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The weeklies need to expand their worldview

by Michael Hoffman

Japan cuts the world down to size. Thumb through the popular weekly news magazines to get the idea. The weeklies pride themselves on broader, bolder, feistier coverage than the daily press typically musters. All the same, theirs is a small, shrunken world. It consists of four countries: Japan, the United States, China and North Korea.

Other countries make cameo appearances, but their presence is remote and incidental. If North Korea were a normal country and China a nonentity, they too could be safely ignored, and only the U.S. would intrude on Japan’s introversion. But the U.S. — friend, ally and role model — is a welcome guest in the weeklies’ pages, as it is in the Japanese consciousness. It is almost part of the Japanese consciousness.

Japan-centrism in Japanese magazines is understandable. But Japan considered in isolation is not Japan. Once it was, but sakoku, the “closed country” of premodern times, ended a century and a half ago, and in a global age no country, not even an archipelago, is an island. Certainly Japan can’t be one, given its extreme dependence on the outside world for energy, food and export markets.

The magazines we are talking about measure circulation in the hundreds of thousands. Is it possible all those readers have no interest in — to take some random examples — democratization, real or unreal, in Myanmar, where Japan has a long and controversial history of investment, aid, and meddling for better or for worse? The finer points of the brinkmanship over nuclear programs in Iran, until now Japan’s third-largest oil supplier? India’s economic rise, as opposed to China’s? Coups and countercoups, progress and regress in Africa, to whose development Tokyo has deeply committed itself? And so on and so on — it’s a long list you could compile of ongoing world-altering events on which the weeklies are more or less silent.

On what, internationally speaking, are they not silent? On China, of course. Postwar Japan has always lived in the shadow of a superpower. Now it lives in the shadow of two. This is bracing, and demands attention Japan might not have spared otherwise.

What makes China surge while Japan languishes? Education for one thing, the weekly Shukan Bunshun finds. There’s Shanghai, topping the PISA list in reading, math and science while Japan placed eighth, ninth and fifth respectively. PISA is the Program for International Student Assessment, which tests 15-year-old students in 65 countries. Once Japan’s education system was the envy of the world. Now it’s China’s turn. Shukan Bunshun visits a Shanghai elementary school and observes what awed foreign visitors used to observe in Japanese schools 30 years ago — fierce dedication, frenzied studying, cutting-edge technologies, exam hells and, sometimes, student suicides. In the course of one month recently, five Shanghai elementary school kids threw themselves off tall buildings. All that studying had left them too exhausted to live.

China aside? North Korea, naturally. If North Korea were a person and he lived in your neighborhood, you’d want him committed. You can’t commit a nation; you can only watch it warily and hope, given its million-person army and nuclear weapons, it doesn’t go too far off the rails. Last week’s “satellite launch” — or disguised missile test, as most thought it — was a sign it might be doing just that under its new, young, inexperienced and unknown leader. The weeklies fairly bristled with speculation. Who is this “Dear Successor,” Kim Jong Un, and what is he capable of?

Aera tells a story concerning him that were it not apocryphal, which it probably is, would be hopeful. It seems that when young Kim visited a pig farm, all the porkers grunted in unison as a sign of joyful welcome. No, no, said Kim with becoming modesty. “Pigs grunt when they’re moved to a new place; that’s all there is to it. That’s how the great general”— his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il — “was deceived.” Flatterers, he implied, would get nowhere with him.

Who will get anywhere with him? Shukan Shincho sees in him a cruel streak reminiscent of the 1st century A.D. Roman Emperor Nero, famous among other things for his imaginative torture of early Christians. Citing the South Korean publication North Korea Report, Shincho says Kim incited a December Workers’ Party purge that involved public executions of dozens of rivals on the most trivial pretexts — drinking while the nation was in mourning for the elder Kim, for instance.

Kim’s “soft pudgy face” is deceptive, warns Shukan Asahi. As a boy, Kim spent time at a private school in Switzerland but returned home to five years at Kim Il Sung Military Academy, followed by three years in the army. “The civilian dictatorship of Kim Jong Il is over, and now the military is stirring,” Shukan Asahi says. “The fear is that Jong Un will be controlled by the military.”

There’s another fear — of Japan’s preoccupation with itself and its immediate neighbors, absorbing though they are, growing dangerously exclusive. Japan lives in a volatile neighborhood. It’s called “the world.” Japan’s weeklies are sharp observers. They should be telling us more about it.