Sunday, February 17, 2008

It's hard to be #1

It is hard to be the ultimate, the ne-plus-ultra, the one who sets the standards by which all others shall be measured.

But someone has to do it.

Since I have met the gentleman in question (I have his card) I might as well be the one to utter the unutterable:

David Pilling of the Financial Times has written what must be the worst essay on Japan published in a major newspaper in the last 20 years.

He does not even get the arithmetic right. The last time anyone looked, 125 million divided by 10,000 is 12,500--not 1,250.

Sigh. Sigh again.

When one makes a mistake like that in the first paragraph, the outlook for the rest of the ride is, well, uncertain...especially after starting off with the ao versus midori canard and its obliviousness to the reality that a number of languages have a single word for the green-to-blue part of the spectrum...and how one can point to the analogous "orange" problem in English--where the language did not have a word for "orange" until les mangeurs de rosbifs manhandled the Spanish word naranja sufficiently that "a naranja" became "an orange"--giving a color that had always existed a name and identity.

Read the essay. See if you come away with the same question as I did:

"How could the Financial Times, or any newspaper, publish an essay by one of its correspondents upon the theme is 'I do not understand the subject I am paid to write about every day. Calloo callay, I chortle!'--and not understand that it would undermine every single sentence that correspondent has ever written?"

The publication of this essay represents either editorial malfeasance or actual malice aforethought toward the author.


Jan Moren said...

I could only read the first two paragraphs; you apparently need to register to see the rest. I am very sure that I have no desire to register in order to read more of that particular essay. I thought people generally got through the "I can't believe how different everything is!"-phase within the first two-three months in their first new country.

vincent said...

I'm not sure the essay is all that bad. Anyway, I liked what other people had to say in the essay. The observation attributed to Mr. Earl H. Kinmonth is interesting:
"...he (Mr. Earl H. Kinmonth) professed to find the eccentricities of Britain's class system every bit as puzzling as Japan’s supposed oddities..."
Also, Mr. Kinmonth Rolls-Royce versus Ford Fiesta observation seems very true to me: No matter how different, the underlying dynamics are the same. A car is a car.

And then the comment of Mrs. Sahoko Kaji:
"I sometimes feel sorry watching westerners trying to define Japan (...) It is futile. In Japan, one thing blends into another seamlessly. And importantly, nobody (no Japanese, anyway) worries about where the line is drawn."

In one word, Japan is of course not completely different. It's evident. Probably Mr. Pilling understood this at the end his essay. He should stop worrying about the 'differences'.

MTC said...

Herr Morén -

I think FT registration is free now. Being registered will give you access to the superlative work of economics columnist Martin Wolf, if nothing else.

vincent -

1) Dr. Kinmonth has been fighting a battle against the Japan uniqueness crowd on the NBR Japan Forum for years now, citing the U.K. and Italy as an incredibly bizarre places, when you think about them.

(In truth, I do not know whether or not Dr. Kinmonth is still posting to NBR. I removed myself from the mailing list long ago and have not gone back. If you remiain interested in looking into Dr. Kinmonth's ideas and modes of argument, Google "NBR Japan Forum" Once you are on the threads page you can search for his name. The search function is not very good, however--at least it did not use to be.)

2) You seem to be misunderstanding what Kaji Sahoko is saying. She actual supports the idea that Japan has tenebrous essences. Reread, for example, her take on "the absolute" in Japanese identity.

Furthermore, Kaji's statement "nobody (no Japanese, anyway) worries about where the line is drawn" is provably false. Just pick up a copy of the Sankei Shimbun, Seiron, WiLL, SAPIO, Voice or any other of the right's bullhorns--you will find oceans of ink being spilt in attempts to nail down what is and what is not Japanese.

(I will be posting about this topic later in the week).

vincent said...

Thanks for your reply, mtc. Interesting. I will look in to 'NBR Japan Forum'.
I'm not so educated as you and get a lot of things wrong, but let my try to explain – in my limited English – why the comments of Kaji Sahoko seduced me.
As a foreigner I like to tell the tourists that Japan is 'a land of contradictions'. Plenty of anecdotes. Easy story, easy sell. They love it. Also the media (mea culpa..). But are the contractions really there, or only in my mind? Why do I want do define everything (like Mr. Pilling apparently).
When I talk to 'foreign educated' Japanese, they will try to guess my foreign thinking and say 'oh yes, very bizarre'. But when I talk to Japanese who never had any experience with foreign thinking, foreign cultures, or maybe those who knows the 'truth'... they will say: 'what contradictions?'.
Why trying to define everything? Trying to draw lines from my own cultural background (inevitable) is leading nowhere. I think Mrs. Kaji was trying to say this – even if she probably thinks that the only 'foreigners' are capable of reasoning so stupidly.

Anonymous said...

I do not know whether or not Dr. Kinmonth is still posting to NBR.

He is. His posts are always thoughtful and good reads. Certainly, his writings have nothing to do with why I'm about to cancel my subscription to the mailing list myself.

At any rate, someone passed me a copy of the FT on Saturday. I was shocked that the piece was even printed.

I don't think it's the worst published in the last 20 years, but it could be a contender. Perhaps there should be some sort of ranking where we can vote for such an honor.

Anonymous said...

Why, oh, why did you have to point out this article?
I daren't look, I don't want to look. And yet, I can't resist.
(You don't even have to register with the FT, you can access full articles by clicking on the journalists' names).

Hope you're well.

Anonymous said...

I see that Ken has already commented here. Funnily enough, I have the very pink paper that Ken was given in front of me now and, having just read the article, fear I shall never be able to trust him again. To be fair, he did say, "Here, this sucks, read it," which is kind of like asking people to try terrible food, but I had no idea how badly it sucked. I should have read Shisaku first.

What gives with the FT, Economist, and BBC being so god-awful on Japan, when they have a good bit going for them elsewhere? (That's not a rhetorical question, I really would like to know.)

MTC said...

Gill -

Good to hear from you. I was recently asking myself whether or not you were still in Tokyo.

My email is the same. Drop me a line when you can.

garrett -

I have to say I think The Economist has been pretty damn good recently. Sadly that may be because I remember when The Economist was really bad--when the misspellings of the names of Japanese politicians was a weekly event.

Anonymous said...

Garrett, you're just plain damn out of line with including the Economist in your list. They have been great on Japan recently. I'm gonna get my dad to beat you up. In an alley. With a can.

Anonymous said...

Read like something a first year Japan studies student would write. Pity is was written by the FT's finest.

Anonymous said...

It is a bit of an odd essay/book response for FT. It's also oddly nostalgic, especially since he mentions when he started working in the Tokyo office in 2002. I would wonder a bit if there is something else up more so than think a normally good reporter is trotting out the "Japanese-is-strange-ne?" article that seems almost as obligatory for reporters as the "hot-spring-episode" is for Japanese drama writers. "I don't care if it's a biting crime drama, there MUST be an episode at a hot springs!"