This just in–journalists are still clueless about Japan
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 14, 2009
ONE WOULD THINK that in the instantly interconnected modern world–where international travel is so accessible that people can (and do) jet from Tokyo to New York after work on Friday to catch a Saturday night concert, and then fly back in time for work Monday morning–those getting paid for journalism about Japan would have developed at least a modicum of insight into the country before presuming to offer anything about it for publication.
It’s apparent that the boon of ultra high technology has done little to ameliorate, much less eliminate, decades of know-nothing journalism about things Japanese.
The most recent Exhibit A is this article by Gavin Blair published on a website called Global Post. The article is titled, “Analysis: Japan Looks Inward”, in which the author claims the Japanese are “shunning the outside world”.
As evidence of this isolationist navel-gazing, Mr. Blair cites the declining popularity of subtitled rental movies, pop music, and foreign literature courses at universities. There is a smattering of the obligatory quotes from college professors, yet the author offers few statistics or specific facts to back up his dubious proposition.
You think I’m exaggerating?
In the days of VHS cassettes, a visit to a video rental shop here for a Hollywood blockbuster would often end in disappointment — all the copies would be out except the dubbed one. Listening in English while reading the Japanese subtitles was considered infinitely preferable because English was inherently cool. Today, an increasing number of young Japanese think it’s just too much trouble when they can watch a dubbed version instead.
It shouldn’t be all that difficult for a journalist to ferret out the statistics about DVD rentals or purchases in Japan, particularly if he were somewhat fluent in Japanese. But Mr. Blair doesn’t seem to know any of these statistics. (He doesn’t know how to use adverbs either, but I digress.) That deprives his claim of any credibility, unless we’re supposed to think his limited late-night observations at a nearby rental shop have identified the critical social trends in a country of 127 million people.
With this assertion—at the top of the article, no less–one also has to wonder if the author has ever seriously studied a foreign language. The ability to follow a movie or television program in a foreign tongue is achieved only after several years of dedicated effort, and then often only after spending a significant amount of time abroad.
Yet we’re supposed to swallow the contention that the Japanese are insular because they would rather entertain themselves with a movie they can easily follow than try to decipher the rapid-fire dialogue of native speakers?
Whereas in Western countries, of course, it’s all the rage for native English speakers to rent subtitled movies so they can enjoy it in the original language.
It appears that Japan is increasing looking inward and walling itself off from outside influences — a trend that’s showing up in everything from movies to music to learning languages. Even as the supposedly irresistible tide of globalization washes against Japan’s shores, insular and parochial attitudes are strengthening.
So what are the manifestations of these “insular and parochial attitudes”?
“When I was a university student, courses like English literature, German literature, French literature and foreign languages were difficult to get into, they were so popular,” said Takashi Koyama, a professor at Akita International University. “Nowadays, those courses are struggling to get students.”
Ah, so. Today’s university students aren’t so interested in studying Balzac in the original (unlike those diligent foreign language learners in the West), and that means the Japanese are insular and parochial.
Did the author consider that as the competition intensified for full-time jobs at Japanese companies over the past 15 years, when firms started hiring more temporary and part-time employees, university students might have wised up and realized it was in their best interest to pursue more practical studies? Japanese with degrees don’t want to make a career out of asking whether the customer would like a milkshake with those fries any more than a Western graduate would.
Wait. It gets…well, not better. Just more so.
The trend was certainly on display at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. The event was the most successful in Japanese cinematic history, landing two gongs, including the first ever full Oscar for a non-animated movie. But even as Japan bathed in the glory of Hollywood approval, pundits and politicians were lining up to explain how the victory by “Okuribito” (“Departures”) in the foreign language film category reflected the “unique Japanese concept of death.”
Well, perhaps the film does reflect the “unique Japanese concept of death”. Do the Japanese have their own distinctive thanatopsis, or is this just a few people rooting for the home team too enthusiastically?
Mr. Blair doesn’t feel compelled to elaborate on this question. Perhaps he thinks the mere mention by Japanese of such a concept is prima facie evidence of ingrown intellectualism.
I read a hard copy of one vernacular Japanese newspaper every day and subscribe to the RSS feeds of about a dozen more, yet I managed to miss all those pundits and politicians “lining up” to make this explanation.
Mr. Blair doesn’t mention anyone in this queue by name.
And isn’t it odd that when the Japanese receive an award that is given almost exclusively to Americans, it is used as evidence that the Japanese are growing more insular?
As recently as 2000, imported movies outsold Japanese productions by more than two to one. In 2007, Japanese films took the majority of the box office total for the first time in more than 20 years, and last year, only three overseas films managed to break the top 10. “Younger Japanese audiences don’t connect so strongly with Hollywood films recently,” said Yusuke Horiuchi of Toho-Towa, which distributes overseas films in Japan.
Hey! An actual statistic! Shame it doesn’t mean anything.
Japanese aren’t the only ones who don’t connect so strongly with Hollywood films recently. I think I’ve managed to watch three from start to finish in the past decade.
But the Japanese don’t watch Hollywood movies as much as they used to, so that means they’re turning all Banzai on us again.
The increasing market share of domestic movies can be at least partly explained by a recent bump in the quality of Japanese film; it’s difficult to make the same case for the local music industry. “J-pop” is still dominated by saccharine acts manufactured by a small number of talent agencies and hit factories here, and yet they too are outselling international artists like never before. The last few years have seen a steady decline in sales of overseas bands with Japanese artists cornering 81 percent of the market in 2008.
Hey! There’s another actual statistic!
But to bolster his claim that the Japanese are once again drawing a bamboo curtain between themselves and the rest of the world, Mr. Blair tells us that Japanese teenagers prefer to listen to Japanese music, whose lyrics they can actually understand, instead of the recent product from Western countries.
The assertion that young Japanese listen primarily to “saccharine J-pop” is a dead giveaway that the author has no idea of the musical interests of the Japanese nor of the music being produced here. Those claims about “saccharine J-pop” weren’t even true 20 years ago, when that style of music was at its peak.
Perhaps some junior high school girls may enjoy the treacly tunes, but certainly not all of them. That’s even more true for high school girls and most boys of any age.
I can say that because I actually know Japanese children.
Is Mr. Blair aware that:
- Japan is the second largest jazz market in the world…
- Conductor/keyboardist Suzuki Masa’aki is considered by some European critics (specifically those of Goldberg magazine and Len Mullinger’s Musicweb) to be the foremost contemporary interpreter of Bach’s cantatas…
- Orchesta de la Luz performed well enough to have hits on the salsa charts overseas…and that it was a band with live human beings playing in clave, which is beyond the capabilities of most Western pop musicians. (At least those Western bands not using computerized rhythms to begin with)…
- Japanese shops dealing in secondhand CDs pay more for used reggae and ska than other types of music…
- P-Vine is a local vanity record label so successful at reissuing rare R&B, blues, and soul recordings on CD that Western lovers of that music were paying premium prices for imported copies?
I don’t think so.
But that doesn’t stop him from subjecting the reading public to an argument based on the tedious and culturally smug assumption that Western pop music is so superior that people should of course—of course!–prefer it, and a taste for something else borders on the xenophobic.
Why? The faux thuggery and monotony of hip-hop/rap and the nerdy, Nembutal-fueled neediness of today’s white pop have driven hordes of younger Western listeners to seek out older forms of popular music, as a visit to any Internet e-mail group focusing on those forms will attest. As one British DJ put it, this is the first generation in history whose parents had better taste in popular music than they do.
Besides, Mr. Blair exaggerates both the trend and the time of its emergence. The last time Western pop music outsold Japanese pop music in Japan was the year the song Last Christmas was used for a local TV series. It was performed by the duo Wham!, of which George Michael was a member.
That was a quarter of a century ago.
The causes of this increase in parochialism are somewhat hard to identify.
Oh, I don’t know about that. Crappy Hollywood movies and unlistenable Western pop music are quite easy to identify.
By the way, just why is Japan being singled out here? Ten percent of the population of India—90 million people–is capable of handling English, yet Bollywood movies and their musical spinoffs are much more popular there than Hollywood films and Western pop music.
Are they going all isolationist too?
The current global slowdown has been brutal to Japan’s export-driven economy. Whether this reliance on foreign economies emphasizes to Japan the interdependence of today’s planet, or whether the nature of this “imported crisis” increases resentment at the world beyond its borders, remains to be seen.
Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Perhaps it’s the “critic views events with concern” pose.
But whatever its roots, some are worried a rise in nationalist sentiment is mirroring this loss of interest in foreign languages and foreign affairs.
And just who might “some” of those worriers be? Mr. Blair doesn’t tell us that either, and he takes it as given that there is a rise in “nationalist sentiment”.
Need I mention again that the author offers nothing concrete in the way of justification for any of this “nationalist sentiment” stuff?
For people of a certain political persuasion, or people younger than a certain age, the adjective “nationalist” has become a substitute for what used to be commonly known as patriotism. Unfortunately, those people are either uncomfortable or unfamiliar with that natural sentiment.
There is nothing wrong with the Japanese thinking there’s nothing wrong with being Japanese, especially as it was once an emotion denied them in many quarters, both at home and abroad. Indeed, it is a healthy phenomenon indicating the restoration of a normal level of national self-respect.
“The decline in the English ability of Japanese people also means that people are becoming isolated information-wise,” Koyama said.
No it doesn’t, unless either Mr. Koyama or Mr. Blair wants to claim that “information” easily accessible overseas is not available at all in the Japanese language. One wonders exactly what that “information” might be.
You guessed it. Mr. Blair doesn’t tell us.
At Akita International University, Koyama teaches all of his classes purely in English. One of the principal aims of the university, founded only five years ago, is to raise the standard of English among young Japanese.
How about that? Mr. Koyama and I have something in common. I teach two classes purely in English at Saga University, a podunk third-rate state school in the Kyushu sticks. All second-year humanities students there are required to take two English courses.
One of the principal aims of this requirement is to raise the standard of English among young Japanese.
Indeed, this year’s Academy Awards were also memorable for the very limited English in the two directors’ acceptance speeches — in fact, the younger filmmaker appeared even less comfortable in English than his compatriot, more than two decades his senior.
At this point, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that cultural imperialism is the only reason the author has for supposing that Japanese film makers working in Japanese for a Japanese audience must necessarily be fluent in English.
Some observers in Japan however, no longer see creeping isolationism in a globalized 21st century as a laughing matter.
What glum observers might these be, and what is their political orientation, ideological baseline, and–most important–credibility?
All together now: Mr. Blair doesn’t tell us that, either. But that’s not all he doesn’t tell us.
He doesn’t tell us that the Japanese are traveling in record numbers to South Korea every year, a country with whom they share an unpleasant history and a sometimes contentious relationship. Or is Korea ignored because it’s not part of the Anglosphere?
He doesn’t tell us about the Fukuoka Asian Culture prizes, awarded in that city since 1990 to people who have made significant contributions to Asian culture. The laureates hail from more than 25 countries, including Mongolia, Laos, and Bhutan.
He doesn’t tell us that the same city has held an Asian film festival every September since that same year. Last year, they screened movies made in such countries as Syria, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia, instead of those from Hollywood.
He doesn’t tell us that Fukuoka City has the world’s only museum devoted to Asian art. (You’ll find a link to its English-language site on the right sidebar.)
He doesn’t tell us that…
But why continue? He doesn’t tell us because he doesn’t know any of that exists. Rather than perform the basic legwork, he finds it easier to offload a collegiate coffeehouse harangue based on the assumption that an interest in Hollywood movies and Western pop music correlates to international sophistication and awareness.
Coca-Cola sales are down, too. Does that mean Japan is shutting its gates on the hairy barbarians again?
It’s difficult not to draw the conclusion that Mr. Blair has little or no conception of what movies the Japanese actually watch, what music they actually listen to, how they actually interact with foreigners other than himself (particularly non-Western foreigners), or what information in Japanese is available to them. And that’s not to mention his lack of knowledge about the extent of political and cultural trends that might actually be described as so nationalist as to exert an overall negative influence on the culture. (Here’s a hint: Next to none.)
There’s an old proverb in Japan (and China and Korea) that a frog at the bottom of a well knows nothing of the sea. One has to hand it to Gavin Blair—he’s pulled off the difficult feat of turning himself into a frog in a foreign well who knows next to nothing about the well he’s in.
But—and how like the typical Western journalist writing about Japan–that doesn’t stop him from telling us all about it.
The tragedy is not so much that Mr. Blair wrote the article to begin with. As I noted at the beginning, ink-stained wretches have been peddling this hedoro for decades. The tragedy is that Global Post gave it a public platform.
Why tragic? A quick look at Google shows that the article got picked up by The Huffington Post and a few blogs that should know better, thereby spreading the contagion. It’s a shame that online sources are sometimes willing to sacrifice quality for the sake of offering daily content in volume.
The next time Global Post wants to run an analysis of contemporary Japanese society, perhaps they could do us all a favor by finding an author with an adult viewpoint, who knows something about the country, and who is competent enough in basic journalism to buttress his claims with something resembling research.