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Some months ago I went up to Tohoku to give a public lecture sponsored by a television station. After the talk there was a delightful, informal dinner, during which I chatted with an old friend, a producer at the station.

“It really bothers me,” I said, “how television often blurs the faces of ordinary people who appear on a news program. The Japanese should not try to hide their identity when there is no issue of privacy or secrecy required.”

“Oh, we blur over their faces even when they don’t ask us to,” said my producer friend. “It gives the viewers a sense of excitement, that they are seeing or hearing something that they should not be privy to.”

Though I have worked with most of the major networks and have been employed as a news commentator, this came as a shock to me. Wasn’t the media deliberately feeding the beast of conspiracy, encouraging people to believe that disclosure, even of the most harmless detail, will lead to ostracism and private grief?

The Japanese word for “blurring” is “bokashi.” The verb, “bokasu,” appropriately means “to obscure.” This is by no means the only method that the Japanese media have of turning a mundane remark into a hushed symbol. Voices are often changed to hide the identity of the speaker; heads are cut off by a low camera angle to turn people into talking torsos. Presumably this is done in the interests of the protection of an individual’s privacy, even when that privacy is in no way under question or threat.

When, several years ago, there was a disastrous outbreak of food poisoning caused by E coli 0-157 in the city of Sakai in western Japan, the television news carried numerous interviews with victims and their relatives. Invariably faces were blurred over or heads lopped off. The decision-makers in the country’s newsrooms, commercial and noncommercial alike, in demonstration of a caring righteousness, could boast that they were protecting the poor victims from harassment. They were being, to their mind, responsible and sensitive.

CNN, among other non-Japanese broadcasters, also covered this story, without, however, obscuring the identities of the people involved. The images of sick people in hospital were shown as such news images should be, without pandering to self-styled coverup. These were rebroadcast on NHK satellite-television news with no alteration. In other words, the identities of the victims were, in fact, revealed on Japanese television, but only via the bad offices, as it were, of foreign sensibilities.

The issues run more deeply underground than this.

There exists in Japan a conspiracy of whispers, a wicked social contract, witnessed and condoned by the majority, that deviation from propriety, from what is considered the social, physical or calculated norm is a source of discord and national distress. Find that you are a victim, willy-nilly, of catastrophe or mishap, says this Rule of Common Blot, and you had better go hide, or the beneficent eye of Japanese suitability will seek you out and haunt you . . . and not only you: It will haunt your neighbors (who also often appear decapitated on Japanese television), your relatives and your issue for as long as the Japanese television monopolies shall live.

The Sakai tragedy, with its thousands of victims, carried such concomitant blot, with calumny its ill-disposed agitator. Children with mild cases of food poisoning found themselves, though fully recovered, shunned at school. Mothers had to bend over backward in apology to all and sundry for something that their children were merely the innocent victims of. One woman was pressured to wash the commonly used stairs in her apartment block after her daughter stepped on them, in effect demonstrating her resolve to purge her daughter, now free of disease, of the evil bug.

The problem of such condemnation by inference surges in all quarters; and the line between victim and victimizer is obfuscated or rent in the wake. Relatives of accident victims are subtly made to feel that they themselves are somehow linked to the cause of the accident and discouraged from seeking justice. Intolerance toward people with disabilities, now thankfully on the decline, still dictates to those people and their families that coming out into the light of day will only taint the reputation. Recently, for instance, an American official representing people with diabetes, who was also a beauty queen, visited Japan to meet sufferers of that disease here . . . and one news broadcast that I saw actually guillotined the Japanese diabetics. Now, my grandfather had diabetes — I freely admit it here — and, believe me, though he has been dead for these 78 years, I am not about to see his head bobbed off, however belatedly, just to satisfy Japanese public opinion.

There is some progress. AIDS sufferers in Japan have been brave enough to appear as themselves on TV. We owe them a debt for their courage. Some victims of rape have identified themselves, and this in a country where even the suggestion of such a thing traditionally spelled social doom for them. These people are teaching Japan that the only true shame in society originates in a bias nurtured in the hearts of those who define normality and propriety on the basis of selfish perceptions of their own virtue.

Victims’ rights have become a talking point in Japan. Bullied children are less and less seen as the hapless perpetrators of their misery; hospital patients wronged by the staff or the system are gaining access to information about the process that led to their injury; harassed and overworked employees are being listened to and, in rare cases, given compensation for their torment.

The real problem is not with my friend the television producer. He is simply blurring the issue, not causing it.

Only when the Japanese people face up to the express malice engendered by their little campaigns will the whispering stop, and will people begin talking to, caring for and helping each other on a just and equal footing.

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