The BBC’s obsession with Japanese ‘obsession’

This morning I was reading the news on the BBC’s website, when I noticed that one of the most popular articles was listed as ‘Japan’s obsession with blood types’. It just made me sigh.

One of the reasons I started writing e-mail updates after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 was the way the BBC and other parts of the media were reporting the situation in Japan and how I felt it was not painting a true picture. It was disappointing, and I often sent e-mails to the BBC to say that I disagreed with how their reporters were portraying what they saw here, that what they were saying did not seem to be an accurate account of Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. I remember standing in front of my television one morning, watching Matt Frei reporting from the famous Shibuya crossing, and saying to the screen, that’s not true. It was amazingly frustrating listening to reporters stating as fact something they may have seen in one place, and instead of presenting it as an anecdote (or even speculation) they extrapolated and presented it as a general fact. I e-mailed the BBC many times and never received a response or even an acknowledgement that I had contacted them. I felt better just by e-mailing my concerns, and I wrote my updates, sent them to friends and family, and comforted myself with the fact that at least the people I knew would not be taken in by the BBC’s misrepresentations. Since then, however, I have grown more concerned that the BBC sometimes deals in stereotypes and its stories about Japan may help to confirm a stereotypical view of this great country.

I went to secondary school and university in the 80s, and at the time Japan’s economy was in the middle of the bubble, and I remember watching news reports about ridiculously expensive golf course memberships and companies paying record-breaking amounts for pieces of art, being very excited about getting my first walkman and generally having an impression of a country awash with huge amounts of money and cutting-edge technology. And yes, I know this is not a completely false picture. Now I live in Japan, and have been here for many years, and I have friends who have told me that when they think back to the bubble years they just remember getting up, going to work, coming home late, eating, going to bed, then getting up and doing it all again the next day and the next day . . . I don’t think the majority of Japanese people were spending ridiculous sums on sporting activities because they were too busy working.

Today, Japan has the 3rd biggest economy in the world, and until recently it was 2nd but was overtaken by China. While the images we saw in the bubble years persist in people’s view of Japan from overseas, the fact is that salaries are no longer in the stratosphere and unemployment especially for new graduates and other people in their 20s, was reported at 4.2% in October. Apparently, between 1953 and 2012 the average has been 2.7%; the highest recorded was 5.6% in July 2009, the lowest was 1.0% in November 1968. Clearly these numbers sound low when compared with recent figures from other countries, but it was 4.5% and 4.6% from November 2011 to May this year, and historically this is all much higher than the average for the last 50 years. The Japanese economy, like a lot of the rest of the world, is not doing well. Although Japanese people have traditionally saved money, 11.2% of people have less than one million yen in savings.

I don’t remember seeing any of this information on BBC World, but of course I have a job and don’t spend every minute of every day glued to the television and I may have missed it. What I know I have not missed is the general tone of the reporting, which plays up stereotypes and fails to provide much of a context, and so I come back to the headline which made me sigh this morning.

To be fair, the real headline for the article is ‘Japan and blood types: Does it determine personality?’ and the alternative ‘Japan’s obsession with blood types’ was the one that appeared in the list of most popular stories. However, someone has made a decision that the ‘obsession’ angle is the one which will catch a reader’s attention and I would suggest that it’s not a helpful word and really implies a focus that in my experience Japanese people just don’t have. It’s true to say that Japanese people know their blood type, while people in other countries may not be, as a rule, so aware. I must also say that I am, apparently, true to my blood type and my personality matches. I want to point out, though, that a few years ago a diet book was popular in the UK, and it was called ‘Eat right for your type’ and was based on certain blood types being suited to certain diets. For the record, I must also admit that the foods that suit me were consistent with my blood type according to that book. My quibble is not that there is no truth in it, but that presenting the Japanese people as ‘obsessed’ with this kind of thing is not an accurate portrayal. If you would like to read the entire article, you can find it here: .

My second example is an article which was on the BBC website on March 15th this year, just four days after the 1st anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami. It was titled ‘Japan’s obsession with perfect fruit’ and you can read it here: . Again, this word ‘obsession’ implies an excessive focus, an attention to this aspect of life which is beyond what most people would have. There is no context to this article, and by omitting several key facts Roland Buerk, the journalist who wrote it, creates an impression that I take issue with. For a start, the exchange rate between yen, sterling and the US dollar gives a false impression, since the yen is so strong at the moment, and he doesn’t point this out, and so gives a false impression of the prices here. The fruit is expensive, but the prices are not quite as high as they might seem. Secondly, the article includes this sentence: ‘Even run-of-the-mill apples can cost $2 (£1.25) or more each in central Tokyo, and families tend to share one or two around the dinner table, chopped up.’ If you can, put aside the ridiculously Dickensian vision of a Japanese family huddled over a single apple, because you may be imagining an apple you could hold in your hand and eat. Unless you are some kind of human anaconda that is not possible with a Japanese apple of the type he is referring to. Recently a friend gave me a Japanese pear and since its size was similar I made a note; it was 38cm in diameter and weighed 773g. Quite the monster fruit, and actually plenty for several people. Mr. Buerk failed to point that out.

My concern with these articles and others the BBC has broadcast or published on the website is not that they are not true, but rather this; they are whimsical, cultural stories, which I can see (from their place on the ‘most popular stories’ lists) appeal to people, and yet they are presented without some background which would make them more informative and using language which misrepresents the Japanese people. When you come across articles which amuse but yet seem to confirm or present a stereotype, please remember that, just as London is not engulfed in smog and populated by men in bowler hats carrying rolled up umbrellas, just as in the UK we don’t all stop for afternoon tea every day, these snapshots of Japan may be just that and not the blanket statement they may appear to be.


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