Japan’s Hate Speech Problem: Part II

It is June 2012 and I’m sitting at the head table with Yoshimitsu Kaji, Director of Global Communications in the Prime Minister’s Office, as he is about to address a group of corporate communications professionals about managing Japan’s image and reputation.  His speech is engaging and at the end he asks if he might present a short film called “Lights of Japan” that was shown at the World Economic Forum’s “Japan Night” in February 2012.

The film brought tears to my eyes.  We were an audience of Japanophiles and “Lights of Japan,” which wasn’t then available on YouTube, presented an image of Japan, the victim on 3/11, as a nation that would rise above its victimhood in the post-3/11 era.  It would be a stronger and brighter nation of common good and purpose, a model for the rest of the world.

That may be a premature assessment.

In spring 2013, just over a year after “Lights of Japan” premiered in Davos, Switzerland, another video emerged that was dark and despicable.  It went viral in America and around the world.  It was the image of a middle-school age Japanese girl in a Korean ward of Osaka, Ikuno-ku. It has since been removed by YouTube due to hate speech regulations, which is why you get the following picture:

Japan, the world’s third largest economy, is like any other rich nation that is obsessed with its outward image in the world.  It is also like no other rich nation obsessed with such an image because this is, after all, Japan, and it doesn’t seem to be working too hard to change its image.

Now consider a regional neighbor, sometimes rival, and Japan’s largest trading partner.  China, the world’s second largest economy, is working day and night to promote an image of dogoodedness, despite its poor human rights records, lack of free speech and dissent, and deplorable labor conditions.  I lived in Beijing, China in the months before the 2008 Olympics and I was consulted with regularly about how China could better manage its media relations and image with foreign press.

When you visit Japan, you realize that, though modern and convenient, it is not a globalizing nation.  It is not diverse.  It prides itself on its unique culture—a truly remarkable culture at that—but nevertheless, its public diplomacy (nation branding) seems stagnant.

Japan’s public diplomacy focuses primarily on what the world already knows, not what we have questions about.  We know that Japan is polite, hospitable, safe, orderly, and that public crime is very low.  Japan has a lot of conbini (convenience stores) and vending machines on practically every street corner.  The trains are comfortable and run precisely.  There is a fascinating mix of the old and new for the eyes to marvel, such as a 400-year-old temple next to a new apartment building.  We marvel at Japan’s technological supremacy from Toto toilet to Shinkansen bullet train.  There are kawaii (cute) pop groups here like AKB48, manga and anime galore.  What’s not to like?  It seems, well, almost perfect here.

But of course, every picture of a place tells different stories.  The United States is friendly, outgoing, energetic, diverse, full of its own conveniences such as a Starbucks or McDonald’s on every corner.  (We’ll debate the Fast Food Nation another time.)  We are also a nation of polarizing divisions in race, politics, and gender.  We have high crime.  We are not safe walking the streets at night.  We are not a nation united.  One court decision in Florida can put thousands on the street with cries for justice.  But in our chaos, our public diplomacy is more revealing than that of Japan: The U.S. recognizes that it is a “warts and all” nation.  Take it or leave it is often our approach to public diplomacy.  We know that the global media will tell who we really are to the world anyway and so we often take the initiative to do it first.  It’s why Edward R. Murrow at the United States Information Agency would talk about America’s race relations in speeches he gave during the Kennedy years.  He knew that the Soviet Union was making hay of our civil rights record and treatment of African Americans and so he addressed the problem in a straightforward manner.

No nation can maintain a strong and positive image in the world if it avoids the obvious.  The obvious in Japan is a nation that is struggling with division between the majority Japanese with its minorities.  It is an imperfect nation, like all nations.  Hate speech is tolerated by the government, though many Japanese find it intolerable.  They are just hoping that it goes away and doesn’t get worse.  Maybe they are also hoping that the elections will quash the issue.  But a big win for Prime Minister Abe’s LDP party won’t diminish the issue.  It may in fact embolden the hate groups.

So far there have been hundreds protesting ethnic minorities in Japan, spewing their cries for Chinese and Koreans to die or leave the country immediately.  This is in a Greater Tokyo metro area of over 35 million.  It may seem like a minor problem that one can just brush away with a few strokes of a broom.  But in the age of the Internet, the YouTube effect dominates.  A few people marching in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo (Korean area) amplifies to a cast of thousands when their shouts are rebroadcast for the net.  The Net Effect is that one middle age schoolgirl’s vitriol is perceived as a choir of children with like-minded feelings.

Japan, the global public is watching and listening.  The pictures that we see online may distort the truth but if you want to explain yourself, then you must address the “warts and all” issues like treatment of minorities.  When you explain them, you may find that the world’s people relate more to a less than perfect image of your nation.


The Economic Brand War Between Japan and China

A major conflict between the region’s two largest economies would not only impose a harsh dilemma on U.S. diplomats, but also have a significant impact on the entire global economy. It is in every nation’s best interest that the Chinese and Japanese settle their territorial dispute peacefully. (OnlineMBA.com)

Japan: Much Love and Thanks

I cannot believe that our semester together at Sophia University is coming to an end.  I very much look forward to your final papers.  As you know, they are due Wednesday, August 1, 2012.  I’ve asked you to create something new out of your imagination.  Your paper is a blueprint for your own self-designed organization to tell America’s cultural story to the world.  (In the politics and policy class, you must tell America’s foreign policy story to the world.)

I am making you the architect, the visionary, and CEO of this new agency.  What is your main theme? What organizational divisions will you have, e.g., exchanges, international broadcasting, arts, online?  How is it different from the way I describe the United States Information Agency in Propaganda, Inc.?  Would you include celebrities in your public diplomacy?  Why or why not?

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with you these past three months.  The time flew by, as it always does when one is having a ball, as I have been.  I love your culture, your manners, and your commitment to learning.  I hope that some of you will consider study abroad in the United States.  I hope you all will never stop learning.  I am your sensei, but always your student, as there is so much left for me to learn about Japan, its politics, culture, people, and yes, as “Lights of Japan” put it, its resilience.  Our time together has inspired me to learn some Japanese.  I’ll never reach a level of fluency but I plan to learn enough Japanese to show my respect for your culture.  (I’ve already ordered flash cards and three books!)

I don’t wish to get too overly sentimental about what this time together has meant to my life.  Why don’t I have Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders explain what I mean.  Thank you for helping to show me the meaning of the word.

Tokyo Waka: A City Poem

  Tokyo Waka: A City Poem

The following text is from a movie review by J.P. Devine for The Morning Sentinel
Tokyo, Japan, and the surrounding cities in this year of 2012 truly have to be seen to be believed.

It is a futuristic lightning bolt, a city of glass and light, colors, real and imagined, sounds and smells that seem to be a Ray Bradbury sweet dream. It is at once a crystal ball that shows the future and a complex city that embraces and honors the past — and prepares to take it and package it up for a flight to outer space.

Tokyo is the epitome of cool.

Does a film about crows against the backdrop of Tokyo interest you?  Can such a film be good for Japan’s rebranding after 3.11?

Japan Falling Out of Love with America

Well the truth is out.  The U.S. is no longer “cool” to many Japanese.  The Japanese language newspaper, Tokyo Shimbun, reported these conclusions in a late May edition.  The following is an English translation of the original article that was sent to me by Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer Sara Harriger of the US Embassy Japan.  Sara will speak in our American Culture class on July 11, 2012.  The article quotes my friend, Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University, whom I like to call the “Joseph Nye” of Japan.  Nye is the originator of the concept of soft power.

I believe that the U.S. materialism and consumerist model is losing appeal in a post-3.11 Japan.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own ancestry that includes American Indian Mohawk and Creek tribes.  The Native American philosophy is counter to modern American values of waste and excess.  As the former advertising executive and author Jerry Mander points out here, the Judeo-Christian model of culture has a lack of sustainability built into it that competes with the models offered by Indians:

Judeo–Christian religions are a model of hierarchical structure: one God above all, certain humans above other humans, and humans over nature. Political and economic systems are similarly arranged: Organized along rigid hierarchical lines, all of nature’s resources are regarded only in terms of how they serve the one god–the god of growth and expansion. In this way, all of these systems are missionary; they are into dominance. And through their mutual collusion, they form a seamless web around our lives. They are the creators and enforcers of our beliefs. We live inside these forms, are imbued with them, and they justify our behaviors. In turn, we believe in their viability and superiority largely because they prove effective: They bring us power.

But is power the ultimate evolutionary value? We shall see. The results are not yet in. Survival of the fittest as a standard of measure may require a much longer time scale than the scant 200 years’ existence of the United States or the century since the industrial revolution or the two decades since the advent of high technology. Even in Darwinian terms, most species become unfit over tens of thousands of years. Our culture is using its machinery to drive species into extinction in one generation, not because the species are maladaptive but because pure force wins out. However, there is reason to doubt the ultimate success of our behavior. In the end, a model closer to that of the Indians, living lightly on the planet, observing its natural rules and modes of organization, may prove more fit and may survive us after all. Until that day, however, we will continue to use Darwinian theories to support the assertion that our mechanistic victory over the primitives is not only God’s plan but nature’s.

Have you lost interest in the American culture? Is America more uncool than cool?

Japanese losing interest in U.S. culture Tokyo Shimbun
May 21, 2012, pp. 24, 25
By Yasuyuki Oguri

A shift away from American culture is taking place in Japan. Hollywood movies are no longer popular. American music is not creating any sensations and there has been a sharp decline in the number of students going to the U.S. to study. The U.S.’s “soft power” in Japan has weakened and experts point out that this has never happened before in history. Why has American culture stopped reaching the Japanese people?

Film journalist Hiroo Otaka points out: “American movies are not selling at all. They are doing particularly poorly this year. Not one movie has grossed over 2 billion yen, which is the benchmark for a blockbuster. This has never happened before. Japanese people even think that American movies are uncool these days.”

In the past, there were times when the list of the top grossing films consisted only of American movies. It can be said that the era when the term “movie” basically referred only to Hollywood movies has definitely ended.

Japanese movies have been doing better than foreign movies (also including movies from countries other than the U.S.) at the box office. Proceeds from Japanese films made up 53.6% of total box office revenues in 2010, with foreign films contributing 46.3%. In 2011, the ratio was 54.9% Japanese and 45.1% foreign. Otaka predicts that the gap “will grow wider” in 2012. Films from the “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” series were certainly big hits, but overall, foreign movies have performed poorly at the box office.

There are a variety of reasons for this. Japanese movies produced by the TV stations can count on a lot of publicity through TV programs. Right now, there are also no Hollywood stars who are immensely popular. Otaka also says that “people are tired of entertainment-oriented American films that tend to feature spectacular special effects or fighting scenes.”

This situation is not only true for movies. The same goes for the music world. Compared to the period up to the 1980s, when every new song released by Madonna or Michael Jackson became an instant megahit, “made in the U.S.A.” has long lost its former allure.

According to data from the Recording Industry Association of Japan, in 2002, total production of CDs and other audio recording media consisted of 75% Japanese music and 25% foreign music. Last year, the ratio was 82% Japanese and 18% foreign. Lady Gaga, who was awarded the “Japan Gold Disc Award Artist of the Year” for foreign artists for two consecutive years, is just about the only foreign artist left who is really successful in Japan. It is therefore understandable that foreign music sections in CD shops, which were dominated mostly by American music until recently, have now been driven into a corner by Japanese pop music and other genres.

Keio University Professor (of American literature) Takayuki Tatsumi says that American novels are doing even worse. “Mystery novels and other popular literature are still doing okay, but serious American literature is not selling. For example, heroes like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and J.D. Salinger used to be very popular. There are no writers like that anymore.”

Sharp drop in students going to study in the U.S.

The decline in the number of students going to study in the U.S. has continued unabated. Tatsumi points out that “even students majoring in American literature are not eager to go to the U.S. to study.” According to a U.S. research institute, the number of students going to the U.S. had stayed flat at about 45,000 until the second half of the 1990s, but this has dropped to 24,000 at present. While the declining birth rate and deteriorating economic conditions are certainly contributing factors, the desire to go to the U.S. is still weak. Even in terms of the nationality of foreign students studying in the U.S., Japan has been overtaken by China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries.

Of course Apple products are selling like hot cakes and technology originating from the U.S., such as Google and Facebook, is very popular. Still, “the status of American culture, which has consistently been popular in Japan” in the postwar period, “has declined unmistakably,” according to Tatsumi.

Popularity unchanged in China, other countries

Is this phenomenon also occurring in countries moving toward economic development? According to Otaka, Hollywood movies remain very popular in China and Russia.

Why have the Japanese shifted away from American culture?

Commentator Saburo Kawamoto offers the analysis that the main reason is that “the Japanese people have changed.”

“The Japanese sense of value has changed particularly after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. They have come to have doubts and abhor the American society of competition and materialism. The Japanese people are now moving toward a more moderate direction.”

Soon after World War II when Japan was still poor, big houses and cars and large refrigerators stocked with plenty of food used to fascinate the Japanese, and this partly explained the popularity of American culture. Kawamoto thinks that the Japanese are beginning to feel that such material affluence is not the most important value.

He has a harsh opinion of American films. “Since Hollywood targets the world market, it sacrifices quality. They are so childish and not suitable for viewing by Japanese adults.”

Professor Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University’s Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, author of “Bunka to Gaiko [Culture and Diplomacy]” and several other books who is an expert on the U.S.’s soft power, stresses that “the Japanese are no longer that fascinated with America and this has never happened before after Japan opened itself up to the outside world, except for a short period during World War II.”

Wars, disparity undermine the U.S.’s image

Soft power refers to a country’s appeal and influence not through its military or economic power but through its values, culture, and so forth. “U.S. soft power” is declining in Japan.

It used to be that not only the bright side of America, such as its technology, democracy, and equal relationships between husbands and wives, but even its counterculture, such as the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, fascinated the Japanese. However, one event after another eventually gave the Japanese a negative image of the U.S. American “arbitrariness,” as manifested in the Iraq War, for instance, the disparity between rich and poor, the Lehman Shock, and so forth made the Japanese “think twice about regarding the U.S. as its model,” observes Watanabe.

He emphasizes, however, that the decline of soft power or the weakening of the “fascination” “does not mean that the bilateral relationship will go awry.”

It is hard to imagine the Japanese turning away rapidly from the U.S. in terms of economic ties or the security relationship. As a matter of fact, the Cabinet Office’s survey shows that the Japanese people retain strong positive feelings for the American people. As a result of “Operation Tomodachi” after the quake disaster last year, a record high of 82% said they had a “feeling of affinity” toward the Americans. It appears that the Japanese are unlikely to come to dislike America.

Kawamoto suggests that the phenomenon of Japanese shifting away from American culture may indicate that they have stopped looking at the U.S. as a model or viewing it with fascination, but have come to think of the bilateral relationship “as a natural relationship like the U.S.-UK relationship.” He goes on to say: “This may also signify that the Japanese people are in the process of searching for new values that are different from American-style material affluence.”

Pandamonium 2012: From China to Japan

Shin Shin with cub

I cannot disguise my excitement with the birth of the Giant Panda cub born this week at Ueno Zoo.  The new cub, whose sex is still unknown, was born to the very happy (well, let’s assume) parents, Shin Shin, the momma, and Ri Ri, the papa.  Now let’s think about this event from both a political and cultural perspective.  I first jumped to the conclusion that the Chinese government would want us to reach.  A Chinese spokesperson said, “The giant pandas are messengers of friendship. We hope that people-to-people sentiment and overall relations between China and Japan can be promoted because of the birth of the cub.” My immediate reaction was an enthusiastic yes.  Further, Shin Shin and Ri Ri were delivered to Tokyo just one month before 3.11.  What a powerful symbol of Japan’s renewal and rebirth with the first Giant Panda cub born at Ueno Zoo since 1988.  I do know that this birth will be a crowd pleaser and a tourist boon for Tokyo.

Ri Ri, new papa

On the other hand, when I use my more jaundiced political eye, this birth marks yet another achievement for China in its worldwide program of Rent-a-Panda.  According to my professor friend Gary Rawnsley of the University of Leeds, these panda “gifts” come at a high price, especially after cubs are born.  Dr. Rawnsley says that to rent a panda it costs a zoo up to 1 million dollars per Giant Panda and $500,000 for any cubs born to the rented pandas which automatically belong to China + the infrastructure costs. He adds, “It is a very expensive message of friendship.”  That said, Gary quickly realized my great enthusiasm for the birth of the baby cub and he added to my Facebook wall: “But they are still cute, and I still queued to see the pandas in Taipei zoo the last time I was there :).”

So do you have pandamonium?  Would you stand in a long line to congratulate the new parents?

The Busy Trap: Here and Everywhere

Slow down, you move too fast.

I hope you aren’t too busy to read this latest post.  I recall sometime this year that my landlady in California said that I’m the busiest person she knows.  Wow, I thought, that must mean I’m doing something important.  On second thought, it could have meant that I’m like many Americans, including herself, who is preoccupied with, well occupations.  We’re too busy to care, too busy to bother, too busy to matter, too busy to know that we’re too busy.  Get the picture?

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Tim Kreider, The Busy Trap, New York Times

Do you feel like you are too busy?  Knowing your life as a full-time student, I would imagine that you must feel too busy.  How do you find time for yourself?  In an educational setting where the brain is on overdrive, we must take time to stop and enjoy the hollyhocks or just listen to the sage advice of Simon and Garfunkel or Mac Davis.  Now go grab that cup of matcha latte and relax.

For Love of Humans and Cats

This is such a sweet story about Japanese-American Dale Araki and his wife Shoko.  The couple have a strong attachment to each other and to their cats, Suki and Yaki.  They also give some great life lessons about surviving and thriving in a cross-cultural relationship:

What is intercultural marriage to you?

Dale: It’s like double-mint gum. You double your pleasure, you double your fun, there’s also double misunderstanding!  On the positive side, you double everything.          

Shoko: That makes life richer. Another good point is — if we were both Japanese, I might have thought, “No, I can’t continue the relationship anymore,” but in an intercultural marriage, I can think like “Misunderstanding occurs because of cultural factors, not because of one’s character.” A concept such as “kuuki o yomu” (literally, “read the air”) exists only in Japanese culture. A relationship won’t work out if you think of trying to make yourself understood without saying anything. You have to speak up and express yourself in words.                                        

Dale: We’re like a reference to our former students who get married to foreigners. When I ask my students what they think of intercultural marriage, they say things like “It’s fun” and “gaijins are more romantic.” But it’s not for everyone. It requires a lot of work, understanding, more patience, sense of humor — to really make it work.

Of course when I read about Dale, Shoko, Suki and Yaki, I thought of one of my favorite songs growing up: “Sukiyaki” by A Taste of Honey.  I did not know that the American Sukiyaki song was based on the Japanese original, Sukiyaki, which was sung by Kyu Sakamoto under the title “Ue o Muite Aruko” (I will walk looking up).  If you watch the Sakamoto video, you will see that it is anything but glamorous.  He is walking in a very industrial setting.  As my historian friend, Yuko Konno, explained to me in an email:  “As you can see in the video of ‘Sukiyaki,’ there’s a working-class theme here.  This was a time when Japan was experiencing rapid economic growth supported by cheap labor from rural areas.  Sakamoto’s songs appealed to these lonely young men and women.  His songs are both sad and forward-looking — sad because of loneliness, hard work, and simply the pain of living, and yet forward-looking because (I assume) Japan’s economy was doing well.”  Well put, Konno-sensei!

Oh, and as a cat lover, I couldn’t resist buying a little substitute cat.