We need to talk about Japan — in English


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: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • rossdorn

    Your complaints are understandable, but they are missing the
    point. Japanese women have no problem with the kind of culture that values kawai and cute. They prefer the rewards that can be attained by these values.

    So your questions is just ridculuous: „Who can blame them,
    when they’re only trusted with making tea or answering the phone?“

    All they need do is refuse to accept this, but they
    obviously do not, and will not.

    „In corporate Japan most women are treated like decorative

    And they obviously like it !

    If they do not, then there is no one to blame but themselves…

    „But while her fall from grace caused outrage and sadness in
    the wider scientific world, in Japan, it was easy to comprehend: Pretty girls shouldn’t mess with science.“

    The last sentence was true from the very beginning, you
    truly have to be a pretty girl to suggest that normal cells will turn into stemcells when dunked into lemonjuice…

    Your problem, author, is that you pick one symptom, women’s
    behaviour, instead of going after the diseasye, which is called „Japanese culture“…

  • Internet Terracotta Tiger

    Once can tell a lot about the motivations of criticism by the tone of expression and language used.

    I think there is a lot “Society B” could learn from “Society A”, and top of my list would be a genuine, well-researched constructive interest in solving problems, as opposed to too much criticizing and complaining with too few well-researched, respectfully-articulated constructive solutions to offer. There’s a point after which the “criticizing it ’cause I love it” excuse, articulated by folks who otherwise hardly seem to love it at all, starts wearing a tad thin.

  • PeninsulaChosun

    Talk about Japan in English???? LMAO… What is there to talk about….. Japan is an nation that haunts by Korean spirit and WW.II misdeeds.

  • kyushuphil

    If I’m reading a poem or essay connected with Japan, I warm all the more to words in it that get close to experiences, people, places, habits in Japan.

    If there are few, or no such terms in any poem or essay, it may still be a good piece of writing — but the echoes in it obviously chime from elsewhere. The author largely comes from or is engaged with elsewhere.

    That’s OK. Anyone coming here may yet be saddled with previous baggage. In that case, I look for specificity of expression connected to elsewhere, even if the oddest of Japanese circumstances may occasion such riffs otherwise mostly not connected with Japan.

    But if one loves anything here — or angers at anything — then I trust our poet or essayist will provide the specificity of local language, local place names, food and drink, names and clothing of local girls, with suitable echoes and reverberations among all.

    Art, like good loves among people, rules similarly around the world.

  • iago

    In order to attempt to understand the other person’s position, academic philosophers often present arguments they don’t necessarily hold to.

    Ah, so in order to investigate the subject more deeply, the philosopher might put forward one perspective (perhaps we could call it something like tatemae) while actually personally holding an alternative, perhaps contrary perspective (let’s call that honne — just for the sake of argument)?

    I suppose that could be confusing, perhaps even disturbing, to the uninitiated, but once you understand what is going on, and understand the culture of philosophy, I guess it does kind of make sense.

  • Tomoko Endo

    Japanese women are strong in their families. They can insist their complaint in their families. But their wage is half of men’s wage.
    Japanese constitution keep both sex’s freedom, after the war.
    Japanese men insist that women are strong meaningless.
    Selfhish women are strong, but not sefish women are weak all the time.

  • Tomoko Endo

    I hear that many Japanese or Korean women use men brutaly, and men enjoy them.
    It is inbelievalbe for me, a very tall woman.

    So, Japanese women’s positon is not so low. baost.

    Under the war, that was different.

    But Japanese woman’s income is 60percet of men’s. So, in reality, Japanese serious women are weak.