Forget Kevin — we need to talk about Japan. In early December, Sophie Knight, a journalist based in Tokyo, wrote an article for the website Medium titled “Japan has a cute problem: How the pink apron keeps women down.” It was a short piece that I regarded as a way of sparking debate on the issue of women in Japan.
The article referred to Haruko Obokata, the researcher who claimed to have made great strides in the field of genetics, and her depiction in the Japanese press, which paid a great deal of attention to her — particularly how cute she looked in an apron. Knight argues that Obokata was a victim of the prevalent sexism in Japan: “While her fall from grace caused outrage and sadness in the wider scientific world,” Knight writes, “in Japan, it was easy to comprehend: Pretty girls shouldn’t mess with science.”
A Japan-based translator and blogger, Matt Thorn, responded to Knight’s article, querying her motives for writing the piece. In that blog post, Thorn identifies two types of writing in English about Japan. The first variety is educational — the kind of reporting that journalists do in an attempt to convey exactly what is going on in the country. The second type of discourse about Japan, however, casts doubts on any author’s motives for doing so, Thorn writes, and should be approached with suspicion:
“Opinion is an entirely different matter. When you express an opinion about Society A in the language of Society B, rather than that of Society A, you are presumably doing so for a reason. It is a political choice, and I think it is fair to ask the writer why they chose to target the members of Society B with an opinion about Society A.
“I suppose there are any number of scenarios in which a writer would reasonably make such a choice. . . . One possibility is that the author thinks Society B could learn something from Society A in regards to the topic at hand. This is actually rather common, and of course is a fine thing.
“The other possibility that comes to mind is that the author wants the people of Society B to know that Society A is Bad, if only in regards to the topic at hand. Since the readers can usually do nothing about the Bad Thing discussed (other than sign a petition or donate money), the motive probably boils down to wanting to express distaste for Society A (or at least that aspect of Society A). It is an expression of contempt with no practical purpose beyond the spreading of hatred.
“But perhaps there is a third possibility. Perhaps the author just wanted to get this thing off their chest, and chose to do so in their native tongue because it was too much trouble to write it in the language of Society A.”
So, anyone who comments critically about Japan in English apparently must have ignoble intentions — and/or be lazy, according to Thorn. He then goes on to offer a fourth possible explanation for this rash of apparent Japanophobia: that people who write about Japan in English are only doing so for the money. He’s also honest enough to admit that he has done such jobs, and would “cheerfully” do so again. I suppose I have done the same, having being published twice in The Japan Times — but I wasn’t told what to write, nor what tone the article should take: I wrote something that was accepted by the publisher, and I wasn’t initially expecting to be paid.
I also take issue with this idea of “getting this thing off their chest,” as if any foreigner speaking negative of Japan must be engaging in a kind of “gaijin-plaining” — a “sounding off” or mere complaint. While it’s true that articles in the Community section of The Japan Times often highlight issues, “issues” are not synonymous with “problems.” These articles are about discussing concerns but are not necessarily attempts to expose a “problem” with Japan.
Maybe it’s just because I’ve been indoctrinated into the academic discipline of philosophy, but I believe it is possible to present an account that is intended to provoke discussion, or is a genuine attempt to understand an issue, without having to pitch your tent in either of the debaters’ camps. In order to attempt to understand the other person’s position, academic philosophers often present arguments they don’t necessarily hold to.
There also may be topics that are far more likely to be discussed in a language other than Japanese. That excludes Japanese that cannot read English, it’s true, but not all Japanese people by default.
To give an example, one of my articles for JT, “Giving up your seat on the train is a public affair” (Foreign Agenda, Sept. 3) was written to highlight an issue: that of disabled people in Japan. The view expressed in that article — that some Japanese people need constant praise for ostensibly selfless acts — is not necessarily my actual view. I was attempting to highlight an issue and start a debate.
With that in mind, I suggest there a fifth possibility as regards opinion writing about Japan: That what commentators who write about Japan in English are doing is not necessarily criticism but is instead a genuine attempt to understand, and maybe to sound out whether or not how they experience Japan is atypical or outright mistaken. After all, the majority of non-Zainichi foreigners in Japan cannot write in Japanese, so how else are they supposed to know if their concerns are shared?
I have found my hosts here in Japan to have an interest in the English language, and in what its speakers have to say about Japan. It’s telling that both the most flattering praise and most devastating criticism of my writing about Japan has come from the Japanese people.
I always believe that the message sent is rarely the message received. Having written something about Japan in English intended for an audience of foreigners, it would be a mistake to assume it will only be received by that community.
Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic who currently lives in Suita, Osaka Prefecture. His e-book “Gaijin Story: Tales of a British Disabled Man in Japan” is now available on Amazon. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org