The truth behind the international media’s disaster headlines

March 11 showed Japan’s good side, but revived stereotypes: The reality is more nuanced

In the days and weeks after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, the world was flooded with stories about the stoic and hardy Japanese people. Accepting the horrible lot dealt by Mother Nature, they were too polite to complain, lining up for blankets and rations at evacuation centers.

Bound tightly by the famous Japanese group spirit, survivors divided meager portions among themselves equitably. None of the unseemly scuffles for supplies one that one sees in “less refined” countries was observed.

Tsunami-hit communities were also safe from looting — no proper Japanese would even think of stealing from his or her countrymen when they were down.

At the same time, the feckless leaders of consensus-driven Japan were doing a terrible job at managing the crisis. Group-think, it was said, prevented Prime Minister Naoto Kan from leading effectively.

Notoriously opaque Japanese officials were also suppressing the true extent of the disaster at Fukushima — it was only from abroad that we could learn the “ghost town” that Tokyo had become was about to enter a nuclear nightmare.


Fox mistakenly identifies Tokyo rock club Eggman as the site of a nuclear power plant.

Then there were the inevitable comparisons of the selfless “Fukushima 50” with World War II kamikaze suicide squads, and of the tsunami zone to Hiroshima.

Reality or not?

Much of this was true, but only up to a point. There was looting, which partly explains why the government legally mandated a no-go zone around Fukushima. Worse, predators posing as volunteers stole from evacuees, requiring police to be posted at evacuation centers.

And there were disagreements among survivors — rows over where to rebuild are now getting in the way of reviving tsunami-hit towns.

With “Japan-passing” underway for a decade now, international media concerns parachuted in star reporters for a few days of “disaster vision” and then bailed to the next story.

Later on there was much penetrating reporting by Japan-based journalists. But the first few days mostly offered a clichéd portrait of an unchanging, stoic Japan that the nation is evolving away from.

Kan the revolutionary

The second Democratic prime minister, Kan, may be as gray a character as other recent leaders, but would the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which built Japan’s “nuclear village” and suppressed the Minamata mercury disaster, have promised the world transparency? Somehow, I doubt it.

Would an LDP prime minister have berated TEPCO, told Chubu Electric to shut down its Hamaoka plant, or foregone his own salary, as Kan did?

Kan made his reputation blowing the whistle on Japan’s HIV/hemophilia scandal over a decade ago, and is unusual as a prime minister not born to a political dynasty.

Under-reported by the international media, this represents real political evolution and is why the opposition is now gunning for him.

Stories about Japanese jishuku — self-restraint — also filled the airwaves. Group-think dictated that all of Japan was to forgo pleasure to express solidarity for those suffering up north.

Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara even tried to call off Japan’s famous springtime cherry blossom viewing festivities.

“Predators posing as volunteers stole from evacuees, requiring police to be posted”

And yet, when I went to Yoyogi Park in “devastated” Tokyo a few weeks after the quake, the place was filled with party folk thumbing their noses at the old coot, who everyone knew was relaxing with a brandy on his yacht anyway. Probably.

Social pressure

As much of the international media missed Japan’s evolution toward a more individualistic and outspoken society, it also swept the negative points of lingering group-think under the rug.

It’s easy to ignore collective social pressures that produce one of the world’s highest suicide rates when you don’t experience them yourself.

Where were the stories about the harassment that Fukushima schoolchildren were being subjected to by kids at the new schools they evacuated to far from their homes? No room for this in the news cycle.

Such stories may not chime with the 24/7 narrative, but that makes them no less real, if forgotten as the disaster junkies move on to their next ratings bonanza.

Some journalists moved away from the news in Tohoku (aren’t reporters supposed to go to the story?). Others created a secondary disaster, compounding the quake damage by driving people away from Japan with their hyperventilating headlines.

Next time I view the media’s depictions of other countries struck by disaster, I’ll take them with a grain of salt. I’ll also take this as a warning to avoid stock clichés and easy stereotypes in my own writing.

Does J-pop Suck? Or, why music isn’t a universal language

Metropolis “Last Word,” November 25, 2010

Illustration by Phil Couzens

Coming second only to teeth sucking, J-pop is the one aspect of Japanese culture that Westerners love to hate. And let’s be honest, there are plenty of good reasons to loathe it: the talentless tarento, the excruciating English, and the indentured servitude of artists and gangland connections that characterize the industry, to name just a few.

But does the music itself really suck? I’ve long felt there was something else going on. In fact, a better question might be: why does J-pop grate so much on Western ears? I suspect one reason J-pop irritates people is that,superficially, it resembles Western pop. It’s got the sampled beats and synth lines we’re accustomed to, as well as familiar production
And yet it’s all somehowwrong. J-pop relentlessly confounds our expectations.
Melodies seem to start off in the same spot as in Western pop, but invariably
end somewhere we didn’t expect, making us feel that a promise to speak
our musical language has been betrayed. The contours are different: they’re
based not on the major or minor but on pentatonic scales, and there’s no bluenote. What’s more, the thin vocal timbres that seem so pleasing to the locals prove
insufferable to Westerners raised on the full-throated likes of Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé.

Recent research detailed in books like Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct suggests
that, as with language, people acquire a sense of musical “syntax” at a very young age, creating neural pathways that soon become entrenched. This can make
it as difficult for adults to “get” foreign music as it is to learn a foreign language.
Since the frame of reference for J-pop is its Western trappings, we’re predisposed
to judge it by Western standards. But maybe that’s a mistake: rather than a
poor imitation of “our” pop music, J-pop may well be different at a more basic
musical level.

One clue is that East Asians, who share a common musical heritage with
Japan, appear predisposed to like it. Ayumi Hamasaki can fill stadiums in China
but registers not even a blip in the Americas or Europe. J-pop stars like Hikaru Utada
who have tried to make it in the West fall flat even with English-language albums.
On the other hand, the bands that succeed in the West are often exotic or
seemingly so, be it the Kodo drummers or Boredoms. The “problem” with J-pop is
that it’s too close to Western music to be exoticized, making the differences grate all the more.
While “Cool Japan” continues to sell well in Western countries, its successes
have mainly been in the visual realm: anime, cosplay, art, butoh, and
so on. Visual “language” appears to be far more universally
accessible, and a musical equivalent to the overseas success of Takeshi Murakami and Hayao Miyazaki, or even a reprise of Kyu Sakamoto’s 1963 US number one “Sukiyaki,”
may be some time coming.

The further away a nation is culturally, the more difficult it is to learn its language or enjoy its music. The West’s encounter with Asian music is recent, and like Asian tongues, it’s difficult to get to grips with. I’ve been here long enough to learn a fair bit of Japanese,
and even come to enjoy a smattering of J-pop (note: there’s a lot of other Japanese
music I like), but I’ll probably never “get” either like the natives do.

All of which brings me back to that original question: does J-pop actually suck? Well, the Japanese music industry might, but whether the actual music does is a more problematic
issue. Your answer may say more about you, where you come from and whether you
believe objective standards can be applied to culture, than the quality of the music itself.