“…This is but one example of the encounters that I have on a regular basis with friends, family, and colleagues who have no idea what is going on in the world. They read the New York Times and believe they are informed. There is no intellectual curiosity, no questioning of reporting, and no analysis of what the mainstream media is pouring out to the masses. While we all like to blame the…media…at some point we all have to take responsibility for our own thoughts and decisions.”
– Lauri B. Regan
A FEW WEEKS AGO, a man associated with a well-known American mass media outlet called from Tokyo for a pleasant chat that at one point touched on the media’s coverage of Japan overseas. He asked me how I thought the broadcast and print media could improve their reporting on this country.
I replied that the media’s reporting on Japan is never going to improve, and gave as my reason their preference for offering a preexisting narrative rather than providing factual descriptions of events in news articles and leaving their interpretation or agenda to the op-ed pages.
What I didn’t tell him is equally germane: There are two reasons the media relies on preexisting narrative templates for countries, issues, or people. (In addition to the one for Japan, there are templates for Israel, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, the UKIP in Britain, and dozens more.) First, the narrative is meant to simplify issues and personalities for readers in bite-size form, converting them to a form of entertainment that helps sell their product and the accompanying advertising. It also spares the readers from the time required to peruse an in-depth characterization and the trouble of having to think too much about something they might not be interested in to begin with. Serious consumers of news realize at an early age that what the media really offers is infotainment, and that it’s a feature of the product, not a bug.
Second, it should now be obvious to even the casual observer that the Western media and its public intellectuals will never accord even-handed treatment to Japan, despite an exemplary record of conduct unmatched by any of its G7 counterparts for more than 60 years. Alone among the nations of the world it combines the absence of military aggression with an altruistic financial generosity that is ignored, taken for granted, or unrecognized. It contributed $US 13 billion to the reconstruction of oil-rich Kuwait after the Gulf War, for example, but when the government of Kuwait took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post to thank the nations that came to its assistance, Japan was left off the list.
Saddam Hussein deliberately drained the wetlands where roughly 500,000 Shiite Arabs lived in southern Iraq, destroying the local ecology and forcing them to become refugees. How many people realize that Japan paid $US 11 million for the restoration of those marshes, much less give them credit for it?
No, it’s much easier and more entertaining to fill the space with annual stories about whalers and the whacked-out eco-pirates who ram them broadside. Bad Oriental guys, rakish Hollywood-funded good guys, and photos of bloody whales sells product. Then recall how many stories you’ve seen about the imminent resurgence of Japanese militarism that somehow never seems to resurge.
After seeing the pattern repeat itself time and again in the stories published by every important Western print media outlet in English and the op-eds and magazine articles of public intellectuals on both the left and right over several decades, one can only conclude that the media’s narrative template about Japan is informed by an ill-concealed deformity of thought that deserves a term of its own: anti-Nipponism.
The following is yet the latest demonstration that the default view of Japan for Western elites is the Goofball Kingdom of East Asia, populated by otaku xenophobes and female children aged 18 to 80. It has all the disfiguring characteristics on display: media presentations that are a superficial gloss of the facts–whenever they crop up amidst the editorializing and inaccuracies–and rendered so as to present Japan in the worst possible light.
These presentations were swallowed whole by soi-disant public intellectuals who make elementary mistakes in reading comprehension that seem to derive from seeing what they want to see regardless of what the words say. They toss off a combination of sophomoric snark and anti-Nipponistic criticism before losing interest in toying with the lightweights of the world, furrowing their brows, and turning their attention to serious issues.
You think I’m exaggerating? First we’ll look at the facts. Then we’ll look at the people who can’t handle the facts.
Let’s start with this Japanese-language link to a 31 March announcement from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare about a voluntary government plan to provide assistance allowing financially strapped ethnically Japanese foreign workers with no job prospects to return home. My English translation follows. (Keep in mind that a bureaucrat wrote the original.)
Re: Providing financial assistance to displaced workers of Japanese descent for returning to their home country
With the prevailing social and economic conditions, it is extremely difficult for laborers of Japanese descent in unstable types of employment, such as seconded workers or subcontractors, to be reemployed once they have lost their jobs. Some have insufficient Japanese language ability, are unfamiliar with Japanese employment practices, and lack work experience in this country. Therefore, reemployment after returning to their home country is increasingly becoming a realistic alternative.
In view of these circumstances, the ruling party’s project team for new employment measures has proposed that financial assistance be provided to these persons of Japanese descent who wish to return to their home country for that purpose. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare will implement a program starting in business year 2009 (i.e., 1 April) offering financial assistance to those displaced workers who have decided to return to their home country, under the following specified conditions, to respond to their acute need. (Refer to separate document.)
In addition, we are working to utilize all the existing programs and financial assistance for obtaining housing in support of their efforts to find new employment, and to maintain that employment for those people who continue to stay in this country and seek reemployment, just as we would for Japanese people. In the future, we will provide appropriate support, including that for reemployment, through the expeditious enhancement of systems for support and consultation with such measures as increasing the number of people providing interpretation and consultation services in accordance with local circumstances, and efficiently implementing employment preparation training that increases skills, including Japanese language ability.
The first Ministry page links to the separate document (pdf) with charts that contain more detail.
* There we find out that guest workers who are still receiving unemployment compensation and choose to return will be granted an additional JPY 100,000 if they have 30 days remaining in unemployment benefits and JPY 200,000 (about $US 2,100) if they have more than 60 days remaining in unemployment benefits.
* It also mentions that in those regions where the nikkei (ethnically Japanese) workers are concentrated, 9,296 foreign job-seekers visited Haro Waaku, the government employment agency, for the first time ever from November 2008 to January 2009. That is a roughly 11-fold increase from the year-before period.
* The page emphasizes that the offer is being made to those people who are “extremely unlikely” to find employment due to a lack of Japanese language ability or job skills.
* The workers are being given special help for finding jobs at nine separate branches of Haro Waaku, and the help included interpretation. By mid-March, one-stop service centers to deal solely with this issue were established in municipal offices in 33 locations.
* An additional three new centers for consultation and advice have been established in areas with many foreigners and the benefits have been increased
* The site says these measures implement activities to enhance support for reemployment and maintain present employment. These include subsidies for trial employment and compensating employers for hiring them. There are also measures to enable people to retain their housing.
* Starting this year, the government will offer more interpretation and consultation services. They will also conduct job training programs to improve their job skills, including Japanese language instruction, during the period they are receiving unemployment compensation. They have budgeted JPY 1.08 billion (about $US 11.355 million) for the current fiscal year to help roughly 5,000 people.
* The training programs will be the responsibility of the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), a non-profit foundation that conducts human resource development programs for developing countries.
* The training will be conducted over a three-month period with the objective of improving Japanese language communication ability, and inculcate an understanding of working conditions, employment practices, and government benefits for employment and other social insurance schemes. It also provides unemployment benefits for a minimum of 90 days to assist the unemployment find new work and to take part in this training.
* When basic training is finished, they will be eligible to move to more advanced training, with subsidies provided during the extended training period. Special “navigators” for the guest workers will be assigned to help them until they find steady work.
Here’s a link to a Japanese-language newspaper article that appeared in the Shizuoka edition of the Asahi Shimbun. It contains a range of opinions from native Japanese and nikkei alike on the program, including those from Japanese who think the government should have done more to encourage the nikkei to stay. This is not unusual; the Japanese media is just as capable of examining their behavior from different perspectives as the Western media, if not more so.
One of those who thinks the departure of the nikkei is a “great loss” also had this to say:
“This is a test case. There are still many adults who chose to live only among foreigners without learning Japanese. If they lose work at the seconding company, their inability to speak Japanese prevents them from getting another job…the national government’s support for those people who came to Japan as migrant workers and don’t have the funds to return home is perhaps a humane policy.”
Insisted one ministry official involved with the program:
“The assistance for returning home is provided at government expense to those people who are suffering from unemployment and do not have the funds to return if they want to. The intention is not to remove the nikkei from the country.”
The new policy is good news for local governments, which are financially responsible for welfare payments and are having trouble finding the money due to the sharp increase in households consisting of foreigners receiving government assistance. Said one local government official:
“It would be cheaper for Japan if they returned home.”
The city of Hamamatsu is where the most Brazilians live. At the end of February, it had 116 Brazilian households receiving welfare benefits, compared to 70 at the same time the previous year. The benefits total more than 100,000 yen per month per family. They receive the welfare benefits after their unemployment compensation runs out.
Michiko Ramos, a third generation nikkei, commented:
“Brazilians are too lax. If they don’t like the government program, they don’t have to use it. Each person should decide for themselves how they’re going to live, and it’s their responsibility to do so.”
The article also notes that the Japanese government will pay travel agencies for the tickets and deposit the remainder of the money in dollar-denominated accounts in the recipient’s name in Brazil.
One reader of this site is employed by a national Japanese media outlet. He spent two months covering this issue on the ground, and here is some of the information he provided to me.
* The program targets almost exclusively Brazilians (with either Japanese ancestry or a Japanese spouse) in Japan on working visas who can not speak Japanese and have no savings. Most have at least $US 30,000 dollars in annual income, with their housing expenses paid by the company.
* The same program was not offered to Okinawans who came to the same part of Japan to work and were laid off at the same time for the same reasons. (Okinawa is roughly 800 miles from Nagoya, the hub of the Japanese auto industry, and is only accessible by air or sea from there.)
* The correspondent notes that the workers can be divided into two broad groups: Those who “have a plan” and those who don’t. The people in the former group put their children in Japanese public schools, learned to speak and read Japanese, and received permanent residence visas.
* The workers’ hourly wages start at JPY 1,200 yen for unskilled labor, but the auto industry in that part of Japan often pays JPY 1,400 (about $US 14.70) an hour. Most households have two workers because the wives also work. The income of many Brazilian families is about 4 to 5 million yen annually, not counting inexpensive or non-existent housing costs, because the company covers them.
* Some Brazilian workers rejected the option of becoming full-time employees because doing so meant that pension and insurance funds would be withheld from their salaries. They see themselves as migrant workers and wanted the cash immediately.
* Why do some people need financial assistance to return home? As my correspondent reports, in what he admits is an extreme example:
“Many simply spend too much. I’ve been to a house in Shizuoka where all four family members work in a factory. This family has four cars (although you do need cars for everyday life in that part of Shizuoka), a house, and a racing car and trailer. (Drifting has become a popular sport among Brazilian youth). They can’t speak Japanese despite being here for 17 years…Many Brazilians who don’t have money to buy tickets back home are not literally broke. Many of them have houses in Brazil built with their money they earned working in Japan. They just don’t want to sell them for the tickets, which is (a) rational (decision). However, if they are in Japan asking for welfare to sustain (their lifestyle) in Japan, that’s another story…”
* They are not ordinary guest-workers, because they have become “spoiled in a way” now that their community has become established in all “dimensions of life” (i.e., media, schools, supermarkets, and entertainment). (N.B.: the Brazilian primary school in Hamamatsu recently closed.) Therefore they no longer need to associate with Japanese and live in a Portuguese-only environment. He also notes that municipal transportation facilities in Nagoya have Portuguese-language announcements.
* He reports this direct quote (his English translation) from the Brazilian vice-consulate and said he’s got it word for word in his notes:
“They are in their mess, because they are in their mess. We didn’t put them in their mess. It’s called self responsibility.”
The reporter wryly notes that Nissan (and Renault) CEO Carlos “Cost Killer” Ghosn, a Brazilian (and French and Lebanese) national was lionized by the Western media as the savior of Japanese business when he turned around Nissan some years ago by laying off thousands of Japanese workers. The BBC described his moves at Nissan as “savage”. CNN and the Detroit News dubbed him a “superstar”.
This February, the Brazilian Cost Killer brought out the knife again and announced he will cut 8.5% of the company’s staff worldwide by laying off 20,000 workers. Not all of the cuts were specified, but of those 20,000, 10% were in Japan.
My correspondent points out that when the CEO of Toyota lays off Brazilian workers for the same reason, and the Japanese government provides the funds to those unskilled workers with no Japanese ability and no savings who choose to return home voluntarily, it becomes a “humanitarian crisis”.
Sidebar 1: Mr. Ghosn was in Tokyo this week to unveil the new Nissan Leaf, an all-electric car. He says he spends 40% of his time in Japan, and he has been head of Nissan for more than a decade, yet he chose to speak to the Japanese broadcast media in English.
There’s a reason I provided this information. The following is a description of a newspaper article and a magazine article, with an attendant blog post for each one. They all presume to criticize Japan for its policy, yet 95% of the above information is not included.
University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York journalist Stephen J. Dubner published Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything in 2005. It has since sold 3 million copies, and they operate a blog on the New York Times website called Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything to “continue the conversation”.
Somebody named “Freakonomics” wrote the following post this April.
When Japanese unemployment edged up to a three-year high of 4.4 percent in February, the government started looking for creative ways to lower it. One solution: get the unemployed out of the country by offering citizenship buyouts. The program applies only to unemployed people of Japanese descent who were born abroad but now live in Japan (they’re known as nikkei). The plan pays out-of-work nikkei $3,000 to return to their country of origin, not to return until economic conditions improve in Japan. Like other strange Japanese ideas, we don’t expect this one to spread to our shores any time soon.
Somehow, Mr. Freakonomics—the journalist or the university professor, whoever—got the idea that the Japanese program is a “citizenship buyout”, despite having nothing to do with (a) citizens, (b) buying anything, or (c) buying out citizens.
In fact, the author was so enamored of this idea that he created a hot link for the phrase to a Time magazine article, which you can see here.
Time magazine conveniently saves their readers of taking the trouble to weigh the factual evidence and make up their own minds by giving the article the deliberately misleading headline of, “Thanks, but you can go home now”.
Immediately under the headline is a photo captioned, “Brazilian workers of Japanese descent stage a protest against layoffs in central Tokyo on Jan. 18, 2009.”
One wonders what the point of the protest was. Japanese automakers are also laying off Japanese workers, so the protest isn’t going to get them rehired. None of them live or work anywhere near central Tokyo, so perhaps they were demonstrating in front of corporate headquarters, though Time can’t be bothered to tell us that. Another possibility is that they were angling for media coverage. For that matter, one wonders why Time printed the photograph, which is of only tertiary importance to the issue, and gave it this page positioning, unless it was for propaganda purposes.
The photo is followed by two paragraphs more suitable for a daytime soap opera than a news story, which includes the claims that the Japanese government has made the unemployed feel “unwanted”. The first person quoted—indeed, the first person mentioned—is the leader of the nikkei labor union crying “discrimination”.
After all, we know that labor union leaders are the go-to source of information about government programs.
The seven-paragraph article contains only one sentence about the Japanese government offer. The third paragraph is a straightforward description of current domestic economic conditions. The rest is nothing more than an anti-Nipponistic editorial, and Time manages to mangle the facts while it’s at it:
The money isn’t the problem, the Brazilians say; it’s the fact that they will not be allowed to return until economic and employment conditions improve — whenever that may be.
No, they will not be allowed to return at all on a special nikkei work visa, and the reason for the incorporation of that restriction should be obvious: to prevent repeated use of the program and scamming extra money off the deal.
Then Time benevolently dispenses to its readership the wisdom of the Western biens pensants regarding how Japan should conduct itself as a nation:
“The U.N. has projected that the nation will need 17 million immigrants by 2050 to maintain a productive economy.”
Yes, we all know how accurate UN projections are for 40 years in the future, particularly for
global warming climate change.
Does Japan need to add a total number of immigrants equal to 13% of its present population to “maintain a productive economy”, or does it need that many people to maintain its social welfare system for an aging population—which is not the same thing—and in so doing, eliminate the concept of “Japan” as we know it as a functioning entity? But what’s that to public intellectuals and their acolytes in the West?
As we saw here recently, the Canadians have concluded that large-scale immigration is not the answer. And we’ve also seen how the huge influx of Muslim immigrants, specifically admitted to fill unskilled labor jobs and prop up the social welfare system for an aging population, has worked out in Western Europe. (By the way, they’ve been rioting in France again, and this time it’s so bad the French government has forbidden the police from disclosing the statistics.)
There’s some input from Carlos Zaha, a “community leader”:
“I don’t think [the government] thought this through well.”
The government is offering a generous financial assistance program that is entirely voluntary. The ones who have to think it through are the Brazilians—take it or leave it. Leaving it means that to survive in this economic climate, they’ll actually have to do stuff like learn Japanese and job-related skills for something other than sweeping up the shop room floor. Fortunately, the Japanese government is making it easier for anyone with the motivation to do just that.
The article also quotes the union leader’s son:
“They have to help people to continue working in Japan,” he says. “If Brazilians go home, what will they do there?”
If we know “they” are helping people to continue working in Japan, why doesn’t he? Perhaps he’s one of those who didn’t bother to study Japanese, but then again the Japanese government provides free interpreters to explain the program. He also doesn’t explain why the government “has” to do things for a group specifically targeted because they chose the easy money route rather than the assimilation route. Nor does he explain why it is the business of the Japanese government what Brazilian citizens do in Brazil.
But back to Mr. Freakonomics. He/they conclude(s): “Like other strange Japanese ideas, we don’t expect this one to spread to our shores any time soon.” The gratuitous “other strange Japanese ideas” phrase (there are so many, after all) is hot linked to another post by that Freakonomics guy presenting some photos of “Only in Japan” strange “products”. They discovered this hidden side because a reader of their blog sent them a chain e-mail letter.
If you have a Windows machine and right click the photos as if to save them to your computer, which is what Freakonomics did, you’ll see that they’ve already been given a title at their site. I’ll show two of those photos here; their site’s title for the first photo is “Japs 1”, and the title for the second is “Japs 3”.
Hmm, the hidden side of everything…
Here’s the photo of the first product at “Japs 1″.
Yes, that is a strange product. It looks like something a junior high school student might buy if she were in a spending mood and had some money to burn. But since I’ve never seen this product in anyone’s home, any store, or in any broadcast or print advertising, that’s only speculation on my part. Perhaps they’re hidden in this country somewhere.
Maybe the money earned from the book transformed the lives of Messrs. Freakonomics so much they no longer have to shop where the simple folk do. Or perhaps they had a refined upbringing. That would explain their unfamiliarity with the idea of novelty products.
Still, they should be old enough to remember Pet Rocks. In 1975, American advertising executive Gary Dahl bought ordinary rocks for a few cents apiece, wrote a tongue-in-cheek manual to accompany them, and packaged the combination as Pet Rocks. Each product unit cost less than 30 cents to produce, and Mr. Dahl sold them for $3.95. In fact, he sold an estimated 5 million pet rocks in six months, earning him about $US 15 million. I’ll bet those cushion makers wish they could cash in like that.
Another example of a highly profitable American novelty item is mood rings. These rings are most often made with a sham gemstone covering a thermo-chromic liquid crystal that responds to body temperature. The people who take these rings seriously claim that body temperatures change in tandem with emotion, and that the rings turn specific colors to match the specific emotion of the wearer. Though they were a faddish novelty item of the 1970s, they’re still being sold today, sometimes for less than $US 4.00. Indeed, the concept has spread, as you can see from one note on this page:
“Ahh, but the newest version of the mood ring? Mood Piercing! That’s right, body jewelry with the mood ring twist. It’s a curved bar bell with the mood piece on the lower ball. It’s intended for a navel ring, but I have mine to determine my sexual mood, if you catch what I’m saying. It was a joke between a friend and I who both have our clitoris hoods pierced how cool it would be, so I got us each one. I’m not sure it’s ever really been accurate…”
Moving on to “Jap 3”, here’s a photo of what the post’s author thinks is a Japanese “product” because that’s what someone told him in a chain e-mail.
Long-time friends of this site will immediately realize that isn’t a product at all. It’s a one-of-a-kind item known as chindogu, or “unusual tool”, and could best be described as comical pop art with an avant-garde twist. Those who want to delve into the hidden side of chindogu can read this previous post. Who knows, a gallery exhibition in Western countries might be quite successful.
Actually, this is not the first time someone’s been made the sucker by chindogu. This post describes how the New York Times interviewed another chindogu artist who stitched together some fabric to make herself look like a soft drink vending machine. Somehow, this was enough to convince the Times it was a sign the Japanese were concerned about crime in the streets.
The horse laughs over that journalistic pratfall still reverberate through cyberspace. My post on the topic received quite a few links from around the world, and ranks #2 on the site Hit Parade. I suspect Messrs. Freakonomics are right about this strange idea being unlikely to spread to their shores, though. That would require having a sense of humor.
Besides, they don’t need any more strange avant-garde artwork over there. They’ve got plenty of their own. For example:
That’s the notorious 1987 photograph Piss Christ by Andres Serrano, which shows a plastic crucifix in a glass of the photographer’s urine. It won an award in the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition, partially sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, a United States Government agency that funds artistic projects. Mr. Serrano received $US 15,000, some of that from the taxpayer-funded NEA.
In addition to strange Japanese novelty products or pop art, Messrs. Freakonomics are convinced the U.S. won’t go for this strange Japanese immigration relief measure either. That’s probably because they think America has a perfectly wonderful immigration system.
Well, the perfect part has it right. The American immigration system is perfectly dysfunctional and has been for years. The United States lost control of its borders decades ago and shows no sign that it will ever regain that control.
* Immigrants account for 13% of the current U.S. population, and 30% of those are illegal aliens. Except now they have their own lobbying organizations that wet their pants in indignation for a living, so the phrase “undocumented migrants” is often used instead. In raw numbers, estimates of the latter range from 12-20 million in a country of 300 million.
* Between 1-2 million immigrants, both documented and illegal, arrive every year. On the whole, they have fewer job skills and less education than Americans, and they receive more from taxes than they contribute by a 3-1 ratio.
* Many of these immigrants never intend to assimilate. For several generations, it’s been possible to live from birth to death throughout the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami, and most of Texas, without speaking a word of English, much less become a legal resident. An estimated 85% of the Mexicans living in the U.S. are thought to be there illegally.
This has been a problem for some time. Here’s a direct quote from the New York Times, circa 1951, in the days before the political correctness of language:
“The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican ‘wetbacks’ to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government.”
One of the several concerns was that the illegal immigrants worked in the agriculture sector for half the salary paid to Americans, which put the Americans out of work. That concern is ongoing, and opponents of guest worker programs in the United States often point out that the lower salaries distort the economic structure.
In contrast, the nikkei in Japan were paid salaries identical to those of Japanese in the same positions.
In 1986, the U.S. government threw up its hands entirely by passing an amnesty bill that allowed an estimated 2.7 million illegal aliens to receive citizenship. Many naturally complain that this was a reward for breaking the law. Six additional amnesties (not all blanket amnesties) were passed from 1994 to 2000.
The American political class is incapable of formulating a coherent immigration policy. Business interests want to keep the cheap labor source, and they are abetted by politicians in both parties. (Not just the big business GOP, either; as a senator, the later-to-be President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, favored lax immigration enforcement.) Labor unions dislike guest worker programs, but their favored party, the Democrats, realize that the beneficiaries of so many government programs tend to vote for that party, and that guest workers usually wind up as permanent residents. President George W. Bush failed to gain passage of an immigration reform act that included amnesty, but President Barack Obama is going to try again, even though Mr. Bush’s legislation was defeated due to public opposition. As the New York Times put it:
But, (Obama) said, immigrants who are long-time residents but lack legal status “have to have some mechanism over time to get out of the shadows.”
Nothing describes current immigration policy and enforcement in the U.S. better than this lead sentence from a CNN article.
“Six months to the day after Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Immigration and Naturalization Service notified a Venice, Florida, flight school that the two men had been approved for student visas.”
So it’s entirely understandable that the Messrs. Freakonomics, Americans both, would find the Japanese success at controlling their borders and the influx of guest workers to be a strange idea that wouldn’t work on their shores.
If I were Japanese, I’d be proud of the country for their handling of the situation.
Sidebar 2: Some people were impressed the two Freakonomics authors discovered that sumo wrestlers in certain situations tend to lose matches they statistically should be expected to win, which suggests that they’re throwing the matches for the benefit of their fellow rikishi.
Except the Japanese have known this for centuries, and have never been shy or hesitant to write or talk about it. You just have to be able to read mass-market Japanese paperbacks and talk to Japanese people in Japanese for all these hidden sides to come to light.
Imagine if you will the reaction in the West, particularly by these media outlets and public intellectuals, if a Japanese were to observe pet rocks, mood rings (including those on pierced clitoris hoods), Piss Christ, and an endemic problem with illegal immigration, and wrote:
Like other strange Western ideas, we don’t expect this one to spread to our shores any time soon.
Not an attractive image, is it?
Mr. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University. He is given space to write a blog for the Foreign Policy website, which is part of the Slate group, which in turn is part of the Washington Post/Newsweek group.
Prof. Drezner decided to weigh in on the Japanese government policy. The title for the link to his post, which shows up at the top of the Internet browser page, is “A Demographic Disaster of a Country Kicks Out Immigrants”. His post is headlined, “Reason #347 Japan is less influential than it should be.”
His post is not quite as bad as the Freakonomics post, though I realize that is damning it with faint praise. But he still lets fly with this corker:
“Apparently, Japan is trying to kick out some of the paltry number of immigrants it currently has in its territory.”
Readers, it’s time to congratulate yourselves. By now, you are already more knowledgeable about Japanese policy toward Brazilian immigrants than a grad school professor of international politics at an elite American university writing a blog on a mainstream media website. The difference, however, is that you don’t get paid to spout off.
Prof. Drezner was so taken with his “kick out” line that he turned it into a hot link to this New York Times article.
Incidentally, he doesn’t attempt to make any connection between the specific policy and Japan’s “punching below its weight” in international politics. Perhaps he’s used to students nodding at everything he says so they don’t jeopardize their chances for a post-graduate degree.
In regard to what he terms this “puzzling maneuver”, he concludes: “In terms of demographics, about the best thing one can say about Japan is that at least it’s not as bad as Russia.”
The snark may be on a more sophisticated level than in the Freakonomics post, but it’s still snark. According to UN statistics, the Japanese fertility rate is slightly below that of Russia, equivalent to that of Italy, and higher than Bulgaria or South Korea. It isn’t significantly different from that in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belarus, or the Ukraine. While it’s still less than that for the countries of Western Europe, all those countries are still under the population replacement level even when counting the offspring of their fertile Middle Eastern immigrants. What specific contribution the latter makes is difficult to say because many of those European countries forbid the breakdown of demographic statistics by ethnic group.
Here’s an idea: Is the reason Japan is “punching below its weight” due in part to the fraudulent coverage given at every turn by an anti-Nipponistic Western media and the dismissive indifference to the facts shown by anti-Nipponistic public intellectuals?
A comment on this post at the site is also worth looking at.
“The xenophobic mindset of Japan, is something akin to the Wahabi equivalent in Islam – if it goes so far as to exclude ethnic Japanese, from Brazil!”
Lord knows the man can’t stop ignoramuses from posting in his comment section, but that’s clearly anti-Nipponism, and all the more revealing because one would expect the site itself would attract a highly educated and aware readership.
But Prof. Drezner still has no justification for his claim that the Japanese are “kicking out” the nikkei, based on the New York Times article.
The New York Times
This article is written for a section called Global Business, but only 212 of the 1,261 words describe the actual policy itself without editorializing. It includes only the barest of facts. Another 120 words blandly describe the economic circumstances that led to the formulation of the policy. There are 10 direct quotes. Three of those are sob stories, three are direct criticisms of the Japanese position by Japanese calling it a “disgrace”, “baffling”, “cold-hearted”, and “an insult”, and two are accounted for by a simple question and answer. There is an unattributed quote calling it “short-sighted” and “inhumane”. The single quoted Japanese who defends the policy is also given a chance to say, “I don’t think Japan should ever become a multi-ethnic society”.
And I don’t think the New York Times should stack the deck, but let’s proceed.
The government will pay thousands of dollars to fly Mrs. Yamaoka; her husband, who is a Brazilian citizen of Japanese descent; and their family back to Brazil. But in exchange, Mrs. Yamaoka and her husband must agree never to seek to work in Japan again.
Not only is this incorrect, but the author knows it. She later says that they can return on different visas:
But those who travel home on Japan’s dime will not be allowed to reapply for a work visa. Stripped of that status, most would find it all but impossible to return. They could come back on three-month tourist visas. Or, if they became doctors or bankers or held certain other positions, and had a company sponsor, they could apply for professional visas.
My, but isn’t that “certain other positions” a convenient formulation? The author doesn’t mention it also includes recent graduates of universities with bachelor’s degrees in the contemporary equivalent of basket weaving hired to teach English at chain schools.
Notice also the doctor/banker part. That’s inserted to offer a frisson of righteous indignation over the injustice of it all to the newspaper’s upper-middle class/upper class readership, some of whom are doctors or bankers, who will then finish reading the paper and head off to their six- or seven-figure jobs elsewhere on the island of Manhattan, or in a private cubicle in some ivory tower.
Here’s the first direct quote:
“I feel immense stress. I’ve been crying very often,” Mrs. Yamaoka, 38, said after a meeting where local officials detailed the offer in this industrial town in central Japan.
Yes, that’s the Grey Lady and not the National Enquirer.
Here’s the first quote from a Japanese:
“It’s a disgrace. It’s cold-hearted,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, an independent research organization. “And Japan is kicking itself in the foot,” he added. “We might be in a recession now, but it’s clear it doesn’t have a future without workers from overseas.”
Prof. Drezner also repeats that last sentence approvingly, as if everyone with functioning cognitive facilities can see the blinding clarity of its correctness. Perhaps he needs to read the Canadian report issued above showing that immigration isn’t going to solve anyone’s population problem. It’s also not so clear that the aging of society would be a problem if citizens assumed a greater liability for their own social welfare benefits and responsibility for long-term care, combined with growth-friendly taxation policies and reductions in the sheer mass of government.
And it’s also clear that most of Western Europe—as we know it—does not have a future with workers from overseas.
The guest workers quickly became the largest group of foreign blue-collar workers in an otherwise immigration-averse country, filling the so-called three-K jobs (kitsui, kitanai, kiken — hard, dirty and dangerous).
Japan isn’t so averse to immigration from people with job skills, a willingness to assimilate, and a desire to learn the language. I’m one of those in “some other position” who easily received a permanent residence visa. I know many more who did, and I have no doubt they and I could just as easily become naturalized citizens.
Sidebar 3: Recruitment of Chinese and Korean workers in Fukuoka
From a Nishinippon Shimbun article, buried in the local news section:
Fukuoka Prefecture and other groups sponsored a joint job interview conference on 30 May for foreign students looking for work in Japan. A total of 194 students at regional universities and graduate schools attended. Many companies are not hiring at present due to economic conditions, so only seven companies sent representatives. That was less than half of the companies represented last year, which caused some uneasiness among the students. This year’s conference was the eighth, and the prefecture said that about 30 students are hired as a result of the interviews every year.
“Naturally, we don’t want those same people back in Japan after a couple of months,” Mr. Kawasaki (Jiro, an LDP official formerly with the Health Ministry) said. “Japanese taxpayers would ask, ‘What kind of ridiculous policy is this?’ ”
That’s the first sensible thing I’ve read in any of those articles or blog posts yet.
At the packed town hall meeting in Hamamatsu, immigrants voiced disbelief that they would be barred from returning. Angry members of the audience converged on officials. Others walked out of the meeting room.
And I’m sure others went to the rest room, wandered aimlessly in the hall looking at the artwork, or went outside to smoke a cigarette. Why should they be angry about an optional program? Are the comments of Michiko Ramos and the Brazilian vice-consul above beginning to make sense now?
Claudio Nishimori, 30, said he was considering returning to Brazil because his shifts at a electronics parts factory were recently reduced. But he felt anxious about going back to a country he had left so long ago. “I’ve lived in Japan for 13 years. I’m not sure what job I can find when I return to Brazil,” he said. But his wife has been unemployed since being laid off last year and he can no longer afford to support his family.
Note that Mr. Nishimori and his wife both worked and that Mr. Nishimori has been here 13 years, presumably employed the whole time, yet he has neither the financial wherewithal to survive a layoff of a few months nor the job skills to find employment elsewhere. Nor, obviously, the desire to participate in the Japanese government’s job-training and language instruction program.
“They put up with us as long as they needed the labor,” said Wellington Shibuya, who came six years ago and lost his job at a stove factory in October. “But now that the economy is bad, they throw us a bit of cash and say goodbye….We worked hard; we tried to fit in. Yet they’re so quick to kick us out,” he said. “I’m happy to leave a country like this.”
With that attitude, Mr. Shibuya, I suspect that “a country like this” is even happier with your decision than you are.
There is nothing inherently wrong with privately owned media outlets using a preexisting narrative template to offer their information. That’s how they choose to present themselves to their customers, and their customers are free to accept or reject the template as they choose, according to their time, level of interest, and intellectual inclinations.
The problems arise when the templates are manifestly inaccurate and biased. There is no question that the employees of these media outlets are accomplished and intelligent people, and that the outlets themselves have the financial resources and access to information to enable those people to get it right.
Yet, as I have noted here often in the past, those media outlets seldom, if ever, get it right when the subject is Japan. That accomplished, intelligent people with the resources to get it right never do cannot be laid to incompetence. It must necessarily be the result of intentional design, either on their part or the part of ownership.
The articles by Time magazine and the New York Times plainly do not get it right. Just as plainly, it was because they chose not to get it right. I submit that the cause of this disfigurement and abuse of their resources and customers is anti-Nipponism.
There is also no reason to object to privately owned media outlets having a point of view. That point of view belongs in sections clearly labeled as opinion, however. As with both articles under review here, editorial opinion should not masquerade as news. If these were opinion journals, such The Nation or Commentary, for example, it would be a different matter entirely.
But these two media outlets insist on calling themselves news organizations. The two articles here are putatively news articles that present the facts, yet both are unfair and ugly distortions of the facts. I submit the cause of these distortions is anti-Nipponism.
Let’s not pretend any longer, shall we? These are not honest mistakes. This is not sloppy research. Someone, somewhere, has made a conscious decision to depict the Japanese as negatively as possible, however possible, whenever possible. These depictions of Japan are the rule rather than the exception.
University of Chicago Prof. Levitt and Mr. Dubner of Freakonomics are also without question intelligent and accomplished people. Yet the Messrs. Freakonomics read a Time magazine article and draw the breathtakingly incorrect conclusion that it is about a “citizenship buyout”. They find a harmless novelty item to be yet another one of those strange ideas from the Goofball Kingdom, while overlooking even stranger—and financially successful—novelty items from their own back yard. At least the Japanese product is functional.
They take the word of a chain e-mailer that an innocent, amusing, and obscure work of pop art is a commercial product, and snicker with their oh-so-hip audience at the Japanese weirdness for even conceiving of it. Yet they seem oblivious to situations in their own country (how often this happens!), in which a downright peculiar work of art was given a cash award partially funded by taxpayers, and which was the subject of a loud public controversy for that very reason.
They are citizens of a nation with perhaps the most dysfunctional immigration system in the modern world, yet they conclude that the Japanese government’s generous and considerate offer of a voluntary program to people in need, who seem to more closely resemble Aesop’s grasshopper rather than his ant, is stranger still.
Certainly Tufts University Prof. Drezner is equally accomplished and intelligent. Yet he reads a New York Times article and draws the breathtakingly incorrect assumption that it is about “kicking out” people from Japan. He then suffers an intellectual short-circuit and concludes this is one of the reasons Japan lacks diplomatic clout. He (or someone at that site) thinks Japan is a “demographic disaster”. Well, perhaps it is, but if it sinks, it’s going to go down on the same ship as Western Europe, South Korea, and Singapore. Yet he will only allow that it’s not as bad as Russia.
If either of those university professors were submitted a paper that reached those conclusions based on evidence that slim in any other subject, they’d flunk the student faster than you can say Cliff’s Notes.
Perhaps that is due to what might be called a big-league complex, common among people of certain professions (particularly lawyers). They think it’s their job to behave as if they know something about everything, and so act accordingly to uphold their professional reputation. Freakonomics is about “the hidden side of everything” after all, and “international politics” covers quite a lot of territory. But I don’t think that’s the reason.
I’m sure they would vehemently deny they are guilty of what amounts to knee-jerk prejudice—some of their best friends are Japanese, no doubt. But I submit the cause of their misguided thinking and behavior is anti-Nipponism.
As Ms. Regan (a financial attorney) says in the quote at the start of the article, it is time for people to ignore the fishwrap farce that the New York Times, Time magazine, and their ilk have become, and take responsibility for their thoughts and decisions. Unfortunately, the people described here seem to have used those publications as giftwrap to beautify their preconceived notions.
As for the Japanese, it is time to start drawing conclusions from the fact that the anti-Nipponism of the Western media and its public intellectuals will always prevent them from getting it right.
Shelby Steele, part African-American, a former university professor, and current research fellow at the Hoover Institution, long ago wrote that one of the most important things he ever learned he heard during a conversation with an elderly Jewish woman. “No matter how hard you try,” she told him, “they’re never going to love you.”
It doesn’t make any difference how pacific your behavior or generous your contributions have been for the past few generations. Most media outlets and many influential people in the West have become so infected with anti-Nipponism that they are never going to love you.
If those conclusions you draw require that Japan choose a more independent course of action in the world, so be it. As the Arabs say, the dogs bark, and the caravan moves on.
* Anti-Nipponistic attitudes are apparent in more than just political or pop culture reporting. Note how the AP handled their obituary for a prominent Japanese psychiatrist at the end of this recent post.
* I didn’t include Chinese or Korean examples in this post, though anti-Nipponism is of course present in those countries, too. But Japan’s relationships with the Han Chinese on the mainland and the people of the Korean Peninsula are deep and stretch back for millennia, so the current strand of anti-Nipponism in northeast Asia has a different meaning. It is most often fomented or exacerbated by the political class for domestic advantage. Westerners have no such excuse.
* This post doesn’t begin to address the problem of Brazilian workers who either chose not to participate in the national pension system to begin with, or have not worked long enough in Japan (25 years) to quality. The Brazilian workers have been coming to Japan for more than 15 years, and those who came in their mid-40s are now hitting the age of 60. That’s when many Japanese retire, and the unskilled Brazilian laborers working through employee seconding agencies that age are not going to be called as frequently for work. As a result, they receive welfare payments and other benefits from the Japanese government. In those areas with a concentration of these workers, the older ones who can no longer find employment are now starting to hang out during the day on street corners and park benches. One can imagine the reaction of younger Japanese taxpayers who work for a living and are footing the bill. Why should the Japanese government support the elderly citizens of another country with whom it has no pension reciprocity? That’s Brazil’s responsibility, is it not? (Japan does have agreements with the U.S. and Germany, among others.)
* As the New York Times article in particular hastened to assure us, some Japanese are also critical of their government’s policy. Higuchi Naoto, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tokushima, expressed his criticisms in this English-language article in the Asahi Shimbun.
While I disagree with Prof. Higuchi’s solution, he gets to the crux of the matter here:
I have interviewed more than 300 Japanese-South Americans, and according to my observation, those who graduated from unstable non-regular employment to regular work had one thing in common–strong Japanese-language skills….To survive in the labor market, Japanese language skills are more important than academic qualifications or work experience.
The majority of these have never been given the financial support or time to acquire Japanese language skills, without which they have virtually no chance of finding new work at a time when they need it most.
Disclaimer: I have a biased outlook in this matter. Not one of my great-grandparents was a native speaker of English, yet all of those who reached the United States acquired English language skills. (That includes two grandparents.) All the men were originally unskilled laborers, and one grandfather had only one year of schooling in Russia.
Needless to say, none of them were given financial support or the time to acquire English-language skills. They just went ahead and did it on their own. One great-grandfather died at the age of 40. His five children quit school and went to work, and his German-born wife did the nurses’ laundry for the nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital. She studied English by reading the newspaper aloud every evening to her twin daughters and having them correct her pronunciation and explain unfamiliar words.
The article also has internal contradictions:
Some 400,000 Japanese-South Americans are said to live in the country. One-third have already obtained permanent residence visas. Many families have also taken out loans to buy homes…In order to earn 300,000 yen a month from a job that pays 1,200 yen an hour, a worker needs to put in 250 hours a month. With such long hours, it is almost impossible to spare time for studies.
It’s also almost impossible to take out a home loan with that sort of income, either. But as for language studies, you know what they say about there being a way if there’s the will. Turn on the TV or radio and voila! Instant language instruction 24 hours a day.
Because there was no need for them to learn Japanese, there was also no motivation.
Living here is not motivation enough? Surely the reason they came was because they thought they would have more opportunities in Japan than in Brazil. The opportunity to stay and make the most of those opportunities should be sufficient motivation for anyone.
The government should devise a learning program under which participants are paid aid equivalent to one year’s unemployment benefits, allowing them to focus solely on the language…. A system is needed to allow them to enroll in Japanese-language schools on a full-time basis for a year so that they may acquire communication skills, including reading and writing, needed to work in Japan.
In other words, the sociology professor thinks that people whose motivation was such that they were unable to use whatever education they received at home to acquire rudimentary job skills are going to be able to read and write Japanese after a one-year course, rather than a three-month course.
As someone who has spent the last 18 years working full-time as a Japanese-English translator after spending a considerable chunk of my life gaining Japanese-language fluency, and who also has taught English, I can only conclude that Prof. Higuchi is a cockeyed optimist.
That’s the basis of most Japanese complaints—the government didn’t do enough to help the nikkei assimilate. But there are two serious problems with that suggestion. First, it completely ignores the responsibility of the people themselves to take charge of their own lives. Ten ha mizukara tasukuru mono wo tasuku—Heaven helps those who help themselves.
Second, it also completely ignores the lesson that everyone left of the political center has failed to learn, and alas, probably never will learn.
If it were so easy for governments to accomplish these things, socialism would have been a success.
A big thanks to the people who helped with this post. You know who you are!
UPDATE: I just found out the program has been amended to allow for re-entry after three years. In other words, it is almost identical in terms to a Spanish offer to unemployed immigrants for repatriation. According to that article, more than 5,000 people accepted the offer. Most of them are from other Spanish-speaking countries, so linguistic assimilation should not have been at issue.
The fertility rate in Spain, incidentally, is nearly the same as that of Japan.
Does this mean there will be a sudden outbreak of Spain-bashing or a let-up in anti-Nipponism from the Western elites?
I think not.
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