“Are we Japan?” What Japan are you talking about?

Via Andrew Sullivan, a terrible, terrible example of punditry asking if the US is on the verge of a Japan style “lost generation,” which includes the following particularly wretched paragraph, in which John B. Judis of The New Republic shows he knows nothing about Japan:

If you want to imagine what American politics will be like, think about Japan…. Japan had a remarkably stable leadership from the end of World War II until their bubble burst in the 1990s. As the country has stumbled over the last two decades, unable finally to extricate from its slump, it has suffered through a rapid of succession of leaders, several of whom, like Obama, have stirred hopes of renewal and reform, only to create disillusionment and despair within the electorate…. That kind of political instability is both cause and effect of Japan’s inability to transform its economy and international relations to meet the challenges of a new century.

Judis here is making a fundamental mistake of confusing Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party majority rule, which began in 1955 and was nearly continuous  until last year, with the longevity of Prime Ministers. Needless to say, anybody with even a passing familiarity with post-war Japan is well aware that despite the LDP’s “remarkably stable” monopoly on power, there was far less than “remarkably stable leadership” in the office of the Prime Minister.

Taking a look at the list of PM’s and how many days each of them served, it is obvious that not only were extremely short lived administrations far more common than longer ones throughout the entire postwar period, but that the Junichiro Koizuimi term of 2001-2006 (a total of 1,979 days) was the third longest since WW2, and the longest since Eisaku Satō, who was PM between 1964 and 1972.

Since his factual premise is so obviously false (and I have to run to campus soon) I will not even bother to get into analyzing his equally spurious claim that this “rapid of succession of leaders […] like Obama, have stirred hopes of renewal and reform, only to create disillusionment and despair within the electorate,” much less looking at how crappy his analysis of US politics probably is, but please do fire away in the comments!

Andrew Sullivan Kabuki alert

As you may infer from the title, the latest pundit to engage in this appropriate and worn-out cliche is Andrew Sullivan, a writer whom I generally like but does punch out copy with such rapidity that a certain amount of cliche becomes, perhaps, inevitable.

In a recent post (fairly) criticizing Senator Harry Reid for spineless political triangulation and misdirection over the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Sullivan said:

If I lived in Arizona Nevada and had the vote, even though Sharron Angle is beyond nuts, I’d vote for her. Better nuts than this disgusting, cynical, partisan Washington kabuki dance, when people’s lives and dignity are at stake.

“Kabuki dance” is an old stand-by (Kabuki is of course a genre of drama, not a dance) and “Washington kabuki” with or without “dance” is also tried-and true, but Sullivan does stick more adjectives on the front than most. However, what he misses is the irony of insulting Harry Reid for his anti-gay political positions by calling him a performer in kabuki, a dramatic form in which transvestism is not just institutionalized, but considered a high art, and which for centuries had been strongly associated with homosexual prostitution.

I will reproduce the first paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia article here, followed by a very interesting video featuring Onnagata actor Bando Tamasaburo, which includes an interview and some actual kabuki footage. I recommend watching it twice, the second time imagining the part is being played by Harry Reid, and considering what that would mean for Andrew Sullivan’s clumsy metaphor.

Onnagata or oyama (Japanese: 女形・女方, “woman-role”), are male actors who impersonate women in Japanese kabuki theatre. The modern all-male kabuki was originally known as yarō kabuki (man kabuki) to distinguish it from earlier forms. In the early 17th century, shortly after the emergence of the genre, many kabuki theaters had an all-female cast (onna kabuki), with women playing men’s roles as necessary. Wakashū kabuki (adolescent-boy kabuki), with a cast composed entirely of attractive young men playing both male and female roles, and frequently dealing in erotic themes, originated circa 1612.[1](p90)

Lies, damned lies and the Nikkei

Fewer Than Half Of Young People Support Themselves: Report

TOKYO (Nikkei)–Just 44% of those aged 15-34 subsist on their own income, the Labor Ministry wrote Thursday in a report that reflects young people’s struggle with low wages.

A full 46.8% of the group rely on additional income from some other source, such as their parents.

Of those 15-34 with full-time jobs, 51.6% live on their own income, but only 30.3% engaged in other types of jobs are self-reliant.

I got this article from a co-worker earlier today. He remarked “What’s interesting is that only 51% of people with full-time jobs can (or rather do) support themselves.” But that conclusion falls apart when you see the original statistics in the original Japanese (here):

Note the column headings. The options for the survey were:

Living Expense Situation (Multiple Answer) Combination (生計状況(複数回答)の組み合わせ)
(1) Own income only (自身の収入のみ)
(2) Own income plus other income (自身の収入+他の収入)
(3) Other income only (他の収入のみ)

Now the situation becomes clearer. That 44% figure only includes people who are actually paying for all of their living expenses with their own income. It excludes many people living with their parents or grandparents, all working couples (even where one person is a part-timer), and probably even certain parents with working children. It excludes me and Adamu, both productive employees in the financial industry who just happen to have working spouses.

Of course, that fact doesn’t help push the narrative that young Japanese people are getting poorer and/or lazier — and here we can see that respected Japanese media like the Nikkei can skew facts toward their chosen narrative just as badly as respected foreign media like the New York Times.

My solution to Twitter performance anxiety

There’s an interesting article in the NYT about what Twitter does to your inner dialogue. Basically, the idea is if you are Tweeting all the time you are “always on” and start thinking your life is a reality show.

Absolutely right! Just about anyone who’s used Twitter for an extended period of time could tell you that. In fact, a Google search for “I Tweet Therefore I am” shows multiple articles with that title on other sites, one on Gawker written eight months ago.  But if that gets tiring or is turning you into an asshole, there is a simple solution:

Take a freakin break every now and again!

Remember when your parents said not to watch too much TV? Same thing.

As someone without an iPhone, Blackberry, or even one of the Japanese mobile web platforms, maybe I am being naive and behind the times. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask to maybe keep the phone in your pocket, temporarily disable the Twitter client on your browser, and concentrate for once. I am told that there are even times when the Internet itself isn’t necessary.

On Twitter (unlike Facebook), there seems to be less incentive to pay close attention to who is on your followed list or who sees your updates. People come and go, and even those who follow you only tune in when they are interested. That’s the beauty of the real-time web.

Apply to appear on NHK’s Cool Japan (conditions apply)

Kelvin on Twitter linked to this page on NHK where people can apply to appear on their late night show Cool Japan, about stuff non-Japanese people think is cool about Japan. Here’s an excerpt from introductory spiel and questionnaire for prospective guests:

We are looking for participants who have lived in Japan for less than one year to appear on the television show COOL JAPAN.
Interested parties are requested to fill out the following questionnaire.
Please review the questionnaire carefully and answer each question.

Length of Time in Japan
Unique cultural aspects of your home country you are willing to shareMusic, fashion, arts, etc
Interests in Japanese culture
Aspects of Japanese society you find interesting, unique, odd?

So, is Japan suddenly not cool after you’ve lived in the country for one year? As Durf reminds us by way of WestFearNeon, NHK might be looking to talk to people at that tender stage after arriving in Japan when they tend to feel really positive about Japanese culture. Any longer than one year, and some of the same people who were once raving about might start grumbling about paved-over rivers and overly rigid rules. In WestFearNeon terms, NHK only wants wide-eyed wonderers and eager students.

Too bad, really. As a self-proclaimed “recovered” gaijin I would be happy to talk about all the stuff I like about Japan.

SLAMMING into election season

Somewhat randomly, the Wall Street Journal has recently started up a Japan blog called Japan Real Time (partly, it seems, to provide content to their new Japanese language site). Great stuff, welcome to the party. But being a mainstream media blog, it can’t seem to shake some conventions, like our pet-peeve (or is that favorite?) synonym for sharply criticizing someone:

Party Heads SLAM Tax Plans

Naoto Kan’s proposal to raise taxes, part of a broad fiscal reform package, has hit his popularity ratings and sparked plenty of discussion.

On Tuesday, several party heads made clear that they oppose the tax increase, accusing Mr. Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan of everything from “hocus-pocus economics” to potentially pushing suicide rates higher.

Here’s what they had to say:

Sadakazu Tanigaki, Liberal Democratic Party: The LDP is more or less on the same page as Mr. Kan’s DPJ — it proposed the tax hike to begin with — but Mr. Tanigaki sought to differentiate the two, criticizing Mr. Kan for not being clear on how the tax money will be used. The LDP, Mr. Tanigaki said, made clear in its policy statement that the money would be used for social security spending.

I like the frowny Tanigaki picture they chose (stolen above).


In other news, campaigning has heated up around my station. The other day I took a pamphlet from the Happiness Realization Party guy, and this morning the freak actually tried to talk to me on my way to work. If it weren’t so freaking humid a chill would have run down my spine. Those people have a few good ideas (bigger houses, more linear trains) mixed in with the crazy (attack North Korea preemptively, retirement age of 75, do everything to make Japan the world’s top economy by GDP), but zero respect for democracy. Funnily enough, part of their platform is to abolish the upper house of parliament, which just happens to be the very body they want the people to elect them to!

(thanks to Joe for the link)

Most Congressional hearings are now “kabuki”

Click here to watch some wrinkled political blowhard casually dismiss an entire branch of government with our favorite tired cliche:

(The BP hearings are) not a forum where we can expect answers. It’s kind of a “kabuki drama” if you will, like most congressional hearings.

You can leave comments on the BP oil spill under this post. Bill Maher said that even he is too depressed to read the news these days, and I agree. It seems like such devastation for so much of the gulf I am tempted to block it out of my mind, which is the kind of tactic I usually reserve for the suffering in third world countries.

(Borrowed the fun image from Google. Bloomberg’s Youtube channel doesn’t allow embedding)

Another Obama appointment, another kabuki metaphor

This time it’s Elena Kagan, this time the culprit is Colorado Law professor Paul Campos speaking on NPR, this time it’s a “ritual,” and as always we are here to call them on it.

I think that to the extent that it’s possible to eventually support this nomination, it has to be based on her answering real substantive questions in the confirmation process instead of going through this kind of kabuki ritual of dodging those kinds of questions, which is what nominees have so successfully done for the past 20 years.

This is, of course, the same metaphor that Joe Biden used in the context of the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, as blogged about on MFT before.

And so I will say it again: if you’re going to compare Washington to any sort of Japanese theater, you’re probably best off comparing it to bunraku.

Are the Japanese crazy like us? (And by “us”, I mean “Americans”)

Ethan Watters is the author of “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche,” and recently appeared for a six minute interview on the US comedy show The Daily Show. Curiously, much of what he talked about focused on Japan:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Ethan Watters
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The author raises this question: Is the American focus and treatment on understanding mental health (depression, schizophrenia) a “cultural” export? His answer is yes, and describes how, in treating symptoms that are believed in American culture to be “mental sickness,” we replace some symptoms that are in fact cultural characteristics in other societies. He ends up spending much of his six minutes on the Daily Show interview talking about Japan and criticizing the American “export” of mental health treatment to Japan. He says:

“Japan is actually a very sad culture. They think of sadness… almost as a religious state, as a way to get moral guidance…”

I read more about Watters book, and found some of the numbers that he uses to back his book. One is that GlaxoSmithKline and other drug makers funded favorable medical studies to sell treatments for depression in the Japanese market, with huge success — GlaxoSmithKline’s sales in Paxil went from nothing in 2000 to topping $1 billion in 2008. 27 books were published on depression from 1990 to 1995, but 177 were published from 2000 to 2005. Meanwhile, the Crown Princess is reported to be suffering from depression. So “depression” as a disease and syndrome, as opposed to a result of Japanese cultural characteristics, is now widely recognized in Japan, although I would argue that there is still much more stigma attached to it than in America.

Yet he goes on to say that Japan is perhaps the biggest copier of the American model. This seems to be absolute lunacy to me. Yes, Japan is a sad culture. The Japanese people are much more pessimistic and cynical about their future and their country’s future than any other Western developed nation. (I’ve seen stats to this effect but nothing that I can link to — feel free to weigh in on this point.) But first of all, they are still no where close to institutionalizing mental health on the educational, social, corporate, and government level. And second of all, is this the “Americanization” or “modernization” of mental health? While I think there is an excessive and too broad a focus on mental health in the United States, where everything is deemed to be an issue of mental health, I think that Japanese culture and society still has far too little emphasis on psychology, counseling and mental health.

Kabuki backlash?

After what feels like a very long time, some prominent publications are starting to notice that “kabuki” is being overused when talking about American politics:

First we have Slate, which has triggered our Kabuki Alert before:

Pundits use Kabuki as a synonym for “posturing.” The New Republic’s Michael Crowley, for example, has defined it as a “performance, in which nothing substantive is done.” But there’s nothing “kabuki” about the real Kabuki.

Of course, pundits don’t care about the real thing. They use Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word’s true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:

1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.

Kabuki succeeds chiefly because it makes your opponent sound silly and un-American. And finally kabuki works because:

5) It sounds Japanese.

Needless to say, it sounds Japanese because it is Japanese. Point is, the word can conjure certain stereotypes about Japanese politics. As the scholar Gerald Curtis has noted, we have “an image of Japanese politics in which bureaucrats dominate … and policy making is little more than a process of collusion.” For Rush Limbaugh, what better image with which to tar health care reform?

Then there’s NPR radio show/podcast On The Media, reporting on the Slate article. They are guilty too — listen at the end for an entertaining retrospective of their (many) transgressions.

Many thanks to author Jon Lackman for bringing it up! Good luck on that “doctoral dissertation on the use of invective in art criticism.” Funnily enough, your piece is about something different – the use of art in political invective.

At Mutant Frog, we have long been aware of this painfully cliched metaphor. But maybe we won’t have to worry about it so much anymore. That’s at least two publications that will probably become more self-conscious about trotting out the kabuki cliche from now on. Will others follow?

(Thanks to the reader who sent this in!)