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Trolls or media watchdogs?: Japan’s foreign-born defenders

Is the vicious online war against 'BS' biased reporting stifling journalism?

by Stuart Braun

Have the foreign media got it in for Japan? Do they unduly focus on, and sensationalize, Fukushima radiation leaks, alleged racial intolerance and the self-aggrandizing policy pronouncements of the reborn Liberal Democratic Party? Worse still, are non-Japanese journalists prejudicing perceptions of Japan in the wider world, further eroding the nation’s global significance?

Though right-wing Japanese apologists have long identified, in the words of Michael Cucek, research associate with the MIT Center for International Studies, “the existence of an international cabal of anti-Japanese media types,” some ardent foreign-born Japan residents are also defending their adopted home from “Japan-hating” media.

Since the tragedy of March 2011, when the controversy over the Japanese government’s response to the Fukushima nuclear crisis gave journalists grist to ramp up their alleged anti-Japanese prejudice, the pro-Japaners have employed an effective counter-attack strategy: Banded behind a small but deafening band of bloggers, YouTubers and citizen journalists of sorts, this informal alliance generate legion online comments, blog posts and video channel chat-fests that systematically seek to discredit media they say are bent on fear-mongering about the country. In this highly polarized and fractious world, you are either with Japan or against it.

The subheading on the blog Japologism.com neatly sums up the aims of these foreign-born neo-apologists: “Unapologetic apologism — Some of us quite like living here, you know!” Established by Scotsman Ken Yasumoto-Nicolson, Japologism is a direct successor of the defunct Tepido.org, a single-issue forum for rebutting the alleged Japan-hating bias of academic, blogger and Japan Times columnist Debito Arudou.

Post-3/11, the cause celebre for these Japan defenders has been an article titled “Gaijin Gulag,” excerpts of which were published on The Economist magazine’s website in January 2012, detailing the case of Christopher Johnson, a Japan-based Canadian journalist who says he was unfairly held in detention in the bowels of Narita airport before being deported from Japan.

The relative merits of the case are complex, and beyond the purview of this article. But the fact that this damning account of Japanese immigration procedure was covered in such an internationally significant publication seems to have fired up the pro-Japan lobby to respond on an unprecedented scale. Over 700 comments, most strongly attacking aspects of Johnson’s story, were posted in the days before The Economist called time on the forum, while Johnson was endlessly taken to task on numerous blogs and YouTube channels.

The Economist only published portions of Johnson’s own blog post that described the circumstances of his deportation, with the newsmagazine calling it a “rambling” account. The publication claimed that it fact-checked Johnson’s story as much as possible, but said they could not endorse it and that it was unverified. The Economist’s stated aim was to view Johnson’s story, however much it can be believed, in the context of claims of long-running abuses by Japanese immigration authorities that have sparked hunger strikes, suicides and led to the death in custody of a Ghanaian man — the latter occurring “during a rough deportation in 2010,” wrote The Economist.

In this context, the level of invective directed toward Johnson might have seemed surprising. Many thousands of words came from just one poster, VKay, a typically anonymous pro-Japan voice who comments on various Japan-related blogs and forums. Inevitably, things got personal.

“Despite the protests in comments below this one (possibly by Mr Johnson himself or one of his friends; a week or so ago a similar thing happened), he is not a major league journalist — he’s a blogger who strings for a minor cult-funded paper in the U.S.,” wrote VKay, apparently referring to The Washington Times. “His story from the beginning was suspect, and even before the Economist took it up, was being shredded.”

Johnson, a reporter with a diverse publishing history (The New York Times, CNN.com, The Japan Times) across more than two decades, much of that spent in Japan, has been highly outspoken about attacks on his journalistic credentials since his Gaijin Gulag story surfaced. The result has been a toxic online war, with blogs such as Japologism and Japan Probe sometimes publishing hundreds of ad hominem comments a week about the reporter.

The Canadian, who says he had never heard of these blogs before the Gaijin Gulag episode, says that he has been defamed to the point where former employers are increasingly reticent to work with him. Whatever the veracity of this claim, Johnson is only one of numerous writers and journalists who have come under sustained and vehement criticism on blogs, Twitter or comment forums for their alleged anti-Japanese stance. These include New York Times journalists Martin Fackler and Hiroko Tabuchi, former Tokyo CNN correspondent Kyung Lah, and bloggers Debito Arudou and Rick Gundlach, among others.

In ways, these foreign-born cyber-warriors parallel the infamous netouyo (“Internet right”) — nationalistic Net trolls who hunt Japan’s critics online. When Miki Dezaki, an American teacher of Japanese parentage based in Okinawa, decided to teach his students about racism in Japan, and included alleged examples of the practice — in particular, Japan’s racial stereotyping of Koreans —in a YouTube video posted in February, he was attacked online with such vicious regularity (including death threats) that once-supportive school officials asked him to take down the video. Dezaki refused on the grounds of free speech, and he has since left his job.

But the main players among the foreign-born Japan apologists project a less doctrinaire line. Though many anonymous commenters-cum-trolls write vociferous and borderline-defamatory comments on the pro-Japan blogs, the faces of the movement — when they deign to reveal themselves — appear more neutral and reasonable. They are mostly white middle-aged men who have lived a long time in Japan, speak the language fluently, claim to understand the culture and, by implication, believe they are well-qualified to express credible views about their adopted home.

Hikosaemon, a blogger, YouTuber and regular commenter on Japan-related online forums, is a New Zealander who has lived in Japan since 1998. Commenting on a LinkedIn forum in May 2012 that reposted a Debito Arudou article from The Japan Times detailing so-called “microaggressions” against foreigners in Japan — crudely put, conscious or unconscious actions by Japanese that “put foreigners in their place” — Hikosaemon articulated the pro-Japan rationale.

“What aggravates me is that there are so few voices counterbalancing such out of whack views, and when they are out there, they are often dismissed and attacked by the believers in the criticism of somehow being apologists in with some sort of massive Japanese conspiracy, simply for calling BS on BS,” he wrote.

Though Japologism — a blog that Hikosaemon helped inspire, according to its founder — is a self-proclaimed apologist site, this is a common pro-Japan rationale: Hikosaemon and his fellow travelers are a reasonable minority who simply feel it is their duty to expose the many “out of whack” perspectives on Japan.

The pro-Japan blog Japan Probe, which Hikosaemon comments on, presents a similar rationale in its About section. “Idiots, bigots, fearmongers, and liars” (i.e. Japan-haters) will not have their comments aired. Neither, they say, is the blog the work of a conspiratorial cabal. “We are not on the payroll of any political organizations, nor do we have some secret political agenda,” runs the site’s disclaimer.

This band of non-native Japan apologists often stress that they are not mouthpieces of the Japanese right. They are, instead, simply a spontaneous, informal thread of independent voices. Eido Inoue, a U.S.-born naturalized Japanese citizen formerly known as Adrian Havill, writes on numerous pro-Japan blogs and forums. Though Inoue declined to comment when approached by The Japan Times for this article, he did respond to the question of why some foreign-born Japan residents are so quick to call out media negativity on Japan.

“I certainly don’t consider myself to be a media watchdog,” he said in an email. “My opinions are not formally published anywhere except for a few minor indie blogs which are not read by many people.” Inoue wrote that he was simply a “private individual” and “yet another resident of Japan with an opinion on the media and [who] makes comments on news stories”.

Nevertheless, some contend that pro-Japan blogs such as Japan Probe and Japologism, which Inoue posts on, push a highly circumscribed agenda. @Kamo, commenting on the more critical Japan blog Hoofin (run by former Japan resident and U.S. national Rick Gundlach), said in February he “gave up” on Japan Probe a couple of years ago, even if it “did a creditable job countering the hysteria in the overseas press immediately after the Tohoku disaster.” Ever since, however, “they’ve not let up on the rabidly pro-Japan propaganda.” @Kamo quoted another foreign blogger in Japan, Our Man in Abiko, real name Patrick Sherriff, who called Japan Probe “the self-appointed lapdog of the Japanese establishment.”

This is possibly just tit-for-tat brouhaha. But reasonable “soft” apologists such as Hikosaemon often seem careful to avoid any interaction with the Japan-related online forums more often associated with trolls and unilateral agendas. Hikosaemon does, however, reference Japan Probe as a legitimate news source in his “2.5 Oyajis” YouTube show.

In an episode from May 2012, Japan Probe was praised for calling out Aruduo’s “hate” thesis about Japanese microaggressions. But @Saitoko7, who “liked the video” otherwise, was not impressed, saying of Japan Probe: “It’s a mean-spirited gossip blog meant to stir up hatred, and the majority of its regular commenters seem to be embittered trolls who have lived in Japan for far too long.”

In the comments, Hikosaemon replied to @Saitoko7 with equanimity. “I tend to avoid comment forums on most Japan-related sites for that reason (feel free to comment here, the water’s fine :) ).” He continued: “Most comment sites I agree are overwhelmed with trolls, be they from the Japan hater camp, or the *apologist* camp. . . . I don’t read the comments on JapanProbe, and seldom post there. I like the blog.”

A few comments on, and Hikosaemon, who associates trolls firstly with the “Japan-hater camp,” admitted that he not only liked but respected the site: “What I respect about Japan Probe is the role the editors take of showing Japan news and goings on as I see it through local media (as most who live life in Japanese here experience it I think), and their willingness to call BS when substandard reporting or writing about japan is found.”

‘BS’ is a term often employed in these pro-Japan forums as the truest marker of Japan-related media bias and negativity. Such “bulls—t” may simply result from substandard journalism; more often, however, it is compounded by a kind of gaijin cultural dissonance.

When Japan Probe posted news that Kyung Lah was leaving the Tokyo CNN bureau in 2012, it slammed her “crude, misinformed, trashy and stupid” reporting. But the nub of the problem, as expressed by numerous commenters on the post, was a lack of intimacy with Japanese language and culture. As @level 3 put it, Lah was “just some sort of cushy exile in the well-paid Tokyo-based gaijin English bubble until whatever heat blew over from her personal life.” Lah’s negative and sensationalist “tone and topic selection” were reflective of a bias born of her failure to integrate on one hand, and her personal issues/crises on the other, the commenters sniped.

Such critiques of foreign journalists echo the old charge, made most emphatically by American neoconservatives, of so-called “liberal media bias.” Conservative think tanks typically publish research showing how mass media organizations and journalists have especially left-of-center biases, meaning right-wing opinions are distorted or not heard. “Sometimes liberal bias reflects a conscious choice by the reporter or editor,” observes the conservative Media Research Center’s Brett Baker. “Sometimes it stems from mere laziness.”

For the neo-apologists, the argument is similar: Journalistic laziness combined with “conscious choices” born of personal prejudice are coloring foreign news coverage of Japan. The strategic imperative is again to pigeonhole the media, marking some — usually more Japan-positive — voices as reasonable, in stark contrast to the “out of whack” negative sources, be they individuals or news organizations.

However, one caveat that accusers of media bias have to bear in mind is the fundamental responsibility of the media to scrutinize and critique the policies of incumbent governments and other vested interests. A study by media watchdogs 4thEstate, released in August 2012, found that across three months of the last U.S. presidential election campaign, President Barack Obama received significantly more negative comments across all news media than Republican rival Mitt Romney — even in so-called Democrat-friendly outlets such as The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post and CNN.

The Times, Post and CNN are often singled out for their negative coverage of Japan, though these news organizations have a consistent record of highly critical domestic and international coverage. Judging which side of the line between fiercely objective public-interest reportage and aggressive agenda-driven muck-raking a story lies on can be a difficult — and subjective — call. Claims of bias need therefore to be backed by rigorous research, say experts. “Media bias is certainly the perception, but it’s based on a lot of anecdotal evidence and people talking about ‘What I think,’ ” said Michael Howe, chief technology officer for 4th Estate.

The neo-apologist campaign against bias is most often based on such anecdotal and subjective analysis of single news stories. This may explain why some experts cannot agree with allegations of systemic negativity from underperforming foreign journalists.

“The quality of reporting [on Japan] in the foreign languages I regularly read, which are English and French, has never been higher,” Cucek, who runs the popular Shisaku blog, said in an email. Cucek did opine that The New York Times had had “problems” with correspondents in the past — although Tabuchi, he added, was the best in “recent memory.”

By contrast, deep concerns about “BS” foreign reporting on Japan have driven some observers to embark on a kind of crusade. Inoue, for example, who on one hand rejects the idea that he is a media watchdog, once paradoxically expressed his “hope to force the overseas media to do their job better.” Writing in 2011 on the now-expired Tepido.org, Inoue expressed an arguably legitimate concern that foreign bureaus often employed journalists who were not fluent or near-native Japanese speakers, could not engage in proper investigative reporting because they relied on inadequate English-in-Japan source material, and failed to develop “powerful Japanese connections (political and business), instead preferring to hang out in the ‘gaijin ghettos’ and wait for the Japanese with an angle come to them.”

But worst of all, perhaps, so-called Japan-hating sites such as Debito.org were used as an information source by foreign media after 3/11, Inoue claimed. To “fix” this wider problem of a “chain of distortions” tainting foreign reporting on Japan, Inoue hoped that “by discrediting (or, dare I dream, IMPROVE) the blogs and English-in-Japan sources that the international press uses too often as primary sources, I hope to force the overseas media to do their job better.”

The extent to which foreign media in Japan rely on English-in-Japan sources is unclear. Writing in 2010 in East Asia Forum, Cucek argued that undermanned foreign bureaus were regurgitating anti-government Japanese-language media — not the English-in-Japan media that so concerned Inoue. “With most non-Japanese media organizations cutting staff or leaving Japan entirely, the world is relying more and more on unfiltered retransmission of what Japanese media outlets are producing,” Cucek wrote. This resulted in “the broad dissemination of reporting which is potentially more harsh and negative than the on-the-ground reality would require.” The increasingly pro-LDP line of papers like the Mainichi, which also have English online editions, exacerbated anti-DPJ coverage in foreign media, according to Cucek, during the Democratic Party of Japan’s tumultuous term in power.

This vernacular source of media negativity does not feature in the neo-apologist narrative. Since 3/11, the Japan defenders have held the line that the prejudices of fly-by-night gaijin reporters underlined sensationalized and inaccurate media coverage of the Fukushima crisis. When Japan Probe called out a New York Times story for adding “extra fear and distrust” about a planned evacuation from the Fukushima area, the commenter @FullFrontal asked: “Kyung Lah, Tabuchi Hiroko, and Norimitsu Onishi. . . . Why do American media have to send to Japan journalists who have a deep-rooted hatred toward Japan?” In the instance of former NYT reporter Onishi, some pro-Japan voices have even claimed that his alleged anti-Japanese agenda was linked, in part, to his (completely unsubstantiated) ethnic Korean ancestry.

The view that the neo-apologists rely on anonymous “embittered trolls” to bully journalists online misses the sophistication of a multi-faceted campaign, however informal. YouTube shows and sundry blogs also expose netizens to the pro-Japan narrative via predominantly light-hearted entertainment. On YouTube channels such as 2.5 Oyajis, the expat presenters wear funny hats and discuss human interest curiosities in Japan. The very reasonable, informative and casual online tete-a-tetes seem designed to offer an insider view of Japan to a global audience — the 2.5 Oyajis even discuss things they sometimes hate about Japan, like old ladies who shove in to get seats on crowded trains.

Very often, however, the presenters segue into more pointed discussion on media negativity about Japan. In the “Are Sex Slaves Ever REALLY Necessary?” episode from May 15, the negative publicity generated by Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto’s “comfort women” gaffe was put in deeper historical context, with particular emphasis on past measures by Japan to draw a line under the issue. The conversation later turns to doctored photos purportedly from the Nanjing Massacre, after co-presenter Gimmeaflakeman, an American, refers to a story in Japan Probe about a new inquiry “supporting the Japanese argument . . . that maybe a lot of that stuff was made up.”

The 2.5 Oyajis, who speak excellent Japanese and often proclaim their love for their Far Eastern home, may not necessarily agree with the “Japanese argument” in every case, but they certainly appear to want to refocus such debates to counter foreign media negativity. In the episode “Gaijins that piss us off,” the presenters single out media types who live in Roppongi, hang out in gaijin bars speaking English and act “like they know everything, when really they don’t know shit,” in Hikosaemon’s words. Worse of all, he added, “these types then go into the mass media or go back abroad, and these guys who know nothing are showing off while spreading misinformation.”

Such claims of misinformation are never related to understaffed foreign bureaus, or inherent media skepticism toward the powers that be — or, as Tokyo-based writer Jake Adelstein noted in the aftermath of 3/11, the exclusion of foreign media from Japanese-only press clubs. In the pro-Japan narrative, negativity is personal; it is the remit of, in Hikosaemon’s words, “con artists” who hate Japan.

When “alarmist” foreign media “fear-monger” about wartime sex slaves, contentious visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese government ministers or Fukushima radiation leaks, the neo-apologists can, in an echo of the liberal media bias debate, simply write off such reporting as being irredeemably poisoned by personal prejudice. As in the U.S., nuance and complexity become the victims in a highly polarized discourse over media bias.

Japan’s foreign-born defenders and detractors appear committed to an often toxic online war that might be headed for the courts (ongoing claims and counter-claims of personal threats and defamation are beyond the scope of this article). But will this seemingly exceptional war of semantics — there appears to be little evidence of similarly vicious online debates in other expat communities — potentially create more negativity about Japan than the so-called negative media coverage itself? Are foreign bureaus in Japan actually spooked, and has open debate been stifled? (A number of journalists approached for this article did not want to comment.)

Or, with Japan currently receiving subdued international attention more than two years after the Tohoku disaster, will the war of words inevitably die out? Is a detente even possible?

Ironically, most non-native Japanese who write about their adopted home, even those who often critique it, seem to want the same thing: namely, to better understand the country they have chosen to live in and its place in the wider world.

Stuart Braun is a former Tokyo-based freelance journalist now based in Berlin. Send comments on these issues and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.