Friday, December 19, 2014

Media Watch: What the Name Jacobson Says about the Japanese Media

The top story in the morning version of the December 19 Yomiuri is the simultaneous announcement by President Obama and Chairman Castro that the United States and Cuba were going to pursue normalization of bilateral relations. It even (literally) pushed to the side the announcement that experiments by Riken and already all-but-discredited (no longer Dr.) Haruko Obokata had been terminated without producing any cells showing evidence of stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). To be fair, the main points of the STAP story had been reported the day before, but international news with no violence and no domestic ramifications making the top of the front page is still pretty impressive.

What caught my eye, though, was a small detail in the hard-copy version, which said that ヤコブソン国務次官補—that’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to you—would be visiting Havana in January to discuss normalization of diplomatic relations and immigration issues among others. Now, the alphabetized rendering of ヤコブソン would be ya-ko-bu-son, which would be correct if she were German or Scandinavian. But since she was an American, her name would sound more like jei-ko-bu-son, or ジェイコブソン and written like that. Just to be sure that she wasn’t a German/Scandinavian immigrant of British ancestry (the normal German/Scandinavian rendering, I suspect, would be Jakobsen, not Jacobson) who insisted on having her name pronounced the original way, I checked YouTube, where I had to scan at least a dozen YouTube videos before I could confirm that the Assistant Secretary did indeed use the normal, anglicized pronunciation of her name.

The story was reported out of Washington and…Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. But the Brasilia part is not as odd as it looks. Japanese newspaper correspondents are typically posted to Brazil, where they must cover all of Latin America, with bilingual locals sifting through media reports, TV news programs and the like. Or at least that was the case when I was posted there, and it remains the same, apparently. The reporter did not bother to fly to Havana, it appears, since (s)he probably would not be able to hold interviews in Spanish (or Portuguese for that matter) anyway.

But it’s the ya-ko-bu-sen that’s truly bizarre. Yes, it took me some effort to find her name actually being pronounced, but that was because most of the uploads had the introductions lopped off, and it was “Roberta” this “Roberta” that once the interviews and/or Q&As began. This did mean, though, that the reporter never attended any sessions where the assistant secretary was featured. Worse, it raised the suspicion that the reporter had rarely if ever heard the very common name “Jacob”—the most popular male baby name in the United States in 1999-2012—being pronounced. This makes me wonder, what is this correspondent doing with his time while he is posted in Washington? Yes, transcripts become available online very quickly, but you don’t need someone in Washington to read them.

Actually, I suspect that I know what they do with their time.

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