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Memories are short. In 1998, most foreign media poured scorn on the choice of Keizo Obuchi to replace former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who had been forced to resign because of the weak economy and an election setback.

Obuchi was a nonentity, we were told, a machine politician and about as exciting as “cold pizza.” He would also be bad for the economy: He could not handle Japan’s alleged need for radical, Reaganite/Thatcherite economic reforms, the critics warned.

The foreign favorite was a Junichiro Koizumi, who had allied with the inefficient and often corrupt banking industry to push for privatization of Japan’s very efficient Post Office system. Today, we hear very little about either Koizumi or Post Office privatization. One reason could be the sight of those once eager-to-privatize banks now desperately seeking public funds to rescue themselves from bankruptcy.

As it turned out, Obuchi was just the man the economy needed. He realized that the immediate priority was confidence-raising, not more destabilizing policy shifts. Together with his Keynesian-minded finance minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, he pushed the demand-creation policies that have sparked glimmers of growth and sent the stock market from a low of around 13,000 points to above 20,000.

Crucial to the recovery was Obuchi’s willingness in September 1998 to accept U.S. President Bill Clinton’s advice that a massive infusion of public funds was needed to rescue the banking system.

Other Obuchi achievements include pushing for this year’s G8 Summit to be held in long-suffering Okinawa, some review of Japan’s excessive kowtowing to the United States over miltary bases, and a commitment to education reform. And while one may agree or disagree with some of the policies he implemented, he managed in his unobtrusive way to gain the coalition of Diet votes needed to enact much of his party’s conservative agenda — something that had escaped most of his predecessors, even when they had Diet majorities.

Obuchi was that rare creature now anxiously being sought in U.S. Republican Party politics: a compassionate conservative with common sense. Certainly the Japanese electorate quickly warmed to him.

Why do the foreign media and critics manage to get it so arrogantly wrong over Japan? It is just two years since a group of concerned Japanese published “Zipangu,” a book listing New York Times mistakes and biases in reporting Japan.

Now, with yet another turnover of main U.S. media correspondents in Japan, we are getting yet another round of the usual anti-Japan whipping boys — alleged Japanese racism, discrimination against females or resident Koreans, and so on.

USA Today recently ran a prominently placed report claiming that “many” bars and restaurants in Tokyo’s Roppongi district had signs barring foreigners from entry. So far, the only evidence produced by anti-Japan Internet fans anxious to back up this amazing claim is a single billboard in Shimbashi (not Roppongi) saying foreigners are not welcome in one of the area’s sleazy “no-pan” (i.e. bottomless waitresses) eating places.

Lack of Japanese background and language is the usual reason given for these distortions, and it is no secret that Western correspondents fresh to Japan and desperate for headlines will clutch at any story that makes Japan look bad or bizarre. But the USA Today report was written by a journalist with over 20 years residence here, who must have visited Roppongi at least once or twice in his career here.

If Japanese media were reporting the U.S. and its leaders in the same biased way, we would soon hear about it. Yet somehow the reverse is supposed to be quite normal. One reason could be Japan’s unusual value system. It drives most foreigners, Americans especially, to assume that they can and should impose their own values on Japan. Another convincing explanation (not mine) notes how most of the critics are white Westerners used to being top dog in their own societies and in the many parts of the world that lack Western-style development.

But when they come to Japan they are simply regarded as foreigners, some good, some bad. Their hackles rise, especially when there is talk of “bad” foreigners.

Singapore, which has risen from colonial-imposed backwardness to exceed the progress and income levels of its former colonizers, meets the same hostility whenever it fails to show due deference to the white foreigner.

Either way, it is an ugly way to approach Japan, often perpetrated by the very people who accuse Japan of racism.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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