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Child’s quibble with U.S. ‘poverty superpower’ propaganda unravels a sobering story about insular Japan

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Last November, a reader in Hokkaido named Stephanie sent me an article read in Japan’s elementary schools. Featured in a sixth-grader magazine called Chagurin (from “child agricultural green”) dated December 2012, it was titled “Children of America, the Poverty Superpower” (hinkon taikoku Amerika no kodomotachi), offering a sprawling review of America’s social problems.

Its seven pages in tabloid format (see debito.org/?p=10806) led with headlines such as: “Is it true that there are more and more people without homes?” “Is it true that if you get sick you can’t go to hospital?” and “Is it true that the poorer an area you’re in, the fatter the children are?”

Answers described how 1 out of 7 Americans live below the poverty line, how evicted homeless people live in tent cities found “in any town park,” how poverty correlates with child obesity due to cheap junk food, how bankruptcies are widespread due to the world’s highest medical costs (e.g., one tooth filling costs ¥150,000), how education is undermined by “the evils (heigai) of evaluating teachers only by test scores,” and so on.

For greater impact, included were photos of a tent city, a fat lady — even a kid with rotten-looking picket-fence teeth. These images served to buttress spiraling daisy chains of logic: “As your teeth get worse, your bite becomes bad, your body condition gets worse and your school studies suffer. After that, you can’t pass a job interview and you become stuck in poverty.”

The article’s concluding question: “What can we do so we don’t become like America?” Answer proffered: Think critically, don’t take media at face value and ask questions of your parents and friends. Ask why hamburgers are so cheap, why Japan would give up its sovereignty and domestic industrial integrity through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement, and why only “efficiency and competition” are prioritized in the agricultural, medical and educational sectors.

Heavy stuff for a children’s magazine, and not entirely without merit. But not entirely accurate, either. So Stephanie’s daughter did as encouraged and questioned the article, for she had been to America and her experience was different.

Teacher’s answer: “It is written so it is true.” So much for critical thinking.

So Stephanie wrote to Chagurin asking about some of the article’s “generalizations and falsehoods” (such as the cost of a filling: ¥150,000 would in fact cover an entire root canal). She asked why there had been no comparison with Japan’s strengths and weaknesses so that both societies “can learn from each other.”

To their credit, Chagurin responded in January (see debito.org/?p=11086), admitting to some errors in scope and fact. “Tent cities in every town park” was an exaggeration; the kid’s “picket-fence teeth” were in fact fake Halloween costume teeth. They would run a few corrections but otherwise stood by their claims.

Editors justified their editorial bent thus (my translation): “Chagurin was created as a magazine to convey the importance of farming, food, nature and life, and cultivate the spirit of helping one another. The goal of the article . . . was not to criticize America; it was to think along with the children about the social stratifications (kakusa shakai) caused by market fundamentalism (shijō genri shugi) that has gone too far. . . . There are many things in this world that we want children to learn . . . not limited to poverty and social inequality, but also food supply, war, etc. . . . We would like to positively take up these issues and include Japan’s problems as well.”

But that’s the thing. They didn’t. Chagurin basically seized upon an entire foreign society as a cautionary tale, swaddled it in broad generalizations and burned it in effigy to illuminate a path for Japanese society.

So I did some research on the magazine. Endorsed by Japan PTA, Chagurin is funded by the Japan Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, connected with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

Aha. MAFF is famous for its propagandizing, especially when it comes to keeping Japan’s agricultural sector closed for “food security” purposes. Remember Japan’s poor harvest in 1995 when rice had to be imported? To ensure Japanese consumers never realized that “foreign rice” could be of similar quality to domestic fare, American and Chinese-made japonica was blended with Japanese, while low-quality Thai rice was sold alone as “foreign” to maintain a firewall. Similar dirty marketing tricks have happened with other agro-imports, including foreign apples in the 1990s and the “longer Japanese intestines unable to digest foreign beef” nonsense in the 1980s. Chagurin’s inclusion of the TPP issue is suddenly not so odd.

More interesting, however, is the article’s author, Mika Tsutsumi. According to The Japan Times (“Spotlight on the States,” April 4, 2010), Tsutsumi, the daughter of a famous Japanese journalist, lived many years in the U.S., her “dream country.” A former United Nations worker and Nomura Securities analyst who studied at the State University of New York, New Paltz, Tsutsumi has since returned to Japan to write extensively about America exclusively in Japanese. Her bestselling books include “America’s Revolution of the Weak,” “Freedom Disappears from America” and the award-winning “America, the Poverty Superpower” (original, sequel and a manga version) — which Chagurin, from the title on down, cooperatively adapted for preadolescents nationwide.

Although Tsutsumi repeatedly encourages critical thinking in her writings, none of her books on Amazon Japan apply the same level of critique to Japanese society — probably because they would not sell as well or win awards. Thus America becomes a convenient foil for Tsutsumi to sell herself, even to grade-schoolers.

But put the shoe on the other foot: If an article of this tone and content about Japan appeared in grade-schooler magazines overseas, funded by the U.S. farming lobby and endorsed by the PTA, the first wave of protests would be from the Japanese Embassy. Then Internet denizens would swamp the publisher’s servers with accusations of racism and Japan-bashing, followed by hue and cry from the Japanese media. Yet in Japan, this angle of research passes muster — as long as it’s not about Japan.

Then I dug deeper and found something even more interesting: Tsutsumi is married to Diet member Ryuhei Kawada, a member of Minna no To (Your Party), a mishmash of center-right libertarian “we’ll say whatever you want to hear as long as you vote for us” political platforms. Kawada, a hemophiliac among thousands infected with HIV in the 1980s tainted blood scandal, came to national prominence spearheading a successful campaign against the government and the drug companies involved.

An activist for Japan’s “lost generation” of “permanent part-timers” and chosen as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum, Kawada was elected to national office in 2007 on a platform of fighting discrimination. On his website (ryuheikawada.jp/english) he states, “Discrimination is the most serious issue not only in developing countries but in developed countries. I still see it in my country. . . . Education against it must be essential.”

That’s ironic, because in 2008 Kawada (unsuccessfully) campaigned against reforming Japan’s Nationality Law to allow international children born out of wedlock to be recognized as citizens even if paternity was not formally acknowledged, opportunistically joining a chorus of Japan’s xenophobes fomenting a “false paternity” scare. Apparently for Kawada, “discrimination” in Japan does not transcend nationality.

Thus Tsutsumi and Kawada are a power couple (such darlings of the left that they can jump to the right), and their influence in both policymaking circles and Japan’s media is broad. For Kawada, his alarmist gang of arguments forced the Nationality Law to be reinterpreted in 2012 to place further restrictions on Japanese with foreign nationalities (Just Be Cause, Jan. 1). For Tsutsumi, her books are now even “catching them young” — scaring impressionable minds about the “evils” of a foreign society before any schooling in comparative cultures or critical thinking.

Not to be outdone, let me offer two of my own cautionary tales from this month’s research adventure.

One is that a lack of critical thinking in Japan has enabled Japan’s media to propagandize with impunity. Propaganda, as defined by scholar Robert McChesney, is “the more people consume your media, the less they’ll know about the subject, and the more they’ll support government policy.” Tsutsumi’s article is a quintessential example: By denigrating a foreign society while elevating her own, she distorts information to leave readers ill-informed and more supportive of Japan’s insularity.

To be fair, it’s not only Tsutsumi: Live long enough in Japan and you’ll be influenced by the slow-drip mantra of how “dangerous” the outside world is (contrasted with “safe Japan”), and how if you ever dare to leave Japan (where “everyone is middle class”) you’ll be at the mercy of gross social inequalities. Over time you’ll start to believe this propaganda despite contrary experiences; it’s very effective at intimidating people from emigrating, no matter how tough things get in Japan.

The other lesson is that the hope that Japan’s “next generation” will be more open-minded than their elders is gradually evaporating. Tsutsumi and Kawada are well-educated 30-to-40-somethings with international experience, language ability and acclaimed antidiscrimination activism under their belts. Yet both are behaving as conservatively as any elite xenophobic rightist. They can get away with it because they have a perpetual soft target for Japan’s media — the outside world — to bash in a society that generally mistrusts outsiders. And they’re making mucho dinero while at it.

So let’s conclude in Tsutsumi’s style: “We” should not become like Japan because its aging society, controlled by an unaccountable bureaucratic/gerontocratic elite, will forever crowd out the young and disenfranchised from its power structure. Meanwhile the Japanese public, insufficiently trained in critical thinking, will remain intellectually blinded by jingoistic and xenophobic propaganda.

After all, focusing on overseas problems distracts attention away from domestic ills, such as an inflexible job market, an imperfect education and health system, an underdiscussed class system, a mass media that ill-serves the public interest — and yes, ironically, even questionable dietary practices, underreported poverty and homelessness, and substandard dental care.

Never mind. Let’s talk instead about how “we” are still somehow better off than somebody else. Bash the outside world — it’s lucrative. For some.

Debito Arudou and Akira Higuchi’s bilingual 2nd Edition of “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants,” with updates for 2012’s changes to immigration laws, is now on sale. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp .

  • Fight Back

    Thanks to Debito for shining a light on the underhanded and disrespectful way the Japanese sell this kind of fear mongering propaganda to their children. To me, it’s unbelievable that the Japanese feel they can criticize America without first facing up to their own societies problems first. As an American myself I feel such disingenuous criticism from someone who obviously doesn’t know American society very well, to be unwelcome.

    Whether or not the falsehoods in the article are deliberate is up for debate. What is not up for debate is the fact that Japanese nationals feel they can bash other countries at will in the guise of providing a ‘cautionary tale’. I don’t think those in glass houses should cast stones without solving their own problems in their own backyard first.

  • Ron NJ

    I read the original article when posted on Debito’s website, and there is one thing you can absolutely take away from all of this: it is fundamentally dishonest and does a great disservice to society to expose children so young, without the proper training in critical thinking and reasoning, to such wildly exaggerated and poorly written propaganda.

  • Catherine Dassy

    The most alarming person in this article to me isn’t the hack journalist who has zero journalistic ethos, but the teacher who said, “it is written so it is true.” If anyone still needed proof that critical thinking is absent from the Japanese education system, it can’t be much more telling than this one sentence.
    Introduce critical thinking into the education system, and I think in Japan’s case, it would change the country so profoundly that it could lead to a revolution – people start questioning this government and bureaucracy.
    That is probably the reason why critical thinking is being portrayed as a “Western evil”.

  • Johnny T

    Tremendous article.

  • itoshima2012

    It’s exaggerated but the fact are true. Look, if you’re poor in the US you’re done. Public schooling is bad ad private one (according to The Economist) is no anymore a good deal for the horrendous fees you pay. The US is one of the unfairest country in the world when it comes to social equality. That’s a fact! Yes, they exaggerated but the “meat of the story’ is true. You can check any statistic on this and the result will be the same. It’s a country suffering terrible rates of gun crime, foreclosures, obesete ecc. It’s sad but true.

  • phu

    One of the amusing things about Arudou is that it’s very easy to pick out his articles: He is pretty much the only person who cites his columns as sources, and he almost never cites anything else.

    Definitely a better, more grounded and readable piece than usual from this author, but still tainted by the shrewish nature that makes it impossible to take him seriously.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.takada Jeff Takada

    And yet: The poorer area you’re in, the higher the obesity index. Recent reporting is that fully 1% (21,000) of NYC’s children are homeless. That some Japanese entities employ hyperbole in an effort to forestall or deflect these ills from their society does not seem to me a crime. The failure of the American people to forestall these ills in their society on the other hand is a terrible tragedy.

    By concluding with a faux “Tsutsumi-style” tirade against the perceived ills which beset Japanese society, Arudo has once again exposed himself (as he does every article) as a destructive critic who demands that the Japanese and their feudal ways conform to his enlightened version of the way their society should be. A classic and retrograde example of “White Man’s Burden.”

  • The Apologist

    Making constant speculative, egregious, exaggerated, monolithic claims to vilify Japan and its people is the entire modus operandi of Debito and his irony-challenged followers. The same racialist sledgehammer is being used to pound the same old mosquitoes, here the predictable, stereotypically self-serving hubris that “We” are critical thinkers but “The Japanese” are not. Hypocritical much?

  • johnny cassidy

    Those were pretty big blunders (mixed in among some painful truths sad to say)! Good to see Arudou was able to prompt Chagurin to make some corrections – now only if he could get the publication he works for to do the same.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    I am somewhat perplexed by why Mr. Arudou felt the need to point out that Tsutsumi, a Japanese, living in Japan, was writing about America “exclusively in Japanese”. How else is a Japanese supposed to communicate with their fellow Japanese? It wouldn’t make any sense for a Japanese, living in Japan, to try to win over those around them by setting out their position while speaking exclusively (or even mainly) English, now would it? Such a hypothetical Japanese would quickly find themselves isolated, frustrated by being unable to accomplish anything, and yelling into an ever-smaller self-built bubble of Anglophones, now wouldn’t they?

  • Toolonggone

    The problem is NOT what ‘Chagurin’ presents–the problem(s) affecting so many people in the US. The problem is the way the Tsutsumi and her mouthpiece present America’s problem. Putting the snapshots of kid’s wearing a fake teeth for Halloween in top or over-generalized description of problems to the detriment of gross misrepresentation are very disturbing. It clearly shows Tsutsumi’s immaturity as a professional journalist and her motive behind the magazine article by following conventional assumptions on Japanese language and culture. It’s tantamount to say “it is ok to exaggerate the story for Japanese writers because the vast majority of readers are Japanese and very few NJ can read Japanese language.” Chagurin is a perfect platform for her to brainwash innocent Japanese kids without providing any Japan’s case on a similar ground to prove her point—Japan is NO STRANGER to America’s problems.