What do these Japanese people have in common: A neighbor of people whose house has burned down; an uncle or aunt of someone who has been the victim of a crime; a person who has had food poisoning?

The answer is that they are all likely to appear headless on Japanese television, perhaps with their voices altered to such a high pitch that they sound as if they were coming from the squeeze box inside a stuffed koala.

All Japanese channels, government-run and commercial, claim to have stringent rules about the protection of people’s privacy. I know of no other developed country where witnesses to events appear so often in such a state of decapitated incognito. It used to be that their faces were blurred out. Then, during the 1980s — no doubt thanks to improved technology — the people interviewed on TV whose identity was deemed “compromised” bore a countenance made up of little mosaic squares, somewhat in the style of the early Braque.

In July 1996, what became a very severe and widespread case of E. coli O157 food poisoning broke out in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture. More than 6,500 people (some have put the figure at nearly double that), primarily elementary school pupils, were affected due to their consumption of tainted pre-cooked lunches.

Naturally, TV inundated the airwaves with news of this public health disaster, and many people, directly and indirectly affected by it, were interviewed. Food poisoning is a common occurrence in Japan, where much food is prepared in advance and is sometimes left to sit unrefrigerated for hours. Yet, although there was no criminal intent on the part of those who prepared the lunches, both the children who fell ill, their parents and even unaffected people who lived near them appeared on TV in an altered, depersonalized state.

Fear of association

The assumption was that they did not wish their identity to be known, for fear of being associated in some way with misfortune, and that anonymity was perhaps the best protection against calumny.

Similarly, I recall a TV report of a waiting-room scene in one of the hospitals that was treating the patients. While the reporter spoke of the suffering that the children were going through, the entire scene behind her was distorted into a milky blur. Ironically, however, a scene of the very same waiting room appeared clear as crystal in a CNN report carried on the NHK satellite news channel. There was no effective way, I suppose, to impose Japanese standards of decorum on a foreign broadcaster.

What is at work here? Is it really that Japanese people regard it as an invasion of an individual’s privacy to show them in a news broadcast, even when they are in no way compromised by the appearance? Do people who consent to interviews truly object to being visually identified? Or does the media actually encourage this form of censorship in order to lend an aura of conspiracy to a news item?

Of course, there are many cases where a person’s identity should be legitimately protected. Victims of crime or whistle-blowers are often interviewed on the BBC, for instance, sitting with their backs to the camera or in deep shadow. But in Japan, there seems to be something that might be called “vicarious protection” — that is, hiding the identity of people who are really not in any danger of public exposure.

Surely this blatant policy of non-identification goes well beyond the demands of either privacy or propriety. In addition, what is essentially a coverup of reality turns the news into a conspiracy of feelings. News reports come to resemble the pseudo-hush-hush entertainment of the variety shows, where reporters sneak around famous people’s homes whispering into microphones and making provocative accusations into the intercoms at their front gates.

Unless there are real issues of privacy or potential harm to people, all interviews should be conducted openly and in full view of the public, with any person not wishing to appear on TV obviously retaining the right not to be seen. If that person accedes to an interview, however, then let them appear with their head on their shoulders and speaking in their normal voice.

Aura of excitement

I mentioned the conspiracy of feelings. This is a conspiracy between the media and the public, and both are to blame for its pernicious effect on Japanese social progress. A senior news producer at a Tohoku TV station once told me that his channel deliberately blurred out people’s faces even when they were quite happy to appear as themselves. “We do this,” he confessed, “in order to lend an aura of excitement to the program, as if something titillating or taboo were being presented.” This hidebound hack producer has no place working in a news organization.

If Japan is to succeed in reshaping its mores to fit the needs of this century, then the Japanese people must opt for openness; and that entails freeing up the flow of information between people, knowledge-sharing across disciplines and institutions, and social dialogue that crosses the lines of gender, class and ethnic origin. The stalwart model of a smoothly operated, well-oiled, don’t-show-your-operating-manual-to-a-soul Japan — the old one-face-to-the-world lean machine — is running out of steam.

Frankly, I am not too optimistic about change in the media, particularly TV, which is still managed with a tight fist on the gear shift. The media moguls there are not going to give an inch, let alone a storehouse of information, to anyone they deem unworthy of the gift.

But knowledge and information are not a gift! They are a society’s right. I do feel that the younger generation of Japanese are not as fearful of letting out secrets or airing their views publicly as the elder manipulators are. Once you open up to others, you gain their trust; and they, in turn, open up to you.

The winner is the entire society. News is truth; truth, news.

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