Japan reporting, take III

Here’s another example of strange Japan reporting that is plopped into American newspapers every day. I have a suspicion that the American media has similarly rubbish standards for reporting on other “faraway” countries like Germany, but I know Japan, so let’s peer inside a Japan story.

Social-network gaffes plague Japanese politicians

When I open up a Japanese newspaper I am always happy to be treated to a broad span of news, which besides usual entertainment and sports, might include complex stuff like labor union negotiations, proposed law revisions, international affairs, etc. etc. The only American-produced mainstream source which I am aware of for this kind of stuff is the Wall Street Journal‘s excellent Japan Real Time blog. In today’s posts alone, the WSJ gives us both amusing sidebars, like “ McDonald’s Premium Burgers an Abenomics Indicator? “, and good indications of what’s going on in the country, like “Constitution Talk-Fest Draws a Crowd“. The coverage is brief but decent and I imagine one story every day could be chosen to run in a national print newspaper.

I have a Google News feed that gives me all the Japan-related stories in English. The WSJ stories appear to be limited to their blog and are not reprinted in any newspapers. Instead, newspapers across the country print tosh like the AP story linked above, a collection of recent gaffes made by random high and low officials in Japan (not even part of a single group, just completely unrelated people), which can not really be said to inform the reader about what is going on in the country.

Okay, whatever, it’s a bad story. But it’s bad in a really strange way, that as far as I can tell is part of an extremely consistent pattern with American reporting on Japan.

Let’s start off with the declared subject of the article. The reporter, Ms. Mari Yamaguchi, idly tosses out a few gaffes by other officials, but the core of the article is about the biggest fish of them all, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

One label that has drawn attention is the word ‘‘leftist,’’ which appears to be a catch-all term for liberals supportive of minority rights and pacifism, and who sometimes challenge conservative values.

The media and the political opposition are taking Abe to task for using the term too casually. Abe has also called former Prime Minister Naoto Kan a leftist, criticizing his civil activist background and relatively lenient stance toward North Korea.

Abe, who is known for his nationalist and hawkish views, complained in a recent Facebook entry about hecklers at a public rally. ‘‘A group of leftists came into the crowd, intensely trying to interfere with my speech by shouting into a loudspeaker and banging drums, full of hatred,’’ he wrote

‘‘Mr. Abe, what do you mean by ‘leftists?’’’ asked Hideo Matsushita, senior editor at the liberal-leaning Asahi newspaper, in a commentary published Sunday.

Many of the hundreds of comments attached to Abe’s Facebook entry expressed support for his remark, along with hatred of the political left, ethnic Koreans and China. But others questioned for using the word ‘‘leftists’’ to describe hecklers who were apparently opposing Abe’s plans to join a U.S.-led trans-Pacific trade bloc.

Matsushita said Abe showed a lack of respect for dissent and was fanning animosity toward Japan’s neighbors and ethnic minorities.

First of all, just to clear things up, I agree with the basic idea that Prime Minister Abe said something stupid on his Facebook, and that as a public statement, this is newsworthy.

Prime Minister Abe is trying to get Japan a seat at the TPP. The original signatories of the TPP include New Zealand and Singapore. America came on later. “U.S.-led” is not entirely wrong, but the idea for a Pacific Ocean free trade agreement came from “Japan’s neighbors”. It’s partially an Asian trade agreement and involves major players like Australia, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

Americans wouldn’t know that because American newspapers don’t report on the TPP for whatever reason. Is a trillion dollar trade agreement too boring for the chattering classes? A quick scan of Google News shows that American sources on the TPP are limited to Democracy Now, hidden corners of the Huffington Post, and a left-wing blog that thinks it’s a “secret Obama trade agreement that will trump national sovereignty“. Anyone who thinks the TPP is “secret” certainly hasn’t been reading Japanese news. Perhaps that jumbled reference I quoted above might be some American’s first introduction to the TPP! But enough about that.

Anyway, the TPP is an international agreement intending to make life good for Japan’s regional partners, but the article attempts to draw a conclusion for us, via “liberal-leaning” Asahi editor Matsushita, that “Abe showed a lack of respect for dissent and was fanning animosity toward Japan’s neighbors and ethnic minorities.” Except he didn’t say that. What he said was that he looked at the anonymous comments on the post and some of them were insulting Japan’s neighboring countries, i.e. Korea and China, and foreign Korean and Chinese residents in Japan. He vaguely implied that these people were rude because Abe’s post was rude, which may or may not be true, but he didn’t actually accuse Abe of being anti-foreigner; even for the Asahi Shinbun, that would be absurd, for reasons we will get to later.

So far, we’ve got the following information (and convenient omissions):

  1. Abe was speaking in support of “a U.S.-led trans-Pacific trade bloc” (that includes “Japan’s neighbors”).
  2. Abe called hecklers at this speech “leftists”.
  3. An Asahi Shinbun editor considered this an insult to “Japan’s neighbors and ethnic minorities” (except he didn’t, because that wouldn’t make sense).

Okay, the article is a little biased. But it’s not totally out of the bounds of a reporter’s license… yet.

Now, let’s take a little journey to the end of this mess.

Since taking office in December, Abe has mainly focused on the economy. But his wider agenda includes revising Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow a stronger military and building what he calls a “beautiful country” through patriotic education, traditional family values and respect for the emperor. Some critics say his plans harken back to the militaristic atmosphere prevailing before and during World War II.

The emergence of Hashimoto’s Japan Restoration Party and the Liberal Democrats’ victory in December elections is seen by many in Japan as a swing to the right that has been accompanied by verbal attacks on Japan’s sizable ethnic Korean minority both on the Internet and in street protests, where members of ultra-rightist groups have shouted threats like “Kill Koreans” and “Go back to Korea.”
Hundreds of thousands of Koreans comprise Japan’s largest ethnic minority group. Many are descendants of workers shipped to Japan during its 1910-1945 colonial rule of Korea. Decades later, they still face widespread discrimination in education, business and marriage.
Anti-Korean sentiments have prompted a group of lawmakers and experts to propose excluding “hate speech” from the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression.
“These problems underscore Japan’s lack of human rights awareness, and the world is raising its eyebrows,” said Kazuko Ito, a lawyer who heads Japan’s branch of Human Rights Now.

These few paragraphs, besides being a distortion beyond recognition of Japan’s past and present, don’t seem to have anything to do with “social-network gaffes plagu[ing] Japanese politicians”. It’s just a blatant editorial criticism of the Abe administration tacked on to the end of the article.

Much of the weasel wording in these paragraphs is self-evident, but I would like to draw special attention to the world’s shittiest summary of Prime Minister Abe’s national priorities in 2013: “Since taking office in December,” Ms. Yamaguchi begins, and then without warning explains what Abe’s agenda was several years before that: “building what he calls a ‘beautiful country'” — no, that was his objective when he took office in 2006 and was markedly more nationalistic — “through patriotic education” — again, this is from 2006, while his 2013 education agenda is focused on more mundane things like anti-bullying programs — “traditional family values” — this is a distortion even of his 2006 views — “and respect for the emperor” — again from 2006, and he has not mentioned this at all in the past six years. Much of the reporting on the 2012 election focused on how Abe had become much more moderate and economy-focused. You wouldn’t know that from this inexplicably angry summary. Are we sure this article wasn’t meant to be filed as an editorial?

Begging the reader’s forgiveness for stating the obvious multiple times, I will add some of the distortions in these last few lines to our dossier.

  1. Abe was speaking in support of “a U.S.-led trans-Pacific trade bloc” (that includes “Japan’s neighbors”).
  2. Abe called hecklers at this speech “leftists”.
  3. An Asahi Shinbun editor considered this an insult to “Japan’s neighbors and ethnic minorities” (except he didn’t, because that wouldn’t make sense).
  4. These gaffes are important because Abe’s reelection coincided with an alleged “swing to the right” (well, actually, it coincided with anti-Japanese riots in China that did immense physical and political damage to Japanese investments and joint ventures there, and the South Korean Prime Minister abruptly escalating Japan’s island dispute with Korea.).
  5. Abe’s reelection has been “accompanied” by an increase in “ultra-rightist groups” (it has also been accompanied by the announcement of the Xbox One, and tornadoes in Oklahoma. Ms. Yamaguchi provides no evidence to support her assertion that Abe is related to the ultra-right; this is in fact a ridiculous assertion, for an obvious reason which Ms. Yamaguchi knows and we are about to find out).
  6. Abe’s agenda includes “patriotic education, traditional family values and respect for the emperor” (except it doesn’t, at least not at present; these were his views before he resigned from office the first time in 2007).
  7. Finally, Koreans face “widespread discrimination” (because they don’t hold Japanese citizenship. America also discriminates between foreigners and citizens in matters of education, business, and marriage. Anyway, what does that have to do with gaffes, none of which were related to Koreans at all? How is this an appropriate ending to the article?)

Now we are starting to get somewhere. Finally, let’s return to that gaffe in point 2. Of course I have saved the best for last.

There is something very big missing from the core of this story. Actually, the WSJ’s Japan blog had a post on this same gaffe, and when we read that post we see something surprising:

“There are a lot of LDP supporters and conservatives who are in the anti-TPP camp. Does this mean he labels all his enemies leftists and friends rightists?” one wrote. “Have you forgotten that you helped 205 anti-TPP lawmakers win seats in the last elections?” another wrote.

Oh, oh yeah… Ms. Yamaguchi forgot to tell us that Abe’s own party has an anti-TPP contingent. She did tell us about random blog commenters making rude statements about foreigners, though. Great, thanks.

Ms. Yamaguchi complains that the word “leftist” (actually 左翼 “left-wing”) is “a catch-all term for liberals supportive of minority rights and pacifism, and who sometimes challenge conservative values”, but the entire problem with the gaffe is that members of Abe’s own center-right party are among the “leftists” he belittled. The short WSJ post informed us of this, but the nationally printed AP story, for whatever reason, did not. Yes, the major group that organizes protests of the TPP is the JA, Japan’s farmers and agricultural union, which is ever-so-slightly left wing. But the minor protesters of the TPP, besides yours truly, include an ultra-rig… hmmm… wait a minute…

Yes, the same ultra-right group that Ms. Yamaguchi hamfistedly attempted to tie to Abe was among the protesters he insulted.

Posted: June 19th, 2013 | Japan