Letter bombs (2)
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 18, 2010
It does not help being perceived as normal people when the Japanese are being married by robots.
He included a hot link to an AP article about a wedding ceremony in Tokyo during the weekend presided over by a robot.
Domo arigato, Mr. Robotto!
No, that’s not facetious. I’m glad you passed it along. Not only does the article illustrate my point, I planned to write about the same story anyway. How’s that for synchronicity?
In fact, Mr. Robotto, I’ll see your bet of an AP link and raise it with a link of my own, this one to a Raw Video from Yahoo!
I saw it by accident on an American website. The video has no explanatory context at all. It consists only of excerpts of the ceremony, in which an attractive couple in Western wedding dress are married by a robot priest named i-Fairy as Ave Maria plays in the background.
It’s those goofy Japanese again with their weird robot obsession!
But it’s not so weird at all—and a lot less weird than some Western ceremonies—once the context is provided to understand what’s happening. If context is what you’re looking for, however, don’t look for it there.
Google News had northward of 300 hits on the story. All the news outlets light on Weird Japan stories like flies on stink. My RSS feed alone burped up articles from CBS News, the Seattle, Miami, and Boston newspapers, The Taipei Times, China Daily, The Gadsden Times, New Jersey Online, BBC, USA Today, Reuters, and the Times (of London) Online.
Let’s try the AP story Mr. Robotto sent us. Follow along with the hot link in his comment above.
The article is nine paragraphs long. It isn’t until the end of paragraph seven that the author gets around to mentioning the bride works for the company that made the robot. It isn’t until the end of paragraph eight that we discover in passing her new husband is a professor of robotics.
Starting to get the drift? There’s a reason that couple had a robot presiding over their ceremony, and there’s another reason all the stories in English stashed that information well to the rear.
An article at CNN.Go provided more context, perhaps because it was written by a Japanese woman:
Tomohiro and Satoko Shibata were a natural choice for the wedding…Tomohiro is an associate professor in the Theoretical Life-Science Lab at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, and his bride just happens to work at Kokoro, the company that produced the robot. For her part, Satoko was more than satisfied with the decision to put her wedding in the hands of an android, declaring in an interview with the Japanese website Robonable: “I hope our actions set a precedent for helping robots spread through Japanese society.”
But that’s still not enough context to fully understand what happened. Let’s try the story from the Times of London. The last time I read that newspaper’s Japan coverage, they had chosen, faute de mieux, to dispatch one of their lesser lights to Tokyo to report on this country. One day, he thought the most important story out of Japan was the uncanny resemblance of former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo to the American cartoon character Homer Simpson. “The Japanese Prime Minister Is a Dork” stories didn’t start with Mr. Hatoyama.
By the way, can you recall seeing a journalist for any publication comment on the resemblance of Barack Obama to a cartoon character?
To get to the story on the Times’s site, you have to go through their World link. The World page has some PR that reads: “Times experts go behind the headlines”.
Access that page and you’ll see some of the headlines the Times experts take us behind:
* “Aghan army pays its dues in blood – Roadside bombs take their toll — but an on-the-spot testing kit gives US soldiers the edge in finding those responsible”
* “Ash travel misery as BA strike looms – Heathrow and Gatwick, which closed overnight, were partially reopened at 7am but problems are expected nationwide”
* “Rogue general dies as Redshirts ordered out – Thai government gives protesters three hours to leave rally site as Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol dies in hospital”
* “BP reduces leak as scientists find hidden oil – Technicians use robots to insert a pipe into the broken riser partially sealing the spill and diverting the oil to the surface”
* ”Ordination of lesbian bishop deepens Anglican rift – Dr Rowan Williams called the move regrettable and said that it raised serious questions about the US Episcopalian Church”
Every one has serious content that merits coverage in the World section of a newspaper. But here’s the next one:
* ”Robot dressed in white conducts Japanese wedding – Professor of robotics marries technology-company employee in ceremony overseen by I-Fairy, the plug-in priestess”
That’s strange–I thought I was at the Times of London site, not the Daily Sun.
This article was written by Leo Lewis. Thankfully, it lasted only five paragraphs—the tone is more wiseguy journalism major masturbating in print than serious observer of world affairs. Here’s part of it.
Japan’s obsession with robots took another giant leap into the absurd as a mechanised priestess joined two people in matrimony. It was both a romantic and static affair, possibly the first wedding where the official had self-illuminating eyeballs and required a supply of 100V DC to stay upright.
As you can see, he combines clever wordplay with incisive social commentary.
But even he managed to include a critical bit of context that the others missed:
The event highlighted the oddity of Japanese weddings, where the ceremony carries no legal weight — by the time they get to the altar most couples have been married for months and the “priest” is often an English teacher in a cassock.
Despite the journalistic equivalent of writing his name in the wet cement of the sidewalk, he does tell us that Japanese wedding ceremonies are not a legal requirement for marriage. In the United States, for example, receiving a marriage license does not mean the couple is married. The license must be signed by a legally recognized official. That can be the priest or rabbi at a religious institution, or a civil authority, such as a judge or justice of the peace. (No ship’s captains!) A ceremony of some sort is required for the marriage to be legal, even if it’s performed by a justice of the peace in his living room with the only witnesses his wife and the next door neighbor.
All that’s required in Japan, in contrast, is to file a notification at City Hall. The wedding’s just for show.
In short, the context required to understand what happened took three different stories, slipping through sleight-of-hand, and wading through a bucketload of bilge.
Let’s look at that last paragraph again. I apologize in advance to the reader for submitting them to torture by the cat ‘o nine tales.
“The oddity of Japanese weddings, where the ceremony carries no weight…”
The Times of London thinks the millennia-old customs of another nation are “odd”. If anyone wants to make the case that this phrase–and the entire slant of the piece–isn’t a snotty example of cultural imperialism, not to mention Japan-is-weird journalism, please write in. Comment is free, as the Guardian says.
“Most couples have been married for months…”
There are no stats to back up the claim of “most”. Since anecdote seems to count as a data point, I’ll mention that I went to a wedding reception last July for a couple who were officially married last February. Several of the Japanese who attended thought the five-month lag was unusual, including my Japanese wife.
“…the “priest” is often an English teacher in a cassock…”
According to the latest Japanese government statistics I could find in a quick search, there were 719,822 marriages in 2007. Is it British journalistic practice to use the word “often” to describe an occurrence that happens, say, 0.006% of the time, at most?
The author does mention the employment status of the bride and groom—in the last paragraph, and only as a chance to lather on more snark:
“The choice of marriage official by Satoko Inoue, 36, and Tomohiro Shibata, 42, was not entirely coincidental.”
“Not entirely coincidental”? It was the whole bleedin’ point, mate!
So, what do you think? Did the Times copy editor happen to be out on tea break when the story was filed, or was he complicit in approving a story whose objective isn’t to report news, but to present the Japanese as peculiar and the author as a swingin’ wordsmith?
The story was also covered in Japan. The Japanese version from Reuters contained only three short paragraphs, and it emphasized the employment of the couple in the first paragraph.
There you are. The Japanese article was short because the audience understands the context of its own wedding ceremonies. Readers already know there were no robots at any wedding ceremony they’ve ever attended, including their own. They understand immediately it was a PR stunt, dismiss it as an anomaly, and either turn the page or click on the next link.
Readers in the English-speaking world might do the same—if the media in the Anglosphere covered stories in Japan they way they cover stories everywhere else.
Most Japanese wedding ceremonies are Shinto rites in which nothing particularly weird happens at all. I was married in a Shinto ceremony 23 years ago, and none of it seemed odd to me. About the only novel thing I saw was the tamagushi, a Shinto implement made from a sakaki branch with a shide, a special folded paper that denotes a sacred space. The priest offers this to the divinities at the ceremony.
Roman Catholics, in comparison, have church services in which they eat a small wafer and drink some grape juice and believe it is the body and blood of Christ. No one except an atheist thinks that’s weird.
Is it weirder for two people in the robotics industry to use for PR an event with no legal or religious significance than it is for Westerners—for whom the ceremony does have a legal standing—to get married at a baseball stadium, at an ice hockey rink, in mid-air in the middle of a skydive, at a White Castle fast food restaurant (Good God!), underwater while scuba diving, at a drag racing track, or at a graveyard at Halloween? Is it weirder than the score of companies advertising on the Internet to provide wedding services at unusual locations for a fee?
Another commenter named Author writes that I was peddling a conspiracy theory. Please! Of course this is on purpose. As the second half of this previous post describes, Lisa Katayama, the Queen of Weird Japan journalism, admits that the major news media outlets in the U.S. knock on her door looking for strange tales. She was astonished to discover that Weird Japan sells, but at least she’s open about it. She got huffy in a story she submitted to BoingBoing because so many people complained that her approach was unfair and demeaning. At that point, she still didn’t have the nerve to admit to herself she was in it for the money.
A third commenter wrote in to say that the Japanese still had issues with xenophobia. Really? I live in a city of 180,000 a 35-minute limited express train ride from the nearest metropolis and 90 minutes by air from Tokyo, and it’s less xenophobic than a town in Pennsylvania I spent part of my childhood in.
But in another bit of synchronicity, poster Mac yesterday sent in one of his occasional reports from No Shinkansen Sticksville. Let’s let him talk about Japanese xenophobia:
“I just got back from a local festival in what used to be the samurai’s grounds of one of the more beautiful, rambling castles in Japan. Putting aside the wide range of what is called ‘world food’ in the West (everything except the usual commercial Japanese stuff), and eclectic stalls selling and teaching everything from Al Gore and 9/11 conspiracy books to how cut your own hashi (chopsticks) from bamboo, my lasting impression is sitting there under a clear sky watching an amazing rock bassist and guitarist playing along with a sitar, a woman chanting and playing a vina, and another on a digeridoo, to which another guy was overtoning some Mongolian throat song…with the backdrop of the beautifully ornate castle rising high behind them.
“One of those “Perfect Day” days one could not ask for more of.
“And if you think that is something … wait until you see what is coming to a neighboring rice field festival …”
I don’t know what’s going to happen at the rice paddy festival in Mac’s No-Shinkansen Sticksville, but this previous post describes a few others. Take a look if you have the time or the interest.
You might as well. If you want to know what’s happening in Japan, the last place you’re going to find anything worthwhile is in mass media English-language journalism.
Well-meaning people sometimes write in to say, Oh, Bill, the journos aren’t really being malicious on purpose, they’re just doing their jobs.
Oh, poop. Some people are intentionally feeding you a narrative of Japan as a nation of dweebs, and other people just love to swallow it whole, as yesterday’s post made clear. If you want to see how that perverts the views people around the world hold of Japan, try this post.
But if you think the diet of Japan-is-weird junk food masquerading as infotainment is a tasty dish, dig in.
UPDATE: The Times of London has shifted the story to their Technology section, without any change to the text. I do think this is worth covering as a technology story. Too bad the major media outlets didn’t write it that way.