Japan from the inside out

Monkey see, monkey don’t

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 22, 2009

ONE RECURRING VOICE IN THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION in Japan when I first arrived here was the tendency by some people to promote a political, social, or cultural cause by claiming that it was already a common practice in the West (usually the United States), so therefore Japan should adopt it too. Those who didn’t care for the ideas countered by accusing the proponent of saru mane, or monkey imitation—in other words, monkey see, monkey do.

Japan’s postwar success means they no longer have to crane their necks to look up at other countries they think might be more advanced. That means fewer pet theories are justified by pointing to behavior in other parts of the world. But the practice hasn’t entirely disappeared, and the following describes two examples that I ran across last week.

Rather than advocating a particular position, the first example is the unnecessary use of the United States as a standard for comparison. It’s harmless in this case, but it was presented by a man who should know better. In contrast, the second example has the potential to bring about some downright ugly changes to Japanese society.

Japanese Unemployment

Appearing on a recent NHK TV program, Prof. Noguchi Yukio of the Waseda Graduate School of Finance, Accounting, and Law created a stir when he claimed that Japan’s unemployment rate, which as of May was officially 5.2%, is really about 9%.

Here’s what Prof. Noguchi said:

“If the (effectively) unemployed still working at companies due to the Employment Adjustment Subsidy were counted, the unemployment rate would be more than 9%, a level not much different from that of the United States.”

The subsidy is offered by the government to companies who are cutting back on operations due to deteriorating profits as a result of the economic downturn. The government provides part of the funds for job furloughs or the rent of employees temporarily furloughed or seconded elsewhere. The government calls it a “subsidy for corporate efforts”, but it’s in fact a measure to keep those companies from terminating the people they’d rather lay off.

Noguchi Yukio

Noguchi Yukio

The program has mushroomed over the past seven months. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare reported that in October 2008, 140 companies received these subsidies for 3,632 workers. Those figures had risen to 67,192 companies and 2,338,991 workers by May 2009. Technically, those workers are not unemployed, but that’s only because the government is subsidizing their continued presence at their place of employment.

Prof. Noguchi’s point is that adding those 2.3 million people to the unemployment roll would lift the rate to 9%. In fact, the unemployment rate might be higher still. It does not count NEETs (people not currently engaged in employment, education or training), or the furiitaa, the underemployed youth (15-34) who tend to live with their parents after leaving school and shift from one low-skilled, low-paying job to another (such as convenience store clerk) rather than start a career. The latest figure for the former category is 640,000 and 1,700,000 for the latter.

Of course Prof. Noguchi is trying to drive home the point that employment conditions in Japan are much worse now than the government cares to admit, and he’s probably right. But the man received his doctorate in economics from Yale, so he is well aware that the American government is just as likely to blow smoke over employment statistics as its Japanese counterpart. The United States is not the gold standard for government honesty, assuming that any such standard exists.

American unemployment

To look behind the smokescreen covering current American unemployment figures, try this article in the Wall Street Journal by Morton Zuckerman, the editor in chief of the US News and World Report.

June’s total assumed 185,000 people at work who probably were not. The government could not identify them; it made an assumption about trends. But many of the mythical jobs are in industries that have absolutely no job creation, e.g., finance. When the official numbers are adjusted over the next several months, June will look worse.

– More companies are asking employees to take unpaid leave. These people don’t count on the unemployment roll.

– No fewer than 1.4 million people wanted or were available for work in the last 12 months but were not counted…(b)ecause they hadn’t searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey.

– The number of workers taking part-time jobs due to the slack economy, a kind of stealth underemployment, has doubled in this recession to about nine million, or 5.8% of the work force. Add those whose hours have been cut to those who cannot find a full-time job and the total unemployed rises to 16.5%, putting the number of involuntarily idle in the range of 25 million.

– The average work week for rank-and-file employees in the private sector, roughly 80% of the work force, slipped to 33 hours. That’s 48 minutes a week less than before the recession began, the lowest level since the government began tracking such data 45 years ago…If Americans were still clocking those extra 48 minutes a week now, the same aggregate amount of work would get done with 3.3 million fewer employees, which means that if it were not for the shorter work week the jobless rate would be 11.7%, not 9.5% (which far exceeds the 8% rate projected by the Obama administration).

So while unemployment in Japan might be worse than people realize, conditions could be harsher still in the United States.

The 9% number should be shocking enough for the Japanese public. There’s no need to bring the United States into the picture, but old habits die hard.

But as I said, that’s a harmless example. The second is a classic case of saru mane that is troubling because, while based on what the advocate thinks is commonly accepted conditions in the United States, it combines a failure to understand the real circumstances with a transparent sense of self-importance. If adopted, her proposal would seriously degrade the Japanese political dialogue.

Election Reporting

Oguri Izumi began working for the Nihon Television Network as a newscaster in 1988, and spent three years on the Kyo no Dekigoto (Today’s Events) late-night news program. Her husband is a reporter for the Tokyo Shimbun.

Oguri Izumi

Oguri Izumi

Ms. Oguri left the network in August 2007 to accept a Fulbright Scholarship to the Edwin O. Reischauer Center For East Asian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in The Johns Hopkins University.

She released a book last month about her observations of broadcast journalism in the U.S. called Senkyo Hodo, or Election Reporting. (It’s an inexpensive Chuo Koron Shinsha paperback on display in bookstores now.)

I haven’t read the book, but I have read the promotional material, and here’s the scoop:

During her stay in the US, she was shocked to see many television journalists openly declare their support for presidential candidates.

Ms. Oguri thinks this is a capital idea. She proposes that all Japanese television journalists be allowed to become “opinion leaders” and openly advocate the candidates they favor on the air—not as a disclaimer, but as a matter of practice.

She claims that supporting a party is not necessarily a violation of fairness or neutrality, and offers her book as a plan for creating a “good country”. She added that she had a hard time maintaining her own fairness or neutrality while on the air in Japan.

Specifically, she says that newscasters should make their choices based on their reading of party platforms and then explain those choices to the viewers.

Let us count the ways in which that is a very bad idea.

Had Ms. Oguri turned off the TV set and talked to off-campus America, she might have discovered that they too were shocked—and angered—that many television journalists openly declared their support for presidential candidates. They do not watch television news to see manipulated reports or hear a talking head tell them what they should think.

The consumers of news are intelligent enough to know where to find political opinions when they want them. There are already plenty of outlets for that expression, both in the United States and in Japan. What the consumer of basic news programs seeks is a straight accounting of the facts.

The job of journalists in the print and broadcast media outside the op-ed corner is to present just the facts, and nothing but the facts. That so many of them feel compelled to twist those facts to conform to their own biases, and then aver that true neutrality is not possible, is testimony to flawed temperaments underpinned by a belief in their superior intelligence.

It should be a simple matter to stick with the facts, regardless of what the biens pensants would prefer us to believe. I have no doubt that if I were a television journalist, or responsible for the production of television news programs, that—unlike Ms. Oguri—I could handle that part of the job in my sleep. It would be easy money. Indeed, it would be a lot more difficult (not to mention creepy) to insert propaganda while trying to pretend that I wasn’t.

All Ms. Oguri is trying to do is to take the difficulty out of pushing her own views on everyone else by hijacking a medium that should remain neutral. Supporting her pet plan by saying that the Americans do it–without realizing that many Americans detest the mockery the practice has made of the political process–is nothing but saru mane.

It’s tempting to buy the book to see how she tries to make the case that open advocacy isn’t a violation of the principle of neutrality, but who has the time for what is likely little more than a string of excuses?

One reviewer stated the obvious objection that since private-sector television is supported by advertising, overt support for specific candidates could subject the network or the station to pressure from those advertisers. The pressure from ownership cannot be overlooked, either, considering that the press is really only free for those who own the enterprise. It’s one thing to claim to speak truth to power; it’s another thing entirely to speak truth to the man who signs your paycheck and tells you to parrot his line.

Broadcast journalists who openly support candidates will surely do so on the basis of pre-existing beliefs. The idea that they will read and judge a platform is a false front, and it’s hard to believe that they’re even fooling themselves. Anyone can find reasons for either supporting or opposing the planks of any specific platform, based on their own cast of mind. Lawyers do the same sort of thing every day with the law and legal precedents. It’s their job.

Taking this one step further, broadcasts journalists freed from the obligation to be objective will then be guided by their political preferences. That would prevent them from exercising the self-examination required to root out the idea that they alone have the intelligence or the right to decide which facts should be broadcast, which should be emphasized, and which should be glossed over. Does Ms. Oguri seriously believe this would not happen? Has she even thought this out?

That would leave us with an overtly biased media, which would mean that none of its news content could be trusted. If this sector of the media cannot be trusted to stick to the facts, they have eliminated the reason for their existence. They would have in effect become the PR wing for a particular politician or a cause using an enormous megaphone. Let the politicians and the activists do that on their own time.

Far from being a model for Japan, the former news gatherers of the American print and broadcast media now find themselves in exactly this predicament. That’s why so many of them are going out of business, in the case of newspapers, or ignored, in the case of network news.

The electorate does not need opinion leaders, and the idea that it does is insulting to its intelligence. All it requires is that the facts—as many as the limited programming time allows—be reported. Self-appointed elites are not required to filter those facts for anyone, especially since the people on camera don’t seem to be any more intelligent than anyone else on the street. Indeed, viewed from the perspective of day-to-day life, they’re likely to have less practical intelligence than most people on the street.

People are capable of figuring things out for themselves. If Ms. Oguri lacks the insight to understand that, she lacks the insight required to offer us her political opinions while claiming to be fair and neutral.

And if she has that much trouble squelching her bias on the air, she should find another job.

Are Japanese broadcasters unprejudiced now?

In passing, I should note that more than a few Japanese would laugh at the idea their broadcast media is neutral to begin with. The general approach of the Asahi network is from the left, and even I could see the slant in their broadcasts before I was able to make the connection between the announcers and the network.

Some Japanese have long thought that the news on the quasi-governmental network NHK is also tilted. A common observation is that they are soft on China and hard on the United States.

It should be obvious that anything other than strict neutrality for a public broadcaster is an affront to the ideals of democratic government. The network is supported by funds that all citizens are required to pay, so they have a moral obligation to present the news impartially. If people do not care for the programs offered by a private sector broadcaster, it costs them nothing to stop watching. If enough people take that step, it will lower the network’s ratings and cut into their ad revenue. Viewers can even go over the head of the network itself directly to the sponsors to complain.

From reporting to making the news

Regarding the connection between the media and politics, by the way, I recently ran across a Japanese-language article reporting that more people from both the print and broadcast media are becoming professional politicians. For the upcoming lower house elections, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is running at least 23 people who came from that industry, either recently or longer ago, while the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is running 10.

Takeuchi Ken, former mayor of Kamakura, founder of the Internet newspaper JanJan, and a visiting professor at Waseda University, thinks he knows why there are more in the DPJ. It’s not necessarily because of political philosophy:

“The DPJ most definitely have the wind at their back, but a careful examination of local conditions shows that they lack an organizational base. That’s why, as a party, they look for people who can catch that wind. In contrast, the LDP is an organizational party from the candidates’ perspective, and younger people have a difficult time obtaining their recognition. People from the mass media have name recognition due to their exposure, and they’ve mastered communication skills, which makes it easier for them to pick up votes. As a result, more of them have gravitated toward the DPJ.”

Perhaps Ms. Oguri should take the hint. If she thinks her analyses are so penetrating, she should try her hand at retail politics instead of making Olympian pronouncements from a TV studio.

Or get a blog!


Ms. Oguri also represents another aspect of saru mane, and that’s what some Japanese refer to as the madoguchi phenomenon. It dates back at least to the beginning of the Meiji period, when the country reopened to the outside world and was hungry for knowledge of other places and the technology of the modern age.

Madoguchi is the word for a clerk’s window at a bank, venue for ticket sales, or other similar facility. There has long been a tendency for some people here to go abroad to study some specialty—Chinese regional cuisine, Scotch whisky distillation, Italian sports cars, British politics, watermelon cultivation in Missouri, black gospel music recorded but unreleased by local labels in the American south in the 1960s—in short, anything and everything. Then they return to Japan and create the equivalent of a madoguchi (glorified lemonade stand?) to offer their knowledge, much as the delegations dispatched overseas by the Meiji-era governments brought back knowledge from their observation tours of Western countries. The idea is to make a career out of their specialty.

The easy accessibility of international travel has removed many of the obstacles that prevented people from pursuing their interests abroad, so the practice is less prevalent than it once was. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a clear example, but with this book, Ms. Oguri seems to be setting up a madoguchi of her own.

Incidentally, I have no idea what Ms. Oguri’s political ideas might be. Another former newscaster on the Kyo no Dekigoto program, Sakurai Yoshiko, is quite conservative politically, and now quite active writing opinion pieces for monthly magazines.

7 Responses to “Monkey see, monkey don’t”

  1. Ken said

    Ms. Oguri? Oguni? Anyway, who?
    There are not so many women who are interested in and can argue logically on politics in Japan.
    Most of them can only set up their opinions from the peaceful consumer stand point.
    At the Persian Gulf war, there was a questionaire of pro or con and the result was con at ten to one among Japanese women but men were opposite.
    The reason was humane but once compared to a case that a robber kidnapped a girl and is raping her to death, they were anyhow convinced.
    Most of them do not read newspaper and are not good at abstractizing, generalizing.
    Ms. Yoshiko Sakurai is very rare case.

    Thanks Ken, fixed it.

    – A

  2. bender said

    Then they return to Japan and create the equivalent of a madoguchi (glorified lemonade stand?) to offer their knowledge, much as the delegations dispatched overseas by the Meiji-era governments brought back knowledge from their observation tours of Western countries.

    Like the bullfrog and the Amerika-zarigani?

  3. PaxAmerican said

    Good post.

    The last thing Japan needs is to copy American media. If they want to copy something, it should be the blogs, which are great. In any case, Ms Oguri seems to have caught the disease that what one wants to do personally would be good for society as a whole. I think there should be a Minister for Chess, with an adequate budget for bureaucrats, too.

  4. St John said

    So far as American media is concerned we (in Britain) often hear of Americans who turn to our BBC for unbiased news of what is happening in their own country!

  5. mac said

    I am not sure if it relates to this discussion, and saru mane, but I kind of like the term applied to “Western” way of discussing (aka “healthy debate”) and that was … he-ri-kutsu or “fart logic”.

    In my limited experience of interacting on this level, the most difficult thing seems to me to find anyone wiling to have (or voice) an opinion at all, instead all the pressure is aimed at conforming to whatever “manners club” rules applied. More “park debut” than politicking. Its a wonder any gets done at all.

    The language of NOT saying … and what IT means … is utterly beyond me, e.g. try emailing someone who thinks they are your superior.

    What happened in my experience was that the leaders obviously decide what was going to happen in private and then the group was made to agree that is what they thought and any questioning of it, or dissent, was crushed.

    I do not know if it was a one off or the norm but expecting democratic process seemed to be the greatest heresy on a par with a capital offense.

    I am very sorry to say this but, to date, I have to agreed with Ken regarding women here too. Too many seem to be trained to act like the most perfect adornments and quick to move to the kitchen when the opportunity arises. I have experienced MASSIVE, irrational naivety that bring out an adult sized, child-like rage when pushed to think or question.

    And then there is all that ‘Article 9’ stuff …

  6. bender said

    What happened in my experience was that the leaders obviously decide what was going to happen in private and then the group was made to agree that is what they thought and any questioning of it, or dissent, was crushed.

    I think you’re missing a few points about Japanese society. People really, really abhor taking responsibility for their decisions, so they passively delegate the entire stuff to folks who are willing to do “mendokusai” jobs. You should see how class presidents are elected in elementary/middle schools.

    Of course, there’s pressure to “behave”, so people generally hate it when somebody says something that is beyond their social norm (which actually shifts all the time like silly putty- so people who make their way up the social ladder are good “wind-readers”).

  7. mac said

    When you say, “social norm” … do you mean their personal capacities/limitations, or the “norm”/socially accepted limitations of the group, whatever that might be.

    I often run up against a “you cant do that” … “why not it will work?” … “but you cant do it” … “why not” kind of situation which if pushed can become hugely explosive.

    Like you are unraveling their ball of neuroses …

    Needless to say, I failed my “park debut”.

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