OK, this is confession time. Even though I have lived in Japan for decades, there is something that still absolutely drives me up the wall — so high up the wall, in fact, that I feel like Spiderman on a Shinjuku skyscraper.

Quite simply, why is it that television and newspapers continually present people without their heads?

Not only that, but the voices of some people interviewed are changed to sound like your great-grandmother trying to gargle after sucking in the air from a helium balloon.

TV producers and newspaper editors will tell you they are only trying to protect the identity of innocent people, and they visually decapitate them or disguise their voices to respect their privacy.

Undoubtedly, journalistic intrusion, surveillance and ambushing have been rampant in the past. There was a time in Japan, in the 1970s and ’80s, when reporters would jump in front of a person who was involved, directly or indirectly, in an incident and confront them. I recall one revolting reporter who ambushed the daughter of a man killed that day in an airplane accident, shoving a mike in her face and asking, “How do you feel about your father dying in the crash?”

The policy of disguising the identity of ordinary citizens has become more and more widespread in the Japanese media, and not only in connection with the news. It is done on variety programs, often to lend an aura of conspiracy to the show.

They also practice the tactics of phony suspense. You might see a so-called geino (entertainment) reporter slithering up to a door or gate intercom and attempting to get a few words out of the occupant of the home. Generally that person will politely tell the reporter to go away, at which point they will turn to look straight into the camera lens and lower their voice to a whisper, as if this were all “just between you and me.”

Titillating disclosure

In a newspaper, the approach of titillating disclosure is even more disturbing. Witness the reporting by the Asahi Shimbun, on March 6, of what they called “The Seibu Shinjuku Groper Incident.” (All “incidents” in Japan are given titles, as if they were not factual occurrences but rather a scene in a TV drama.)

In this instance, a 43-year-old man who had been accused of groping a 16-year-old high school girl on a Seibu Shinjuku Line train on Oct. 22, 2003, was acquitted by the Tokyo High Court. The poor fellow had gone through hell for more than two years — he lost his job, and the harmony in his household was destroyed. Now he found himself exonerated. The photo in the Asahi Shimbun, of him flanked by his lawyers at the post-trial press conference, had them all without heads. Even though the man was declared innocent, his identity, and that of his lawyers, was undisclosed. If this was his personal choice (after all, Japanese people tend to tar the innocent with the brush they use on the guilty, and he may have chosen to remain anonymous), the newspaper should not have run a photo with the story.

NHK and commercial news programs use amputated photos constantly. On NHK’s “News 10” program on March 17, a former employee of the troubled discount airline Skymark was interviewed sans head and with helium-balloon voice. All we could see was a necktie and wringing hands. Three days later on the same program, people who lost relatives to asbestos-related diseases spoke of their grief and anger. Two women were on screen as themselves, but a man appeared only from the neck down. Again, if the man actually made the personal choice to be interviewed in that way, I believe the TV station should have declined to show him. The newscaster could have related his words.

Years ago, TV stations in Japan used bokashi (fuzzy blurring) of faces to hide identity. Then they went over to mosaic, “golf-ball” blurring. Currently, their technique of choice appears to be decapitation and voice distortion. This technique is vastly overused. The result is a genuine blurring of the distinction between fact and gossip, between news and voyeuristic entertainment. This way, news becomes something akin to the conspiratorially presented pseudo-information generated by geino reporters and their ratings-obsessed producers.

Young boys abused

Certainly, the media in the West will hide the identity of an interviewee when the occasion warrants, though I cannot remember ever seeing a photo in a major newspaper of someone without a head. On March 19, for instance, BBC World News broadcast a report on young boys in Mumbai, India, who had been abused. One of the victims was interviewed on this report. The camera was placed behind him, so his face could not be seen, although his voice was unaltered.

The case of the man on the Seibu Shinjuku Line train is certainly one worthy of reporting in the media. Groping is a crime, and those guilty of it deserve punishment. But this case does show that not all those who are accused are guilty. The man, who was alleged to have put his hand in the girl’s underwear, had asserted his innocence to the police, asking them to test his hand for fibers or other evidence of the act. In court the police admitted they carried out no such investigation. The man told the police at the time, “I was behind her to the right. There was a foreign-looking man behind on the left. You have the wrong man!” (One would have thought, knowing the police, they would have at least responded to the claim about a “foreign-looking man.”) Despite all this, the police apparently tried to force a confession out of him.

This news item brings up important issues relating to sexual harassment on trains, police investigation techniques and the agony of being ostracized solely on the basis of accusation. But the presentation of the news about the court decision in the newspapers trivialized all of this, relegating it to the realm of daytime drama.

Privacy, yes. Protection of a person’s rights, by all means. But let us have these in the context of a responsible and truth-seeking media.

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