Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Parable of Taro Aso, Cub Reporter; and an Announcement

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a parable as “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.”
So after two years at Stanford, the young Taro Aso walks into the Asahi Shinbun bureau in Los Angeles and asks for a job. He’s hired on the spot. The next day, his boss asks him, What’s in the news today? and Aso gives him a rundown on what he’s seen on the three networks—there’s no CNN, no Fox, actually, no cable TV yet—and his boss says, Great, so what have you got in the LA Times and Aso says, I dunno, man, I can’t read English”.

And that’s how Aso came to give up journalism and go into politics…
Kidding. Actually, it was his Japanese language skills that got him fired.

Kidding again. Actually, it can be done. Back in the day, when I handled foreign press relations for METI, I would read articles on Japan in The Economist and think, Holy Sh!t, these guys are more reliable than the Japanese media, and I’ve never met a journalist there, then, and since, who can really read Japanese. The wire services generally do a credible job, and I don’t think they exclusively assign Japanese-language experts to their Japan desks either.

It’s easy to see what these people have going for them. They have Japanese staffs to help them, and individual journalists can focus on specific areas, building up contacts and a body of expertise. Without these things to help you, you have to rely on whatever you can find in the English-language media on the subject and experts who are willing to talk to you. That means that you are relying on stories and the conventional wisdom in the English-language media. They usually have at least a measure of credibility to themselves—Observing Japan, for example, is an excellent blog, far more informative on Japanese politics than mine; and yes, the national bureaucracy in Japan has long been a more powerful force than its U.S. counterparts (but likely not compared to the French, yet we never hear about France, Inc.…)—but given limited language skills and expertise, which moreover conspire with time constraints, the narrative tends to illustrate, not illuminate, the theme of your report. So the thrust of your report may be correct, but your facts may be wrong and assessments off the mark, in which case you’re no better than the proverbial broken clock (must google to find the proverb of the broken clock)…

Finally, remember that President Truman used to mispronounce words, and he’s considered one of the better Presidents that the United States has had.

Now, the stupid stuff out of the way, I’m sure there are many people out there who disagree with what I wrote in Globaltalk 21 Raw, are not sure, or can’t figure out what I’m talking about in the first place. So I’m going to use some of my spare time to go over them in the coming days as independent posts. Some of those points I’ve no doubt covered one way or another. Hopefully, my efforts will yield something beyond mere deconstruction—which Shisaku has already discouraged.


tony said...

"I’ve never met a journalist there, then, and since, who can really read Japanese"

Jun, I've worked with the Japanese media in London, and now I work as a freelance journalist in Tokyo. I can tell you which group of correspondents are equipped with the better language skills for their jobs, and its not the UK-based ones!

When you were at METI, the foreign media could afford to employ large staffs of researchers and translators. Correspondents were correspondents first, and local experts second. They would move to a new country every few years and each time rely on staff to help them.

As you know, there are barely any bureaux left now, so media employ local stringers with the necessary language skills to do the job on their own. Several stringers and corresponents I know have degrees in Japanese studies and years in Japan.

I don't know what your definition of "really reading" is but I can read a newspaper or a government report with relative ease, which I think is perfectly good enough to do my job - and certainly better than having everything filtered through Japanese staff. There are plenty of foreign journalists in Tokyo with better skills than me.

Also, please bear in mind that even if correspondents can't speak English, they aren't shut out from Japanese sources because there are plenty of Japanese people who speak good English. Again, far more now than when you were at METI.

I think the whole language issue is a red herring and, I fear, - correct me if I am wrong - a coded way of saying that "only Japanese people can truly understand Japan". Having language skills is simply a useful tool.

I was going to write that maybe you don't meet many foreign journalists these days. But perhaps, on the other hand, you do. Have you considered the fact that your excellent English skills tend to attract the dwindling number of foreign journalists who don't speak Japanese?

Jun Okumura said...

Tony: I was specifically referring to The Economist. Other than that, I'll be posting on the specific points that I raised in Globaltalk 21 Raw, and with all the other things on my mind and the fact that I have to earn a living (I do this for love (like your blog), not money), let me know after those posts if you want to continue this discussion, will you?

tony said...

No, I'll look out for your posts and let's leave it at that. It was interesting, but I think I misunderstood your post, and I am supposed to writing about Sado island not the language proficiency of correspondents!