Wednesday, October 24, 2007

NY Times: Japan Is, Like, So Weird

On Saturday on my way back to New York I picked up a New York Times at the Providence Amtrak station. I know Saturday newspapers are less read but the silliness on the front page cannot go without comment. Two articles about Japan that day were:

"Fearing Crime, Japanese Wear the Hiding Place" on the front page, written by Martin Fackler.


"A Font of Commentary Amid Japan's Taciturn Royals" was Saturday's profile, written by Norimitsu Onishi.

What is the average reader to make of this country Japan?

The hiding place article describes a Japanese clothing maker who fashions outfits to resemble vending machines and mailboxes so Japanese can hide from criminals. Notice the headline is "Japanese wear the hiding place" just like ninjas. Is this ninja behavior a widespread trend? No. Although the designer has sold only 20 costumes, it merits a front page article. The point of the piece? The designer "said that while her ideas might be fanciful, Japan’s willingness to indulge the imagination was one of its cultural strengths." I can picture the Times editors fishing for a point.

The royals article profiled Japan's Prince Tomohito of Mikasa. Onishi portrays the prince as an alcoholic nihilistic recluse. The prince's duty? "The royals, he said, could fulfill their duties simply by 'waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, eating lunch, eating dinner, then going to sleep, repeating that 365 days a year.'" I don't know many people in Japan who know or talk about the prince. But I know people were reading these articles because they were both among the top ten most emailed list on Sunday. The oddball stereotype of Japan is alive and well.

Now, I understand that these two fluff pieces are meant to entertain. They were a lot of fun, but I could put them in context because of my firsthand experience with Japan. I also find it ironic that one of the themes of the Brown University conference I was returning from was that mainstream media treats its readers like simpletons. (If you want to read quality reporting in English about Japan, read Sebastian Moffett of the Wall Street Journal.) It makes me worry about the countries I don't know much about. Can I trust newspapers to give me an accurate portrayal?

I just hope newspapers aren't creating a nation of Vinnie Barbarinos, the TV personality famous for his insight, "It's like so weird."

1 comment:

Steve Dorst said...

Well put. It brings to mind the writings of Simon Anholt, a Brit specializing in nation branding. []. He contends that countries, like companies, are brands -- they benefit from positive associations and lose out from negative ones. Jamaica's brand (whether most of the obvious assocations are reality or not) helps it sell reggae music but hurts it in acquiring foreign direct investment. If the Japanese are known for technological innovation and a penchant for regional hegemony (just look at today's news bits), I guess you might add quirky craziness as well . . . maybe the "hiding place" story should have gone in "News of the Weird" or buried in the "Style" section - not the front page!