Spiked redux

(I promised myself I wouldn’t write another one of these, but promises are made to be broken.)

Japan’s judiciary on trial

Prosecutors or persecutors?

A legal scandal may spark reform of the Japanese judicial system

Oct 14th 2010 | TOKYO

AMONG the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn is kan son min pi (“respect officials, despise the people”). It defines the traditional relationship of individuals as subservient to the state—among whose representatives none is accorded more authority than the public prosecutor. The great privilege this confers on the role, however, can lead to its abuse.

A run of recent legal scandals, including wrongful convictions and brutal incarcerations, has tested respect for Japan’s criminal-justice system. The latest example, alleged evidence-tampering by a high-flying prosecutor and a cover-up by his bosses, has rallied many who want to see more regard for individual rights and greater checks on state power. The prosecutor in question, Tsunehiko Maeda, allegedly changed the date of a file on a computer disk that was being used as evidence against a woman accused of involvement in a massive benefit fraud. When Mr Maeda admitted this to his superiors, they are said to have ordered him to produce a report explaining how it happened “unintentionally”. On October 11th the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office dismissed Mr Maeda, the chief prosecutor in Osaka’s special investigative unit, and pressed charges against him. 

The scandal has hit a nerve. Japan takes pride in one of the world’s lowest crime rates. But it also has a fishily high conviction rate, at 99.9%. That matches China’s and is far above rates in the West. In their defence, Japanese lawyers say that the country’s under-resourced state prosecution service is only able to bring the strongest cases to trial. Fear of failure, with which all Japan’s bureaucrats are imbued, reinforces a reticence to test weaker cases in court. According to a former Tokyo district court judge, a single courtroom loss can badly damage a prosecutor’s career. A second can end it.

Yet the recent scandals suggest that miscarriages of justice are all too common. So do several quirks of the justice system, which weigh the scales against the accused. Suspects can be held for up to 23 days without charge, for example. They often have little access to a lawyer and none during questioning. Police interrogations commonly last up to ten hours and are rife with mental and verbal abuse. On October 7th a businessman in Osaka produced a surreptitious recording of his seven-hour “voluntary” questioning, in which the police threaten to hit him and destroy his life.

Part of the problem is that Japan has too few lawyers; one tenth the number per head of Britain. That is largely because the government makes it remarkably difficult to become one. For years it set the bar exam pass-rate at around 3%, though it has recently increased it to 25%. This reflects a fear, in a conflict-shy country, that more lawyers will make society more litigious, not more just.

Recent reforms have improved matters a little. A sort-of jury system, introduced last year, has a panel of six citizens review cases alongside judges, who ultimately pronounce on them. This system produced its first acquittal in June. A more important change, says Kazuko Ito, a lawyer specialising in wrongful-conviction cases, would oblige prosecutors to disclose any mitigating evidence. Former prosecutors also urge judges to be more sceptical about the word of prosecutors and the police.

In Mr Maeda’s shabby case, the court threw out much of the evidence and acquitted the accused. Mr Maeda’s supervisors have also been arrested. Now a titillated Japanese public looks forward to prosecuting the prosecutors.

Let’s revisit the first paragraph.

AMONG the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn is kan son min pi (“respect officials, despise the people”). It defines the traditional relationship of individuals as subservient to the state—among whose representatives none is accorded more authority than the public prosecutor. The great privilege this confers on the role, however, can lead to its abuse.

“Amazing”, I half-thought to myself as I raced through the article. “How typically erudite of an Economist journalist to have come up with an obscure four-character compound (四字熟語) to illustrate the story, one that even this Old Japan Hand (ahem) has never heard.” Particularly interested in the fourth character, which I couldn’t quite visualize, I made a mental note to search it out at a moment of leisure.

That moment of leisure came one lunchtime this week. A Google search quickly revealed the identity of the fourth character.

官尊民卑

Kan son min pi

Official-respect people-despise

So far, so good. But I couldn’t help noticing that it only garnered 16,500 hits at Google, which struck me as not enough for a “four-character idiom that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn”. Many of the initial hits are for a 2006 book of the same title by a Keio University professor and specialist in urban sociology, Hiro Fujita, who was hardly likely to be taking the expression at face value. So I decided to ask my Japanese colleagues about it.

First up was a highly literate and eagle-eyed editor in her early forties.

“Do you know the four-character compound ‘kan son min pi’?”

“Eh? What are the characters?” Flustered, she scurried for the safety of the mouse and the keyboard. I explained what the characters were.

“I’ve never heard it. See, it doesn’t convert automatically when you type it, the way classic four-character compounds do.”

Then spontaneous and unsolicited came the comment, “It’s not the sort of compound we would’ve learned in school.”

A translator in her fifties, overhearing the conversation, said, “I’ve never heard it either. I wouldn’t say for sure that it’s a very recent coinage, but certainly within the last fifty years or so.”

One remote avenue of possibility remained open, that it had indeed come into popular use in the last couple of decades—I’m no expert on four-character compounds—and that us over-forties were simply ignorant. I approached a colleague who graduated from Sophia University, one of Japan’s best private schools, in 2007, making him about 26 at most.

“Do you know the four-character compound ‘kan son min pi’?”

“Eh? What are the characters?” Flustered, he scurried for the safety of the mouse and the keyboard. I explained what the characters were.

“I’ve never heard it. Why do you ask?” I explained that an English newspaper had asserted that “all Japanese schoolchildren must learn” it and that I now thought this sounded suspicious. He looked relieved.

Our mutual colleague, a 2008 faculty of sciences master’s graduate from Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, the University of Tokyo, had meanwhile returned to his seat.

“Do you know the four-character compound ‘kan son min pi’?”

“Sure. You used to hear it a lot a few years ago. We used it for people who were angling for a career in the bureaucracy rather than the private sector. But now you don’t hear it so much, because everyone wants to work in the private sector.”

So what do we know so far? First, that “kan son min pi” is unambiguously not “among the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn”.

As far as I can tell, it is a neologism, coined perhaps in the last 20 or 40 years as an ironic counterpoint to the much more familiar:

男尊女卑

Man-respect woman-despise

Second, that it doesn’t mean “respect officials, despise the people” at all, although superficially it looks as though it might. The “min” (民) refers not to “the people” (国民), but to the “private sector” (民間). This is what the on-line dictionaries state, too. So it means to prefer the public sector over the private, whether in pursuit of employment opportunities or in, say, local governments choosing to keep certain services in-house rather than outsource.

Back to the article. What is the most charitable explanation for this error? The best that I can come up with is that the Economist journalist was talking over the story with a Japanese colleague or contact who mentioned ‘kan son min pi’ without being fully aware of its history or meaning (and yes, strange as it may seem, not all Japanese people are automatically more versed in every aspect of their society than diligent foreigners are in at least some), and the journalist casually asked whether every Japanese knew the expression, to which the answer was affirmative.

Does any of this remotely matter, though, either in the narrow context of the article or the wider context of reporting on Japan? 

I think it does. First, the opening paragraph is a breezily confident assertion of authorial authority, designed to wow or cow the reader into submission. “Look at me,” it says, “I am so well versed in the ways of Japan that I am even on intimately familiar terms with its school curriculum.” Duly browbeaten, the reader is in no position to take issue with the rest of the article. Yet the next paragraph contains an oddity and a straightforward factual error.

The woman, Atsuko Muraki, a high-ranking Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare official “accused of involvement in a massive benefit fraud”, is much better described as having been accused of “involvement in the misuse of reduced postal rates for disabled people”, as the Financial Times accurately and succinctly described it. Is that really benefit fraud?

Tsunehiko Maeda, moreover, was not “the chief prosecutor in Osaka’s special investigative unit”. He was one of 13 rank-and-file prosecutors. His superiors, who allegedly ordered the cover-up, were the chief prosecutor (Hiromichi Otsubo) and deputy chief prosecutor (Motoaki Saga) in the special investigation unit.  

To return to the first paragraph, even if the first sentence were correct, is it not ridiculous to take a single idiom and then to determine that “it defines the traditional relationship of individuals as subservient to the state”? It’s as if a writer from East Asia were to seize upon a random proverb, let’s say “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” as evidence of the innate risk-aversion of the English-speaking peoples.

And is it reasonable to assert that, among the state’s “representatives none is accorded more authority than the public prosecutor”? How about vice ministers from the bureaucracy, who play a large role in drafting the law, not merely enforcing it?

It’s also not a little ironic for the reporter to be opining critically about “the traditional relationship of individuals as subservient” to a higher power when Economist writers are obliged to subsume their writerly identities to the dictates of the Economist style guide to produce prose of almost North Korean conformity and largely forced to remain anonymous by the organ for which they work.

Authorial anonymity, no doubt a policy imposed for good reasons in the mists of antiquity, serves the Economist well in the Internet era, as it prevents all but the most determined reader from coming to an informed conclusion about the expertise or otherwise of the author, hidden behind an incognito cloak. Sometimes, though, the mask slips for a moment, as it does in the article above and also here, to give glimpses of one of the dirty little secrets of the Economist—that their journalists are regularly shunted around the world and often have no deep insider knowledge of the societies on which they report. Indeed, the article, which although it contains some other dubieties on which I won’t dwell is ultimately quite pedestrian, could conceivably have been written in a day by someone with an inherited Rolodex fresh off the boat, based on the nightly news accounts of the case in English on NHK.

Second, what are the implications in the wider context of reporting on Japan? A former colleague of mine asserted—correctly I feel— in 2004 that “it is still possible to make statements about Japan which are factually incorrect without fear of contradiction.” That possibility remains open, in a way that does not generally hold for the rest of the developed world, for two reasons.

There are precious few people capable of challenging such statements: the number of native English speakers sufficiently immersed in the Japanese language to have instinctively smelt a big fat rat in the first sentence of the article above is probably in the low hundreds, and most of them are likely to be found ensconced in ivory towers.

Sadly, too, the level of interest in Japan in polite society in the West has been etiolated to such an extent that the stakes involved in making factually incorrect statements are so small that the gamble is not a risky one. The message for the reader of commentary, journalism, or indeed any kind of commercially produced prose on Japan—to say nothing of the horrors of the blogosphere—is to be, if at all possible, in a constant state of caveat lector alertness.

Most contemporary journalism has been so debased as to be akin to junk food: produced at speed to the mandates of headquarters according to a strict formula, with costs pared to the bone and expensive ingredients skimped on or done away with altogether. Junk-food journalism is designed to be wolfed down on the run by multi-taskers and media junkies, their attention forever at risk of being distracted by TV or text message, poke or twitter, and forgotten about an hour later—which explains the desperation of the author of the above article, on a subject arcane by Economist (and almost any) standards, to ensnare the reader with an arresting opening. Of course, the Economist, even at its worst, ladles out only the classiest junk-food journalism, more Pret a Manger than Jolibee. But junk it nevertheless can be.

When it comes to Japan, junk-food journalism has numerous mutant subspecies. I won’t stray deep into the unabashed awfulness of the pop-culture drivel, save to note that the Wall Street Journal should be mortally embarrassed that it allowed the following paragraph (and the article of which it forms a part) to disgrace its pages on October 26:

For a mere 1,400 yen ($16), tourists can get a taste of the maid cafe experience at @Home Hana, a traditional Japanese-themed establishment. When I ordered an iced coffee, our cute “eternally 17-year old” maid Mizuki poured the cream and stirred it for me until I asked her to stop, using the magic word “moe”, which is used by the otaku to express burning passion.

And to excoriate the Washington Post for the worst sin of modern hackery, the unattributed explanation (“experts say”), for being four years behind the curve on the metrosexual (non-) story, and for absurd typecasting on October 25:

Japan’s young men mystify their girlfriends and their bosses. They confound the advertisers who aim products at them. They’ve been scrutinized and categorized by social commentators, marketing consultants and the government. And they unnerve just about everybody who makes long-term projections about Japan’s flagging birthrate and fading economy. Japan will grow or falter, economists and sociologists say, upon the shoulders of these mild, frugal, sweet-mannered men.

In the realms of politics, society, and economics, there are four particularly pernicious sub-genres of junk-food journalism about Japan. The first is what I call the “Grand Hyatt school”, in which our hero-author never strays outside the confines of central Tokyo, sees the roads crowded with luxury cars from Germany and Japan and the sidewalks bustling with Chanel-clad women toting Vuitton bags, and declares that the naysayers and doom-mongers are all hopelessly misinformed. These specimens also tend to have skipped Economics 101. William J. Holstein is a particularly egregious example:

With the yen at 87 to the dollar, it’s hard for the foreigner to get a sense of any deflation in Japan. A cup of coffee at a hotel in central Tokyo is $10. If there is any deflation in Japan, it is probably a positive thing because it means that real estate prices and the overall cost of living may decline.

The second I call the “let them eat cake school”: armchair journalists that decree that “advanced” economies such as Germany and Japan have solved the economic question, much to the mirth of any serious economist, and no longer need to grow—or even, in the absence of growth, redistribute, it seems. It’s no longer shocking that the Guardian should print such tripe.

Japan’s economy has been and remains successful. So is Germany’s. They have reached an economic steady state in which they don’t need roaring growth rates to provide for their people.

Go tell that to the fifth of Japanese households with annual incomes below Y2mn (about $25,000 at the current exchange rate, less at purchasing power parity).

The third—and this is diametrically opposed to the first two and requires some subtlety of mind to understand why I find it laughable for now—is the “apocalypse now school”, a millenarian cult that is convinced Japan is on the brink of collapse. The New York Times’ Martin Fackler made a lamentably poor fist of this on October 16:

The downsizing of Japan’s ambitions can be seen on the streets of Tokyo, where concrete “microhouses” have become popular among younger Japanese who cannot afford even the famously cramped housing of their parents, or lack the job security to take out a traditional multidecade loan.

These matchbox-size homes stand on plots of land barely large enough to park a sport utility vehicle, yet have three stories of closet-size bedrooms, suitcase-size closets and a tiny kitchen that properly belongs on a submarine.

“This is how to own a house even when you are uneasy about the future,” said Kimiyo Kondo, general manager at Zaus, a Tokyo-based company that builds microhouses.

I challenge the author to come up with a shred of statistical evidence that houses are shrinking to rabbit-hutch proportions. Here’s a sample of Zaus houses: McMansions they are not, but to someone not from a country with vast tracts of land to spare they don’t look too shabby. According to Shukan Jutaku Shimbun (Housing News Weekly), the average overall floor area of a property in Japan was 95m2 in 2005, compared with 87m2 in the UK (2001), 99m2 in Germany (2002), and 99m2 in France (2002).

The fourth sub-genre, and most reprehensible of all, is the “fascist takeover school”. Here’s Mark MacKinnon, a man who clearly knows next to nothing about his subject and is capable of only the broadest-brush cliché, writing in Toronto’s Globe and Mail on October 5 (highlights mine):

As this country staggers through a second decade of economic stagnation, and suffers the indignation of being eclipsed by historic rival China, there’s a common refrain coming from the growing ranks of this country’s young and angry: Japan must stand up for itself – and that foreigners are to blame for the country’s ills.

No one was hurt in any of the incidents. But they highlight a tide of rising nationalism that is just one of the new social ills afflicting a country that 20 years ago was the richest and most stable on the planet.

One issue Mr. Kan didn’t mention is that more and more Japanese are turning away from traditional politics and embracing extremist ideologies laced with chilling hints of the country’s militaristic history.

Again, I challenge the author to produce a single piece of hard evidence for the highlighted assertions. Articles such as this just turn their authors into unwitting tools of Chinese propaganda—“useful idiots”, as Soviet sympathizers in the West were once called.

So what is to be done? Two things, I think: keep needling and keep paying. Journalism has been hit even harder than the music industry by the Internet. After all, Big Music has concert revenues and merchandise to fall back on, whereas no one pays to hear a journalist rap and no one buys T-shirts emblazoned with portraits of their favourite hacks.

One of my least favourite stylistic tics of the Economist is the way articles often close by returning to their openings, creating an often illusory sense of closure. So in mock-tribute I’ll sign off with a rewrite of the paragraph with which we began.

AMONG the four-character idioms that no Japanese schoolchildren must learn is so son ki gi (“respect amateurs, question the press”). It redefines the traditional relationship of readers as subservient to the journalist—among whose representatives none is accorded more authority than the Economist correspondent. The great privilege this confers on the role, however, can lead to its abuse.

[With thanks to R.M., A.I., and H.S., part of my network of media spies.]

26 responses to “Spiked redux

  1. Haha, great one! And you even managed to squeeze in 2 “shabby”!😉

    I totally agree. I could puke over every article ever written in the German press about Japan…these people come (*if* they even come!) with their predefined opinion and look for a way to “confirm” them and spread the inaccuracies (in the best case) to outright lies and made-up stories. The worse is, they are not even funny or entertaining as their local counterparts (Japanese “journalists” writing about Germany) are.
    Keep up finding these nuggets!

    Juergen
    PS: Just confirmed in my household that “Kan son min pi” is practically unknown…

  2. Fantastic article as always! I was glad to see you made a mention of that Guardian article from a while back too; great stuff.

  3. Those four genres of Japan journalism are pretty much spot on. Thank you for putting into word what I’ve only managed to roll my eyes at until now.

    -Mikael

    P.S. I’d ask about the “kan son min pi”, but the wife’s still asleep, and she’s the only one in the family who went to school in Japan.

  4. You missed Mr. MacKinnon’s greatest article on Japan and another sub-genre of bad reporting that I call Japanese kink. He interviewed a retiree porn star for Canada’s national newspaper.
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/asia-pacific/husband-grandfather-retiree-and-a-japanese-porn-star/article1740521/singlepage/

    Mr. MacKinnon is actually based in China and only occasionally travels to Japan.

    As for The Economist, it is possible to find out the names of their writers by using a search feature on the User Services page.

    Mr Kenneth Neil Cukier is the business writer, Henry Tricks is the Tokyo Bureau Chief and the Asian columnist Banyan (and former Tokyo Bureau Chief) is Dominic Ziegler. Clicking on their names in the link below brings up their picture and profile.
    http://www.economist.com/mediadirectory/results.cfm

    • You’re quite right, “Japanese kink” is another subgenre. I tried to confine my classification of subgenres to the realms of politics, society, and economics, and to gloss over the (even) cheaper stuff. There’d be no end to Hello Kitty journalism and its derivatives.

      I have to confess I don’t find the retiree porn star stuff quite as offensive as I do the “black sun rising” stuff. You’re right that it fits neatly into the slot of “Japanese kink” but I don’t feel it distorts as badly.

      Yes, I checked Mr. MacKinnon’s bio – seems like he was shoveled off to East Asia not that long ago by a floundering newspaper, pity him.

      Thank you indeed for the link to the Economist authors: I knew about Cukier through a friend; he’s the subject of “Spiked Again” at the top drop-down links. I didn’t know about Henry Tricks:

      “Henry Tricks joined The Economist as capital markets editor in January 2006, became Finance Editor in September 2006 and will become Tokyo Bureau Chief in August 2009. Before that he wrote for the Financial Times in London, was FT bureau chief in Mexico, and worked for Reuters in America, Mexico and Central America. Henry has been interviewed on CNBC and the BBC World Service amongst others.”

      Enough said. Sayonara, last shreds of Economist credibility.

  5. I was curious about the floor area statistics and did a little more digging over at 総務省 ‘s website, yielding the following with respect to the average floor area of rented dwellings in Tokyo:

    1998 : 35.45 sq m
    2003: 36.79 sq m
    2008: 37.46 sq m

    Not particularly spacious, by any means, but this also works to refute Fackler’s assertion.

    • Good stuff. Rental accommodation is very cramped by international standards – I have 46 square meters for Japan versus 75 for the UK and 77 for Germany, but this is partly a quirk of very low levels of shared rental accommodation (I think), and offset by the relative spaciousnes – amazingly enough – of owner-occupied housing. No gardens, though…

  6. Nice article. I don’t hold it against you for breaking your promise either. The temptation to pick apart bad Japan writing is just too great, even if it is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.

    From a reader’s perspective I have to say that mocking criticism of such sloppiness is enjoyable to see.

  7. Isn’t that phrase actually Chinese? It reeks of Old Imperial edict and Confucianism. It may have been “learned” during Japan’s early imperial years when the government and entire culture was heavily influenced by China. I’d never heard the phrase before reading this.

  8. “I challenge the author to come up with a shred of statistical evidence that houses are shrinking to rabbit-hutch proportions. Here’s a sample of Zaus houses: McMansions they are not, but to someone not from a country with vast tracts of land to spare they don’t look too shabby. According to Shukan Jutaku Shimbun (Housing News Weekly), the average overall floor area of a property in Japan was 95m2 in 2005, compared with 87m2 in the UK (2001), 99m2 in Germany (2002), and 99m2 in France (2002).”

    Tokyo has always been cramped. In fact the “standardize” tatami size has historically been smallest in the Kanto region, Kansai is the second smallest, and the Chubu region having the largest “standard” tatami size. Knowing this bit of esoterica goes back to my grad school days when I was an “expert” on Japan’s land and housing. And, as you well know, moving even to the periphery of Tokyo-to or any of the other major metropolitan area get’s more spacious housing (along with another 45 minutes to an hour on your commute).

    • Except most area measures are done in square meters or tsubo, which don’t vary by region.

      At any rate, while average floor areas in Japan are not that much lower than other nations, I suspect (without confirming) the per-square-meter prices are correspondingly higher. I suspect the reason for this is obvious — high land prices in metropolitan areas where most people live (and most housing is located) as well as the need to “overbuild” structures to withstand earthquakes.

  9. Nice work – I’ve also thought that the Economist’s coverage of Japan has been fairly pedestrian recently.

    As for Fackler’s piece – anyone building a ‘micro-house’ is probably doing it on a tiny sliver of land somewhere in central Tokyo…the fact that they can afford to do this (and probably also hire an architect to make the most of the tiny space) suggests they’re a long way from those who are suffering the most.

  10. Very well done, and I particularly appreciate you catching the Economist at this game.

    Moreover, you do the Japanese people a great service in showing their humanity in not just this article, but the several others I’ve read through at their length with apprecation, since discovering your work a week or two ago.

    Please do consider some wider form of publishing – there must be much room for such insight, in the form of books that used to be written about Asia by particular missionaries, or itinerant journalistic persons (A Yankee Hobo in Japan, as one instance).

    In Korea, where I once lived, I O-Ryong wrote many such articles, I think for one of the newspapers, which were collected and published. Tuttle were the traditional publishers of such things – and I am very pleased on a quick look to find they still exist.

    With regards,
    Clive

  11. Firstly, I must say I’m a fan of your writing. Thank you for all your work.

    Secondly, I’m glad you went back on your word to factcheck articles. Too often they’re taken at face value by their editors.

    You’re not alone in your skepticism however. I did see a take-down of the Washington Post article (oh how have the mighty fallen) by Foreign Policy Magazine. http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/10/26/japocalypse_watch_rise_of_the_metrosexuals

    On the whole I think even FP missed the point. A nice digression from the WP article could have been an examination of what sort of work is available for these young men. Alas, that would take research.

    By the way, thanks for posting the link to the Zaus houses. I was wondering what they were talking about in the original article. I’m a fan of small houses and I have to say, I like the Zaus designs.

    _m

    • You’re certainly right in saying FP missed the point! Sadly, this is a case of ignorant drivel encountering ignorant drivel and spawning – guess what – ignorant drivel. It’s almost beneath comment, but that anyone could write that “the fact that the country is being overrun by lackadasical young men in “tight-fitted pants”” and claim it as a “fact” really does go to show how low and how far we’ve gone. Twentysomethings may be behaving slightly differently from their elders, but not by wearing tight-fitted pants. As if hems and cuts mattered an iota. See “Shopping Arcades” here for a better look at what people in their 20s may be thinking. The Japanese press loves to differentiate its generations – does anyone remember the “shinjinrui” of the Bubble, in many ways ostensibly a more radical phenomenon than the herbivores – and wilfully bereft of insight, the Western media falls hook, line, and sinker for it. What happened to the shinjinrui? They’re mostly in corporate middle management.

  12. One of the reason land prices are so high in Tokyo is that since there is no zoning, SFHs have to compete against the highest and best use of the property, which can be a 10-story condo tower. Plus the low carrying costs of low property taxes and ZIRP end up in land values.

    Once I figured out that land valuation represents the present value of the privilege of legally excluding all other people from being able to access a given plot of land in perpetuity, things became a lot clearer.

    • Correct. This is why you can basically have a semi-industrial “home business” in an otherwise predominately residential area.

      To some extent, this is also a legacy of decisions made after WWII. Unlike parts of Osaka and most of central Nagoya in particular, though much of Tokyo was in ruins, there was no great effort made to “rationalize” the city on a grid pattern of any kind that would have promoted more regular building patterns. This would have required expropriation of large swaths of the city, but would have resulted in fewer “pencil” towers of marginal utility.

      And, as you point out, as long as property taxes remain low and, if commercial construction loans are still evaluated primarily on the basis of land value rather than potential rent stream, nothing will change.

  13. My hat is off to you, once again, for truly perceptive reportage.

  14. Thank you for going back on your promise and spiking some more inaccurate writing. The Economist article is really quite sad when you consider that the Muraki/Maeda case has been covered exhaustively in two English language newspapers (The Japan Times and Daily Yomiuri) on a daily basis, so it shouldn`t have been too hard to get the titles of those involved right.
    I asked my Japanese roommate about 官尊民卑 and he agreed with “official respect – people despise” as the translation, but said that it was rare and most definitely not taught in schools and most likely not even in the prewar period (his grandfather was a school principal in Tohoku and there are still “moral education” textbooks of that era in the old family house). His best guess is that it was used in the prewar era, probably from newspapers of the time. At any rate, it was a bit of an oddity to him.

  15. Hello again
    I guess the microhouses the fellow is referring to are “kyo-sho-juutaku” houses, but I always thought the driving force behind them are the old machiya plots they are built on. Such plots usually have ample depth but very narrow frontage, because frontage is what determined the tax rate in olden times. Its idiotic to suggest such houses are indicative of hard times, because many of them cost 90 to 100 man a tsubo to build. I guess the example given, the Zaus houses, kyou-shou or otherwise, cost something similar. For the uninitiated, that’s a good 40 to 50% more than a cheap timber-frame build would cost, even for a small house on a tricky plot in Tokyo. Bizarrely, some kyou-shou houses were featured in a Channel 4 series called “The Architecture of Happiness”, a philosophical look at alternatives to the mock Tudor and mock Georgian houses seen in British suburbs. This just shows that people can take the same ball and run in a completely different direction. On that programme, kyoushou juutaku were selected since the examples shown were tweaked to the owner’s lifestyle. One fellow got a bath open to the sky to drink beer in and a keen cook got a long kitchen counter to cook at and chat with guests.

  16. The news media is full of errors. This sort ]of thing happens all the time. Take what you read with a grain of salt. There’s simply too much news to cover and not enough time and resources to get it right. I wouldn’t put too much effort into being some kind of vigilante fact-checker. It’s a real up-hill battle. Factual errors abound.

    • I don’t share your fatalism, needless to say. While it may happen “all the time” in supermarket tabloids and the yellow press, I hold the respectable media to a higher standard.

  17. It happens all the time in the mainstream press. When you make the news it becomes especially apparently how often journos misquote, get facts wrong, or simply spin things in a misleading way. Projects I’ve produced have appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines and websites, and I’ve been interviewed by CNN Money, the Guardian, The Japan Times, Lufthansa in-flight magazine and others. In the process I’ve seen first-hand how often journalists make minor embellishments in order to make their story more interesting and how often the get their quotes slightly wrong. No one has ever brought a tape recorder to an interview, and if they take notes at all it’s usually just a summary that they synthesize into a “quote” that was something I never exactly said. We’ve seen people go overboard like Jayson Blair did at the NYT, but I think less scandalous embellishment is par for course for journalists trying to stand-out and make a name for them self. And the convention of quoting unnamed sources provides the perfect mechanism for such exaggerations. Entertainment and celebrity gossip garners much more attention than serious news from the mainstream public, which I think might drive reporters to dress up their reports a bit to give them more widespread appeal. I wish I could give you more examples here, but many of these journalists covering Japan has become my friends and associates. But could share more off the record with you sometime.

    When I was researching Kabukicho for my Tokyo Realtime audio tour, I because acutely aware of errors and inconsistencies in the media to the point where I gave up entirely on reading other people’s reports and instead spent over a year establishing my own connections on the ground and fact-checking everything I heard against multiple sources.

    I just think it’s too much work to try and correct all this stuff, because it really happens nearly everyday. Take this recent article:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/19/business/global/19yakuza.html

    “The man arrested, Kiyoshi Takayama, 63, had been seen as the syndicate’s de facto leader after its official boss was imprisoned in 2005 for possessing firearms, which are illegal in Japan.

    Sorry Hiroko, but I think that should read “…was imprisoned in 2005 for illegal firearms possession”. I think to say it the way it’s written is misleading. I know a guy who runs a hunting business and owns several shotguns and rifles here in Tokyo. So while the application process is apparently very strict, not all firearms are not in fact completely illegal in Japan.

    • Thank you for some interesting comments.
      “It happens all the time in the mainstream press.”
      It depends on what you mean by “the mainstream press”. I had given up on everything but what I thought might be a few trustworthy newspapers of record—the LA Times, NY Times, and the Guardian, perhaps—but these have been letting me down, too. Refuge, I thought, might be found in the business press, which is why the Economist and the WSJ annoy me so much when they print trash. This is a new(ish) phenomenon, though—it didn’t happen 30 years ago.
      “When you make the news it becomes especially apparently how often journos misquote, get facts wrong, or simply spin things in a misleading way.”
      Certainly that’s happened to me (in a minor way) in the last year.
      “Entertainment and celebrity gossip garners much more attention than serious news from the mainstream public, which I think might drive reporters to dress up their reports a bit to give them more widespread appeal.”
      True, no doubt, but why don’t people get angrier about this?
      “I just think it’s too much work to try and correct all this stuff, because it really happens nearly everyday. Take this recent article:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/19/business/global/19yakuza.html
      “The man arrested, Kiyoshi Takayama, 63, had been seen as the syndicate’s de facto leader after its official boss was imprisoned in 2005 for possessing firearms, which are illegal in Japan.
      Sorry Hiroko, but I think that should read “…was imprisoned in 2005 for illegal firearms possession”. I think to say it the way it’s written is misleading. I know a guy who runs a hunting business and owns several shotguns and rifles here in Tokyo. So while the application process is apparently very strict, not all firearms are not in fact completely illegal in Japan.”

      Of course they’re not—which is why elderly members of rural hunting clubs manage to shoot each other, and occasionally random strangers, with some regularity.
      It is too much work to correct this stuff, you’re right. This is why I promised myself I wouldn’t write another Spiked after Spiked Kanna in November 2009, until the Economist really hacked me off recently.

  18. I would be interested in seeing your critical faculties applied to tourist guide books. I recently travelled through Italy for the first time. I dutifully bought two competing guide books that sometimes provided near-identical descriptions of the tourist highlights. Yet my naive experiences on the ground would turn out to be quite different again.
    I suspect that the divergence between reality and the written word is even larger in guides written for tourists in Japan.

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