Confessions of a foreign correspondent

Weird Japan fills gap left by foreign hacks


These are not happy times for people who make a living writing about Japan. With the country apparently having become, as one magazine put it, the “Switzerland of Asia,” i.e., rich but boring, foreign newspapers are shuttering their Tokyo bureaus as fast as they can move their correspondents to cover bigger stories in China and elsewhere.

In the last two years alone, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chicago Tribune, The LA Times, the British Daily Telegraph and The Guardian and a host of other famous titles have downsized or closed their Japanese ops.

Membership of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan has fallen by over a quarter since its peak and even specialist publications like Japan Quarterly and Insight Japan have hoisted the white flag.

One glossy publication that recently tried to buck the trend, called simply Japan, went belly up after just two issues.

Needless to say, some Japanese newspapers put their Western counterparts to shame.

The Nikkei Shimbun has nine Japanese correspondents in London alone, not counting local staff.

Given the nature of Japanese politics and society, where developments often seem to move at the pace and clarity of a drunken salaryman, it’s hard not to sympathize with the people who make the decision to pull out. If I was a busy foreign editor forced to choose between a story about yet another thrilling factional fight in the liver-spotted old guard of the Liberal Democratic Party, or the latest shenanigans in the court of Kim Jong Il, no prizes for guessing what would be on tomorrow’s pages.

Still, you wonder whether this whole business is not very bad news for foreign perceptions of this country, and here’s why.

The more the newspaper world’s gaze shifts elsewhere, the harder it gets for remaining Japan-based correspondents to get their stories into print.

In my experience as a stringer for a couple of European newspapers, this translates into less nuance and depth, and more colorful entries into the pages of “weird Japan” stories about cults, gangsters, geishas and suicides.

When I started writing here I shared a pint with another hack and we made a drunken promise never to contribute to the weird Japan syndrome.

This country was just as complicated, daft and infuriating as anywhere else; the lives of ordinary people in Bed-town, Saitama, were little different, minor cultural issues aside, from those in Bedford, England, and that’s how we would describe it. Yada Yada.

Three years later I look back over a couple of hundred articles and find the biggest, most prominent pieces are about cults (Panawave, Aum Shinryikyo), gangsters (three interviews), and, er, suicides. I’ve managed to avoid geishas but that’s more than been made up for with articles about kamikaze pilots, train gropers, Sumo wrestlers and ultra-rightists.

Okay, there’s stuff in there too about teachers, factory workers and students, some economic analysis, one or two big political stories, but can I say I’ve given a balanced picture of this country? Nope. Japan looks pretty weird.

Even when writing a straightforward piece about a political leadership contest, I can’t claim to be without journalistic sin.

Take the defeat two years ago of Yoshio Mori by “maverick” politician Junichiro Koizumi for the presidency of the LDP. One way of writing the story would have been like this:

Koizumi wins political kabuki show

Bumbling Yoshio Mori has finally been replaced by the more media-friendly Junichiro Koizumi in a contest for leadership of the LDP that nevertheless leaves Japan’s sclerotic political structure intact.

Politicians in Japan have, in any case, very little power to influence policy in comparison to the bureaucrats who write it.

Here’s what I wrote:

Japanese reformer poised to become next premier

The reformist Japanese politician, Mr. Junichiro Koizumi, won a landslide victory in the contest for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party yesterday, and immediately promised a radical overhaul of the country’s stagnant political and economic landscape.

Some readers might prefer the second version, but which looks more correct now?

Partly the issue here is that newspapers in particular are driven by the relentless pursuit of the fresh and interesting to hold onto their readerships, encouraging writers to sprinkle their accounts of mundane developments with lively adjectives like “radical” and “reformer.”

Intense competition in most print markets means less space for analysis and “public-service” style journalism, more for sexier stuff that grabs the roving eye.

The main (political and economic) stories are distilled to a sort of standard template (“Japan is an economic basketcase,” being a typical example) that often don’t allow for more analysis (“Japan’s political economy doesn’t work like the West” for example).

Stringers and new freelancers contribute to this process because they have less authority to insist on a particular version of a story than an established staff correspondent.

So what are my choices? Like some older correspondents, I could opt to write for the shrinking number of serious academic publications that cover Japan, which often means sweating over 8,000-word articles for about a dozen readers.

Or I could finally write that 1,200-word feature on geisha that I’ve been avoiding all these years.

There used to be a space in the middle, typified by the Japan Quarterly, but nobody is willing to stump up money for worthy but loss-making ventures anymore.

Why the sudden bout of mea culpa, you may ask.

Well if us hacks don’t keep writing, we die. I have to get something into print, right?