Sunday, July 05, 2009

“If Paul Krugman Were a Woman He would be Noriko Hama”?

Um, no. Seriously, Daniel Gross doing Japan has shaken my trust in that webzine to its foundations. It’s everything journalism should not be.

Take 1: McSushi: Why is American Food So Popular in Japan?

The image of Japan as being inhospitable to imports is old, enduring, and not entirely unjustified. The government is offering immigrants from South America—many themselves descendants of Japanese emigrants—$3,000 to return home (the better to free up jobs for native-born Japanese).

The charge that “Japan as being inhospitable to imports is old, enduring, and not entirely unjustified” is not entirely unjustified. But then, choose your examples carefully and you can make similar charges against any country. More to the point, does the $3,000 one-off payment back up Gross’s claim?

Why does Gross suppose that a South American immigrant would give up his Japanese job for a paltry $3,000? In fact, unemployed Latin American immigrants—actually, any Japanese emigrants, their spouses, children and grandchildren—can receive unemployment benefits or go on welfare, just like Japanese citizens in the same situation. The immigrants do not have to take the $3,000 (and the money for their dependants) and go back home; they have a choice. This is all a complicated issue, and I’m not arguing that the Japanese authorities, the Japanese education system and other elements of Japanese society couldn’t have done a better job with these immigrants in the first place. But that’s another story. Gross obviously does not understand any of this and made no effort to do so. His only interest is in using this example to set his readers up for a riff on American food in Japan.

The vista that meets visitors at Narita Airport is hardly more welcoming: masked staffers, health disclosure forms, and a sign warning that people who are coming in from countries such as Bolivia and Brazil must go in a special line. (They're looking for either soccer players or swine flu.)

First and foremost, this is a good example of American ignorance about soccer. Ko Ishikawa, a small and slender but skilled defender, to the best of my knowledge has been the only Bolivian soccer player that has played in the J-League in its 17-year history. Which makes Gross’s gag work only for people who have bought into American stereotypes about those Latinos. So what was the purpose of the “special line”? Didn’t Gross bother to ask? Isn’t that what he’s getting paid to do? Bolivia and Brazil have never been known as hotbeds of “swine flu.” What’s going on here? It does appear to be some sort of quarantine measure. What’s the global standard? Most important to the article, what does this have to do with “being inhospitable to imports”?

But Japan—Tokyo, at least—isn't uniformly hostile to imports. Though fiercely proud of its many cuisines, Japan is surprisingly open to food-related businesses from overseas.

Let me put it this way, Gross must be the only one I know who is surprised. I don’t expect him to actually know that we used to say in the 1960s that the three most popular things with kids were, “Kyojin (baseball team), Taiho (the great half-Russian sumo grand champion), tamago-yaki (fried eggs),” or that the first MacDonald’s opened in the Ginza Mitsukoshi—in its heyday the Japanese cultural equivalent of Saks Fifth Avenue. But tofu, sushi, tempura, in fact, most of what Gross probably thinks as Japanese cuisine are Chinese and European imports with a Japanese twist (or more). Likewise the locally even more popular udon (Chinese), ramen (China) and curry (and) rice (India; Bengali, I think). (Off topic: Teppanyaki is more of an American invention that took a Japanese cooking device and used it in the services of a meat-oriented food culture.) And of course it’s not just food-related businesses, as anyone who’s walked the streets of Ginza, Roppongi, or Omote-sando will know.

An array of recognizable names welcomes visitors to Gaien-Higashi Street: Wolfgang Puck, McDonald's, Outback Steakhouse, the Hard Rock Café (with Hello Kitty playing the guitar in the window). And there's even the ne plus ultra mediocre American cuisine: T.G.I. Friday's. I've traveled about 20 hours and 7,000-odd miles to wind up in a strip mall.

No, Gross hasn’t wound up in a “strip mall.” Cultural transplants take on different, exalted significance away from home. Japanese cuisine is a good example. I’ve often marveled at how all “Japanese” restaurants are expensive where he come from. Would Gross believe that in Japan, a $4 tempura meal complete with miso soup can be quite enjoyable*?

One man’s crap is another man’s cool. Isn’t that the kind of thing that journalists are supposed to look into?

It struck me that while Esperanto may be dead, the language of food may have replaced it as one that transcends borders and can be universally understood.

This guy obviously doesn’t get out much. Or is Washington that awful?<

(The logic of dubbing fried chicken pieces as "shaka shaka chicken" still eludes this gaijin.)

Because he never asks, that’s why. For those of you who are not proficient in colloquial Japanese, shaka shaka is adjectival onomatopoeia for “shaking.” It’s the sound that you make when you shake the pieces in their wrapper to coat them with seasoning. That way, the seasoning will have little time to suck the moisture out of the pieces, or so I assume. And, of course, nowhere in the article does he find a way to justify the “McSushi” in his title—too bad he failed to notice the many kaiten zushi. restaurants, a McSushi if ever there was one. (It would have taken this article in a totally different direction.)

Oh, and he never tries to answer the question in the title. Maybe it’s not his fault. But what does that say about the editor?

Take 2: If Paul Krugman Were a Woman

Both Paul Krugman and Noriko Hamada are economists. Both Krugman and Hamada have published many books for the general public. Both appear in the mainstream media on occasion. But there the resemblance ends. And everything Hamada says about the Japanese economy is part of the conventional wisdom. As for her prescription, it is a “gross” understatement to say that she is “not as sure-footed when it comes to a cure.” In fact, he makes her come across as some kind of buffoon. Is that why he, as a Slate writer, compares her to Krugman, ideologically closer to Salon? Luckily for Gross, this is basically a summary of an interview, so he doesn’t have as many chances to make a fool of himself.

* It’s a mystery to me too, since they have to dip the tempura in the batter and fry it on the spot. No microwave oven in sight, it’s more diner than fast food restaurant, if you know what I mean.

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