Zipangu's blind agenda

By William Wetherall

A review of
Zipangu (Compiler)
Warawareru Nihonjin
[Laughed-at Japanese]
("Nyuuyooku Taimuz" ga egaku fukashigi-na Nihon)
[The unfathomable Japan depicted by "The New York Times]
English Title: Japan Made in U.S.A.
New York: Zipangu, 1998
147 pages in Japanese, 133 pages in English

First posted 26 December 2005
Last updated 1 January 2006

This book received a lot of attention in Japan because it represented an attempt by a group of Japanese journalists and artists calling themselves Zipangu to "correct" the image of Japan created by articles in The New York Times which they found to be wrong or misleading. The book's chief editor also contributed a long report about the book's purpose and response to the book, entitled "Japanese Reflections in an American Mirror", to the Japan Quarterly (Volume 46, Number 1, January-March 1999, pages 76-82).

Both the book and Otake's article are worth reading for what they reveal about Zipangu's justifications for its mission and blindness to its own ignorance.

The book is valuable as a source of examples of how silly some reporting on Japan can get when American journalists sent to Tokyo for a couple of years write about complex social issues they are ill-prepared to understand. It also sheds light on the thinking of Nicholas D. Kristof, the NYT scribe whose articles Zipangu found most offensive. Most ironically, though, the book exposes Zipangu's collective cultivated ignorance, as it goes out its way to praise articles that are as skewed as those it skewers.

The article is valuable for what it tells us about Zipangu's agenda, and the fashionability of reducing the valid problem of misinformed or biased if not irresponsible reporting to a question of culture, power, gender, and even skin color.

Otake Hideko on the Zipangu project

Let us begin with Otake Hideko's Japan Quarterly article. As stated in the margin on the first page of the article, "Otake Hideko is a free-lance editor and writer based in New York who served as chief editor for Warawareru Nihonjin (Japan Made in U.S.A., 1998)."

The article gets to the kernal of Zipangu's grievences about New York Times coverage of Japan in general, and Nicholas Kristof's reportage in particular, with the following remarks.

One of the most egregious examples is an article about "ladies' comics," written by Kristof and published November 5, 1995. In this article, with the headline "In JKapan, Brutal Comics for Women," the overline, "Mass-Market Rape Fantasies," and the subhead, "Greater freedom brings crude stosries of submission," Kristof wrote about Japanese pornographic manga for women featuring rape scenes. As Morishige Yumi critiqued the article in Japan Made in the U.S.A. [pages 8-9], Kristof cautiously established an impression that the "sick" magazine is a quite commonly read publication, and stressed the universality of Japanese women's rape fantasies. . . . (Page 77)

 . . .

At issue here is the double meaning and subliminal effects that news coverage can often produce. In this case, while the apparent theme of the article was manga for women, the real message that readers might come away with is that Japanese women love rape fantasies. . . . (Page 78)

Otake favorably cites a common viewpoint which "racializes" and "genderizes" and "occidentalizes" journalists like Kristof (terms in quotation marks are mine). The "images of Japan" that Kristof is guilty of perpetrating, she says, fall within the "framework of 'Orientalism'" defined by Edward Said in his book of the same title (see review elsewhere in this Bibliography).

Distorted images may be a common and mutual problem shared by Japan and the United States. But there is an essential element to be taken into account: the power structure. In a September 1998 symposium in Tokyo, Jocelyn Ford, Tokyo correspondent for the Public Radio International network, pointed out that coverage of Japan by U.S. media was traditionally almost entirely by "white men in trenchcoats," white middle-class males. Their images of Japan were largely within the framework of "Orientalism" as defined by Edward W. Said in his 1978 book of the same title describing Western perceptions of the East. They described Japan as the mysterious, exotic, backward, barbaric, inscrutable and inferior other, compared to the modern, advanced, reasonable and superior West. Japan coverage by the U.S. media still stands on these images. However different and varied the topics, the stories on Japan tend to perpetuate these stereotypes. (Page 79)

Finally Otake reduces the problem of preconceptions and steretotypes to a question of the need of "Japan" to "communicate effectively with other cultures", and of "Japanese people" to "explain the diversity and contemporary nature of their society".

 . . . To communicate effectively with other cultures and to correct stereotypical images, Japan must endeavor to present more information and fuller explanation of itself in other languages. Japanese people should avoid falling into self-mystification and attempt to explain the diversity and contemporary nature of their society. Foreign journalists should examine their preconceptions and stereotypical images of Japan and try to understand points of view that are the basis of different cultures. It is a responsibility -- especially for Japanese living abroad -- as global citizens to respond to the media if needed, to develop healthy foreign coverage together with journalists. It is easy to talk about but very difficult to change people's preconceptions and stereotypes. . . . (Page 82)

Japanese "diaspora"

The book describes Zipangu as "an organization of Japanese journalists and artists living in New York City" (page 133) -- or more specifically, "an organization consisting of several Japanese journalists, an artist, a scholar, a translator, a graphic designer, a photographer, two film makers and a business professional" (page 6). The English version of the dust-jacket blurb, however, says "Zipangu is a group of Japanese diaspora based in New York." The "Japanese diaspora" reflects "zaigai (diasupora) Nihonjin shudan" in the Japanese version of the blurb -- who knows which was written first.

The term "diaspora" better describes Zipangu's collective ethnic self-consciousness as an "organization" whose mission is to defend "Japanese" and "Japanese culture" against misundestanding. The Introduction gives some insight into what I would call Zipangu's "rescue fantasy" (page 7).

It was obvious that this book had to be printed in a bilingual format. Japanese people are notorious for not expressing themselves. Until now, only one-way communication -- from the U.S. to Japan -- has existed between these two countries. Taking a neutral position, as Japanese living in the U.S., our wish was to take the initiative of starting up dialogues between each other.

The idea that there has, until now, been only "one-way communication" between Japan and the United States is the cornerstone of "we are always being misunderstood" paranoia in Japan. And from cover to cover, Warawareu Nihonjin -- a paranoid title that is tellingly not translated in the book or in Otake's Japan Quarterly article -- represents anything but a "neutral posistion" toward the NYT articles, neither those it pans nor those it seems to approve of.

In fact, nine of the book's eleven compilers were women. Over half had received advanced degrees from American colleges in the arts or social sciences. In the course of their American schooling, they had to have been exposed -- more than they would have in Japan -- to notions of "orientalism" and "power" and "white males" and "other" -- mostly in the context of "gender" or "multicultural" (minority) studies -- and this influence shows in their commentary.

So Zipangu's critical focus on NYT articles about women and sexuality is no accident. Nor is its apparent endoresement of NYT reporting on minorities in Japan a mere coindicence. For minorities, like women, are victims of majority prejudice and power. And NYT correspondents in Tokyo outdo even Asahi Shinbun's tendency to over-victimize minorities in Japan.

Information about Japan

The Zipangu book includes five "digests" on Language (one page), Women (two full pages), Culture (not quite two pages), Minorities (one page), and Education (one page). The digest on Minorities exceptionally commends the NYT (page 104). Chief editor Hideko Otake wrote the digest on Women. All other digests were written by "managing editor" Yuriko Yamaki.

The Introduction to the book describes the digests as follows (page 7).

"NYT Digest 1990-1998" are coliumns which offer interesting information about Japan, especially for American readers who are not so familiar with Japan. This section may also surprise Japanese readers when they see how such trivial things about Japan have been reported in major American papers.

Apparently the people who wrote this have failed to notice the sort of trivia about America that makes it into major Japanese papers, network news, and weekley magazines -- but that's another story. Here I want to expose some of the misinformation Zipangu has spread in its mission to fertilize American understanding of minorities in Japan.

Wordsmiths asleep

The following paragraph introduces the one-page column on Minorities (page104).

Since 1990, the Times' coverage of Japanese minorities, which the Japanese media tends to stay away from reporting, is a valuable source for the Japanese to study their own society. Immigrant [bold emphasis added] related news [imin garami no kiji] frequently appeared from around 1990 to 1992, when Japan's economy was still strong and the yen drew minorities to Japan from around the world [en ga sekai no mainoritii o hikitsuketa]. During the same period, several statements made by Japanese politicians about American society promoted Japan bashing.

The original is attributed to Yuriko Yamaki, the translation to Yuriko Yamaki and Steve Cohen. The middle sentence of the translation reads odd because it is a mistranslation -- a problem throughout the book. The original says imin -- which means here "migrant", not "immigrant". The original says en ga sekai no mainoritii o hikitsuketa -- which means "attracted the world's minorities", not "drew minorities to Japan from around the world".

Before shaking your head at what might appear to be nit-picking -- think about what is going on. The original is syntactically very clear. It says "imin" (migrants) as used in terms like "imin rodo" (migrant labor) and "imin rodosha" (migrant workers). Such migrants are regarded as "minorities of the world" -- presumably because international migrant workers constitute a global economic minority. Of course some may also be minorities by some definition in their homelands. And course they become minorities in the countries to which they migrate in order to work and send money back home -- but not necessarily to settle. And these migrants are lured to Japan by the high value of the yen they can earn in terms of their homeland currencies. The English translation, however, turns them into people who are possibly "minorities" in Japan because they are "immigrants".

"ethnic Koreans"

The English version says this about The end of fingerprinting (page 104).

The parliament passed a bill to elimiante the mandatory fingerprinting of permanent foreign residents, a humilitating practice for foreigners, including ethnic Koreans [bold emphasis added] in Japan.

The original, though, says only this.

[The Diet] passes a bill to eliminate the obligation of foreigners domiciled in Japan who permanently reside in Japan [Nihon ni eiju suru zainichi gaikokujinj].

What this means is foreigners who, in addition to being domiciled in Japan [zainichi], have permanent resident [eiju] visas. I know this because I have been a permanent resident of Japan since 1983. And I refused to give my fingerprint after that, joining hundreds of others, not all of them Koreans with permanent residence. While some activists tried to make it a Korean-only issue, they failed.

More importantly, though, the Japanese version of the Minorities column makes no mention of "ethnic Koreans" -- an English-only term which, in fact, (1) has no foundation in Japanese, and (2) both reflects and causes considerable misunderstanding in English.

Under Japanese law, there are only Japanese and non-Japanese. And in the history of Japan's Nationality Law, race or ethnicity have never been factors in the determination of Japanese nationality.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I supported my wife and our two children in their lawsuits against Japan over the gender discrimination in the 1947 Nationality Law. Certain interest groups attempted to use our cases to support their contention that the Nationality Law was racist. But they failed.

The revised 1985 law is gender free. And like the original 1899 and 1947 versions, it remains totally free of ethnic and racial qualifications for Japanese nationality.

Prefixing "ethnic" to a word for nationality has become very fashionable among scholars and journalists writing in English about minorities. I know writers who cannot write just "Korean" in reference to Korean nationals in Japan. They have to affix "ethnic" -- as though there was something "racial" about being a Korean national.

I also know writers who use "ethnic Korean" to cover all people in Japan -- even Japanese -- who are considered to be "Korean" by virtue of their "ethnicity" or "race" -- both of which reflect "minzoku" in Japanese. The racialist assumption is that a Korean is a Korean -- an "ethnic Korean" -- regardless of their "nationality" (kokuseki).

Even allowing that a writer might have cause to racialize people in Japan as "ethnic Koreans", the term has absolutely no place in a statement about Japanese law or its administration. Koreans in Japan are Koreans because of their nationality, not their race or ethnicity. And Japanese of Korean ancestry are legally just Japanese, not Koreans -- again, because of their nationality.

The efforts of Zipangu's compilers to plug "ethnic Koreans" as victims of discrimination -- in only the English version of the Minorities column -- betrays more than just their own ignorance of minority issues in Japan. It also suggests a double face approach to journalism -- one story for Japanese readers, another for English readers -- all because "American readers" are presumed "not to be so familiar with Japan" -- so they need a special formula of information to relieve them of their ignorance.

"dowa issues"

The English version of the Minorities column says this about The lower class (page 104).

Introduces Dowa issues (Japan's long tradition of hidden discrimination against a certain group of outcasts). Describes how circumstances have improved. (Nicholas D. Kristof, Nov. 30, 1995)

The Japanese version says something very different under the heading Dowa mondai (dowa problem).

[A NYT article], while introducing the realities of discrimination [sabetsu no jittai], reports that the situation is improving. ('95-11-30, Kristof)

There is nothing about "the lower class" or "a group of outcasts" in the Japanese version. Nor is it alleged that there is a long "tradition of hidden discrimination" against such a group.

The article by Kristof was titled "Japan's Invisible Minority: Better Off Than in Past, But Still Outcasts" (The New York Times. 30 November 1995, page 18). It runs about 3,600 words -- not your typical filler.

Not once does Kristof mention "dowa". Instead he says "burakumin" no less than 86 times -- 8 of these in the phrase "the burakumin". Like "the Japanese". Like "the Yankees". And he uses the term "ethnic Korean" six times. He speaks of a "a legacy of discrimination" but does not claim that discrimination is a "tradition".

The term "dowa" is the official government term, expressing the object of public funds allocated for the development of education and housing and other amenities in neighborhoods historically associated with yesteryears outcastes. "sabetsu no jittai" (realities of discrimination) is also a cliche in reports about conditions in former outcaste neighborhoods.

"burakumin" do not exist

The "dowa chiiki" (dowa areas) are often called "buraku" (more generally meaning "hamlet" or "settlement") by organizations that promote measures to improve the living conditions of their residents, and education to eliminate residual discrimination against them and former residents. The residents themselves are referred to as "buraku jumin" (buraku residents).

In politically more correct writing in English, the "buraku" are called "buraku communities" and their residents are called "the burakumin" -- "min" meaning "people" and "the" stressing their existence as a "group" or "community".

In Japanese , they are sometimes called "hisabetsu buraku" (discriminated against buraku) or "mikaiho buraku" (unliberated buraku) -- reflecting the strongly proletarian ideologies embraced by the most active "buraku liberation" organizations.

The point is that "burakumin" don't exist -- simply because "outcasts" don't exist. There is no legal foundation for ascribe "burakumin" status to any human being in Japan. They have not existed since the caste system that legally defined eta and hinin during the Tokugawa period was abolished in 1871.

This does not mean that discrimination, and the potential for discrimination, ended when the law changed. It only means there have been no outcastes in Japan since then. It also means that -- unless someone born before eta and hinin were emancipated from their outcaste (senmin) status is still alive -- there are no "former outcastes" either.

Zipangu would not have gotten away with Kristof's descriptive terminology in Japanese. Even to suggest that "outcasts" exist in Japan -- and to call them "burakumin" much less "the burakumin" -- in a major newspaper -- 86 times in one article -- would be considered a discriminatory act, disallowed under Article 14 of the 1946 Constitution.

The first to object to such an article would be the organizations that claim to represent the people Kristof's piece purports to describe. The more radical organizations would even take offense at the idea of likening buraku residents to an "invisible minority" -- because they are doing their utmost to keep the "dowa issue" visible enough to keep funds flowing into their coffers.

None of this stops advocacy groups in Japan from using "burakumin" or even "Burakumin" in their English literature. But they do so out of ignorance that such descriptions violate the letter and spirit of accurate (as distinguished from "political correct") writing in Japanese. And they do so because the follow bad English precedents, and bad advice on the part of native speaker editors who likewise don't know any better.

In short, to allege that there is a "minority group" called "the burakumin" is a journalistic crime. Either the Zipangu people are unaware of this -- or they are afraid to say so -- preferring, again, a double standard in the "English" and "Japanese" versions.

Sympathetic ignorance

I suspect it is ignorance mixed with sympathy -- which can be more dangerous than dispassionate truth. I suspect that not a single member of the Zipangu team could speak for more than a couple of minutes on any putative minority in Japan without tripping over their lack of basic knowledge about the issues.

There is no question that Zipangu's heart is in the right place. And there is no such thing as too much sympathy for people who have suffered unnecessary. But there is such a thing as sympathy for the wrong reasons. And the collective heads of Zipangu's compilers were sometimes so deeply in the sand they couldn't see what deserves sympathy and what doesn't.

Zipangu's list of categorial "minorities" that deserve sympathy -- though perhaps no more sympathy than any living human being who has problems, personal or shared -- is long.

Minorities in Japan
Migrant workers from Pakistan
The Day workers' riot in Osaka
The end of fingerprinting
Asians in Kobe
AIDS related lawsuits
The lower class
The disabled
Rise of Chinese Criminals

I could go on about problems with Zipangu's acceptance of NYT coverage of all the "minorities" on this list. And the list could be much longer.

Yale University reading list

Significatnly, Zipangu is not alone in recommending NYT articles on minorities out of sympathetic ignorance. There are college professors in the United States who post, on their websites, lists of NYT articles on minorities, complete with links to pdf files that students are urged to read.

Here is one such list, provided at the end of an outline for the fourth component of an anthropology course called "Japan: Culture, Society, Modernity" -- at Yale University, no less. Kristof, for what it's worth, is a Harvard and Oxford man. Sheryl WuDunn, his wife, is a product of Cornell, Princeton, and Harvard.

Anthropology 254
Part Four: Transforming Japan
The new strangers: Beyond the modern myth of homogeneity

For further reading

And a sample of New York Times coverage of these issues:

Haberman, Clyde
1984 "Koreans in Japan: Forever Aliens in an Alien Land." The New York Times. August 31, 1984. Page 2

Haberman, Clyde
1987 "Like It Or Not, Japan Has 20,000 Fugitive Guests." The New York Times. November 17. Page 4

Chira, Susan
1988 "The Melting Pot Is a Confounding Idea to the Japanese." The New York Times. July 31.

Sterngold, James
1989 "One Man's Struggle to Preserve a Bitter Memory." The New York Times. December 5. Page 4

Sterngold, James
1989 "Japan Is Divided on Foreign Workers." The New York Times. October 29.

Weisman, Steven R.
1990 "Fellow Asians, Yes, But Where's the Fellowship?" The New York Times. January 3.

Pollack, Andrew
1993 "Jobless in Japan: A Special Kind of Anguish." The New York Times. May 21. Page 1, 10

Kristof, Nicholas D.
1995 "Japan's Invisible Minority: Better Off Than in Past, But Still Outcasts." The New York Times. November 30. Page 18

Kristof, Nicholas D.
1996 "Outcast Status Worsens Pain of Japan's Disabled." The New York Times. April 7. Page 3

Kristof, Nicholas D.
1997 "Japan, Korea and 1597: A Year That Lives in Infamy." The New York Times. September 14. Page 3

WuDunn, Sheryl
1997 "Japan Worries About a Trend: Crime By Chinese." The New York Times. March 12.

French, Howard W.
2000 "Turning Japanese: It Takes More Than a Passport." The New York Times. November 29.

Sims, Calvin
2000 "A Hard Life for Amerasian Children." The New York Times. July 23. Page 10

French, Howard W.
2000 "Forever Korean: Once Scorned, Always Scorned." The New York Times. November 20. Page 4

Tanikawa Miki
2001 "Peeling Away Tradition: Tokyo University, Inflexible and Exclusive, Tries Diversity." The New York Times. January 7. Page 16

Sims, Calvin
2001 "After 90 Years, Small Gestures of Joy for Lepers." The New York Times. July 5. Page 4

French, Howard W.
2001 "Japan Struggles in Dealing With Its Homeless." The New York Times. February 2.

Strom, Stephanie
2001 "Social Warming: Japan's Disabled Gain New Status." The New York Times. July 7. Page 4

French, Howard W.
2001 "New Kind of Settler Finding a Way in Japan." The New York Times. September 23. Page 18

Brooke, James
2001 "Sons and Daughters of Japan, Back From Brazil." The New York Times. November 27.

Brooke, James
2002 "Japan's New Insider Speaks Up for the Outsider." The New York Times. March 8.

Onishi Norimitsu
2003 "For Japan's Homeless, There's Disdain and Danger." The New York Times. December 17. Page 4

Onishi Norimitsu
2004 "Mood Sours for Japan's Other Asian Students." The New York Times. March 28, 2004.