Japanese people are known for their sense of propriety and decorum. Reserve and self-restraint are fine Japanese virtues, and they have afforded the society an enviable harmony and level of personal safety unparalleled in the developed world. Putting a damper on people’s self-assertive instincts, and avoiding confrontation between them, keeps everyday social interaction on an even, and civil, keel.

Although Japanese society is, at its best, essentially civil, that trait also has negative consequences that I have experienced any number of times over the years. These have been encounters with media censorship in what might be called Japan’s “conspiracy of silence.”

In practice this means that rather than expose a blatant injustice, and admit to its existence, many Japanese prefer to clam up, pretend it isn’t there and, ultimately, adopt a “solution” that evades the question altogether.

In the 1980s, I did a weekly spot on a Tokyo FM radio station. The show, sponsored by a major car manufacturer, was broadcast nationwide. My contribution was to bring up a social issue and talk about it in an amusing way.

“We want you to be really hard on the Japanese,” my producer told me. “Please don’t spare us.” (Oh, how the Japanese used to love hearing themselves raked over the coals by non-Japanese. That kind of mild masochism made them feel so painfully unique!) “But,” he added, “we don’t want you talking about cars. Just leave all talk about cars out.”

Fair enough, I thought. I might really put my foot in it by making some indiscreet joke about a car and get the sponsor all steamed up. But then, as the weeks and months progressed, I realized that there were lots of other things I could not talk about.

No jokes about ethnic groups, particularly Koreans. No quips about any physical disabilities or certain jobs traditionally done by ethnic or social minorities. In addition, I had to tread extremely carefully when I talked about religion, lest I step on the toes of our friends of pronounced or politically aligned faith (a joke about atheists, however, always went down well). This radio show, on at 8 in the morning, was heard by people of all ages, so sex was a no-no as well.

Well, when you can’t talk about ethnic groups, certain jobs, religion or sex — not to mention automobile parts — there’s not much left in the comic repertoire. So I returned often to the weather. Everyone likes to complain about the weather, and your weatherman and weatherlady are the world’s most beloved whipping persons.

I was fine until one early summer’s morning when I entered the Tokyo offices of the FM station for the show.

“Good morning, everyone,” I said, smiling. “Great weather today, eh?”

“Yes, in Tokyo,” my producer said, furrowing his brow. “But there has just been torrential rain in Nagasaki. So, Pulvers-san, cool it. No jokes today about the weather. People in Nagasaki are dying.”

Oh God, I thought. There goes my morning spot, which was centered on a great joke about people of three nationalities caught in a rowboat during a storm on Lake Michigan.

“What about a . . . I mean, a story that takes place on Lake Michigan in America?”

“Is there rain in it?” asked my producer, a dark cloud passing before his eyes.

“Well, yeah, I guess. It kind of rains a lot over there, you know.”

“No rain. Not today. Think of the poor people in Nagasaki.”

I don’t remember what I talked about that morning. All I can recall is the streams of cold sweat running down the back of my neck as I faced the mike.

Are the Japanese people infinitely compassionate? Is that why they are so worried about offending minorities? Do they really care so much about victims of flooding that they find references to rain as far away as the Great Lakes inappropriate?

The answer lies not in the depths of their compassion. Conversely, it lies in the profound fear that open discussion of ills in this society might expose the hidden discrimination and true feelings of indifference of many Japanese toward those who suffer in their midst.

Another, more recent, example.

In 2000, I directed Nikolai Gogol’s “The Inspector” at a theater in Tokyo. NHK came along and made a video recording of the play.

Before the videotaping, the NHK director asked me if we could leave out a word used in the play. I asked him which that would be. I couldn’t for the life of me think of a single word that would offend a television audience.

“Well, the word is tansaibo,” said the director.

“Tansaibo? Why? It just means ‘simpleton.’ ” (Literally, tansaibo means “single cell.”)

“There are people in Japan with mental disabilities. We don’t want to offend them,” the director explained.

Tansaibo is, in fact, one of dozens of “words of discrimination” that cannot be used in the media.

Once, in rehearsal for an appearance on a TV talk show, I used the word “one-eyed.” The producer asked me not to repeat it on the show as it might insult people who were sighted in only one eye. Similarly, in discussion with a TV producer of another show, I held up four fingers when telling him that I had four children.

“Oh, for goodness sake, don’t hold up four fingers on TV!”

“OK. Can I say I have four children?”

“Sure. Having four children is fine.”

Holding up four fingers is banned because Japanese bigots used to refer to social outcastes as “animals with four legs” (yottsu ashi).

Restricting some words and gestures in the media is necessary. But curtailing freedom of expression to feign sympathy with the disadvantaged is a feature of Japan’s conspiracy of silence that perpetuates inequality.

Media censorship like this does not denote a caring or compassionate society. Rather, it is symbolic of one that puts a premium on social civility at the expense of people who suffer from physical disabilities, minorities experiencing discrimination and others who are disallowed access to equal rights. Avoiding impropriety means that the disadvantaged are pushed off the public’s radar, where they are forced to continue their suffering in silence.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.