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Emperors, journalists, critics and other influential people

by Philip Brasor

Several weeks ago Time Magazine’s Tokyo bureau asked Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to nominate someone for the magazine’s series of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, and Obuchi chose Emperor Showa.

Later, Obuchi and his staff objected to the magazine’s choice of a photo to go alongside the piece that Obuchi (or whoever) wrote about the emperor. The message dwelled on Japan’s dedication to peace, but the photo showed the emperor in a military uniform.

Time responded that the uniform “doesn’t change who he is,” a comment that, while self-evident to the point of insult, didn’t address the prime minister’s objection. Whatever Time thought of the quality or content of Obuchi’s essay, they requested it, which means they were obliged to select a photograph that didn’t contradict the tenor of the piece. Personally, I don’t believe Emperor Showa was the powerless nebbish that his subsequent PR has painted him as, but I seriously doubt that Time was making some kind of editorial comment.

In a not totally unrelated story, a Japanese friend of mine recently answered a job ad placed by a prominent American newspaper for a translator/editorial assistant to work in its Tokyo bureau. My friend is qualified for the job, but when she didn’t hear from the paper after three weeks she assumed they had passed her over and she accepted another job offer. A few days later they called her for an interview and she told them she was no longer interested.

Three weeks after that, she received a form letter from the paper saying they were sorry but that they had found someone after a long screening process. The letter writer said that the bureau had received an unexpectedly large number of applications and cited Japan’s ongoing economic slump as a probable reason.

Sending a rejection letter to someone who has already turned you down is understandable, but the economic slump remark struck my friend as being very odd. Many professional translators and bilingual journalists in Japan would jump at the chance to work for a foreign publication. And some would gladly change jobs, regardless of the state of the economy. She said, “I felt as if I’d applied for work at McDonald’s.”

If there were more people like Bill Marsh you probably wouldn’t need foreign news bureaus. Bill, who was killed on July 24 in a traffic accident in Urayasu, was one of those people who through a combination of hustle and passion made a rich and varied, though not necessarily lucrative, career out of explaining contemporary Japanese culture to the West and vice versa.

Just a month or so before he died, Bill had finally launched Digital Ramen (www.d-ramen.com), a Web site about Japanese pop culture that he had been planning for a long time. He asked me and three other local English language writers to contribute to the Web site and we gave him pieces that had already appeared in other forms (in my case, this column), but the idea was that the site would eventually turn into an all-purpose English-language reading and reference tool for anyone interested in Japanese movies, music, TV, slang, tabloid journalism, etc. In effect, we and other writers would continuously contribute material and links, and thus create something of lasting and growing value.

It was also Marsh’s aim that we all get paid, and at the time of his death he had already begun thinking about advertisers. Bill didn’t expect to get rich. He understood that for such a venture to succeed in the way he envisioned, a standard of quality would have to be maintained and that it’s difficult to demand such quality when you don’t pay for it.

In a sense, that’s Bill’s legacy. The people he sought out for Digital Ramen were not academics or foreign correspondents or even otaku (though, for a number of years he ran the Otaku Club, an entertaining and savvy series of real-time interactive chats with pop culture mavens). They were people who made at least part of their living writing and thinking about Japanese pop culture because they didn’t see anyone else doing it in a way that an open-minded English-reading audience would find interesting. Since these writers lived here, Bill knew they would write honestly and responsibly, because they had a stake in what they wrote.

Bill had a gadabout personality, but he was grounded in Japan and studied it with the love and dedication of a perpetual grad student. I remember several years ago, when he was still an editor at PHP Intersect, I tried to sell him an article about the family registration system. When I approached him I admit I was a bit smug, thinking I was the first gaijin writer outside the university system who concluded that you couldn’t fully understand the cultural behavior of Japan without first understanding the family registration system. He put me in my place when he told me he had already written a piece for the magazine on that topic.

After I heard of Bill’s death, I visited the Digital Ramen Web site and downloaded his C.V. I can’t begin to do it justice here, but I recommend it as good reading. Besides being an entertaining document in and of itself, it’s the perfect example of how the expatriate life is not just a neverending education, but, approached properly, a neverending ball as well.