Hardworking Sensationalism: How International Media Misrepresents Japan

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A train guard watching a train pass.
January 23, 2017

Going back home for the holidays, you might find yourself engaged in a conversation on the more novel aspects of living in Japan. In my case, it was drinking whisky with my dad while he became increasingly bemused as I tried to explain the appeal of Piko Taro’s “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen” earworm and the appeal of Babymetal, the rock idol band.

Other topics typically discussed with my friends and family back home also tend to center on sensational themes: vending machines, motorcycle gangs, the proliferation of pornography, obsessive fandoms and so on.

Last years’ sinkhole in Fukuoka touched off a similar discussion abroad. The captivating video footage, alongside the quick and easy headline, made for the perfect degree of virality for our social media news feeds.

Smells like team spirit

The story refreshed another theme often touted abroad: that Japan is full of team spirit, excellent engineering and incredible resilience.

“Giant sinkhole in Japan repaired in a matter of days,” wrote CNN.

“Japan’s mega-sinkhole is repaired in Fukuoka in just a week,” proclaimed U.K. tabloid Daily Mail.

“Giant Japanese sinkhole fixed in 48hrs as city gets back on track,” Russian site RT opined.

Compare these boastful headlines to the sobering wording used by Tokyo-based English paper The Japan Times: “Utilities knocked out by huge Fukuoka sinkhole restored.”

Exciting.

Two issues come into play here. The first is the tabloidization and embellishment of journalism. This is done presumably to make content competitive for social media feeds.

The second issue — my main preoccupation — relates to the reinforcement of a specific narrative about Japan. This story always has us admiring Japan for all of its charms and appeal: efficient, well-designed, hardworking, cute, delicious…. Just ask any random friend to name characteristics of Japan and chances are they will utter at least one of these adjectives.

The November sinkhole, about 100 meters from JR Hakata Station, caused blackouts and traffic delays.

The November sinkhole – about 100 meters from JR Hakata Station – caused blackouts and traffic delays.

Devil in the details

Does this particular narrative of Japan being an exceptionally efficient, hardworking and well-designed society really hold up? In many ways, yes. And in many ways, no.

When CNN writes that the fixing of the sinkhole is “a testament to Japanese engineering and efficiency,” their assertion is then confounded by the fact that the sinkhole was likely caused by underground construction nearby. A more accurate sentence would be: “the filling of the sinkhole is a testament to Japanese engineering and efficiency, while simultaneously a testament to the negligence of Japanese engineering for likely triggering the sinkhole in the first place.” It just goes to show that Japanese engineers don’t always have a total grasp on what exactly it is that they’re doing, either.

Does this particular narrative of Japan being an exceptionally efficient, hardworking and well-designed society really hold up? In many ways, yes. And in many ways, no.

If the filling of the sinkhole is indeed a testament to Japanese engineering, then to what does the failure to maintain the cooling system at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant during a recent tsunami attest? Was it a selfless willingness to brave the elements no matter the cost or a terrible lack of judgment on the risks of nuclear power in a geologically unsound country?

Or when International Olympic Committee Vice President John Coates praises Tokyo as the most prepared city he’s ever seen. In doing so, he glosses over the city’s scrapping of its original plan to hold the 2019 Rugby World Cup at the Olympic Stadium as well — a plan ultimately abandoned due to lengthy and unnecessary construction delays. Of course, we can’t forget the domestic controversy over the original stadium design, which had to be redesigned by an additional architect, or the awkward accusations of plagiarism on the original logo proposal, precipitating yet another taxpayer-funded redesign.

And while utilities and services in Japanese cities are renowned for their cleanliness, punctuality and attention to the smallest of details, there are nonetheless a surprising lack of wheelchair accessible sites, a seeming failure for older structures to adhere to any sort of building codes and a seemingly rather blasé attitude toward safety standards for day laborers.

Sometimes a great notion

To that end, it seems to me that certain details conflicting with the superlative narrative we’ve constructed of Japan are swept under the rug. At the same time, elements that support this narrative are elevated proudly as evidence to justify our preconceived notions.

One of the first writers to contribute to this account of Japan was Lafcadio Hearn, who moved to the country in the 1890s. His 1894 book, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, provides just that: a novel, exoticized version of the otherwise mundane lives unfolding around him.

Of the typical Japanese cityscape, he writes: “Elfish everything seems; for everything as well as everybody is small, and queer, and mysterious: the little houses under their blue roofs, the little shop-fronts hung with blue, and the smiling little people in their blue costumes.”

So charmed by the country, he marvels at its successes, which from the outside appear pleasantly perfect: “This is the life of which a foreign observer can never weary, if fortunate and sympathetic enough to enter into it — the life that forces him sometimes to doubt whether the course of our boasted Western progress is really in the direction of moral development.”

More is less

It is through this lens that we still — and often — write about Japan today: a land of aesthetic novelty. Whether it’s a moment of culturally-induced sentimental bliss from the film Lost in Translation, a strange new kawaii creation from idol Kyary Pamyu-Pamyu or close-ups of sleek, automated robots assembling cars in a Toyota commercial — Japan provides an A-to-B comparison of the very things we perceive as lacking in the West (attention to detail, efficiency, design, etc.). We gaze fixedly on a faraway place where things are presumably better than what we have at home.

The content we ogle is manufactured, each piece filtered down through our media channels and social networks. Whether this is deliberate or not, the selection and curation of the information we find ourselves consuming is just one fragment of a greater picture. While Japan may very well be all the things we fantasize it being, for better or worse — it is also so much more.

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Living creatively in Osaka, Japan.

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  • Bob Fakelastname

    While well written, I completely disagree with the premise. Is Japan imperfect? Yes. But most foreigners feel that it’s less imperfect than most other first-world countries, to say nothing of second and third-world countries. For every young person drawn to Japan from a love of Anime or some techno-pop Tokyo fad, there are many more drawn by its real everyday people and a rich culture. We know there are serious issues here, and that some of these issues shouldn’t be covered up or glossed over as they are. But despite the flaws, and perhaps even because of them, the Japanese do one thing really well that most of the world cannot do… After waking up every morning and putting on the cloak of a well-weathered culture, the Japanese people endure… and choose to greet you with politeness. Like the concept of wabisabi, they choose to see the beauty and strength of imperfection.

  • Bobbymook

    this happens everywhere it seems. Now I am back in the UK, foreign friends in Japan make similar comments about England (Brexit, crime, immigration etc) which is purely based on media points of view etc not reality. Because they are from England they think they know. But actually all they are doing is reading a media article from the other side of the world with often little knowledge of the reality…
    And I also have noticed recently Americans I know in Japan making comments about events in England. Which again I presume is from social media. I would say even 2-3 years ago Americans wouldn’t even mention anything about England!

  • Joaquin Pellegrino

    Hello everyone, this might be a bit off topic, but I have a question for anyone who’s got first hand experience working and living in Japan:

    How much money do you need to get by?
    And, as a foreinger, how likely are you to get a part time job that gives that kind of money?

    The thing is, I’m looking into studying in Japan, first I wanted to study and perfect my japanese, or at least make it good enough to be able to attend a Japanese university. I already have a school in mind for that, and I’m looking to stay there for 3 to 6 months, the problem being that I’m not rich, and so I would have to work, hipefully part time, to get enough money for food and housing.

    Assuming my school is all paid up for in advance, how much money do you think I would need just for rent and 2 daily meals? What kind of job do you recommend I start looking for?
    I’m a profesional bartender, and an experienced QA analyst, plus I do all sorts of addjobs from time to time, so I’m open to anything really.
    I was thinking of part time because I heard there are special visas for working part time while you study that are relatively easy to get, but if you think I could go for a full time job, and as long as the school doesn’t mind, I’m up for it too.

    That’s all, thanks in advance!

  • Alex

    Great article..

  • Kai2591

    I get what you mean, I think.
    Japan is so, so misunderstood. Some people I know even have a love/fear view towards Japan – love what it offers, fear its apparent ‘extremes’.
    This is why I tell people to go to Japan and see for themselves the truth.

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