Japan from the inside out

Why journalism is important

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 26, 2009

Do you love it?
Do you hate it?
There it is
The way you made it.
– Frank Zappa

READER and frequent commenter Aceface, who is employed by a major Japanese media outlet, has been keeping abreast of the reaction to the Justin McCurry article in The Guardian about Japanese “rent-a-friends” that has generated some discussion here recently.

He’s been sifting through the comment section to see what The Guardian’s readers have to say about that article.

Now I understand that the folks who post in The Guardian’s comment sections are the subject of considerable mockery and disdain in Britain. I’m also well aware that the same sort of people hang out and write in those sections of American newspapers, where the same sort of bilge is never far from the surface.

But those comments give us an idea of how the consumers of news view Japan. Here are three that Aceface dug up:

“I find it rather sad actually. That the Japanese, in all their “efficiency,” have not managed to be able to find a balance between wealth and “society” is lamentable. That people, in a related matter, are willing to become spouses of robots, rather than seeking to connect with other humans, seems to me to be pretty scary.”


“Because of the Japanese sense of superiority and homogeneity, I imagine, they’d rather associate with a fake friend that actually befriend the Korean or other non-Japanese-born person next door. Truly sad and scary.”


“The (Western) First World ranks above the rest of the world, not just because of its wealth, but in its ability to create a society made up of social human beings of all stripes. That Japan has chosen to deviate completely from this trajectory is to its detriment, and I believe that ultimately, it will be proven to have erred in placing so much faith in machines rather than encouraging real human contact.”

Why do these people “know” that Japanese marry robots, have a sense of superiority and homogeneity, would rather associate with fake friends than Koreans, or have chosen to deviate from the civilization that is the Crown of Creation?

Because they read it in the newspaper.

Here’s another commenter on the blog of Daniel Drezner writing about a slapdash post stemming from a short-circuited conclusion–which in turn was inspired by a hideously deformed article in The New York Times about the Japanese government’s policy toward Brazilian guest workers.

“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!”

He knows because he read it on a blog written by a university professor who read it in a publication that likes to pretend it’s The Paper of Record. (For more detail on that particular story, here’s my post on the subject.)

Tyler Cowan is an economist at George Mason University who has a blog called Marginal Revolution. During a trip to Japan, he was surprised to see so many vending machines and wondered why in this post.

I was astonished at the content of some of the comments on a blog written for educated and presumably well-informed people. Here is my comment in full. It explains why I thought there were more vending machines here than elsewhere and responds to what the other commenters said.


Some points to consider, offered by a resident of Japan for 24 years:

1. Most vending machines in Japan are owned outright by the commercial establishment where they’re located. That means they are an extension of the business enterprise itself. That includes Shinto shrines and medical clinics.

2. Beware of the trap of thinking that Tokyo=Japan. Most people in Japan don’t live in Tokyo and they DO use (and depend on) their cars. Toyota didn’t get where it is today by selling all its product overseas.

3. Beware of the trap of thinking that American dietary habits=the global gold standard. Most refrigerators sold in Japan today are larger than the ones I grew up with in the United States. Yet very few Japanese will buy immense bottles of soft drink or buckets of ice cream and stick them in the refrigerator/freezer. They tend to eat smaller quantities at one sitting.

My Japanese wife was initially impressed by her first visit to an American supermarket, but wound up close to appalled before she walked out the door. It is difficult for Americans to realize how gluttonous it all seems to someone not used to that lifestyle.

Of course, Japanese men will buy cases of beer–in larger bottles–but instead of putting them into the refrigerator all at once, or taking up space in the house, place the bottles on the porch or outside the kitchen door, secure in the knowledge that the beer is unlikely to be stolen.

And while I’m at it…

“Use a vending machine and you get to avoid human interaction. Prejudice?”

No, just completely unaware of daily social interaction in Japan.

“They sell cars door-to-door in Japan…”

That’s not how most people buy them, however.

“…could it have anything to do with the fact that it’s been easier to carry coins in Japan since they’re hollow in the middle?”

Only two coins have holes in the middle, the holes don’t make them easier to carry, and they are not the coins most likely to be used in vending machines.

“Most urban Japaneses rarely make a meal at home…”

I would love to see the statistics on that one. Particularly for families.

“The “high ratio of small stores” is a byproduct of law: super-malls and big stores like Carrefour/Walmart aren’t allowed to be built there…”

Twenty years out of date.

“Vending machines in Japan must…carry products that are not easily accessible.”

The overwhelming majority of Japanese vending machines sell either beverages, cigarettes, or less frequently, ice cream.

“I have heard from expats that the painful level of politeness demanded of even small human transactions adds to the appeal of automation.”

Bum steer. If an expat told you that, I can almost guarantee that their degree of language fluency is negligible.

“Vending machines are, of course, always open.”

Not for beer or ciggies after 11:00 p.m. where I live.

“Japan has few immigrants and I don’t think their teenagers work.”

The jobs that high school students in the US do are performed by college students in Japan. I teach two college classes at a national university, and 95% of my students have part-time jobs working in shops and restaurants.

I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, but you know what Keynes said about truth-telling.

Still, the lack of accurate information about Japan–in the information age, no less–is sobering.


Why is so much of the educated public’s knowledge of Japan so incorrect?

Because they got it from the newspaper.

I urge those of you with the courage to wade through the cloaca of public opinion to read this previous post on what sort of comments the moderators at the BBC website think are acceptable about Japan. Keep in mind that the network warns posters in advance about defamatory comments or comments about racial hatred. The BBC didn’t think its rules applied to people calling for the wholesale murder of Japanese.

How did those posters from their opinion of Japan?

They based it on what they read in the newspaper or saw on the BBC.


The late author Michael Crichton delivered a speech in 2002 in which he addressed the issue of media credibility. He observed:

“(T)here are some well-studied media effects which suggest that a simple appearance in media provides credibility. There was a well-known series of excellent studies by Stanford researchers that have shown, for example, that children take media literally. If you show them a bag of popcorn on a television set and ask them what will happen if you turn the TV upside down, the children say the popcorn will fall out of the bag. This effect would be amusing if it were confined to children. The studies show that no one is exempt. All human beings are subject to this media effect, including those of us who think we are self-aware and hip and knowledgeable.”

Here is his conclusion. I’ve emphasized the last part:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect…

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t.


Responsible citizenship, however one chooses to define that, depends on a fully informed citizenry. People form their conception of issues based on what they read and watch in the print and broadcast media. That is particularly the case for international issues and circumstances in a country they are unlikely to visit or ever know much about.

While journalists are not responsible for the reactions that take place once the chemicals are placed in the beaker, they are responsible for the content of the inserted chemicals that cause those reactions and their deliberate placement of the beaker over a Bunsen burner to accelerate the reactions.

Responding to my post about his Guardian article, McCurry wrote:

I now feel totally vindicated in my choice of profession.

I’d feel totally ashamed if the fruits of my labor were partially responsible for creating this image of Japan overseas. I’d think the time had arrived for hansei, or serious self-reflection on my errors.

Instead of contributing to the world’s enlightenment about things Japanese, journalists as a class bear the primary responsibility for creating the environment in which the ignorance shown above breeds. But that’s not exactly what they would have us believe they’re doing, is it?

If what you know about Japan is derived from the English-language mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

And we all know why.

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29 Responses to “Why journalism is important”

  1. RMilner said

    As a resident of the UK I would like to point out that the people who post on the Daily Telegraph (right-wing equivalent to The Guardian) are also the subject of considerable mockery and disdain in the UK. So are the people who post on the BBC’s website.

    British media coverage of Japan is skimpy and varied. There are some very good pieces in the business and politics sections. There are sometimes minor news items about the Imperial Family or other bits of ‘slice of life’ which ring true. (My wife is Japanese, and I am a frequent visitor, so I now a bit about the country.)

    Unfortunately, a lot of the coverage is the ‘wacky Japan’ type — this is as true of The Daily Telegraph as it is of The Guardian. This kind of item is often well out of date, and it is used as filler.

    I feel the Japanese government’s idea to spread ‘Cool Japan’ through the use of cosplay maid ambassadors is unlikely to help improve this image.

  2. Aceface said

    BTW,Bill remember this?

  3. Mac said

    Cosplay maids? Probably not likely to sway public opinion … unless the Japanese government was to target their audience better and export the other very Japanese thing of handing out free tissues.

    As to the Justin McCurry stereotypical ‘Non-apologetic Nips’ article, I think it raises an interesting snap shot of your average drive-by commentators rather than your average Guardian reader. It owul dbe interesting to look at the IP address and know where the users came from, e.g.

    Japan’s position relating to China is complex; the case of South Korea, whose record is unstained, is simpler … The problem is not that its politicians are reluctant to acknowledge the blatant and cruel abductions and rapes, but that a large segment of Japanese society does not feel that it owes an apology.

    Unstained? Ha! Tell that to the Vietnamese … or their own women. South Korea, government and crimelords, were whoring out comfort women, named as such and treated the same, until the 1970s.

    Confronting Japanese denial is merely inviting foreplay in comparison to undressing the Korean stuff. The Japanese people, almost to the whole now, do not owe anyone an apology.

    More than 50% are women and the majority of the rest were not even born at the time the crimes, or commerce, took place.

  4. Aceface said

    Bill,You are getting popular than ever.

    From “Our man in Abiko”Blog

    “Want something even tastier? Howsabout this fledgeling flame war between Justin McCurry of the Guardian and Ampantanmantpan (or something) guardian of all things Japanisible (as relayed here by Japan Probe). Tasty, huh?”

    Armchair Asia(Mindy Kotler aka Edith Cavell) said…
    I think it is Amimpotent…
    but don’t ever ask me to spell stuff.

    Ooohh.So much for debate over rent-a-friend article,eh?

    It’s getting fun.

  5. ampontan said

    Aceface: I rejected a comment by OMIA yesterday because he was doing the same kindergarten name-calling without adding anything to the discussion.

    As for that McCurry blog post, I read it at the time. In fact, that’s when I knew I was on to something. You notice he didn’t link to me, but linked to Debito and MF.

    That’s because he knew two things. First that my argument would change minds. There was plenty of documentary support in my piece. It got linked to the NYT comment section, and a lot of people came from over there. Dead silence.

    If my post didn’t hold water, they’d have wet their pants for a week.

    But giving a link would show his bogus journalism up.

    Second, because if he read the full article, he knew the Korean woman he quoted was not probably not telling the truth. She told the House committee she snuck out of the house on her own, and that story was in plain English on the House website with a direct link.

    In fact, my article points out she’s had six different stories.

    Which means that if he read the full article and followed the link to her House testimony he was abetting her falsehoods.

    That would suggest his professional priority is propaganda.

    But his failure to link to the piece went for naught.

    It’s still the most widely read post I’ve published, and people are still reading it today.

  6. Mac said

    What … Justin McCurry, The Guardian and Global Post correspondent for Japan, linked to Debito but not to our Amnipotent Japanapologist?

    That was a bit insidious. have you been blackballed by the FCCJ?

    Although I decided, on the basis of a number of articles that a lot of his writing was just copy and paste press releases (I even read the stuff in The Lancet) when I was questioning Justin’s journalistic ethics, I too came against the word in mind of … propaganda. All this was really stuff of a propaganda campaign.

    But the next question was, “of what or for whom?”.

    Obviously I am not suggesting that he is. But it is a sort of propagandizement of a certain world view that is based on race, sex and class … and a consciousness still steeped in old WWII prejudices. Is it just the mindset of male overseas correspondents … what is the gender balance at the FCCJ like?

    When was the last time you heard of a female ‘Japan overseas correspondent’?

    So it is not just a matter of journalism being important … much of this stuff is not journalism but cultural propaganda and even imperialism … aka what we want the Nips to read and think about themselves because we do and the rest of the world to believe … but the importance of minority and specialist journalism too.

  7. Aceface said

    “I rejected a comment by OMIA yesterday because he was doing the same kindergarten name-calling without adding anything to the discussion.”

    Never knew you start rejecting someones comment.An advice I keep saying for quite sometime.

    I should stop doing this now,but here’s what our man has to say.

    “isn’t his job to interpret The Real Japan to all us poor misguided folk who have been corrupted by reading stuff and are unable to think for ourselves without his guidance.”

    Interesting.So these people read and think too.Huh.

    Mindy Kotler’s Asia Policy Point still have your blog along with “Orientalism”blog(I think the person who made this can’t tell east to west)
    Mysteriously dissapearing is Ikeda Nobuo blog with mind blowing introduction as Ikeda being the president of NHK during the comfort women doc.which in fact he was marely a producer and quit in 1994,long before the doc was made.

    But hey,these were supposed to be your job,not mine.I better get back to my own now.

  8. ampontan said

    Mac: Anti-Nipponism.

    Aceface: I think it’s because Ikeda Nobuo is considered one of the cool guys now. He blogs on the Japanese language site of Newsweek. Newsweek in the US has been losing a lot of business lately and taken a sharp left turn. The Japan Finger from Observing Japan is also there. I was looking up stuff about Hatoyama’s NYT article in the Voice, and found TJF griping about it. He thinks the Voice is like Rush Limbaugh, which suggests he doesn’t know much about either. TV actually runs stuff by DPJ supporters regularly, which Limbaugh would never do.

  9. Mulboyne said

    “When was the last time you heard of a female ‘Japan overseas correspondent?”

    That’s not going to be a very profitable line of enquiry because there have been quite a number. In recent years, I can think of Linda Sieg, Gillian Tett, Bethan Hutton, Michiyo Nakamoto, Tomoko Hosaka, Deborah Cameron, Hiroko Tabuchi, Isabel Reynolds, Yoko Kubota, Yoko Nishikawa, Chisa Fujioka, Kay Itoi, Danielle Demetriou and Kaori Shoji.

  10. Aceface said

    “VOICE”happened to be the favourite Japanese mag of Chalmers Johnson.He cherry picked articles from right wingers and anti-Americans from “VOICE” and translated them and quote bit by bit without context.Kinda ironical to see this happened to Hat.After all,his policy is pretty much everything what Johnson demanded Japan to do at once.

  11. Name calling? Not my fault you can’t spell Ampanman! Not adding anything to the discussion? Maybe, but then you’d know all about that. Go ahead spike this comment too. Funny how you can dish it, but can’t take it, huh?
    Aceface: See what I mean about kindergarten name-calling without adding anything to the discussion?

    – A.

  12. Aceface said

    Have him around for a while so that I don’t have to go all the way to his site.Let’s see how well he reads.

  13. Mac said

    > female ‘Japan overseas correspondents’?

    Isabel Reynolds:

    Japanese told to deny massacre (15 December 2007 Japanese must spread the word that they committed no massacre at Nanjing – The usual Nanjing Denial Story).
    Boy band star shamed by arrest for indecency …

    I stopped looking for fear it was all going be more of the same.

    Honestly, I have never noticed any of these, nor female correspondents, which I thought strange as Japan is uniquely safe to have women journalists traipsing around on their own.

    Can you point us to any good article by the same? I am more ‘human interest’ than ‘financial’.

  14. ampontan said

    Seig is with Reuters. I took her to task here:

    And tossed her a bouquet here:

    Kaori Shoji writes (or used to) for the Japan Times. She does amusing columns on the Japanese language, and also movie reviews. I liked some of the former and usually read it (when I still read the JT), but didn’t read much of the latter because I do more reading than watching.

    Here’s something I did on one of her columns somewhere else.

  15. Adamu said

    Someone turn on the Ampontan-signal:

    It’s like a Japan-journalism Mad Lib.
    A growing number of (demographic) are turning to (wacky product or service) amid (indicator of economic decline). (Company that offers product or service – just one, please) saw orders rise (percentage) from a year earlier. The boom started when (tangentially related event) happened and took the (demographic) by storm. Since the (tangentially related event) was successful, this obviously underscores the surging popularity of (wacky product or service).

    I am sure more details can be found in the Reuters guide to attractive press releases. Because the media is so important to establishing credibility, it’s only in a company’s interest to try and generate positive coverage. And since journalists like anything that makes their job easier (who doesn’t?) we are all doomed to an endless parade of enticing-sounding press releases dressed up as information but actually designed to manipulate our buying habits.

  16. […] Why journalism is important […]

  17. New Years Resolution said

    Justin McCurry is back … well, he never left actually … but I mean recycling old tosh about Japan for Whitie.

    A re-run of the Soshokukei Danshi Ojo-man (そうしょくけいだんし or 草食系男子 … Herbivorous Lady-like Men) story by Maki Fukasawa and Megumi Ushikubo. A full, what, 3 or 4 years too late … since it first came out?

    I see the same story, and the same partyline, made into The Times of London a month before by Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo. So, unless he suffers from multiple-personality problems, they must drink in the same bar … or do they all sit around the FCCJ recycling the same stuff?

    The Guardian is a leftie paper. The Times is a bastion of the Right …. Same old crap about Japan.

    I am sorry, but I want better.

  18. pachiguy said

    Ah, Justin. I got tired of sending the Grauniad corrections to his errors. Much better to maul him directly.

    Best to read the excoriation of the NY Times journo first, but if you can’t be bothered, just cntrl + F for Justin.


  19. Roual Deetlefs said


    I grew up in South Africa during 1980’s at the height of apartheid. The misrepresentation of the violence of that era where every violent excess the ANC did was condoned, and nothing the National Party Government did was, is a verfiable fact. Read “Koevoet” by Jim Hoper. Here is a link.

  20. Roual Deetlefs said

    … and it seems Japan is facing a similar press treatment as the Afrikaners of Africa two decades ago. God help you, and your adopted country. First they mock, then they criticize, then they make demands, then they make war.

  21. mac said

    And just to prove that it is technically impossible for any Western Journalist to write an article about Japan without mention War, militarism or conformism etc … is it true that “Japan’s rise to economic superpower required absolute conformity”?

    Justin McCurry on anti-beardism in Japan …

    Japanese bureaucrats face up to the clean-cut look

    I must say, in this case I support the Japan ridiculers and this has to stop … but what is going on here!?! Who is ruling by invoking the modern disease of claiming to be offended? Let’s get to the facts.

    Now, personally, I am offended by clean-shaven, “grass-eating herbivore men” … I am offended by an army of conformist matching black suits and leather shoes … I am offended by middle aged busy-body managers & politically correct police … I am offended by young women who do not wear short skirts, revealing floaty tops and visible stockings (as is the street fashion these days) … what about my rights not to be offended!

    But … what with the H-U-G-E generalisation again!?! Japan … Japanese … ALL OF EVERY JAPANESE!!!

    Talk about typecasting.

  22. Mark Murata said

    Aceface (or anyone else who can answer this):

    I have been trying to verify that Armchair Asia is Mindy Kotler. How do you know that is true? And according to your message, she also goes by the name of Edith Cavell. Where does she use that name?

  23. yankdownunder said

    About Mindy Kotler

    Sorry Mark, I have no answers, only questions.

    “Mindy Kotler, an expert on the comfort-women issue …”
    This is from this article

    White House: Japan should do more to address ‘comfort women’ issue

    I never heard of her before. The imbecile reporter probably read something on her blog
    and decided she’s an expert because she shares his prejudices.

    Then I have a look at Ampontan, to see if there’s any news about what will happen to this site.
    And I see Mark’s comment and Aceface’s.

    Any info on Armchair Asia. Edith Cavil and/or Mindy Kotler would be appreciated.

  24. Mark Murata said

    I am actually writing an article that contains a section on her. I’ll post a link here when it’s done.

    Actually, since you replied to my comment, I am a little bit curious about you. I wouldn’t suppose you’d mind telling me a little bit about yourself…

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  26. Mark Murata said

    I finished writing my book which contains a section on Armchair Asia (Mindy Kotler). Here it is, in case you are interested:

    The section on Armchair Asia is in Chapter 4. The section is called “Same last name.”

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