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Cultural insensitivity no laughing matter

by Philip Brasor

The tempest in a teapot whipped up by a segment on the British quiz-cum-comedy show “QI” has prompted debate on cross-cultural sensitivity. The BBC has apologized for the segment, which, contrary to a statement issued by Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, did not make fun of its subject, the late Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who was a victim in both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. If anything, it made fun of the British railway system, which was found wanting in comparison to Japan’s.

The main complaint is that any exploitation of the atomic bombings for the purposes of levity is hurtful to the survivors, their families and the Japanese people in general, regardless of the content or target of the joke. The laughs, in this instance, were evinced by the irony of the situation: A man who was burned in one atomic bombing was able to board a train to go to a city where he suffered — and survived — another. Depending on your threshold for humor, insult was added to injury when some of the guests on the show tried to make jokes (“He never got the train again, I tell you”), which is what they’re paid to do.

Just as there’s no accounting for taste, it’s difficult to make a case for comedy that may strike some as being in bad form, especially when the gag isn’t particularly funny; but the argument here is not really about whether Yamaguchi’s fateful journey qualifies as a cosmic joke. The point is: Who gets to say how people should react to it?

Yamaguchi’s daughter told Kyodo News that her own family had joked about her father’s experience, but that doesn’t mean British people can do the same. The reason they can’t, she said, is that Great Britain is a “country that has nuclear weapons.” But it’s not within the purview of “QI” to make such distinctions. Britain may possess nukes, but the guests on the show certainly don’t; and for all we know they may be opposed to their country’s policy of deterrence. No, the real reason they don’t have a right to joke about Hiroshima, at least from the Japanese critics’ point of view, is that they aren’t atomic bomb victims themselves.

The same line of reasoning informs the suit that the parents of Keiko Arimoto, one of the Japanese people abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s, brought against veteran journalist Soichiro Tahara in July 2009. Earlier that year, Tahara speculated on a TV Asahi talk show that Arimoto and another abductee, Megumi Yokota, were dead and that the Foreign Ministry knew they were dead. Akihiro and Kayoko Arimoto believe that their daughter is still alive, and Tahara’s remarks caused them great “mental suffering,” so they sued him for damages.

On the program in question, Tahara was discussing Japan’s policy toward North Korea and questioned the wisdom of predicating any engagement with NK on the communist state’s first returning all remaining abductees to Japan. “But North Korea says they’re dead,” Tahara said, “and even the Foreign Ministry knows they’re not alive.” Unofficially, Tahara’s remark is tabooT: One cannot publicly put forth the opinion that the abductees may be dead, because their families have stated that they believe they aren’t. In Japan, the families own the abductee narrative because they are victims, and owning the narrative means you get to control how it’s told.

What seems clear from the development of the case is that the Arimotos and their supporters were less interested in punishing Tahara for violating the taboo than in finding out who in the Foreign Ministry believes their daughter is dead, since the ministry officially sanctions their version. Last fall, the Kobe District Court heard the case and ordered Tahara to submit the entire recording of the conversation he had with the unnamed ministry official who supposedly advanced the opinion that Keiko Arimoto was dead. Tahara had only provided a transcript of what he said was the relevant part of the conversation. He refused to give the court the recording on journalistic grounds of protecting an anonymous source.

Tahara appealed, and on Jan. 21 the Osaka High Court reversed the district court decision, saying that Tahara had a right to protect his sources. It would be natural to assume that the Arimotos were dissatisfied with this outcome, but they decided to drop the case. In the transcript Tahara submitted, the ministry official doesn’t state clearly if he thinks Arimoto is dead. When Tahara suggests that NK “doesn’t need to look any further” for the remaining abductees, the official answers, “You might be able to say that.”

Kayoko Arimoto had told reporters that she and her husband had talked personally with Foreign Minister Maehara, who “confirmed” that all the relevant ministry officials “believe” their daughter is alive, so they will not appeal the high court decision. Moreover, Tahara publicly apologized to the couple, saying that the way he presented his information on TV Asahi “was inappropriate.” All’s well that ends well, in that the victim-approved narrative remains in tact.

In an article he wrote last month for the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, former Australian diplomat and current Japan Times contributor Gregory Clark says that Tahara is a “ victim of efforts . . . to prevent free expressions of opinion on the abductee issue,” and explains how rightwing elements have controlled the discussion through intimidation. These elements have been effective in their aim to prevent any engagement with NK through their support for the abductees’ families, because as far as the public and the media are concerned, the issue is whatever the families say it is.

What the public and media think in their own heads and talk about in their own homes is anyone’s guess, but no doubt some people believe that Keiko Arimoto is probably dead, just as there are surely some who think that what happened to Tsutomu Yamaguchi was actually quite funny.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.