle)

I was shocked to see Sunday, April 30's NHK program 'Nihonjin no shitsumon' (broadcast every Sunday evening from 7:30 pm to 8:00). In general I like the show, as it collects intriguing questions from Japanese and broadcasts them nationwide. Like the US program "The Liars' Club", four prominent actor/comedian panelists give 4 possible answers to 8 guests, who must choose the one panelist who is telling the truth. The questions range from history to science, and since even the lies are compelling and plausable, it is fun to guess along with the guests.

But last week something very uncommon for NHK happened. They made fun of a certain group of people, namely foreigners, in a way that was at least humiliating, at worst derogatory.

What happened was the following:

The question was: Foreign visitors to Japan were given a questionaire on on their impressions upon their return to their country. Inter alia, they were asked to contrast the impression of Japan they had before coming with what they experienced. What impression did the mention had been changed the most?

In itself, this was a very neutral question and not objectionable at all. The thing that happened next was what upset me.

When giving the answers, all four panelists spoke in "katakoto nihongo", a mixture of broken Japanese and English phrases, with a very strong American accent in the Japanese. They used gestures and pronounced words as they envisioned a foreigner would pronounce them.

As each panelist spelled out his proposed answer, the host, the guests and the studio audience were in gales of laughter (admittedly, this also happens when a funny answer is given at other occasions). But the 'katakoto' responses to the question were an essential part of the gag, since *all four* panelists used the same speech characteristics *throughout their presentations*. This was not Kume-Hiroshi style off-the-cuff remark by only one of them. All performances were thus carefully scripted and orchestrated by the producers and directors of the show.

(By the way, the correct answer from the foreigners surveyed was that Japanese are more polite than expected; other choices were: Japanese cities are very expansive, the unexpected use of English on billboards, and that Japanese don't weartraditional clothes).

Why is this objectionable? Why do I bother to write about this?

First, NHK is the government-run national TV network and has a huge impact on the communication networks of Japan. They should adopt a neutral stance, and definitely should not make fun of any group of residents or visitors. NHK does not make fun of disabled people, so why should they be allowed to make fun of foreigners who do their utmost to learn the language and culture?

Second, foreigners are thusly put into a stereotyping box. 'Foreigners do not and cannot speak proper Japanese' is the message that comes through to the entire nation.

Third, NHK is setting a bad precedent. If NHK can ridicule the way foreigners allegedly speak, so can other broadcasts.

Fourth, it is the responsibility of NHK to educate and work towards a better society, not to widen the gap and to alienate foreigners.

What did I do?

I called NHK (03-3465-1111) and was relayed to the tantosha of the nihonjin no shitsumon program with the name of Naniki. I told Naniki-san that I found the performance impolite (shitsurei), that it made fun of and bullied (karakau and ijimeru) foreigners, and pointed out that I was especially disappointed by this behaviour in the light that the correct answer to this question was that Japanese are more friendly and polite than expected.

I asked him to explain to me why such a performance was decided upon. Naniki-san told me that it was used because this is a funny program and that it should depict foreigners that just arrived in Japan and don't know much Japanese. It was not the intention to belittle foreigners or to make fun of them. I assured him that I understood that this may not be NHKs intention, but it had that effect.

We spoke for about 5 minutes and I asked him if I could have a video of the program, because I was unable to record it. He declined to send one due to copyright reasons.

Then I asked him if I could get a written reply on this issue from NHK. He asked me why and I told him that I am a member of The Community, and that we needed a written statement from NHK to know their standpoint. He again declined, saying that he could explain to me on the phone, but that a written statement has to come from much higher place in the NHK hierarchy. I gave him my name and address and I told him that I would really appreciate an answer and an explanation (zehi NHK no setsumei ga hoshii).

Another reason why I want a written response is that if the problem is only discussed on the phone, it will be soon forgotten in NHK. He then assured me that he will bring up the topic in meetings with other program directors and that my complaint will not be forgotten. I then asked him if I was the first person to call and complained and he said yes.

This, by the way, is an astonishing statement since two hours before my call, David Aldwinckle called the same NHK number and was forwarded to the director of the program, a Mr. Fujisaki. David explained to Fujisaki-san that this sort of portrayal was hardly accurate (since foreign visitors would probably not know even the degree of Japanese used by the panelists), and quite unnecessary as it makes foreigners look silly for even trying to communicate. Plus the fact that all four people did it is waru-nori (taking the humor too far) and, in the light of recent anti-foreigner comments by the Tokyo Governor, foreign-crime advertisements from Miwa Locks, exclusion of foreign customers at some private enterprises around Japan, and JR advertisements which show Westerners as speaking katakana Japanese, this depiction does not help our image as a group of residents in Japan (particularly given the Japanese tendency to lump any gaijin fresh off the boat with even the Permanent Residents).

Fujisaki-san apologized verbally and said that he would take this up with the producers, and would consider writing David a letter of some sort. David requested that a formal retraction and/or an apology be made during next week's program. Fujisaki said that would be difficult but would take it into consideration. What I am saying is that with all this information and exchange with David and the program director, it is remarkable that producer Naniki would be unaware that someone else had complained, especially since Naniki-san gave me a very formatted answer to my complaint.

What can we do from now?

1. Get a copy of the program. Without this, only people who have seen the program directly know what I am talking about and can complain. Thus my request to you is: does anyone out there have a copy of the program or do you know anybody who has? I would appreciate it very much if you could contact me directly on this.

2. Call NHK and make requests and complaints. The facts of the case have been confirmed by the people mentioned above. People out there who feel strongly about this are encouraged to contact them. Names and phone numbers are above.

I understand that you may think that this is flying off the handle. But it is quite normal in Japan for people who feel offended or who find a program objectionable to call the network and speak their mind. I did and am within my rights to complain. If you agree, may we request your support? This is one way to help Japan's mass media to realize that we are part of their audience too, and will not ignore being imaged-down in front of the whole nation.

Olaf Karthaus (and Dave Aldwinckle)


The very day after we made our calls to NHK on May 1, 2000, we received an apology from Mr Fujisaki. See the letter in Japanese here.