Japan from the inside out

Letter bombs (20): The highest incarnation

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 23, 2011

READER Marellus sends in a tweet from Hiroko Tabuchi, whom the New York Times employs as a reporter in Tokyo:

So ironic that Japan voters, who support Kan’s nuclear phaseout, wallop him w/ low approval ratings, paving way for pro-nuke successor..

Apparently Ms. Tabuchi has too much irony in her diet.

Mr. Kan’s approval ratings are the second-lowest for a prime minister in modern Japanese history, by perhaps two or three percentage points. (They’re roughly 12% to 15% depending on the poll.) The current numbers for a nuclear power phaseout are slightly more than 60%, but they didn’t get that high until the Kan administration botched the cleanup. (They were much lower even a month after the nuclear accident.)

Knowing those facts, most people would draw the conclusion that seeing the last of Mr. Kan is a much higher priority for the Japanese public than phasing out nuclear power.

A reporter in Japan who paid attention to events in Japan — i.e., did his job — would remember that Mr. Kan’s ratings were already redlining in February, when talk of a no-confidence motion began circulating, and draw the same conclusion that much faster. That reporter would also remember Mr. Kan’s party being pumelled in local elections, chiefly because of extreme dissatisfaction with the national party’s behavior. He would have been an eyewitness to the ad hoc creation starting in March of a political science textbook titled, How Not to Handle a National Disaster. That would have been after he was an eyewitness to the national disaster that was the Kan government’s handling of the Chinese after the Senkakus incident.

A reporter in Japan who followed the tone of discussions among the Japanese themselves would know that the word commonly used to describe the behavior of the DPJ since 2009 is “betrayal”— and that’s by the moderates.

A reporter who understood something about human nature would realize that the current support for a nuclear phaseout is an emotional response, and will subside over time. That same reporter would recall that Mr. Kan clearly threatened to dissolve the Diet and use nuclear energy as the centerpiece of a single issue campaign — only to drop the idea when his support in the polls continued to fall.

Ah, but this isn’t most people or a reporter with an understanding of human nature who wears out the proverbial shoe leather. This is a New York Times reporter.

They’re special.

Paying attention or applying common sense to the beats they’re assigned to cover isn’t part of their job, no sir. They have more important things to do, such as ignore facts, promote their employers’ ideological agenda, and contemplate irony.

The best way to explain it is to borrow something H.L. Mencken wrote about university professors:

Consider [the pedagogue] in his highest incarnation: the university professor. What is his function? Simply to pass on…a body of so-called knowledge that is fragmentary, unimportant, and, in large part, untrue.

Substitute “journalist” for pedagogue and “New York Times reporter” for university professor, and by Jove, I think you’ll have it.

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7 Responses to “Letter bombs (20): The highest incarnation”

  1. Marellus said


    I’ve linked this article to her tweet from above, and the Thermometer article. Maybe she’ll respond, but I doubt it.

  2. Marellus said


    She responded via e-mail saying that she was never in New York, and then proceeded to block me on twitter. Oh well …
    M: Sounds to me as if she read what I wrote, and isn’t happy about it.

    Don’t know how one goes about blocking someone on Twitter, but…

    Just yesterday I was reading an interview with American journalist/author Seymour Hersh talking about the response of other journalists to his book called the Dark Side of Camelot, which suggested that JFK was a gold-plated creep. The same journalists loved him for his exposes about Vietnam, but when the exposes were about someone they had a man-crush on, they turned on him. Hersh said the people in his profession were “very petty”.

    – A.

  3. Marellus said


    Thanks. But I do believe that she will lurk here from now on.

    Oh, here are her messages :

    Such venom! Nothing you say changes the irony. What’s happening is inevitable but ironic. Next PM = likely more pro-nuke than Kan.
    Also, FYI.. I have never lived in NY. I have never lived in America! Please do some reporting before you make assumptions 😉

    And you might just get response from her when you criticize the New York Times, go for pro-nuclear-energy (please do. I like uranium stocks ), or write about the plight of unwed professional Japanese women. For instance this article :

    TOKYO — Junko Sakai was nervously looking forward to a romantic getaway with the man she’d been seeing. But when they arrived at a seaside hotel last fall, her beau requested separate rooms.

    Nothing is happening with depressing regularity between Japanese men and women these days. Marriages, births and hanky-panky are all spiraling downward with troubling implications for the nation’s future: A sagging birthrate means that fewer working-age people will be around to support a growing population of elderly; a social crisis looms.

    Only in Japan would a popular weekly newsmagazine deem it necessary to exhort the nation’s youth to abstain from sexual abstinence: “Young people, don’t hate sex,” AERA magazine pleaded last month in a report detailing a precarious drop in sales of condoms and in business at Japan’s rent-by-the-hour “love hotels.”

    Is this true, or is it sensationalism ?

    And later in the article :

    Over tea in the sunlit lobby of the Akasaka Prince Hotel near the Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo, and later over soba noodles and chicken yakatori at a nearby restaurant, Japanese writer and television personality Yoko Haruka describes the shortcomings of love and marriage Japanese-style. The husband works long hours and carouses into the night with his pals from work. The wife is expected to stay home, clean house and take care of kids. If the children behave badly, she’s a bad mother. If her husband has an affair, she’s a bad wife.

    The author of Kekkon Shimasen (I Won’t Get Married!), Haruka abandoned her own plans for marriage a decade ago when she realized her fiancé wanted her to give up her career and lead the traditional life of a Japanese housewife. She says Japanese men sometimes propose to women with lines like: “I want you to cook miso soup for me the rest of my life.” Not surprisingly, Japan’s increasingly educated and well-traveled young women are not impressed.

    If this is true, then I don’t think the husband should “do his part” at home. Is there legislation that permits only a 40-hour work-week, with generous overtime provisions ? Is it enforced ?

    I once read that during the Industrial Revolution England enacted similar laws, and gave birth to the leisure industry. The city of Blackpool being a prime example.

    And what do you make of this from her twitter feed :

    Naoko : Jpn articles always talk as if women expect men to be the primary breadwinner. Never about womens burden once married.
    Hiroko : I agree, and that perspective is EVERYWHERE – TV dramas, commercials, politicians’ speeches, policy… makes me mad

    And that was after this article from the Economist :

    Can marriage be revived in Asia? Maybe, if expectations of those roles of both sexes change; but shifting traditional attitudes is hard. Governments cannot legislate away popular prejudices. They can, though, encourage change. Relaxing divorce laws might, paradoxically, boost marriage. Women who now steer clear of wedlock might be more willing to tie the knot if they know it can be untied—not just because they can get out of the marriage if it doesn’t work, but also because their freedom to leave might keep their husbands on their toes. Family law should give divorced women a more generous share of the couple’s assets. Governments should also legislate to get employers to offer both maternal and paternal leave, and provide or subsidise child care. If taking on such expenses helped promote family life, it might reduce the burden on the state of looking after the old.

    Hasn’t these measures been enacted in the West with horrendous consequences ? You have 50% divorce rates, and a ridiculous number of children from single parent families. And in these single parent families, I believe the worst victims to be boys. Girls are easier to raise for single mothers than boys.

    Which might be the reason boys underperform at school as well.

    Forgive me. I’m ranting.

  4. Joe Jones said

    I have a couple of mutual friends with Tabuchi, and my understanding is that she went to school in England and has been in Tokyo for her entire journalistic career, which has included stints at the AP and Dow Jones (I believe) in addition to the NYT. She is primarily a business reporter (and a pretty damn good one in my opinion) and doesn’t generally cover politics. The NYT likes to leave that side of the reporting to fresh-off-the-boat New Yorkers who can’t even understand what’s going on first-hand. So I can understand why she clicked the close box on her browser as soon as she read the phrase “Ms. Tabuchi’s life in New York,” without getting into the meat of the argument. It makes the entire post look petty and poorly-researched.

    (For that matter, I think this blog would be more effective if it linked to source material more often. I sometimes wonder about the nuances of certain quotes in Japanese, for instance, but can’t find the original text for myself without a lot of manual research or reverse-translation guessing.)
    I don’t link to the source material in Japanese because it would make all the articles link heavy and require a caveat for each one so that people who don’t read Japanese won’t waste their time clicking on them. They are the people for whom I’m primarily writing. That slows everybody down.

    While the nature of doing this site requires translation on the fly, which means that not everything is pristine, I’ve been translating as a profession for more than 20 years, and have kept enough clients happy to build and pay off a house. There are plenty of examples here of stuff I do first that winds up in the English language press in a few days to keep any red pencil freaks occupied. So look over someone else’s shoulder.

    BTW, on one of the occasions I read the Mutant Frog website, someone there translated the name of the now-defunct magazine Shokun! as “Hey You!”
    I don’t think anyone from Mutant Frog has anything to say about the “nuances” of my translations.

    My rule of thumb for media sources is falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus, and the NYT has been deliberately falsus in one hell of a lot more cases than unum. Interesting that someone with a legal background would overlook that.

    It doesn’t make any difference if she’s writing about women’s lacrosse or cafe society — anyone who pays attention to Japanese language sources should realize that the content in this post is basic ABC stuff, rather than specialized knowledge. And business/financial journalists have to follow political news as part of their job.

    – A.

  5. Joe Jones said

    Amusing response. To be clear, I wasn’t criticizing your translation skills. I’m sure you get it right 99.9% of the time. I was simply suggesting that it would be nice to see the original Japanese from time to time so that those of us who CAN understand it can see the quote as it was originally intended to be read.

    Then you turned around and criticized the translation skills of one of my co-bloggers in one instance, as if it had something to do with my point. Whether or not we translate things perfectly, we generally show or cite what we’re translating, and generally apologize or make corrections when we get things wrong.

    As someone with a legal background I know that everyone is wrong a lot, with the notable exception of my wife. So that falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus rule doesn’t really work. As someone who was wrong about Tabuchi’s origins, you should be able to appreciate that. Don’t worry — it won’t stop me from reading your blog, just like that ridiculous marriage article won’t stop me from reading the Economist. It just implies a need for healthy skepticism and a realist perspective, which are both often lacking in the MSM (both inside and outside Japan).
    JJ: Thanks for the note.

    What, me worry?

    As for making corrections, the article in question on this site has already been corrected. Or are you implying that I don’t correct mistakes when someone points them out?

    You read the Economist, for as much as they get about Japan wrong? Oy! (To be fair, I used to have a subscription myself.)

    Somewhere recently I saw someone refer to it as the in-flight magazine for Davos man. That’s about right.

    As for errors, some entities make errors because they didn’t confirm what someone else said, such as the minor slip in this piece, and some entities make them on purpose. We both know which category the NYT falls in.

    Of course some of the NYT errors are from a lack of confirmation, but they are not minor slips, nor are they less excusable than those of the latter category.

    – A.

  6. ampontan said

    The “pretty damn good” Hiroko Tabuchi has just collaborated with Martin Fackler on a NYT piece titled, “In Visit to Japan, Biden Seeks to Inspire Recovery”.

    Well, that’s a pretty damn good start right there if the objective is to get people to laugh again.

  7. M-Bone said

    “Shokun!” as a title is really, really hard to translate, isn’t it? “Comrades!” is probably best, but that requires a 250 word footnote explaining how it was actually a rightwing (anti-communist) platform. “Gentlemen!” makes it sound like porn. “Brothers!” is a bit limp. It sorta means “Good Fellows!”… but that sounds dumb. I’ll give “Hey You!” some credit for effort.

    “Gentlemen!” makes it sound like porn.

    Speak for yourself (g). There’s also Gentlemen’s Quarterly, but that’s not political either. “Ladies and Gentlemen” doesn’t really work (though they also address female Diet members as -kun), too bland and too long, and it’s not used the same way.

    Gentlemen! has the advantage of being the most accurate of the possibilities, but then I’ve spent since 1990 in a profession where the choice is be accurate or don’t eat.

    The obvious solution is to not translate it all. Foreign-language titles of periodicals seldom are, and then only when it is of interest as a subject in itself, such as the translation of Pravda.

    No one translates the name of the Asahi Shimbun into English, for example.

    – A

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