Japan from the inside out

Wall Street Journal’s error typifies Western media approach to Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 23, 2007

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in Tokyo before his trip to the U.S. next week. The interview by Mary Kissel is available only to subscribers, but I thought I’d check anyway. There is a preview, however.

Here’s what I found:

He (Koizumi) was a refreshing change after a string of faceless prime ministers that trip off the tongue like ticker tape: Hata, Murayama, Hashimoto, Obushi, Mori.


She wouldn’t happen to mean Keizo Obuchi, would she?

How can names “trip off the tongue like ticker tape” when your foot’s jammed squarely in your mouth? (And I’d love to hear the reporter smoothly reel off the names of those prime ministers without stumbling over or mispronouncing them.)

We can only hope that one of these days the Western media decides to apply the same basic standards of competence to Japan that it claims to apply elsewhere.

Please, no excuses. People aren’t “faceless” to other people interested in basic human interaction. In terms of personal dynamism, that group would favorably compare with Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush any day. Ms. Kissel just never bothered paying attention to them.

And the least journalists can do is spell a prime minister’s name properly.

In 1963, Obuchi traveled around the world on his own, from January to September, taking odd jobs along the way. He decided he wanted to meet Robert Kennedy, so he just walked into the attorney-general’s office. Does that sound like a faceless man to you?

And it’s interesting that Murayama Tomiichiwas included in that group of non-faced people. People are upset because they think Japan hasn’t come to terms with its actions in the war, and that Abe is a comfort woman denier?

Mr. Murayama is the prime minister who publicly delivered Japan’s biggest and most comprehensive apology about the war.

Here’s an interesting article about Murayama’s apology that appeared in the International Herald Tribune at the time:

Japan’s apology to its World War II victims Tuesday was generally well received by Asian leaders, but many veterans dismissed it as inadequate and insincere.


President Kim Young Sam of South Korea…said he hoped that Korea and Japan could put the past behind them. The South Korean Foreign Ministry, however, urged Japan to make “more positive efforts” to examine its history.


In China…(t)he Foreign Ministry called Mr. Murayama’s statement “positive” but regretted that there are many in Japan who fail to take a “correct attitude” to the war period.

That was 12 years ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

It should be obvious by now that these complaints have nothing to do with Japan, now more so than in 1995. Murayama was speaking on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. The governments in other countries are just looking for a political and diplomatic edge, and the rest either don’t want to let it go, or don’t realize the people they’re talking to didn’t have anything to do with the war and don’t really care about it.

I’m tempted to wish Mr. Abe luck with American journalists on his upcoming trip, but I don’t think he’ll need it. He’s had quite a lot experience in dealing with the media’s kneejerk bias, basic incompetence, and disparagement of Japan.

Besides, he’s not faceless either.


Infimum provides a link in the first comment to the entire article. Here’s another line:

“I’m so sorry I kept you waiting,” he says, in staccato, carefully rehearsed American English…

I’m so sorry to have to put up with journalistic conceits. For starters, the Japanese language tends to be staccato compared to English, so it’s natural that a Japanese speaking English would sound that way. Unless the author’s intention is to play off a Mr. Moto stereotype.

Would she tell us about funky speech rhythms if she interviewed an African head of state?

And I doubt that Mr. Abe had to carefully rehearse that phrase. The man lived in the United States for a year while attending university, boarding with an older American woman. He’s had more experience living abroad than any American president of the past half-century. Bill Clinton attended Oxford, but he didn’t have to learn a foreign language to do it, and the culture differential is not nearly as great.

We should understand and draw conclusions from the fact that the real objective of journalism is not to present the facts as a neutral observer, but to present a fable a particular media outlet has created to portray a situation in the light that it chooses. Whether the facts happen to correspond to the situation is irrelevant. The setting for the fable was already created before Kissel walked into the office. The interview was merely to fill in a few lines of dialogue.

It’s just infotainment without the info.

2 Responses to “Wall Street Journal’s error typifies Western media approach to Japan”

  1. infimum said

    You can check out the whole article here. Abe’s quote in Newsweek and Washington Post is already a hot topic discussion among many Japanese bloggers. If you haven’t read those article, you can go to the top page of the same blog above and read the last couple of entries. There are links to those articles.

  2. Kentaki said

    I totally agree with you on journalistic integrity. I keep seeing somebody non-native speaking with an accent in interviews, etc. I mean, why do journalists have to remind non-native speakers have accents? Granted, Japanese may poke fun at non-native speakers. But publications like WSJ should know better. Like every one of them speaks foreign language very fluently.

    This is not related to the topic, but another interesting thing is that the American media almost never shows bodies of Caucasians. I have seen the aftermath pics of Haiti, Tsunami, etc. and they show bodies. And when I read about disasters/wars happened/happening in Europe, I don’t see any corpse. How come? Not that I want to see dead people, though.

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