Jun on Onishi

Jun Okumura, at his blog, has a long five-part series deconstructing NYT Japan correspondent Norimitsu Onishi’s recent article Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 (Coda)

Jun’s conclusions are, in short, that there were sufficient reasons other than his burakumin background to keep Nonaka Hiromu from the premiership, and that being of burakumin background in Japan’s parliamentary system is not as serious an impediment to advancement as being black (or presumably some other minority) has been in America’s presidential system. He makes a good case for both of these points, particularly his detailed explanation of Nonaka’s resume. And note what he is NOT saying. Jun does not argue that having a dowa (burakumin) background is NOT generally an impediment to advanvement, and he also isn’t arguing necessarily that Nonaka’s background wasn’t a factor in stifling his ascent. He is merely providing alternate, equally plausible explanations, and arguing that Onishi is jumping to conclusions in such a way as to exaggerate the contemporary importance of burakumin discrimination. But accepting that Jun’s substantial criticism and correction of Onishi’s article is at least substantially correct, I am still left wondering how much of a problem is this for the original reporting?

I sometimes feel that people are overly harsh on Norimitsu Onishi. Yes, many of the criticisms aimed at his reporting are accurate, but I think the “anti-Japanese” label often tossed around is insulting and inaccurate. Being critical of Japan (or any country) is hardly the same as being “anti” Japan, as long as the writer understands the difference between criticism and attack. And not just insulting to him, but to other people who care about the various issues he likes to cover. Of course it is also worth pointing out his biases, inaccuracies, and omissions in the manner that Jun Okumura did.

Bias in a foreign correspondent like Mr. Onishi is not inherently bad, if the primary influence that this bias has is on his choice of story, as long as the content within any given story is given the proper context and balance. Onishi clearly has a bias towards stories relating to the various types of underdogs in Japan, including ethnic (or perhaps quasi-ethnic in the case of Burakumin) minorities, rural poor, etc. and I think that to a certain extent his reporting does a good service in introducing these internationally little-known topics to the Times readership. For example, Time Magazine has had only two articles on the dowa problem, one in 1973 and one in 2001. The NYT has had quite a few more over the years, particularly in the mid 90s when Nicholas Kristof had what is now Onishi’s job. (Kristof, whose bias in selecting stories is at least a bit similar to Onishi, or for that matter myself, as a reporter columnist now concentrates more on child slavery.)

It definitely seems that Onishi’s stories are on topics the NYT editors and readers crave, and his stories are also on topics of real substance, and not the “wacky Japan” reportage that seems to be almost all that comes out of popular Western media outlets on this country. But a story on a well-chosen topic can of course still be flawed. Jun Okumura makes a good case that this one in particular is flawed, and you can find plenty of other criticism of Onishi online (although you may have a hard time finding similarly reasonable examples amid the sea of vitriol and bizarre accusations of being a secret Japan-hating Korean). This sort of criticism is an essential part of the new media landscape, in which blogs and other outlets police the competence and honesty of the mainstream media (and of course, each other) in the same way that the fourth estate it itself supposed to police the other institutions of society (the first through third estates, one supposes).

But I am also left with one lingering concern. Even if this criticism is accurate, how fair is it? Norimitsu Onishi certainly is not doing a perfect job, but is his work more or less flawed than similar foreign correspondents in other countries? Does a typical Times correspondent in Africa suffer the same level of criticism from Africa hands that Onishi does from Japan hands in America? I must admit I don’t pay much attention at all to coverage of the US in the Japanese media (although perhaps I should) but I certainly run across plenty of BBC stories on US culture or politics that strike me as substantially correct in some areas, but oddly twisted or lacking in much the same way that Onishi is being criticized here. And this is for a nearby country speaking the same language. I can only imagine how comically bad Russians or Brazilians consider American, or say Japanese, coverage of their country is. How good, really, is any foreign correspondence when limited to dispatches of 750-2000 words for an audience expected to have almost no background knowledge on the subject? In fora such as Jun’s blog or this one readers can safely be assumed to be bringing quite a lot more background information to the table than in a newspaper, and that may at times lead us to view mainstream media work in a worse light then they actually deserve. Of course they do sometimes deserve it. Actual errors or deliberate misdirection cannot be excused or relativized away and should always be pointed out when they occur, but let’s at least think a little more about how much of the problem is found in any particular reporter and how much is inherent in the whole institution.

48 thoughts on “Jun on Onishi”

  1. My major problem with Onishi is what seems like a complete lack of creativity. He writes like a very average Japanese lefty. Adds nothing and takes nothing away. He writes in a cookie cutter pattern.

    In presenting this to an American audience in pieces that are often laced with lame America comparisons, I think that Onishi opens himself up to accusations of serving the intellectual equivalent of comfort food.

    While Onishi cannot be given sole blame for this, the Buraku article begs the question – when Nonaka was rising fast through the LDP and African Americans were languishing in their parties (have there really only been four African Americans elected to the senate since 1945!?) where was the article suggesting that America needs to get its %@$* together? Why do we only get the comparison when America starts to look rosy? What about Ainu in the Diet or any number of other issues?

    Instead we get this –

    “If the United States, the yardstick for Japan, could elect a black president, could there be a buraku prime minister here?”

    So why is the US, given the massive problems that the African American population faces inside and outside of politics, the yardstick for Japan?

    And where is the article concerning how well the Japanese government has done by Buraku communities in areas like infrastructure spending and health?

    Compared to this –

    When we see Japanese articles that knock Korea or other countries in areas in which Japan also deserves criticism, we rightly throw around words like rightwing and schadenfreude. I have a hard time seeing how Onishi’s reporting in this instance is really any different. He’s not a rightwinger, but he is feeding a nasty tendency shared by “Dogs and Demons” and other works – criticisms of Japan that would be appropriate if contextualized, turn into something like a nice foot massage for the US chattering classes.

    Being familiar with the news environments in Japan and non-US English speaking countries, I’m often bothered by how little self-critical comparison is seen in the US media. There has been a bit on guns, a bit on socialized healthcare (but attacks on other countries have been just as common in these areas), but why are there 100 Japanese articles about the advantages of the Finnish education system for every one that pops up in the USA, a country that by nearly all reports has the most broken education system in the developed world? Onishi didn’t start the problem, but he isn’t part of the solution.

  2. “In fora such as Jun’s blog or this one readers can safely be assumed to be bringing quite a lot more background information to the table than in a newspaper, and that may at times lead us to view mainstream media work in a worse light then they actually deserve.”

    This is a good point. I think it’s important to ask what _kind_ of background readers are bringing, whether here or to The New York Times. Though Mutantfrog or Jun’s readers are far less likely to have Japanese national pride-based biases, they may also tend to have unusually high concerns about how U.S. readers view Japan.

    Then there’s the extra knowledge. As a journalist and as a student, I have discovered that the more you study a particular topic, the more frustrating reporting on that topic becomes.

  3. You may have noticed, Rana, that I’ve softened my criticism of Onishi somewhat. I’ve come to believe that the reality-bending in Onishi’s reporting (to which I have given credit where I felt it to be due) is the consequence of his personal demons and not some borrowed left-wing ideological agenda. I’ve also posted on the awful state of the BBC web site.

    Having said that, there are competent mass media outlets such as The Economist and the wire services (at least in regard to Japan) who have done an admirable job. Is it then too much to expect someone who publishes maybe one report a week with the help of at least one research assistant to explore some of the views and realities on the wrong side of his personal agenda?

  4. I’m curious now, how do you (those commenting above any others) find Norimitsu Onishi’s reporting in comparison with other former NYT correspondents such as Howard French or Nicholas Kristof? I must admit that I’m a fan of Kristof generally, but I haven’t read much of his Japan writing since it dates from before I cared, and isn’t as noteworthy as his earlier China reporting.

    “when Nonaka was rising fast through the LDP and African Americans were languishing in their parties (have there really only been four African Americans elected to the senate since 1945!?) where was the article suggesting that America needs to get its %@$* together?”
    I assume you mean an article based on Nonaka as a positive example? I’m not aware of any but it would be a good project to check and see if there was. I’m sure, however, that the NYT has had no shortage of articles bemoaning the lack of African Americans in the Senate.

    I must say, despite all the flak I’m sure it would draw I would happily take Onishi’s job starting tomorrow. Or perhaps even that of his research assistant.

  5. Even if Onishi does have personal hangups that explain his pattern of reportage he still relies on Japanese leftist writing for all of his ideas and commits the ultimate journalistic sin of basically ripping ideas from Japanese writers and then turning around and saying that these same ideas are TABOO in Japan.

    In any case, Onishi < Kristof < French. But not by much.

    “I assume you mean an article based on Nonaka as a positive example?”

    Yes, and around 2000, he would have been a very positive example.

    “I’m sure, however, that the NYT has had no shortage of articles bemoaning the lack of African Americans in the Senate.”

    Sure they do, but how many of those would be pointing to other countries as an example of how America can do better? Not many.

    “I must say, despite all the flak I’m sure it would draw I would happily take Onishi’s job starting tomorrow.”

    Would you draw flak? Maybe on individual articles, but it seems like Onishi writes the same article every time, only the general subject is different. You draw little flak for your blog writing because of the fundamental diversity of your approach.

    “Or perhaps even that of his research assistant.”

    He certainly needs you.

  6. “As a journalist and as a student, I have discovered that the more you study a particular topic, the more frustrating reporting on that topic becomes.”

    And there lies the potential for both really bad and really fantastic reporting, no?

  7. お久しぶり…

    I agree with M-Bone about people like Onishi uncritically selecting those comparisons that seem to support his case. Did anyone listen to the audio attached to the NY Times piece? He actually says that there is no buraku Martin Luther King, and the only person who comes close is Nonaka.

    So let’s see. Mr Onishi seems to be suggesting that a group which is ethnically indistinguishable from the ‘mainstream’ in Japan and which has been facing fewer problems since discriminatory laws were abolished decades ago should spawn heroic figures such as those who arose in the United States in the era of segregation.

    So Nonaka is either a failed MLK or he is a failed Barack Obama.

    Typical example of the “the U.S. had this, so Japan should have it too” mentality. Maybe I’m making too much of this, but the fact that Onishi seems to single out Nonaka as the potential saviour of an oppressed minority shows that he doesn’t understand that Nonaka – as far as I could tell – wasn’t much interested in agitating to improve the plight of his buraku relatives by 2001, probably because things had been coming along nicely without his intervention.

    And anyway, Japan already has its MLK. He lives in Sapporo.

  8. I’d never focused on French’s work before he left Japan so I have nothing to say about him. I have read Kristof’s work at times. My impression is that he is not much of a thinker but he compensates with his great passion. Weirdly, he displays little of the cynicism that is near-obligatory for mainstream journalists of any stripe. He would have made a good missionary, but you wouldn’t have wanted him to lead the expedition.

  9. Kristof is an old fashioned crusading journalist-as much of an activist as a journalist, who sees journalism as a means to an end and doesn’t try to hide it. He wears his bias on his sleeve, and it is both apparent and charming. His current gig as an NYT columnist with a hefty travel budget is a great thing for both him and the people he’s trying to help, and very likely the best possible job the man could have. Some time I should go read more of his old reporting when he was playing it straight, but I have a feeling that even covering the same exact subjects as Onishi he comes off as earnest and helpful instead of cynical and pissed off. He certainly has some of the missionary temperament, but I don’t think he has the level of arrogance required to go stomping around telling people everything they believe in is wrong, and I have a hunch that he’s a secular humanist and not a crucifix worshiper.

  10. Secular humanist? I’d say so too if I had to make a guess. He also does not betray a sense of superiority in my view, which I think means that I agree with you. And “crusading journalist” is a good reminder of the role and motivation of the original journalists, as well as their descendants in illiberal societies. To tell a good story was–is–never good enough for them.

  11. Tried to post this earlier, but spambot ate my comment…maybe the links.

    Don’t forget that he writes a lot of really great articles like:

    Yoshoku: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/26/dining/26japan.html?

    Lost and found: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=990CEED71131F93BA35752C0A9629C8B63&sec=&amp;

    Manga/wine: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/dining/22comic.html

    Buddhism: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/14/world/asia/14japan.html

    Not everything is political and leftist as everyone seems to think. Be careful not to make this a personal attack or a damnation of his entire body of work. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the articles he’s written, especially the yoshoku one.

  12. I remember both the Yoshoku article and the last and found one well. They are indeed both quite good, and I will even send a link to his yoshoku piece if I ever have to explain to somebody what it is, for some reason.

  13. While I agree with everything Okumura san has written about Big O,I still think he is better than the others.Kristof and French should have been posted to the bureau that they really has passion to write about,which is Africa.
    Personally,the worst NYT correspondent of all time is David.E Sanger.Martin Fackler probably takes the second place,then maybe Onishi.

    Remember.He grew up in the times when Japanese ancestry had become some sort of a negative burden among the Asian Americans/Canadians heavily dominated by Chinese and Korean immigrants.And if my memory serves right,this guy started his career in Detroit Free Press back in the times when Clintonite America was demanding “Containing Japan”.
    No wonder some of his muckraker-like Japan reporting gives you the impression as if he wants to prove others that he is free from his own ethnic background and tribal sentiments when dealing Japan related issues,thus more trustworthy as a liberal journalist.

    This isn’t particulary unique to Onishi.I remember back in the mid-90’s when Teresa Watanabe of LA times had written awful piece of an article on rapes in Okinawa by the U.S servicemen that gives you the impression of her blaming the victims and branding the Okinawans are sorta negrophobic.This article would have attracted tons of criticisms had this was written by anyone who is not female of Japanese ancestry.

    I’d say this Oedipus Complex like sentiment is pretty common amongst many North Americans of Japanese Ancestry.

  14. Remember Kristof started out as a China guy. He and his wife won the Pulitzer for reporting on the Tiananmen massacres. I imagine he got assigned to Japan because the bosses in New York figured it would be familiar enough to their resident China expert (yeah right!) even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t have any special expertise about Japan before the assignment, in contrast to China (he had at least studied Chinese in Taipei for 2 years before going to China, during the waning days of the martial law period when the official line was an almost imaginary level of ultra traditionalist Chinese culture). Of course I’m sure he found it loads of fun, but he seems like a guy who’d be happy anywhere.

  15. BTW, is there any source for Onishi being Japanese-American as opposed to just a Japanese dude who spent some of his youth in the US like Aceface and then went back for college and work?

    Edit: Wikipedia says “Canadian journalist born in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, Japan. When he was four, his family immigrated to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He attended Princeton University and served as the chief editor of the student newspaper” and credits the information to an Asahi article on him announcing his appointment as bureau chief. Oddly (insultingly?) they give his name in katakana, despite his being a Japan-born Japanese.

    Japanese Wiki also doesn’t have any kanji for his name, and includes the following text:


    “He himself absolutely never appears on Japanese television discussion shows or at Japanese newspaper symposiums. He has said that because his face looks Japanese, it is easy for him to gather information without it being known that he is a reporter for the New York Times.”
    I can’t help but find the tone of this passage slightly creepy, as if the writer is implying he is some kind of race traitor by doing his job in the way considered normal for his employer.

    Incidentally, in the book that Kristof and his wife Shirley WuDunn wrote about their time in China, she describes how she got into a lot of places he couldn’t because she looked Chinese. Of course, I’m sure he also got some interviews that would have been harder for a Chinese man to get, considering how exotic white faces were in the 1980s.

  16. Onishi has written a few good “fluff” pieces. However, he’s also written 20+ articles just on Comfort Women. Have there been 20 academic articles on the Comfort Women since Onishi started writing on them? I doubt it.

    Not that the Comfort Women are not a reasonable subject, but why so much?
    I self identify as far left so I don’t use the term to demonize Onishi. I also agree that most of the issues that he identifies are important. My main concerns are balance and America-centric presentation.

    Is it any surprise that he writes on Yoshoku or wine? These have to be seen, in my opinion, in a context of him bringing almost everything back to the United States – be it a ludicrous Martin Luther King comparison or say, his recent argument that Japan only thinks that whaling is a big thing because of American influence and that it isn’t a “real” tradition. Here he’s making the point that Japanese, apart from a certain leftist elite, don’t understand the American origins of some Japanese “traditions”.

    But where are we not seeing America comparisons? What about his recent article on how an individual who was kicked off welfare ended up starving to death? Here Japanese social security ends up looking pretty terrible. These cases got significant play in other outlets. But Onishi makes no mention of how senior citizens starve in the US because of a lack of help and how while Japan’s system may be dysfunctional, it is still has not created the zones of urban tragedy that the US one has.

    I just looked at Onishi’s Korea “fluff” over the past 3-4 years. Thought that it would take me 5 minutes, but it took me about 20 and made me feel like a Japanese rightwinger. You don’t have to be a Japanese rightwinger, however, to see that something is definitely up –

    These can be roughly described as “positive” or indicating positive change.
    A Prince Nestled Once More in Korea’s Embrace
    In a Wired South Korea, Robots Will Feel Right at Home
    In Deep South, North Koreans Find a Hot Market
    South Brings Capitalism, Well Isolated, to North Korea
    Korea’s Godfather of Rock Makes a Comeback
    Asia: Koreas Agree To Resume Reunions
    From a Lead Role in a Cage to Freedom and Anomie (this one is
    Corporate Korea Corks the Bottle as Women Rise
    Ah, the Tonic of Ginseng! Especially a $65,000 Sprig!
    A Longtime Shepherd of Korean Fashion
    Eager South Koreans Tour a Semi-Open City in the North
    Here Comes the Sunshine, Down Go Korean Barricades
    China’s Youth Look to Seoul for Inspiration (this one is rather amazing as Japanese fasion, etc. has also been a huge influence)
    Dreams of a Korean Summer: School and a New Cell
    A Tourism Plan’s Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Miscalculation
    In a Corner of South Korea, a Taste of German Living
    and the best one is…
    Roll Over, Godzilla: Korea Rules!

    And these ones would be negative –
    A Korean Bridge Must Span Years of Bias and Sadness
    Korea Aims to End Stigma of Adoption and Stop ‘Exporting’ Babies
    We should also note that these two negative ones are all about moving past historical injustices.

    And these two is unambiguously negative –
    South Korean Private Kills 8 Soldiers After Being Hazed
    In a Country That Craved Respect, Stem Cell Scientist Rode a Wave of Korean Pride

    South Korea has problem issues that certainly rival Japan’s (let alone NK). The articles above even make it look like we’re still in the Sunshine years. This approach is absolutely perplexing. Onishi, by not focusing on South Korean corruption scandals, history rows with China, censorship of negative perspectives on North Korea, scandals like police refusing to investigate some vicious sex attacks, some nutcase anti-Americanism, etc. and just dealing with it intermittently, fulfils the demands for balance and the lack of imposition of America-centrism that I make above. He CAN do it. He DOES do it for Korea. But why so seldom in the case of Japan?

  17. “Oddly (insultingly?) they give his name in katakana, despite his being a Japan-born Japanese.”

    This is usually done when people have only seen the name in romaji. Who is to say which Onishi it is, anwyay? Better to use katakana than the wrong kanji.

  18. I suppose it all comes down to how he decides to write it on his bilingual meishi, same as the rest of us.

  19. But if nobody ever sees him, they can’t get the meishi, right? (joking)

    One persistent pain in the butt for me is the mass of Joujis that romanize as George. If that is the way they chose to do it, I respect that when romanizing. It is a bit silly, however.

    There is no good solution for Onishi. He doesn’t have a Japanese web presence or anything so who knows what his name should be?

  20. You say fluff, I say interesting view of Japan that most Americans don’t see. There’s nothing America-centric about the yoshoku or the wine pieces. His point in the former is that yoshoku ISN’T western food, it’s Japanese food.

    He’s written plenty of positive articles about Japan, too. The ratio is probably skewed when you compare the Japan and Korea articles perhaps because he has more linguistic access to the issues or because he’s just more familiar with Japan.

  21. “fluff” – I don’t mean fluff in a pejorative way. I see it used to refer to “light” reporting in between the political stuff.

    The yoshoku and wine pieces do go out of their way to put the spotlight on “funky” Japanese takes on Western things. Those are two examples where it is done in a sympathetic way. Take other examples like the whales and you see him using precisely the same device to ridicule. Apart from the lack of odd associations, I don’t see any of these examples are being that different from the piece that Matt Alt recently parodied on Neojaponisme.

    He gets in his digs –

    “There’s no word yet, though, on whether French readers think 2001 Château Mont Perat tastes like Freddie Mercury.”

    Is this affectionate, or is he making fun?

    “He’s written plenty of positive articles about Japan, too.”

    Some, and the ratio is indeed very skewed. I can’t help but notice that a lot of his positive Japan pieces are also about a lost Japan – countryside fading away, etc. This is the opposite of the Korea reportage which is all about things getting better. There are also articles that seem positive but are really quite negative –
    An Enclave of Brazilians Is Testing Insular Japan

    Sure the Brazilians made good, but Japan is, of course, “Insular”.

    In addition, there has been an amazing shift in his Japan reporting since July 2008. About 1/4 of his articles in this period are “positive”. In the two years before that, a brief look indicates that it was more like 1/10. Has he changed or has he been given some sort of message?

    “perhaps because he has more linguistic access to the issues or because he’s just more familiar with Japan.”

    That’s just it, Korea’s dirt is plainly there for all to see in terms of often extreme and in your face public protests and actions. If one wants to use that stuff, it is easy. One of the things that makes me a bit uneasy about Onishi is that you get almost no sense of “him” from his writing. This is far different than other correspondents like Kristof. If he would put his own voice in the article a bit more, it would be easier to tell where he is coming from, what his hopes for change in Japan are like, etc. Instead we get some very unbalanced articles.

    Is Onishi really that different than someone like Sakurai Yoshiko reporting on China? She finds a dissenter to praise about 1/10 of the time or butters up China’s traditional culture as a way of showing her extreme dislike of China at present, but the other 90% of her writing is all about geopolitical threat, corruption, murders, and government propaganda. Fackler, also writing for the NYT at present, seems to do about half of his Japan articles in a reasonably positive way. So is Onishi’s official job to dump on Japan? If it is, why not be open about it?

  22. “This is far different than other correspondents like Kristof.”

    You have to admit that Kristof is a unique case. Almost more of a crusader than a columnist – I mean, in 2004 (maybe 2003?) he paid for the freedom of two Cambodian prostitutes and gave them each $100 to help them out of their situation. Trying to compare Onishi to Kristof almost isn’t a valid comparison.

    “Apart from the lack of odd associations, I don’t see any of these examples are being that different from the piece that Matt Alt recently parodied on Neojaponisme.”

    That’s a bit of a stretch, no? What I liked about the yoshoku piece was that it kind of makes the case that it’s totally separate from Western food now, which I think it is. Kind of a sidetrack but… Golden Arches East, a book about McDonalds in Asia, takes it further and says that even fast food can be considered “Japanese” to a certain extent. Kind of interesting to take that thinking and use it to look at American food like the California Roll or some of the spicy crawfish rolls I’ve had in New Orleans.

    “So is Onishi’s official job to dump on Japan?”

    Isn’t that every reporter’s job to a certain extent? How is this any different from something that gets published in the domestic press about domestic politics?

  23. “Trying to compare Onishi to Kristof almost isn’t a valid comparison.”

    Perhaps not. But Onishi follows Kristof’s legacy at the NYT and the man stands as “proof” to some extent that a personal style of foreign reportage is not only tolerated, but can actually get you ahead in the game. There is a good chance that I would have more positive feelings toward Onishi if I actually had some sense of where he stands as a person and as a writer. I doubt that I am alone in finding this nearly impossible to glean from his articles, however.

    “Isn’t that every reporter’s job to a certain extent? How is this any different from something that gets published in the domestic press about domestic politics?”

    But papers like the NYT also have alternatives – lifestyle, trends, community, and entertainment sections that are largely laudatory of various domestic things. This is also normal, as is praise of domestic politicians when they do something well. If Onishi has really praised Japanese politicians for something, I must have missed it. There is not THAT much to praise, IMHO, but people found things to praise during the Bush years, so it can be done.

    In the end, I’d ask how we would feel about a Japanese US pundit who turns in article after article on things like –

    Despite Obama Election, African Americans Still Face Serious Problems
    The Hidden Face of American School Violence
    Hooked on the Rez – Cocaine and Native Americans
    Afghan Civilian Deaths and the US Media Blackout
    Gunman Kills 7 in Suburban US Mall
    Senate Seats for Sale
    Breaking into the Insular – Dayton’s Sikh Community
    Japanese Food American Style (snuck this one in as a positive counterpoint)
    Chicago’s New Drug War
    Corruption in Wichita Police Department Raises Questions
    Too Many Tanks – Revisiting the Military Industrial Complex

    If you had a lineup like that, wouldn’t it be reasonable to ask what happened to the America that people actually live in? Or what exactly the bone is to pick? Onishi has 10 or more article stretches that look more or less like version of this list for Japan. The thing is, there ARE outlets in Japan that run stuff like that – things like Shokun! We end up accusing them of being black van mouthpieces. Onishi isn’t, but he has a few preferred “easy” narratives – beautiful rural Japan dying from Kerr, Japan’s “system” eating people alive from Wolferen, and Japan unable to apologize for the war from Buruma. I ask for more nuance. Giving us a better picture of the Japan that we actually live in can only make his criticisms more convincing.

    By way of contrast, NYT reporters find ways to throw China some love. I see that just in the last two weeks (such a good website), we have –

    Battered by Storms, Sailors Reach Qingdao and Cheer (international cooperation in Chinese events)
    One N.B.A. Star and 150 Bridges to Sichuan
    Now Hip-Hop, Too, Is Made in China
    China’s Route Forward
    China Announces Subsidies for Health Care
    Internet Usage Rises in China

    Now there are lots of bad ones too, but this is remarkable balance in reporting considering China’s human rights record, some recent rhetorical attacks on Obama, etc.

    Is Japan really such a grim place by comparison? I end up speaking with people with no Japan experience who rely on the NYT for much of their knowledge who wind up seriously thinking that Japan is a few years away from launching a second invasion of China. Being familiar with Onishi’s coverage from the Koizumi era, I can’t say that I really blame them.

  24. “Trying to compare Onishi to Kristof almost isn’t a valid comparison.”

    Onishi has Kristof’s old job. What better basis for comparison is there? Don’t look at what Kristof is doing at his unique columnist job, but what he did as foreign correspondent for Japan.

  25. “unique columnist job, but what he did as foreign correspondent for Japan.”

    I feel that he had a strong “voice” there as well.

    Absolutely playful, often shocking in his mix of praise and criticism of Japan –

    “To understand why Japan is probably the safest industrialized country in the world, it helps to talk to a short, squat man with rumpled clothes, a gentle smile and big, leathery hands that once picked up a hammer and crushed his neighbor’s head.”

    “strong families, a sense of social cohesiveness and an egalitarian distribution of wealth, has created what may be the real Japanese Miracle: not just one of the richest countries in the world but also just about the safest.”


    “the police and the courts have powers that would make American civil libertarians weep.”

    That’s the stuff. That’s what we don’t see from Onishi.

    I still have some doubts about his body of work because of things like this –

    “But it is not really a capitalist country either, in the entrepreneurial, freewheeling way of Western market economies.”

    (Does he mean “American”, not “Western” here? Haven’t we grown up to the point where we can acknowledge different visions of capitalism?)

    But witness him capitalize on his Japan experience to rip American in the kind of reverse comparison that I have not seen from Onishi –

    “One of the most dispiriting elements of the catastrophe in New Orleans was the looting. I covered the 1995 earthquake that leveled much of Kobe, Japan, killing 5,500, and for days I searched there for any sign of criminal behavior. Finally I found a resident who had seen three men steal food. I asked him whether he was embarrassed that Japanese would engage in such thuggery. “No, you misunderstand,” he said firmly. “These looters weren’t Japanese. They were foreigners.” The reasons for this are complex and partly cultural, but one reason is that Japan has tried hard to stitch all Japanese together into the nation’s social fabric. In contrast, the U.S. – particularly under the Bush administration – has systematically cut people out of the social fabric by redistributing wealth from the most vulnerable Americans to the most affluent.”

    He’s not afraid to make fun of himself either –

    “When I lived in Japan in the 1990’s, my son Gregory had a play date with a classmate I hadn’t met. I asked Gregory, then 5, whether the boy’s mother was Japanese. ”I don’t know,” Gregory replied. ”Well,” I asked sharply, ”did she look Japanese or American?” Although he’d lived in Tokyo for years, Gregory replied blankly, ”What does a Japanese person look like?””

    Not only is he in the story, he’s setting himself up for shots here, ridiculing himself on the very same issue that Onishi has lashed out at “Japanese” for doing. Big ups to Kristof for this.

    Having gotten hooked on reading a bunch of Kristof articles just now, I have to say that I am really impressed by his general focus. We can directly contrast Kristof’s
    Welfare as Japan Knows It: A Family Affair (sorry the software is eating links) from 1996 and Onishi’s 2007 Death Reveals Harsh Side of a ‘Model’ in Japan.

    Kristof criticises Japanese welfare – “Japan has a welfare system that in some ways makes even the new, dismantled American system seem a model of generosity. Applicants in Japan are obliged to get help first from their families, and a poor person physically able to work is not eligible for help — whether or not the person actually has a job.”

    but gives some context concerning how it works well in most cases –

    “From some perspectives, this system has worked brilliantly. The country’s already strong family ties have been strengthened, and the main safety net is the family rather than the Government. The number of Japanese in the basic welfare program has declined sharply over the last half century, as people became better off and built up savings. Today only 0.7 percent of the population receives benefits — compared with the 4.8 percent of Americans who get grants from Aid to Families With Dependent Children or the 9.7 percent who receive food stamps. About 2.3 percent of Americans receive grants through the Supplemental Security Income program, which serves the elderly, blind and disabled. To be sure, Japan’s welfare system operates in a very different milieu from America’s. Only 1 percent of Japanese births are to unwed mothers. That compares with a percentage that keeps climbing in the United States and has now reached 30 percent. Japan also has a far lower percentage of drug addicts than the United States has, a much lower unemployment rate, a much more egalitarian distribution of wealth, a greater sense of family obligation and an abiding sense of shame that colors almost every aspect of life. Scholars say that the system in Japan almost never breeds dependence, and they suggest that the Japanese approach has emphasized the work ethic and the importance of family ties. Caseworkers rigorously check applicants and drop by their homes regularly to make sure that they do not have banned luxuries like cars or air conditioners, and fraud seems extremely rare. For all these reasons, the welfare system seems to have broad public support in Japan. In fact, instead of grumbling about welfare mothers in Cadillacs, people sometimes carp about how the authorities are too harsh to the poor.”

    Goddam, now we can’t say that foreign correspondents can’t work in good context because of space limits? The first part with the statistics even looks a bit like one of my counterpoint posts…

    Contrast with Onishi’s context –

    “Japan has traditionally been hard on welfare recipients, and experts say this city’s practices are common to many other local governments. Applicants are expected to turn to their relatives or use up their savings before getting benefits. Welfare is considered less of an entitlement than a shameful handout. With no religious tradition of charity, Japan has few soup kitchens or other places for the indigent. Those that exist — run frequently by Christian missionaries from South Korea or Japan’s tiny Christian population — cater mostly to the homeless.”

    Great to hear that South Korea is helping out dystopian Japan.

    In this case, Onishi makes no US comparisons (helpful, obviously, for US readers to contextualize Japanese welfare’s good and bad points). As has been mentioned above, he saves those for Martin Luther King.

    In any case, running through Kristof’s writing is the basic idea that Japan is a decent, liveable place –

    “It has the longest life expectancy on the globe, as well as some of the lowest crime rates. Literacy is universal, so that even the occasional homeless read serious newspapers to catch up on the situation in Bosnia. This is a country where carjacking is what you do to change a tire.”

    With this in the background, it actually meant something when Kristof made criticisms.

  26. Has anybody already mentioned that Onshi’s piece on Nonaka is a total ripoff from Uozumi Akira’s 2004 book”Discrimination and Power” ?

    You can’t do this kind of things if you are working on domestic issue and present that to the home audience.

    “How is this any different from something gets published in the domestic press and
    about domestic politics”?

    Had NYT published any commentary such as refusing to vote for Obama will automatically brand you as racist? Guess not.
    But Onishi does this sort of things to Japan all the times.

  27. We’ve moved beyond such simple racism into the postmodern. Now you’re racist if you’re one of the GOP central committee members who voted for this Steele jerk they just picked as their first black Chairman.

  28. And have this ever occured to you that many Japanese has ideas on various issues in the society to say “We’ve mover beyond such simple blah blah blah”,
    Yet,gaijin Japan-hand like Onishi keep branding us the old stereo type?

  29. “Has anybody already mentioned that Onshi’s piece on Nonaka is a total ripoff from Uozumi Akira’s 2004 book”Discrimination and Power”?”

    No, but this is exactly why we like having you around. I did mention that he does the whole “TABOO in Japan” thing on stories that he rips off, but I was thinking of a different example (in Sekai).

    “We’ve moved beyond such simple racism into the postmodern.”

    Better still, if you voted for Obama, you are obviously a racist, becuase… (I’ve actually seen people make this argument – it has to do with how he is “black” but not “African American” culturally… guh).

  30. Nonaka has more in common with another Chicago politician than Barack Obama,Richard J.Daley,the Chicago mayor in the 60’s that is.

    Anyway Uozumi’s book is probably the first to point out Nonaka and his Burakumin background.There are many politicians in the diet that are backed by Buraku Liberation Leagues who advocates Buraku salvations,but Nonaka has always distanced from them.Uozumi,who is a liberal and critical to Koizumi,brought this buraku background to change the conventional wisdom on Nonaka,the tough guy and master of backdoor politics and the don of postal tribes.Before that,our image on Nonaka was basically an old guard of LDP pork barrel politics.

    On Kristof.

    While he wrote many aritcles on Japanese war crime based on the survivors tales and confessions of former Japanese veterans,who are the regulars of leftwing lecture circuits,he questioned the accuracy of the refugees from North Korea by telling they have strong motivation to catch media attention and personal resentment to the former oppressors.
    Kristof canned Jung Chang/Jon Halliday’s “Mao,The Unknown Story”,but praised Iris Chang’s “Rape of Nanjing”.I see a double-standard here.The only conclusion to suggest this is, Japan is an easy target for a foreign correpondent than the other Asian country.Not only you are guaranteed to have press freedom here,but also the freedom to curve the fact.

  31. “Kristof canned Jung Chang/Jon Halliday’s “Mao,The Unknown Story”,but praised Iris Chang’s “Rape of Nanjing”.I see a double-standard here.”

    Is it a double standard, or just showing that he knows a lot more about China? He did win the Pulitzer for reporting on the Tiananmen massacre, so I don’t think he exactly cares about the sensitive feelings of the CCP. Of course, part of the reason he won the prize is for his reports that were perhaps the first in the Western press to challenge the early estimated of thousands of students killed in favor of hundreds, which is now the consensus figure so you’d think he would be open to looking at the post-Chang evidence that her estimate was too high. And actually, the most recent to the Nanjing Massacre I found in his writing shows this to be the case.

    In this blog entry from about 6 months ago he says that the number of people killed in Darfur is about ten times the number killed in Nanjing. In another piece from about a year earlier he says that the Darfur death toll is “hundreds of thousands” and that the estimate of 400,000 could be accurate. So, his current opinion is that the Nanjing death toll is something like 40,000 give or take.

  32. Oh, and how could I forget to quote this passage from the second post I linked to:

    One factor makes me wonder if the toll is sometimes inflated, and that’s the record of past atrocities. I covered Tiananmen, and other “witnesses” talked about tens of thousands of dead, when it was probably in the hundreds. Ditto for the fall of Romania’s communist regime in 1989, particularly in Timisoara. In Kosovo, there were estimates of 100,000 dead; the actual toll turned out to be less than 1,000.

  33. Krostof had studied Africa back in the post graduate school and can’t say he is China hand before he was posted to China.Times did send him to Taiwan to pick up Chinese language,but so they had done the same to Howard French(to the East-West Center in Honolulu to pick up some Japanese and history).

    It doesn’t take any more than a short stay in Japan to rebuke Iris Chang’s narrative on modern Japan which is a pure fantasy.Kristof also wrote a piece on the Senkakus that American’s are not obliged to defend the island from possible territorial dispute with China,which is clear violation to the U.S-Japan security treaty.If Kristof doesn’t have any double standard,than I have to say his narrative on Japan isn’t fair.

  34. I think Kristof wrote in that book he did with his wife that he spent 2 years studying in Taiwan before he worked for the Times. I don’t have it handy to check, but this little bio (http://www.earth.columbia.edu/sop2006/bios/kristof_n.html) confirms he studied Chinese in Taipei before joining the Times. Maybe they just sent him for a refresher course?

    Anyway, where is Kristof’s praise for Iris Chang’s book? The NYT has zero hits for articles by Kristof with her name in them. The closest is this short book review by his wife (http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/13/reviews/981213.13wudunnt.html) in which she argues for the ~50,000 dead figure, saying that Chang is wrong and saying that this book “soars above most of the rest” of books about Nanjing i.e. Iris Chang, and a letter to the editor in which Chang complains that Kristof won’t accept the 300,000 dead figure.

  35. Mmm.you got me there,Roy.Can’t find it on the web and Kristof did write something about seeing her fans start to cry in one of Chang’s book sales lecture and the tone was a bit satirical.I might need to reduce the criticism to the level that he wasn’t as critical as Mao’s book”.

    BTW,I forgot to mention that there is even a book by group of Japanese writers accused Kristof era NYT report on Japan called “Japan Made In U.S.A”.


  36. In any case, I think that the difference is that we have to look closely to find examples of Kristof being very unfair to Japan and equally closely to find examples of Onishi being at all fair to Japan.

    The vast majority were uncritical of Chang in 1997. It seems that Kristof has changed and this puts him in a minority.

  37. “クリストフ氏は「日本を神秘的なものとして表現するのは、アメリカの一部あるいはどこか他の国を神秘的に描くのと同じで、別に気になりません。私たちはいつも必ず異なったものに焦点をおきます」と、ジパングとの海外報道への認識の違いを強調している。”

    Like, let’s say, the Mall of America?

  38. Yeah,but in reality good Japanese are required not to criticize Chinese author writing on Japanese war crimes and strongly encouraged to lionize Korea on various things.
    That’s why many 2channelers are so vicious on these two nations because they detect hypocrisy in these OC expertise in the media.

    It’s not what I(m concerend that Onishi or Kristof is not nice nor sympathetic to Japan.Good report on Japan is “Japan is wrong on this and this and here is the background and this is how the society deals with the issue” But their narratives are usually in the format like “Japan is wrong on this and this,and that’s Japan”kind of determinism,as if they are sitting on higher ladder.

  39. “Japan is wrong on this and this,and that’s Japan’

    Even that is better than “Japan is wrong on this, unlike America (or South Korea) which is great!”

    We can find lots of examples of Kristof doing the rhetorically responsible thing – America is wrong on this, here is how the Japanese do it better. Or Japan is wrong on this, but we ain’t that great ourselves.

    The first pattern, I described above as an “intellectual foot massage”, the second pattern(s) is more like a wakeup slap to the face which is exactly what journalists should be looking to deliver.

    This goes for Japanese journalism as well (where it is a common pattern – Finland or whoever) but there is really no comparison between the potential impact of an article that uses an outside example to criticise one’s own country and a fleeting criticism of another country. Japanese journalists really don’t care that much about Finland. If you take the worst problem that Finland faces and sell it to Japanese audiences, it really won’t mean squat. People will just marvel at how %^$$ed up Finland is and move on. If, however, you use Finland as a sort of critical leverage to dissect aspects of Japanese policy (which is being done) it can produce a powerful drive for domestic change (and it has sparked wider debate on education and dozens of publications).

  40. While I believe I understand what M-Bone says, personally speaking, Onishi is better than Kristof. Onishi’s love&hate for Japan is annoying, his lip service to American audience is pitiful and I don’t appreciate his articles, except a few reports on underdogs, but, he less resort to using the blatant orientalist cliche. Kiristof was a forerunner of waiwai journalism. Which is better for American audience, that’s quite another matter.

  41. “America is wrong on this, here is how the Japanese do it better. Or Japan is wrong on this, but we ain’t that great ourselves.”

    I’m not sure that this sort of coverage is all that necessary. I would rather just leave most American comparisons out all together. I mean, really, when you only have 800-1200 words to talk about Japan, who cares how it compares to the U.S.? Besides which, when it comes to social policy, the United States is often the outlier, so it is useless in terms of establishing some kind of ‘international norm’ against which Japan should be judged. But that doesn’t mean that there should be a “look at what the Japanese are doing, isn’t it unique! (or uniquely bad!)” attitude either. That’s just a comparison in disguise.

  42. “While I believe I understand what M-Bone says, personally speaking, Onishi is better than Kristof.”

    Well, my take on Kristof is based on some faded memories and about 30 min of reading that I did the other day so I’m not going to go out on a limb defending him. It is possible to find some very good examples in his body of writing but it may be equally possible to find some bad. Did anything stand out as very bad for you?

    “I’m not sure that this sort of coverage is all that necessary. I would rather just leave most American comparisons out all together.”

    If comparisons (either to Martin Luther King or who/whatever) are left out, it must be asked, what is the point of reporting on many Japan issues? Basic political summaries have a place. So do social trend writings. But why Burakumin, welfare, militarism, etc. and why now? Does a Japanese audience need an article about heroin in Helsinki? Welfare problems in Belgium? Police corruption in Italy? Each of those would raise a question – what is not getting reported instead? How these articles could be related to the audience makes a big difference IMO.

    I don’t think that it is asking too much that international news be made relevant to the intended audience. Showing where things stand in relation to the position that that audience occupies is important – either quantitatively discussed social realities or commentary on values and ideologies. If the articles can’t provide enough context because of word limits, showing how international issues relate to / compare with an environment that readers are more familiar with can help to add understandability.

    My concern is that a lot of international reportage everywhere is simply voyeurism – a peak at the dark spots of others. Without context or comparisons, this can be a very dangerous thing.

    I’d point to one area where there is an impetus for change – US healthcare. There has been some powerful reporting on the issue (not MMoore) that relies on comparisons with other countries. There seems to be a growing awareness that American healthcare, despite how great it can be for some, also fails many others. This is a discussion that has been carried out in relative terms and I think that it has been pretty effective in fulfilling one of the major roles of the press – advocating for change.

    I’d also ask that you consider the potential positive impacts of reporting that forces American readers to think about (for example) the Middle East as a similar place in many respects. I saw a program on Food Network the other day comparing Saudi and US fast food joints. Loved it. This type of search for the different AND the familiar can be an effective way of promoting understanding.

  43. >Did anything stand out as very bad for you?

    I don’t know well if bad journalism or not, but, to read these articles in NYT was strange experience, while it’s not so sensational today(post-waiwai era).

    A Plain School Uniform as the Latest Aphrodisiac:http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E07EED61F3AF931A35757C0A961958260&scp=3&sq=kristof+prostitution+japan&st=nyt
    Schoolgirls as Sex Toys:http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B07EFD7103DF935A35757C0A961958260&scp=3&sq=loli-con&st=nyt
    In Japan, Brutal Comics for Women: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C05E3DB1739F936A35752C1A963958260&scp=3&sq=kristof+japan+rape&st=nyt

    Elevator ladies+falsetto voice+loli-con thing is nice.
    Japan’s Feminine Falsetto Falls Right Out of Favor:http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0CEFD81639F930A25751C1A963958260&scp=1&sq=loli-con&st=nyt

    It’s just a quick research result. As long as I remember, his reports on Japanese Family seemed generally stereotypical(a bit strange for me). Yes, his reporting was basically affectionate, but with more or less “lost in translation” touch, so they may have appealed to distant audience, not to many Japanese. Onishi’s is basically unaffectionate and his reporting tends to lack the distance, so he can make many Japanese upset. I am a bit fed up with mysterious and bizarre Japan and in this point Onishi is refleshing. Yes, it’s a kind of home-goroshi. I expect fair and accurate criticism from NYT.

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