Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mr. Zakaria, You Blew It

The print edition of Devin Stewart's Newsweek article has landed, or I should perhaps say splattered, on my desk. He gave ample warning to everyone, alerting folks via his LinkedIn page of the arrival of the Newsweek piece. A simple Google search pointed me in the direction of his reworking of the same material original text, written for the Huffington Post.

Now the Newsweek print copy has arrived, worse than imagined. The article is wobbly on the facts, when not outright wrong. The black-and-white photos illustrating it are pure poverty & disfunction pornography.

I do not have the time to go through everything in the article worthy of criticism. I can offer, however, a few pointers on what I believe are some journalistic conventions:

1) When a government minister says to you in a speech, "a non-profit organization has claimed that the number of hikikomori in Japan could be as high as 3.6 million," you are not allowed to hewing close to the line when you write, "More dramatic is the presence of the hikikomori or shut-ins who have given up on social life and number about 3.6 million, according to the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Kazuhiro Haraguchi, citing a Japanese nonprofit" or, and over that line when the text says, "last month authorities said it may be as high as 3.6 million."

As for the hikikomori phenomenon, if you are going to conjure up the image of a lost generation of youths languishing behind the walls of their homes, you had better hope that the government's own survey data does not show that men and women in the 20-29 age cohort are the least likely to agree with the statement "I hardly ever go out," followed by those in the 30-39 cohort (Look at figure 8-2, if you do not believe me).

2) When you write "According to a 2008 Pew survey, Japanese were more dissatisfied with the direction of their country than almost any other nation, including Pakistan and Russia" you had better hope beyond hope that the folks at Pew stopped conducting surveys after 2008 and have closed down their website. Otherwise someone might actually go to the Pew survey database and find out that not only were Japanese surveyed in 2009 twice as satisfied as they were seven years ago, but that their rate of satisfaction was a scant 2 percentage points below the rate for Russia, nearly three times the rate for Pakistan and way above South Korea.

Oops.

Ultimately, the responsibility for the intellectual calamity that has been inflicted upon the world's understanding of Japan lies with Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek's international edition. In this age when news magazines have let of their regulars, relying instead on outsiders to produce content, a journal's reputation is protected only by a tenacious and unpretentious commitment to the verifiable, incongruent with the jitterbug lifestyle of the global glitterati.


Later - To be entirely fair, nothing that DS has written is untrue. The data, however, has been selected and the quotes parsed in such a fashion as to excite, not illuminate.

Even later - Devin Stewart responds in comments and I reply. I very much appreciate his willingness to engage me as regards his article.

5 comments:

Our Man in Abiko said...

Never let the facts get in the way of a good angle, that's journalism 101. Don't know in this case, but could be something to do with numbers of capable journos and sub editors on the ground - far too few in OMIA's humble opinion.

Bryce said...

I wonder how one defines a hikikomori. I used to spend a lot of time in my apartment when I was a grad student. Was I one? I certainly never met any, but then again, one probably wouldn't.

Anyway, to be fair, if we assume that hikikomori are a "phenomenon," they are hardly going to be the type of people responding to opinion polls, now, are they?

Devin Stewart said...

Michael, I don't know where you saw it written that I said Minister Haraguchi told me the figure for hikikomori was 3.6 million. (If it is in the Japanese or International editions, I still haven't seen those copies as they are unavailable in the US.) In fact, the 3.6 million figure is on the Ministry of Internal Affairs website in Japanese from a speech given by the Minister last month. I thought it was pretty significant that the minister found the figure credible enough to cite in a speech, especially since the speech touched on the Japanese suicide rate. Here is how I put it in the Huffington Post:

"More dramatic is the presence of the hikikomori or shut-ins who have given up on social life and number about 3.6 million, according to the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Kazuhiro Haraguchi, citing a Japanese nonprofit."

It isn't fair to blame me for the title or the poverty porn, either. As I hope you and others know, authors have no control over what titles or artwork magazines use. Again, I haven't even seen the artwork yet.

My piece was meant to convey a simple message: The zeitgeist in Japan right now is one of malaise, withdraw, and defeatism. And, after two lost decades as Jeff Kingston puts it, the Toyota episode didn't help given its significance in Japanese identity.

apeescape said...

From what I understand, the definition that is commonly used for hikikomori was first given out by Saito Tamaki. It was something like: 1. unintentional social isolation (including from family members) for over 6 months 2. the 1st point is not caused by a mental disorder. Also called social hikikomori (社会的ひきこもり).

I've heard hikikomori numbers ranging from several hundred thousand to a couple million so 3.6 mil seems really large. But given the nature of the population, it wouldn't surprise me if many of the estimates are understated.

MTC said...

Mr. Stewart -

Thank you for making clear that Mr. Haraguchi did not tell you in person that a non-profit thinks there may be 3.6 million hikikomori, though the presentation of the information in the Huffington Post version of your essay could certainly be construed to be a direct communication from the Minister.

Nevertherless, issue of misleading the reader into believing the 3.6 million figure has strong official support remains unaddressed.

Here is the explanation in the Huffington Post version.

"More dramatic is the presence of the hikikomori or shut-ins who have given up on social life and number about 3.6 million, according to the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Kazuhiro Haraguchi, citing a Japanese nonprofit. "

Here is the explanation from Newsweek:

Estimates of the number of hikikomori (shut-ins who have given up on social life) have risen. Japanese psychologist Tamaki Saito, the foremost authority on the trend, speculated in 1998 that the number of such Japanese could be 1 million; last month authorities said it may be as high as 3.6 million.

Do you see the problem with the Newsweek version?

Neither article contains the necessary caveats that a) Minister Haraguchi's writ does not extend to suicide or hikikomori, and b) that what a Minister says in a speech does not represent an official government stance.