Sunday, July 27, 2008

Media Stories: Mark Schreiber and Norimitsu Onishi

WaiWai Revisited: a follow-up to this post*

PS recently told me that Japan Times carried columns by Mark Schreiber that cover more or less the same sleaze-and-tease stuff as WaiWai but hadn’t caught any flak from the Japanese blogosphere. I looked up Mr. Schreiber on the Internet and sure enough, 2 Channel posters have been mentioning him in the same breath with the ill-fated Ryan Connell. (Read this thread if you need to know more.) However, there are significant differences between the two cases that lead me to believe that JT and by extension Mr. Schreiber will survive any public onslaught, online or otherwise. Read on if you are interested.

First of all, Mr. Schreiber is only one of three writers whom produce one item each for the weekly JTfeature and offending item Tokyo Confidential. I don’t have the time to be determine whether or not Mr. Schreiber is the singular sex maniac that the Channel 2 denizens make him out to be. But the triad appears to be producing summaries of a wide range of articles, the majority having decidedly non-sexual themes. I think that they depict a reasonable cross-section of the material found in Japanese shukanshi weekly media. Which brings me to my second point…

TC sports a very strong disclaimer:

"Tokyo Confidential summarizes articles appearing in vernacular tabloids. The views expressed herein do not reflect those of The Japan Times, nor can we vouch for the veracity of the contents."

Now compare that with the Mainichi disclaimer:

"WaiWai stories are transcriptions of articles that originally appeared in Japanese language publications. The Mainichi Daily News cannot be held responsible for the content of the original articles, nor does it guarantee their accuracy. Views expressed in the WaiWai column are not necessarily those held by the Mainichi Daily News or the Mainichi Newspapers Co."

Note the difference between JT’s "vernacular tabloids" and the MDN reference to "Japanese language publications". Vernacular tabloids cover the territory between The Sun/National Enquirer and Weekly World News. In fact, although JT does have its dosage of Shukan Jitsuwa reports, it also carries summaries from more sober weeklies such as the Yomiuri Weekly and Spa!. The media groups that control these publications alongside mainstream dailies and broadcasting networks would bristle if they realized that their publications were being put in the same basket as the sleaze-and-tease publications like Shukan Jitsuwa or Shukan Taishu or that little-known Ryan Connell favorite Nakkuru. MDN by contrast obscured, deliberately or not, the nature of its generally seamier samples.

Third, a stand-alone, English-language publication should be far less vulnerable to this kind of pressure than a mainstream, full-service media group. A boutique publisher, JT can afford to be more adventurous. Controversy can help more than it hurts.

Thus, armed with a more powerful if somewhat exaggerated disclaimer, and nestled in a triptych by a couple of presumably less priapic writers, Mr. Schreiber is in the clear. With little or no corporate exposure to the Japanese-language market, JT can keep taking that to the bank.

* I think that you’ll find the ongoing dialog to be of interest, even if you’ve already read my original post.

Norimitsu Onishi Slips in Another One on the “Pub Taxis”

First of all, let me say that I respect and enjoy Mr. Onishi’s work. His sympathy for his favorite subjects—loners, losers, outcasts—gives his offbeat stories a charm that the run-of-the-mill, Japan-is-weird report lacks. But his latest piece on DPJ crusader Akira Nagatsuma and the “pub taxi” scandal portrays sterner stuff. To quote:

Mr. Nagatsuma, 48, has become the nation’s chief muckraker. He again grabbed front-page headlines recently by exposing the widespread practice among elite bureaucrats of using taxpayers’ money to take taxis home at night, and accepting drinks, gifts and even cash as kickbacks from drivers looking for repeat fares. The revelations surrounding the “pub taxis”, as they became known*, made him an even more feared figure among bureaucrats. And they elevated his standing among voters who first heard of him last year when he uncovered widespread bureaucratic mishandling of the national pension records.

Now, being the target of an investigation by Akira Nagatsuma, the reporter turned DPJ crusader, is about as painful as its get for the bureaucracts in his crosshairs, so, as a former bureaucrat, I may be getting a little sensitive here. But: “elite bureaucrats”? Anyone with an eye on the Japanese media should have known that it was the non-elites—the grunts and NCOs—of the Japanese bureaucracies who had been availing themselves of the largess. There, Mr. Onishi would have found a fascinating story about a small group of entrepreneurial non-corporate taxi drivers trying to survive in an oversaturated taxi market. Dig a little deeper and he probably would have been able to write a story about a different group little guys, this time in the bureaucracy.

I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt; I’ll take it on faith that he did not just make it up when he used the word “elite” without any source whatsoever. Yet he clearly would not have done so without some preconceptions about the subject of his story—preconceptions that fit his visceral attachment to the underdog. And this would not be the first time that he has tweaked the facts to better fit his narrative.


Anonymous said...

Some interesting observations indeed. Some more reporting on these "non-elites" in the bureaucracy and Japan's entrepreneurial classes that feel it important to bribe them is in order.

However, in your zeal to one up the NY Times Bureau chief, you seem to have neglected one interesting phenomenon. Mr. Onishi's article appeared in the Times on Saturday, July 19th. On July 23rd, the Tokyo Shimbun ran on page 2 a strikingly similar article. Some of the prose even seemed like a direct translation. The article discussed uppity DPJ legislators.

What do you make of that?

Jun Okumura said...

Anon, there’s no way for me to make anything of any resemblance to Mr. Onishi’s article. It has nothing to do with my "zeal". I don't subscribe to Tokyo Shinbun, and there is no article on its website that remotely resembles what you describe.

By the way, I wouldn't exactly call those non-corporate taxi drivers members of the "entrepreneurial class", although they were certainly enterprising. Licenses for non-corporate taxi drivers are essentially rewards for veteran taxi drivers with good driving records.

Durf said...

I don't think it's much of a stretch to call the average Kasumigaseki mandarin "elite" compared to bureaucrats in prefectural or municipal offices around Japan. That said, the truly elite ones are all going home at an entirely civilized hour, or else catching entirely different taxis/hired vehicles in lines of cars at Akasaka or Ginza instead, probably.

There was an article in the 2/2008 Ronza that talked about the bureaucrats' brutal workload involved when Diet members request information, and the particular burden of Nagatsuma's requests. We translated it for the 4/2008 issue of Japan Echo; I'd be happy to shoot you a digital copy of it if you want to see the English version.

Jun Okumura said...


Calling the NCOs and grunts mandarin “elite” doesn’t make that a fact, unless you dilute the meaning of the word “elite” to the point of meaninglessness. Moreover, their equivalents in some prefectural and municipal governments draw higher pay. Besides, it’s the fast-track officials who have not yet reached division director level who tend to work the longest hours. As for your conjecture about the lines of cars at Akasaka and Ginza, you’ve seen too many TV dramas. The lines were always dominated by private sector clients. Yes, there was a time when corporate minders took bureaucrats out for the night, but that era ended, rather abruptly, some years back, when a series of scandals too down many bureaucrats and arguably the Ministry of Finance. No, elite bureaucrats take the same taxis when they are unable to catch the last train home. Then what was going on?

Read on.

And thank you Durf, I'd like to see that article.

Durf said...

Well, if "elite" is to be defined in terms of pay scale I suppose there aren't any elite bureaucrats at all, at least compared to pachinko parlor owners and those Indian number crunchers at foreign banks and so on. Anyway I think it's a well-worn approach to think of any and all bureaucrats in the central government ministries and agencies as those who have climbed to the top of the academic pyramid before leaping off into the Kasumigaseki apparatus, and the E adjective doesn't seem too jarring to me when applied here.

I'll send the English piece to your Gmail address. Enjoy!

Jun Okumura said...

I doubt that that was what Mr. Onishi had in mind. We'll let our readers decide.

Thanks for the English piece.