Roger Cohen does Japan

After working out with Yoko Ono’s lawyer and crossing the street outside the Imperial Palace, Roger Cohen is ready to tell us what he thinks of Japan: a sad place where the only way to have fun is develop unhealthy obsession with cartoons:

My sense is that four factors have contributed to [over-the-top hobbyism and high-tech obsession in Japan]: wealth, postmodernism, conformism and despair. Japan is rich enough, bored enough with national ambition, strait-jacketed enough and gloomy enough to find immense attraction in playful escapism and quirky obsession.

As Tokyo Reporter noted in comments in my last post, Cohen uses some ridiculous examples to make what is ultimately a pretty valid point. There is a definite “ennui” here that, like much of the world, leads people to pursue escapism. Where I differ with Cohen the most is that I don’t think Japan is any more advanced in its escapism than America, just different. Here was my comment to the nytimes.com site that focused mainly on the silly parts of his column:

In common usage, “otaku” usually refers not to “geek-like obsession” but to actual obsessed geeks, which make up a pretty small proportion of Japan’s population (probably not much higher than the ratio of Americans who obsess over their hobbies). I would agree that “we’re all going a little otaku” as you defined it but that statement applies equally to most Japanese as it does to Americans.

I would also like to point out that Yoko Ono’s lawyer gave you some bad information. Unless you were using some new model of treadmill I am unaware of, those pictures tell you how many calories you are burning, as you suspected. It’s a neat feature I think American runners would like as well.

Sure, Japanese attention to detail, cuteness, and what have you are obvious to any outside visitor, but what does that have to do with Japan’s international standing? Does a lack of cute images on American treadmills signify the decline of the American superpower?

One bonus nitpick that I didn’t tell the Times: that area in front of the Imperial Palace is closed to traffic so they can open it up to bicycles. The traffic guards are there to make sure no one is run over by an out of control tourist. All the same, I think anyone who has been there will agree the old men directing traffic (who work for a travel agency) are extremely power-drunk and over-earnest in making sure no one jaywalks.

24 thoughts on “Roger Cohen does Japan”

  1. “There is a definite “ennui””

    yeah I’d agree with that.
    nothing a video of a school girl shitting in a bed can’t solve though!

  2. All in all not a bad piece. 不kudos to Rog though for using
    the “lost in translation” phrase in the first paragraph –
    it’s a bit Hong Kong Phoey Chop Suey and well hackneyed
    by now.

    Agreed that the imperial palace with its jaywalking obsessed
    henchmen is the wrong place to arrive at a judgment about the
    country. You could to Shibuya crossing and say “nihonnjin are ants”
    and be correct. He was very ready it seems to me to pass judgments
    on Japan.

    Roland Barthes seems to be the only person to do the “Japan Capsule Review”
    in two days and get away with it.

    But Rog knows what he sees and it is true about the sadness here – everyone notices it – it’s here.

    ” Does a lack of cute images on American treadmills signify the decline of the American superpower?”

    Obviously not and this is a rather faecetious question !

  3. Martin, did you knock Marxy for being too serious and then raise Barthes a day later?

    In a way, “Empire of Signs” is the original “Dave Barry Does Japan”. Both authors had sense enough to state up front that “this is going to tell you a heck lot more about me than about Japan.”

  4. Well, at least Cohen isn’t claiming to be an expert on, or even very knowledgeable, about Japan. Most of his writing on foreign countries that I can recall is about England or France, or sometimes Israel. It doesn’t even sound like he was in Japan to report a story, but had forgotten to ask someone to cover his column for the week and had to file the first piece he could think of, extrapolating broad trends from some random crap he saw in his hotel – kind of like everything Tom Friedman writes.

  5. I think Friedman has done good reporting in the past, but these days he just comes across as almost comically lazy. He basically goes on expense-paid trips around the world and then comes up with ridiculously exaggerated theories based on what the cab driver and bellhop told him.

  6. Cohen isn’t a “doom and gloom” merchant. He does use the word “gloomy” but it’s in tandem with “ennui”, “moderately bored” and “insouciance” so his meaning is fairly clear. I’d say Japan gets off fairly lightly in his piece compared with the output of real scaremongers.

    I can well recall the overseas press writing obituaries for Britain for most of the 70s. We didn’t even get to be called rich after we had to seek an IMF loan. The simple fact is that no major country is going to draw much positive coverage after its economy has hit the buffers and the attendant social knock-on effects come to the fore.

    One of the reasons pessimism frequently reigns in coverage of Japan is that the stalemate has gone on so long, optimists have been discredited over time. We are fast approaching the 20th anniversary of the peak of the Nikkei Stock Average. The index currently lies at around a quarter of that level and has never even looked like coming close to it. That’s unprecedented for one of the world’s largest economies.

    Back in the early nineties, I noticed that stories about Japan were beginning to come in three flavours: “Japan is bouncing back”; “Japan is going to the dogs” and “wacky Japan”. Two of them relied on the narrative of Japan as a supercharged economy, hurtling either up or down, while the other focused on the margins of society.

    Japan had never just bumbled along at any time in the postwar period- in fact, not really any time since the Meiji restoration – so nobody really knew what that would look like. There are still plenty of optimistic views about Japan these days. Increasingly, though, simply refuting claims that Japan is going to the dogs is enough to put you in the optimistic camp.

    There’s another line of overseas coverage of Japan which has become more prominent over recent years. It includes discussions of problems in healthcare and education, corruption and crime, poverty and unemployment, social policy and the like. Frequently, such articles are regarded as negative coverage of Japan. It’s undeniable that sometimes they are slanted that way but I don’t believe they should all be dismissed as negative.

    In many ways, these stories just treat Japan as a normal country, which is good. A Japanese audience might read them and ask “What about all your problems?” but that’s the point. All normal countries have problems and an overseas audience can identify more closely with Japan when it learns that the country shares them too. We can also wonder if we might be sharing more in the future which is partly what Cohen appears to be saying. One of the reasons Britain’s problems received so much attention is that commentators wondered whether they were looking at a template of how a major power goes into decline. There is more than a hint of that in today’s coverage of Japan too.

    It’s not as if there is no positive coverage. For all the marketing hype, the Michelin guides have been good for Japan. The country’s popular culture, widely identified as Japanese, has a broad acceptance among young people overseas. Some of Japan’s sports stars, particularly Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Shunsuke Nakamura, became folk heroes. Haruki Murakami is a global literary superstar. Despite the government’s belated attempt to promote soft power, all of this happened organically, without any central intervention, and no-one has called for trade restrictions.

  7. “ridiculously exaggerated theories based on what the cab driver and bellhop told him”

    Well.most of the foreign correspondents write what the cab driver tells you and when you become a big shot,you come up with ridiculously exaggerated theories.Tom Friedman happens to be both.

    I actually enojoyed “The World is Flat”.Exaggerated,Yes.Still tells you where the power of the globalization comes from in very simple metaphor.

    I came up with a long response to Mulboyne’s post but I got a go and fly a kite with my crew.

  8. Mulboyne, I see what you are saying, but I also want to raise two recent patterns in Japanese reporting by way of contrast. #1 Finland – Identify somewhere where things seem to be going right and use it as a model to play up problems at home. This has been done in the US with healthcare to some degree (mostly with Canada) but there have been an equally great number of articles devoted to bashing foreign health system. This is not limited to Japan, I just don’t see the celebration of the achievements of others and use of them as a frame for self-criticism as a significant trope in the US (and other English-language) media. A few more articles like this (not necessarily about Japan) could change the tone of much English-language reportage. #2 China – Asahi and Mainichi have been pretty good at putting Chinese enviornmental problems in the context of Japan’s past failures – both presenting China as “normal” and highlighting important historical issues that are contrary to the “green Japan” image that has been oversold lately. This couples self-criticism with the sense of engaging with others as “normal” that you describe above. I want to see more of this.

    I think that part of the problem is that much Japan reportage is done in the “voice of god” mode. I would actually like to see more editorializing and opinion in these pieces as it would provide room for comparisons that are, as you mentioned, fundamentally humanizing. Leaving it purely to the readers, however, leaves the possibility that Japan’s flaws will be read in a triumphal mode. Note this response to the Cohen article –

    “thank you for this article…enlightening. My son is in Japan now working as an English and he says he likes living there. He is worried that if he came back here to soon he will not find work. He is wrapped up in Japanese lore and I am not sure he is aware of what is going on there. I will certainly want him to read this…and ponder.”

    The author almost seems to be using Cohen’s article to justify his need to save his son(?!) Some more direct comparison, say, with 17 hour a day World of Warcraft gamers in Seattle (or hell, drug abuse), could have helped to head this off.

    There is even a comment there from what looks like a war jock raising the ghost of Japanese militarism from what looks like Hatoyama’s very sincere desire (desire, not clear plan) to make nice with Asia.

    Or, “Humanity is better off with Japan now preoccupied with “otaku,” with a Japan “gloomy enough to find immense attraction in playful escapism and quirky obsession,” than with`a wealthy, disciplined and energetic Japan preoccuped again with another try at carving for itself a “Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere” all over Asia.”

    Or, “The idea of the Japanese distancing themselves from America in order to bond with their neighbors that despise them is a type of denial fantasy that is more quintessentially Japanese than anything you’ve described here.
    That is unless they’re willing to admit to and pay restitution for war crimes [hahaha I made a funny].”

    Now these digs at Japanese militarist revival are due, I think we can agree, to a pattern of excessive reportage that has played this up over the last two decades, ignoring progressive social forces and echoing WWII propaganda to appeal to a certain base (does anyone remember when John Keegan called the Japanese a “tribal society” that covers up everything bad that any member of the tribe has done?) and now is behind these totally inappropriate readings of Cohen’s piece.

    Now many commenters over there ARE making effective comparisons between Japan and the US. This is good. More reflexivity in the original piece and in reporting in general could, I hope, put the ghost of Japanese exceptionalism and continued obsession with Japanese militarism, to bed for good.

    I agree strongly with your last paragraph, however.

  9. M-Bone,

    I agree with what you say about the “voice of god” tendency. It seems to have intensified as time has passed with the subtext of many commentators being “Why have you still not got your sh*t together?”. It’s always easier to advise others to take radical action with unknown consequences when it’s not your neck on the line.

    I’d point out, though, that Britain received similar advice when we were in a slump so that isn’t unique to Japan. Some looked at Britain with its major industries in steep decline, class warfare, the Irish problem, destructive labour disputes, racial problems, nihilistic youth cultures, poor relations with Europe and unmanageable overseas interests and concluded that we were a write-off.

    Today that has its corollary in concerns expressed about Japan’s fiscal health, demographic crisis, poor relations with Asia etc etc. Many of our problems remain today, joined by new ones, but people don’t talk about them so frequently when your economy is thriving. However, that conversation is starting again now that the UK is floundering.

    America may not be much inclined to look overseas for suggestions – I don’t have a strong opinion there – but I don’t think that holds true for the English language sphere in general. When I was a teenager, my economics teachers and textbooks lauded the German banking system and criticized our own. Even when we were doing well, and our politicians felt they could lecture France and Germany how to run their countries, there was constant reference to how America still seemed to do things better. We may choose to turn our backs on the US model but that will likely only shift us back to wondering about which European models work better

    I would also agree that greater context is a good thing but you can’t really expect that from Cohen’s fluff piece. Those commenters you mention haven’t reached their conclusions from reading him: one guy wants his son back, and on a career path he can understand, while the others already had their axes ready to grind.

    I’d argue the concerns about Japan’s militarism and war guilt also have a parallel in the British example. In our case it’s colonial guilt. Sometimes, Britain is off the hook, sometimes the cry is that we wear sackcloth and ashes to atone for the mess we left behind in Palestine, Iraq, India, Pakistan, South Africa and Zimbabwe among other territories. British troops may have been greeted as liberators in WWII France but it was only 22 years later that De Gaulle vetoed our entry to the Common Market. Distrust can run very deep and it would be exceptional if that wasn’t also true when it comes to Japan.

  10. Japanese apology diplomacy/culture = British colonial guilt? I’ve heard that one a few times from people in Japan that I wouldn’t want to hang out with.

  11. “This has been done in the US with healthcare to some degree (mostly with Canada) but there have been an equally great number of articles devoted to bashing foreign health system.”

    There has also been a prominent mini wave of articles about the French health care system, since it’s single payer privately employed doctor system is something that would potentially be easier to implement in the US than National Health. Incidentally, it sounds a bit like the Japanese system to me.

  12. “We are fast approaching the 20th anniversary of the peak of the Nikkei Stock Average. The index currently lies at around a quarter of that level and has never even looked like coming close to it.”

    I seem to remember that the basis for the Nikkei average was changed some years back, after the bubble burst, and thus it is not really accurate to directly compare them. Looking it up, it seems to be the 2000 changeover of companies, and as Wiki J says, “実質的に入れ換えのみによってそれまでに比して日経平均が15%ほど低い水準になってしまったことは話題となった。当時の大蔵省や経済白書では、これをもって日経平均の不連続性を認めている。以上の様なことで、過去の指数と単純には比較できない。”

    Still, if it is only 15% different then that won’t have a huge effect on the quarter of the max it is now.

  13. “I’d point out, though, that Britain received similar advice when we were in a slump so that isn’t unique to Japan.”

    I wouldn’t suggest that this is a “race” thing or anything. Canada gets it from the US. The US gets it from Canada. Brit sniping is popular down under. And, apart from some rare cases, nobody gets encouraged to reflect on anything.

    On another note, I don’t really have a problem with demographic reportage as it does not always involve elements of moral triumphalism. There is a certain space in which vital (as this is) points about other societies should be raised.

    “but I don’t think that holds true for the English language sphere”

    I agree with you here, but I think that this is a function of academic writing, popular non-fiction than other zones – newspapers and especially TV have seldom been so varied. There have always been important counter points as well (Japan Without Blinders, David Williams’ Japan writing – the UK is not one sided) so I’m not going to go so far as to create monoliths.

    Concerning the comments that I mentioned – I don’t expect Cohen to change minds, but my point is that there is not a whole lot in the original piece to inspire self-reflection on the part of American readers – just some platitudes at the end which embrace Japan as a model of future dysfunction, something that I am not comfortable with. Compare with the Japan China reportage pattern that I mentioned – in that case, China is raised as having parallels with Japan’s past. This, for me, suggests that China may move along Japan’s path in the future and is a form of rhetoric that is optimistic and humanizing.

    Re: war guilt – you make a very good point. I think, however, that the war guilt material concerning Japan has been distributing in how racially charged and ludicrous it is. Things have changed, but with things like this 1988 Daily Star (a tabloid, I know) comment from 1988 in recent memory….

    “Hirohito is regarded by many people as a more sinister murderer than Hitler and even now the Japanese are ready to kneel down before him.”

    Ouch. Colonial guilt is one thing, this is quite another and its legacy hasn’t vanished.

    In a larger sense, however, we are on the same page. I don’t think that Japan is being singled out. I do, however, think that Japan’s treatment is a particularly egregious example of consistently bad journalism and that everyone needs to get on board for humanizing reportage.

  14. “I’d argue the concerns about Japan’s militarism and war guilt also have a parallel in the British example”

    I disagree.What Niall Ferguson has been saying on colonialism have a parallel with,say Nakanishi Terumasa and some folks in Tsukuru-Kai,but I don’t see anyone in mainstream English speaking media fingerpointing him as historical revisionist or to mobilize opposing voice to marginalize the man.

  15. Ace, I think both you and Bryce have misunderstood the point I was making. I wasn’t looking to compare historical actions or trying to weigh up national wrongdoing. I was making the more simple point that no nation gets to wipe the slate clean. I don’t think that is a controversial or politically loaded thing to say.

    M-Bone was pointing out, correctly, that a lot of internet commenters like to bring up war guilt whenever Japan is mentioned in any context at all. I would say that, no matter how many decades of peace go by or how much ODA Japan offers, no matter how much more the average Westerner puts what they read about Japan into a better context, that will continue to happen.

    M-Bone’s quotation from the Daily Star is an interesting case in point. The British tabloids regularly use WWII language when Germany comes up. It’s a sore point for Germans who don’t find that to be true of their other countries. Believe it or not, there’s usually supposed to be a sense of humour about these references. The “Fawlty Towers” episode “The Germans” is frequently voted one of the funniest pieces of television in Britain, even though its over 30 years old:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfl6Lu3xQW0

    The point about the Star’s reference is that there is no humour intended at all. It dehumanizes Japan and I can understand why M-Bone argues that overseas press coverage could do us all a favour by helping an audience understand the country and its people. I think some articles which focus on Japan’s troubles can help with that but I would freely admit that that a diet of downers isn’t going to do the job alone.

    You aren’t going to get rid of war references entirely as Germany has learned with the schoolboy humour of the British. My earlier comment about British history is that we don’t escape the barbs either. There are some resentments which don’t die out with the generations which directly experienced them.

  16. Partially because Sato is a poet who haven’t really returned to Japan for about 40 years and partially he’s been saying pretty much the same thing in the past four decades on western Japanese stereotypes.

    Cohen’s piece makes point simply because he’s repeating what other’s been saying.Like Patrick Smith’s “Japan,a Reinterpretation”(which isn’t my taste,BTW).
    Those who don’t agree with these thesis simply disagree with what Cohen writes.Anyway writing a sketch from The Imperial Palace is hardly a journalistic work in my book.

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