Zipangu vs. The New York Times

Japanese rise in defense of their country's image

By Mark Schreiber

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 16 November 1998, page 6

See also Zipangu's blind agenda and Warawareru Nihonjin / Japan Made in U.S.A..

Front cover of Zipangu 1998
Back cover of Zipangu 1998

Zipangu (compiler)
Japan Made in U.S.A.
New York: Zipangu, 1998
280 pages, paperback

Does Japan suffer from an image problem? If it does, there's certainly nothing new about the phenomenon. Back in February 1988, the cover story of bimonthly media magazine DaCapo was "Nihonjin no Hyoban wa Naze Warui ka?" (Why are Japanese regarded unfavorably?). The series of articles, featuring biting remarks from Japanese and local foreigners alike, ran 32 pages.

In order of appearance, DaCapo featured such topics as trade friction; high prices forced upon Japanese consumers in order to fuel the nation's exports; discriminatory treatment of students and workers from other Asian countries; "shameless" behavior by members of Japanese tour groups while abroad; and the alleged awkwardness of Japanese at learning foreign languages. The final four pages were reserved for the treatment of Japan in foreign books.

As a counterweight, DaCapo also invited several Japanese to exchange barrages with foreign commentators.

During the years of the bubble economy, when trading partners felt increasingly threatened by the specter of Japanese economic power, books about Japan became less flattering and, to some, more ominous. One genre that resurfaced at this time (after making its first appearance in the 1930s) was a plethora of exotic potboiler fiction on Japan, ranging from tales of ninja on the prowl in mid-Manhattan to Japanese conspiracies to take control of Wall Street. This negative image of Japan at the grass-roots level of western popular culture has been largely ignored by serious scholars. One work of fiction that did receive a great deal of attention was Michael Crichton's 1992 novel Rising Sun. It was described by its author as a "warning" against unrestricted sales of U.S. high-tech firms to Japanese companies -- although the book itself made Japanese appear just as exotic and conspiratorial as other low grade Yellow Peril fiction.

It is clear that the wounds suffered by both sides during WWII have yet to be fully healed, and create a cozy breeding ground for media distortions. In 1997, a team of academics and working journalists put together a book entitled Cultural Difference, Media Memories -- Anglo-American Images of Japan. In an essay therein entitled "Fear and Loathing in the British Press," Phil Hammond and Paul Stirner write, "It is not difficult to detect the loathing for Japan in British press coverage of the country. The hostility lies just beneath the surface in discussions of cultural difference, or jokes about weirdness. When such contempt rises to the fore, however, as in the coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of VJ-Day, it is easy to lose sight of the fear which motivates this hostility."

The articles in the western media perceived as the worst offenders are, of course, relayed to Japanese secondhand through their own mass media. One fairly recent clash that comes to mind was Shukan Shinsho's angry reaction to "insulting" reporting about the Imperial family (with particular objection to one American reporter's use of the descriptive term "nerdy"). Another was Shukan Bunshun's unhappiness with a French book, Le Japon, which included a comment on the supposed infrequency with which Japanese married couples engage in sex.

Nevertheless, it is relatively rare to see Japanese voicing concerns over their country's image in English-language media. Which brings us to a New York-based group of 11 Japanese, eight women and three men, who call themselves Zipangu. The name originates from Marco Polo's rendering of the Chinese Jih-pen (or more likely Jih-pen-kuo) -- Japan -- a place Marco mentioned in his writings although he never claimed to have traveled there.

Zipangu puts out a newsletter for the Japanese community in New York. "Miserable and angry" over what they perceive as "outrageous" coverage of Japan by The New York Times, they went to considerable effort to direct criticism at the U.S. media, justifying their project by stating their intention is to point out the "traps and dangers that are produced when encountering two different cultures."

In September of this year Zipangu published a bilingual book (143 pages in Japanese, 133 in English, four carrying advertisements) entitled "Japan Made in U.S.A." Spot checks of the two halves of the book confirmed that translations from Japanese to English and vice versa are reasonably accurate, but ironically, the titles used are quite different. The English title is a rather ambiguous "Japan Made in U.S.A."; the Japanese half of the book is identified by the considerably more inflammatory: Wawarareru Nihonjin -- New York Times ga egaku fukashigi na Nihon (Ridiculed Japanese -- Inscrutable Japan as depicted by The New York Times).

As can be gleaned from the Japanese title, Zipangu's bilingual polemic specifically attacks the way Japan is being portrayed in one of, if not the most, respected newspapers in America. To drive home the authors' point, the book begins with angry critiques of the "Ten worst New York Times stories on Japan." These are (with selected excerpts by the authors following in brackets):

  1. Women's rape fantasies in adult comics ("stressed the mysterious nature of the Japanese")
  2. Absence of love between married couples ("thoughtless")
  3. An observation that Japanese women speak with high-pitched voices ("ripped off [from] an original source")
  4. Superstition and religion in modern society ("stereotyping")
  5. The failure of the Barbie doll ("arrogant attitude regarding cultural exports")
  6. Abortion ("gave an ominous impression")
  7. The Lolita complex and schoolgirl prostitution ("conveys a negative attitude toward Japan's low crime rate")
  8. Molesters on commuter trains ("reinforced the image that Japanese are sneaky")
  9. Public urination ("nitpicking Japan")
  10. Former soldiers' accounts of war atrocities, including one who confessed to having eaten human flesh ("ambiguous", "self-serving")

Although these responses to the NYT articles reflect the writers' collective anger, the book's overall approach is, to their credit, well-measured, civil and coherent -- considerably more restrained than the visceral reactions often observed in the Japanese mass media. The book itself is not entirely one-sided. To the authors' credit, they include a 9-page interview with NYT's Tokyo Bureau Chief Nicholas D. Kristof that allows him to present his own side. This, unfortunately, is the only time anyone who does not agree with the authors' premise is given a credible voice. The remaining essays and interviews -- with former Washington Post Tokyo Bureau Chief T.R. Reid, San Francisco Chronicle journalist Charles Burress, and Japan scholars such as Carol Gluck and Harry Harootunian -- basically support the authors' position.

Matt Thorn, a Kyoto-based cultural anthropologist and writer/translator and authority on comics, remarks that the NYT's agenda is to portray Japanese society as "sick" and "wrong." "To the prejudiced American mind," Thorn complains, "the American glass is half full while the Japanese glass is half empty."

But cultural anthropology is not journalism, whose task is to entertain and enlighten as well as inform -- and usually in 1,200 words or less -- readers who focus mostly on domestic and economic news, and who for the most part have only a passing interest in the subject of Japan.

Citing a book by Richard Shepard detailing archival material from the NYT, Zipangu notes that in November 1992, the paper's foreign editor Bernard Gwertzman sent a six-page interoffice memo to foreign bureaus requesting change in direction of reporting. "We are interested in what makes societies different, what is on the minds of people in various regions. Imagine you are being asked to write a letter home every week to describe a different aspect of life in the area you are assigned."

The book's chief editor, Hideko Otake, interprets Gwertzman's request as revealing an intent to "exoticize" Japanese, "to show how different they are from Americans." This, she writes, deserves criticism because "no third party seems to assess the validity of what the reporter writes."

Her assertion, however, appears to overlook the ultimate adjudicator -- New York Times readers -- who are welcome to write critical letters, or to cancel their subscriptions.

In an attempt to gauge the reaction to such stories, Zipangu did in fact conduct telephone interviews with what appears to be a small cross section of NYT readers. Interestingly, the responses do not appear negative enough to have satisfied Zipangu. Yuriko Yamaki, the book's managing editor, sidesteps the issue by noting that "The perspectives on each of these respondents regarding Japanese coverage varies, because of their different experiences with Japan. It seems that these respondents do not thoroughly read the Time's stories on Japan, despite a favorable attitude toward the paper."

A common argument, both by Zipangu and among western journalists willing to discuss this topic with me, appears to be focused on, not that such subjects as erotic comics for women and abortion should be ignored, but that they should not be reported by a publication of the caliber of The New York Times.

Choice of subject matter is always a challenge. Last week, one of Tokyo's English language newspapers ran articles translated from its parent publication about wife-beating and cheating by students at the elite University of Tokyo. If such stories are judged important enough to warrant inclusion in local news reports, why can't -- and why shouldn't -- the NYT bureau here feel inclined to add its own perspectives? Does reporting from Japan have to be limited to politics and the economy?

Of course, in this world of political correctness, articles that offend unnecessarily are to be avoided. Zipangu's complaints on the shortcomings of American journalism should not be ignored outright. Their arguments would have been more effective, however, if they had taken pains to acknowledge and condemn the parallel universe that exists in the Japanese media, where images of foreign countries are distorted and stereotyped, reinforcing the same kind of ethnocentric preconceptions and sense of smugness among Japanese that the New York Times is accused of attempting to impart to its readers in the U.S. Japan's media energetically reports that foreign societies suffer from racism and bigotry while Japan, judging from the lack of coverage on this topic, does not. Nor does TV programming here shirk from broadcasting scenes of people overseas being arrested, beaten up or shot, or showing crime victims' mangled corpses. In Japan, one gets to view a chalk mark after the mess is cleaned up. Showing the corpse is unthinkable, since, after all, "consideration" must be given to the "rights" of the deceased (or to avoid embarrassment to the family of the deceased).

NYT's images of Japan may come across as weird to Americans, but is there evidence that Japan is really singled out for such special treatment? That the portrayals of contemporary Japan contain more distortions than, say, those of Germany or Australia?

While Zipangu objected to the NYT articles, one must accept the possibility that other Japanese find them to be curious but not necessarily offensive. Several English-speaking Japanese friends made remarks to the effect that since so little about Japan gets reported in the American media in any case, it was nice to see anything about their country getting some attention! (Although yet another, a Japanese magazine reporter, told me "I feel the articles might have been written by a tourist.")

The picture of Japan as portrayed through foreign reporters' eyes may be a shallow or distorted one; but I dare say it also provides Japanese expats with reminders that the comfortable truisms about the country they left behind are fragmenting with terrifying rapidity. Zipangu's knee-jerk reaction is understandable. While its glass-houses stance leaves it flawed, Japan Made in U.S.A. nevertheless deserves a once-over by anyone who reads, or writes about, Japan.

Mark Schreiber is a Tokyo-based free-lance journalist and translator. He has lived in Japan for over 30 years and is a long-time contributor to MDN.