Category Archives: Japanese stereotypes

Burrowing into the news that matters


Japan. The 3rd largest economy in the world. A country with a population of over 120 million. A country which suffered a magnitude 9 earthquake and devastating tsunami in 2011. A country still trying to sort out the nuclear mess in Fukushima, still trying to build new homes for about quarter of a million people displaced by those events. A country currently engaged in a protracted and heated row with China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. A country where senior politicians visit a controversial shrine to the country’s war dead with increasing frequency and decreasing concern for the feelings of people in other Asian countries.

Japan. According to the BBC World website this weekend, a country obsessed with hamsters’ bottoms.

On May 4th, Japan was hit by the most powerful earthquake since the huge one on March 11th 2011 and the subsequent, related aftershocks. Since it was ‘the biggest since . . . ‘ I expected there to be some report of it on the BBC news, but not a squeak, all day. I checked the website too, thinking there must be something there, but again, nothing. It was reported elsewhere, but not by the BBC, at least nowhere I looked.

On May 15th, the Asia section of the BBC website had an article titled ‘Japan PM Abe calls for new defence law interpretation’:

The part of the constitution the government would like to reinterpret, since that’s the word we’re using, is Article 9, which states:

‘Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognised.’

Now, you may think that Japan’s massive Self Defence Force is therefore unconstitutional; there are certainly people in Japan who believe it is. However, the Supreme Court has, on several occasions, affirmed the SDF ‘s constitutionality. So, Japan can have its SDF, but Mr. Abe’s government would like more. China, South Korea, and other Asian countries who have been at the sharp end of Japanese military aggression in the last century take a dim view of this. The BBC article in question featured a photograph of Mr. Abe shaking his fist and looking suitably decisive or aggressive, depending on your, ahem, interpretation. The article is still available but disappeared from the headlines on the Asia page in less than twenty-four hours.

Earlier this week, on May 20th, the New York Times reported on what had happened at Fukushima Daiichi in the days after the tsunami hit, in an article headlined ‘Panicked workers fled Fukushima plant in 2011 despite orders, record shows’, which is only just in the news because the report was not public until recently.

The BBC reported this a little later. There has also been an article about groundwater being diverted and pumped into the ocean before it can be contaminated by whatever is going on at the plant these days. At the end of this article is a link to the one about workers at the plant and the aftermath of the tsunami.

However, to get to the article above, you have to scroll down past a section called ‘Also in the news’ and this headline:

Craze for hamster bottoms hits Japan

which you can read in its entirety here:

And so once again, here I am, taking issue with the BBC’s reporting of Japan. It recycles those lazy stereotypes of Japan; that Japanese people are ‘obsessed’ with ‘cuteness’ and other weird and wacky stuff. Apparently there are books about hamsters’ bottoms (‘hamuketsu’), there is a Facebook group, it is a ‘craze’, it is a ‘phenomenon’, there are ‘thousands of fans’, there have been ‘hundreds of photographs’ uploaded to the Facebook page.

I have checked this page, and fewer than 10,000 people have ‘liked’ it. As you might expect, it’s a collection of uploaded photographs of hamsters’ bottoms. After a few you wonder who on earth wants to look at a lot of them. Checking other Facebook pages for Japanese sportsmen and women, for musicians, and animation characters, I found that they all had far more ‘likes’.

Then I started to wonder, is this really a ‘craze’? Or is it a news story that is perpetuating itself? A search for ‘hamuketsu’ took me back to the original BBC article and one in USA Today, plus some links to the books referenced in the article. This isn’t news, it’s fluff.

Now, I am not averse to fluff. This week I was very taken with a photograph of an alpaca surfing.  It was a completely ridiculous picture, but although I believe the caption said it was a Peruvian alpaca, there was no cliché’d portrayal of the Peruvian people in connection to this daredevil animal.

What I object to, once again, is this lazy attitude the BBC seems to take in connection with news about Japan. There is a stock collection of words which they trot out on such occasions; they declare the Japanese people to be ‘obsessed’, they make reference to ‘cuteness’, there are images of trends sweeping the country, becoming a ‘craze’ or a ‘phenomenon’. You are led to believe that this is something which is convulsing the whole country. At the same time, there are serious issues facing Japan, and they are reported sometimes, kept on the website for a short time, and then archived.

Until this article appeared, I had not heard anything about hamsters’ bottoms. I have, however, heard plenty about Article 9, Yasukuni Shrine, Fukushima Daiichi, the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands and comfort women.

Japan is a country of over 120 million people. The Facebook page for Hamuketsu has fewer than 10,000 ‘likes’, while over 80,000 people have ‘liked’ Anpanman’s page. There is a grand total of 3 books; one is out of print, one is available and the third has not yet been published. This is not even ‘news’ from elsewhere, it seems like astute marketing on the part of one or more of the publishers.

It doesn’t make Japan ‘obsessed’ with anything. All it does is reinforce stereotypes, once again, of wacky Japanese people and their ‘obsessions’ with weird stuff. Meanwhile, there are serious news stories being under- or unreported. Again.

And anyway, the alpaca was far better:

alpaca surfing


Goodbye 2013

tokyo sunsetWhen people hear that I teach in Japan the most common reaction is some kind of assumption that all the students (a) work incredibly hard, (b) are unquestioningly obedient and well-behaved and (c) are quieter than proverbial church mice. My response to this is (a) their industry is the same as students in other countries, some work very hard, others do not and many are hindered by a lack of study skills, (b) they are certainly less of a challenge than the students my friends often teach in the UK but not unremittingly well-behaved, and (c) I work at a girls’ school, are you kidding?

As I have mentioned before, I think Japan is a country which is often portrayed in a stereotypical manner, and the appetite for wacky stories in foreign media is always there. What people say to me about my students is an extension of what many people believe to be an accurate portrayal of Japan and its people. It is frustrating to live here and watch with disbelief as yet another journalist files a stereotype-laden report, or takes one incident and extrapolates to imply a general truth. In over twenty years in Japan I have yet to meet a Japanese person who conforms to all those stereotypes, the quiet, obedient automaton.

Over ten years ago, a Swedish gospel singer came to visit the school, and as she sat on the stage waiting to begin a question-and-answer time after she had performed, she remarked that she could tell she was at a girls’ school because there was a noticeable level of chatter in the hall. Some things are not a surprise. What may come as a surprise to people who only know of Japan through cliché’d news items is the levels of noise in Japan sometimes. It is not always a land of zen-like tranquility, as anyone who has ever walked past a pachinko parlour can tell you. Politicians, right-wing sound trucks, recycle companies, roasted sweet potato vendors and purveyors of laundry poles are all capable of disturbing your wa (和), or harmony, as you relax at home, walk down your local street or take the train.

There is a word in Japanese which has a lot of different meanings, but Japanese language learners probably first encounter it as ‘noisy’: urusai (うるさい). My dictionary, however, offers all of the following as possible meanings: noisy, loud, annoying, troublesome, bothersome, persistent, fussy, particular and fastidious. I would say a person who is ‘urusai’ is a wa-disturber, and this year the leading lights of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been disturbing all kinds of wa. That their antics have not been more widely reported internationally is disappointing. I have heard Japanese friends express concern that this is how Japan slid towards militarism in the 1930s.

So, just to do my bit to draw attention to what Japanese politicians have been doing this year, here are their greatest hits:

* In May, Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka declared that the ‘comfort women’ (women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during WW2) were ‘necessary’. You can read about it here:

* In July, the Deputy PM, Taro Aso (also a brother-in-law of the Emperor) suggested that Japan could learn from how the Nazis pushed through unpopular legislation. You can read about it here:

He was referring to the current government’s desire to abolish Article 9, the part of the Japanese Constitution in which Japan denounces war and the means of war. Mr. Abe, the Prime Minister, has been getting more and more bellicose and would very much like to ditch Article 9 and arm Japan to the teeth. There is a hefty, so-called Self Defence Force, but Mr. Abe wants more. There have been groups all over Japan for a long time to protect Article 9, but this year it has come under serious threat.

* In September PM Abe reassured the IOC that Tokyo is and always will be safe from any danger that may come from the crippled nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi. Following his statement and Tokyo being awarded the 2020 Olympics, the word ‘lie’ was used by parts of the media to refer to his comments. You can read about it here:

* Of course, the news that has rumbled on all year is the ongoing dispute between China and Japan (and Taiwan) regarding sovereignty over the group of tiny islands in the East China Sea, known in China as the Diaoyu Islands, and in Japan as the Senkaku Islands. In November China  declared an ‘air-defence zone’ over the islands, just the latest move in this very dangerous dance. You can read about it here:

* Finally, at the end of the year, Mr. Abe decided to make a visit to Yasukuni Shrine in his capacity as Prime Minister. While millions of Japan’s war dead are enshrined there, the souls of hundreds of war criminals, including a number of executed Class A war criminals are also enshrined, and it is this fact, and the apparent honouring or worship of these souls which so infuriates China and South Korea. You can read about it here:

So, Japanese politicians, I would say that you have been very ‘urusai’ this year, that this war-mongering is deeply troubling, that your lack of sensitivity (or deliberate disregard for other people’s and other countries’ feelings) is equally concerning. What are you doing to the country I love? This has not been a great year for Japan. With the exception of the successful Olympic bid, which did seem to boost spirits, 2013 has been a steady stream of worrying news from TEPCO and Fukushima Daiichi and the constant sound of rattling sabres.

So for 2014, my first prayer is for a concerted effort to really do something about the giant mess that is Fukushima Daiichi. The situation there is scary and there are many people who don’t know if, or when, they can ever go home. My second prayer is also related to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami; that the people who are still living in temporary housing almost three years later be re-housed in permanent new homes. My third prayer is for peace between the countries in East Asia, that we can all be much better neighbours than we have been in 2013.

12:30 blue skyFor myself, this has been a very mixed year, but I am ending the year feeling positive. I have travelled and seen friends, and in my life in Tokyo I have so many blessings. I have a job I love, friends and colleagues I am grateful for. In the last fifteen months I have found a new joy in writing this blog and been amazed that people read it. It’s a very humbling feeling. I am going into the new year with plenty to think about, lots of things I want to do.

Yesterday I was in Shibuya and saw a lot of people with suitcases, on their way somewhere to celebrate the New Year. When I went out to do some grocery shopping this afternoon I noticed how quiet everything was already. With the exception of the crowds in the supermarket there weren’t many people about. Tomorrow I am going to start the year the same way I did this year, walking a Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage. The weather forecast is for another sunny day.

Goodbye, 2013. You’ve been an interesting year; not the best, but not the worst either. The neighbourhood has gone quiet, and I can hear the sound of the local volunteer fire corps on their yomawari (夜回り) or night patrol warning us of the perils of starting a fire. My new year cards are written and mailed, it’s time to curl up and relax.

new year postbox

Japan for lazy journalists

Hina dolls

It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged by British journalists in Japan that this is a wacky country, full of people behaving oddly. All you need to do to file a report is ask a few people their opinions, extrapolate some general truths from what they tell you, attach some stereotypical images or statements and voilà! You just reported from Japan.

Or did you?

Japan is a fascinating country, and is no more stereotypical than any other country. Of course you can portray Britain as a nation of cups of tea, football hooligans and Peter Rabbit. France has its snails, garlic and berets. Edified? Fascinated? Want to hear more? No, I didn’t think so. So why is there an appetite for these entertaining-but-shallow-to-the-point-of-saying-nothing-new-at-all articles about Japan?

In the UK I would imagine that Clive James has a lot to answer for. To general acclamation and amusement, he filled a lot of TV programmes in the eighties with footage from Japanese quiz shows and commercials. Takeshi’s Castle, a game show from the late eighties presided over by Takeshi Kitano was at least recently shown on British TV and assumed to be representative of Japanese TV today. These are the images burned into the British psyche, over-the-top TV programmes, Japanese people gone wild.

What is disappointing is this; when British journalists come to Japan they set about reinforcing these stereotypes, instead of exploring this great country and testing the clichés to see if they hold true. Yesterday evening on Facebook, two friends shared a link to a newspaper article , the latest in this proud tradition of recycling tired ideas and calling them your own. I found it exasperating for three reasons; it repeats clichés about Japan; it presents facts or ideas that have been around for a while and are nothing new and for good measure it throws in an extraordinarily offensive blanket statement about Japan. The article in question is titled, Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex? and was written by Abigail Haworth, who has also written for Marie Claire. The article would probably have fitted much better in a magazine, though I would still take issue with a lot of the content. (I have tried to add the link here but can’t seem to make it work, oops.)

The article leads off with promises of much titillation to come; not only has she managed to use the word ‘sex’ in the headline, but in the first paragraph we meet a woman who used to be a ‘professional dominatrix’. More random facts about her make up the majority of the first four paragraphs, with a small number of statistics about Japan’s falling birthrate mixed in. And so it goes on . . . and on . . . and on . . . seesawing between a strange mix of 6th-form level research about Japan’s population, and pronouncements from the ex ‘professional dominatrix’ about the state of intimate Japanese relations.

There is actually a large amount of data but it is dumped unceremoniously throughout the article, maybe to prevent it from being solely the thoughts of one Japanese woman with an unusual CV. There are glancing references to the 2011 tsunami and ongoing problems at Fukushima Daiichi, as well as mention of social phenomena, such as hikikomori (shut-ins), otaku (geeks or nerds) and the charmingly named ‘parasite singles’ (single adult children who continue to live with their parents). In fact, the article becomes a catalogue of social issues without managing to analyse even one of them in any depth. Because that would undermine the point of the article, which seem to be justifying interviewing a very dubious woman who has set herself up as an expert with no apparent training or qualifications.

In addition to her main interview subject and a relentless flood of statistics and reference to social issues, Ms. Haworth also interviews several twenty- and thirty-something Japanese people, who declare that relationships are ‘mendokusai’, or tiresome, troublesome. They’d rather do other things, like concentrate on their career (or play games on their smart phones). They view personal relationships, with the demands that would be made on their time and money, to be too much trouble. For the women, the choice presented is an either/or proposition. Do you want a career or a marriage and family? You can’t have both. Well, yes, you can. It’s not easy, but Japan needs more people in the workforce, and more woman are expecting to have a career. It’s hard to juggle everything, but isn’t it hard for women everywhere?

The number of social issues mentioned in passing is quite breath-taking: celibacy syndrome, hikikomori, otaku, parasite singles, oniyome (devil wives), soshoku danshi (grass-eating men), otomen (girly men) . . . each one would be an interesting subject for an article, but Ms. Haworth is eager to bring the article full circle and return to the dominatrix.

Anyone reading this article who knows Japan will recognise all the terms used, and will also understand that this preoccupation with the falling birthrate has been a concern since the ‘1.53 shock’ in 1990. The birthrate continued to fall until it reached its lowest in 2005, when the average number of children fell to 1.26. Since then it has increased slightly, but is still at a level to cause concern, particularly when the impact of the ageing society is also a factor. Japanese life expectancy is the highest in the world, and the costs that go along with that are huge. The country needs a workforce large enough to take care of the elderly. But this is not news, it’s been a concern for over two decades already.

More Japanese women are expecting to have a career, to have some financial independence. This is an appealing idea. They probably grew up during the Bubble years, when family life to them meant their mother working hard at home and taking care of the family, while their father was a kind of drone, working long hours, bringing home his pay, but not having much to do with the emotional life of his family. In the nineties I can remember some of my students telling me they didn’t see their fathers from one week to the next; he was gone before they got up in the morning, he came home after they went to their rooms at night, and on Sundays he went to play golf. They heard him coming and going but didn’t see him or interact with him at all. Japanese family life might seem to be under threat now, but the foundations started to crumble decades ago, in the post-war years, when everyone was working to rebuild the country. Everything else took a back seat.

I wonder about the impact of smaller families on the attitudes and social behaviour of today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings. With smaller families there are far more only children who have grown up not having to share, who are comfortable with their own company, with some kind of solitary life. They either live alone, or they live as a ‘parasite single’ with their parents, and have their needs taken care of. Why swap that for a different kind of arrangement that requires more work?

I also wonder about the impact of Western ideals, all the Disney princesses, the Hollywood movies, the expectation of a love story and happily ever after. Pre-war, most marriages were the result of the system known as omiai (お見合い), sometimes referred to as arranged marriages, but really arranged introductions to suitable partners. Post-war, the Western concept of courtship and marriage, commonly referred to as ren’ai kekkon (恋愛結婚) or love marriage has become prevalent, but even in 2013 over 6% of marriages are the result of omiai, and posters advertising agencies promising marriage within a year are a common sight on trains. It seems to me that a young Japanese woman, contemplating her parents’ marriage and the effort required to achieve happy ever after might be more inclined to think, no thank you, I’d rather put my energy into my career.

In the article there is quite a lot of attention paid to Japanese people’s reluctance to have physical contact, and again, this is an imposition of Western expectations. Japanese people are not a nation of touchy-feely people. They are not huggers, they are bowers. Japanese people are not given to displays of physical affection, with their significant other or their family, even their children. I have been told by many students that they know their mother loves them because of what she does for them, especially providing delicious food, not because of hugs and kisses.

Finally, I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I was frustrated by three aspects of this article; the lack of new information, the clichés and a blanket statement. Buried in the middle of the piece, Ms. Haworth refers to Japan as ‘a country mostly free of religious morals’. That any journalist would write such an extraordinarily sweeping and damning sentence about any country, I find quite breath-taking. That any editor would let it through also amazes me. There are no facts or statistics to back this up. The majority of Japanese people refer to Buddhism or Shinto for their religious beliefs and ceremonies. Unlike Christianity, neither Buddhism nor Shinto requires or expects weekly attendance, so it’s difficult to find any kind of study which measures religious morality. I couldn’t find one. Therefore, standing alone as a bald statement, Ms. Haworth’s claim that Japan is ‘mostly free of religious morals’ is unsubstantiated and offensive.

I was very disappointed to read Ms. Haworth’s article, and saddened to see on the newspaper’s website that it is being read by a lot of people. Japan is dealing with a lot of serious issues; tensions with its neighbours, the problems with Fukushima Daiichi, Mr. Abe’s government and its desire to change the constitution – there are plenty of things any journalist with a sincere desire to inform readers about this country could be writing about. A dominatrix setting up shop and holding forth about people’s sex lives? That’s very lazy journalism.