Spiked redux: A postscript

I mailed the two journalists I directly challenged in Spike Redux, The New York Times’ Martin Fackler and Mark MacKinnon, writing for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, not expecting a response from either—and I wasn’t disappointed. I also mailed The Economist’s Henry Tricks, the Tokyo bureau chief, as I had believed he would have written the article. Here’s Mr Tricks’ (outdated) biography from The Economist:

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.

 Mr Tricks informed me, however, that “Japan’s judiciary on trial” was written by the Japan business and finance correspondent, Kenneth Neil Cukier. Here’s his biography: 

Kenneth Neil Cukier is the Japan business and finance correspondent. Previously, he covered technology and telecoms from London, with an emphasis on policy issues. Earlier, he worked at the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, Red Herring magazine in London and the International Herald Tribune in Paris. He serves on the board of advisors to the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

 I dropped him a line and invited comments. He was gracious enough to respond.

 Dear Richard,

Thanks for your note, which my colleague Henry passed along. The
phrase is quite common—I’m surprised that the people you spoke to
didn’t know it.
As for the rest, in short: I agree “benefits scam” was pale — the
piece was significantly cut from its original length, and had I more
space, that and other things would have been more filled out. (Maeda
rank is chief prosecutor—one of those terrible title “ticks”; akin
to so many “executive directors” that are far from a board of
directors….)
Sorry that you didn’t think much of the piece. That said, I’m glad
that we could give the issue exposure.

Best regards,

Kenneth Cukier

I was tempted to begin a response by congratulating him on his powers of towering condescension, which must have been honed over many years, but then I thought, why bother? I’ll take your towering condescension and raise it to withering superciliousness. 

Dear Mr Cukier,

Many thanks for your e-mail. I do appreciate you taking time out of what must be an arduous schedule to reply.
First, to return to “kan son min pi”. You wrote:
“The phrase is quite common — I’m surprised that the people you spoke to didn’t know it.”
“The phrase is quite common” is of course a considerable climb-down from: 

AMONG the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn is kan son min pi (“respect officials, despise the people”).

All I had to do to disprove that was find a handful of Japanese people who had never heard the idiom, which of course I did.
To disprove “the phrase is quite common” is a taller task, but anyway I extended my entirely unscientific survey to 12 people, six male and six female. Of the 12, four had heard of the idiom. Of the six women, none had. Of the four who knew it, none claimed to have learned it in school, but rather as an adult. Of the four who knew it, none thought that “min” meant “the people”; they all saw it as meaning “the private sector”.
My survey targets were wholly unrepresentative in that they all bar one have higher educations, with at least one PhD and one Master’s. A more representative survey would have had a 50:50 split between graduates and non-graduates, and naturally the recognition factor would have been far lower, as “kan son min pi” is clearly a phrase found, if anywhere, very occasionally in the likes of the Nikkei. Thank you though, for revealing anew to me how gender-constructed a language Japanese is, although that was far from your intention.
So the conclusion: perhaps you need to get out a bit more, broaden your circle of acquaintances, start rubbing shoulders in bars with construction workers and beauticians and car mechanics, before you start claiming even that “the phrase is quite common”.
What irks me most about:

AMONG the four-character idioms that all Japanese schoolchildren must learn is kan son min pi (“respect officials, despise the people”)

is that it is in danger of becoming a meme. You are already being quoted without accreditation at blogs like the widely read Seeking Alpha.
Let’s hope that it doesn’t become as legendarily ludicrous as “the nail that sticks up”. The likelihood is low, but I would hold you responsible if it does: “Power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

“As for the rest, in short: I agree “benefits scam” was pale – the piece was significantly cut from its original length, and had I more space, that and other things would have been more filled out.”

Understood, and you have my sympathy.

“Maeda rank is chief prosecutor — one of those terrible title “ticks”; akin to so many “executive directors” that are far from a board of directors….”

Ah, sorry, that’s not correct. This is going to require some explanation. Here’s an excerpt from the more than adequately documented Wikipage on him:

東京地方検察庁検事、広島地方検察庁検事を等経て、大阪地方検察庁特別捜査部検事として、障害者団体向け割引郵便制度悪用事件の主任検事を務めた。

Allow me to translate: “After being a Tokyo district prosecutor and a Hiroshima district prosecutor, he joined the Osaka district prosecutor’s office as a prosecutor in the special investigative unit and was the principal prosecutor in the (abbreviated translation) postal fraud case.”
He wasn’t “the chief prosecutor in Osaka’s special investigative unit”, he was merely the chief/principal prosecutor in this single case. An easy enough mistake to make, though, of course, when you can’t read Japanese.

BTW, I assume you’re responsible for “From Walkmen to hollow men” in the latest issue. If not, please disregard the following.

If the leaders of Japanese firms were able to make just basic improvements—increasing average sales growth from 2% to 5%, lifting earnings from 4.5% to 7% and boosting capital efficiency by 10%—the capitalisation of Japan’s sickly stockmarket could triple from its current level, says Bain, a consultancy, in a recent study.

I’d just note that you can’t lift “earnings” from a percentage point to another because they are absolute numbers. Perhaps you meant margins?
Bain’s prescriptions are far from “basic”, but I decline to enter the world of argument—save that for the gurus at the “Readers’ comments” at the Economist website. My only mission is to correct outright error.

I look forward to your future columns. 

Best regards, 

Richard Hendy

 Let’s take another look at one paragraph in “From Walkmen to Hollow Men”.

 The leadership deficit translates into poor corporate performance. Japanese firms’ return on equity has long been less than half that of American and European companies. Since 1996 the number of Japanese companies among the world’s leading 50 firms by sales in sectors like manufacturing, retail, banking and health care has fallen by half or more. If the leaders of Japanese firms were able to make just basic improvements—increasing average sales growth from 2% to 5%, lifting earnings from 4.5% to 7% and boosting capital efficiency by 10%—the capitalisation of Japan’s sickly stockmarket could triple from its current level, says Bain, a consultancy, in a recent study.

 Mr Cukier did indeed mean “margins”, as the Bain report is easily accessible

Using a framework for transformation, we estimate that by increasing the current average sales growth rate of 2 percent to 5 percent and earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) margins from 4.5 percent to 7 percent-along with improving the level of capital efficiencies by 10 percent-Japan’s market cap could triple its current level. Japan can attain the peak it reached in the boom years, but without a bubble economy.

 Interestingly, Mr Cukier’s previous sentence was also lifted, unattributed, from the Bain report, rather than based on original research: 

Since 1996, the share of Japanese firms within the global top 50 companies involved in manufacturing, retail, healthcare and financial services industries has been cut in half or even more.

 Not a crime, perhaps, but a sleight-of-hand nonetheless, which has me wondering about the sources, freshness, and accuracy of untraceable quotations elsewhere in the article ascribed to leading entrepreneurs:   

 “The salaryman-shacho is one of the biggest reasons why the Japanese economy went down. They don’t take responsibility,” thunders Tadashi Yanai, the founder and boss of Fast Retailing, Japan’s largest clothing retailer and operator of the Uniqlo chain of stores. Mr Yanai, who is reckoned to be Japan’s richest man, worth around $9 billion, is not alone in his view. Japanese managers lack “assertiveness, vigour, energy and resolve”, says Kazuo Inamori, the 78-year-old founder of Kyocera, one of the country’s biggest producers of electronics parts.

But why am I being driven to this kind of speculation? What really irks me most is having had the wool pulled over my eyes by Mr Cukier and having had my trust shaken in a magazine (sorry, “newspaper”) to which I have devotedly, almost slavishly, subscribed for nigh on two decades. Not that I was ever in uncritical sympathy with the editorial line, but I had perhaps been hoping not to be shamelessly decieved.

The more I investigate Mr Cukier, the more I wonder whether his relationship with reality might not best be described as “estranged”. Here he is writing for Prospect magazine in October 2009 in the wake of the DPJ election victory. He opens with:

Japan has long been called a “democracy within a democracy.” Though it held elections, the country had kept the Liberal Democratic party (and its forbearers, the Liberals and the Democrats) in power virtually uninterrupted since the end of the second world war.

A quick Internet search suggests that the only people that call Japan a “democracy within a democracy” (whatever that may mean, I really can’t say) are Mr Cukier and The Economist, who are presumably one and the same.

The landslide was aided by a massive 70 per cent turnout. Yet on election night no cars honked, and no youths leapt into fountains. Such public stoicism is a sign of uncertainty and unease.

No, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s the way things are done around here.

Workers used to count on lifetime employment.

Oh please, not that old canard!

And the country’s famously low crime rate has been creeping up too, especially among the elderly, who find it harder to get by.

Except that the crime rate hasn’t been creeping up. It peaked in 2002 at about 2,400 crimes per 100,000 people and has fallen quite significantly since, to around 1,450 in 2009, roughly where it was two decades ago, as can be seen at a glance on p12 of the National Police Agency’s Criminal Statistics in 2009, a report it took me approximately three minutes to locate. But why, oh why, let the facts get in the way of a good story?
I await this week’s Economist centerfold special report on Japan with bated breath. Here’s hoping Mr Tricks, Mr Cukier, et al, manage to get through it without major gaffes, without calling in the services of rent-a-quote Temple University professor Jeff Kingston (whose most recent tome, Contemporary Japan, is so abysmal that I’m tempted to break with Spike tradition and do a hatchet-job book review of it), and his pal, Columbia University professor Gerald Curtis, without mentioning that Samsung Electronics now has a market cap greater than the entire Japanese electronics sector, and without using the word “disappoint” or its derivatives.
One thing I can guarantee, though, is that its first paragraph won’t end in the same triumphant vein as Bill Emmott’s survey of five years ago: “Now, however, the time for lectures is over. Japan is back. It is being reformed. It is reviving.”

27 responses to “Spiked redux: A postscript

  1. I find your articles very interesting and informative. keep up the good work.

  2. No one calls them on this stuff. I read some of the articles you mentioned in the prior post, and I was thinking to myself at the time thought it sounded like typical mythological bullshit western condescension. But I was second guessing myself because they send over professional journalists with years of experience and native language skills and editors, so who am I to question them? I’m glad that you are taking some swings at them. The language barrier combined with the often hard to explain culture over here seems to give ‘journalists’ free reign to just make shit up uncontested.

    The thing is, I’m sure all their compatriots think they are ‘too cool for school,’ being over here and in tune with the happenings of this society. There is nothing better loved by Americans than seeing giants fall or be humiliated, as long as it isn’t us.

    Lastly, how is it that you manage to keep your English so sharp? I’ve only been here a few years and my brain struggles to recall any words beyond a few syllables. I have devolved into a kind of conjunction-less baby talk that, while highly comprehensible to Japanese, would make any nearby English teacher’s ears bleed.

    • “But I was second guessing myself because they send over professional journalists with years of experience and native language skills and editors”

      Oh no they don’t – the western print media don’t have the money for that any more. The only bits of it that do have any money left in the kitty are the WSJ, the NYT (barely, it seems), and the Economist and the Financial Times, at least in the English-language world. Of them, the WSJ is generally – but not always – too blinded by ideology to write anything of interest (that wasn’t the case even a few years ago – see https://spikejapan.wordpress.com/ugly-japan-2/), the NYT is weak (and has more or less been for a long time), the Economist is faltering, and the FT is generally the best of the lot – I’ve not found an FT article on Japan that I thought was utter nonsense, or even close to it. You have to pay, though, and the articles these days are sparse. The rest – Time, Newsweek, Business Week, Forbes, Bloomberg, all other western newspapers without exception – forget it. Ditto all newswires (Kyodo, AFP, Jiji, Reuters, etc.)

      English so sharp? I read a page or so of Martin Amis or Nabakov every night before bed.

  3. I know all-too-well the linguistic-devolution condition of which Bakafish speaks. Another brilliant post by Spike. Being able to look forward to new stuff from Spike is like living in London in the 1794-95 concert season and being able to look forward to new Haydn symphonies. This is canonically good stuff, infinitely weightier than anything hacks like Gerald Curtis have ever written. Please keep it up! Huis ten Bosch! More Ugly Places!

    -catone
    -I actually keep printouts of some of Spike’s photoessays in my desk to shove in the faces of J-greenwashers. “If there’s a river, we’ll dam it, and if there’s a tree, we’ll ram it!” THAT’s the ethos here (as well as among the “Smokers” in “Waterworld,” whom I hear were modeled on the LDP).

    • You’re too kind. I admit I don’t know from whence you developed your dislike of Gerald Curtis (mine stems mainly from his endorsement of the hapless Jeff Kingston and his rent-a-not-particularly-interesting-quote Economist status), and I have to say I’m not familiar enough with his works to mount a serious attack (yet), but I know full well that you don’t get “awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star by the Emperor of Japan, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Japanese government” without some serious – and seriously distasteful – lickage of arse.
      Huis ten Bosch is coming, more ugly places are coming, but first I have to complete “Amakusa – Islands of Dread”. With you soon, and thank you for your support.

  4. PS: Oddly, I was actually familiar with “kan son min pi.” I think I picked it up in a history of wartime Japan, perhaps Dower’s, as did, obviously, the esteemed author of the Economist article.

  5. I think I’d stay away from you in a knife fight.

    I had a class with Curtis when I was at SIPA. I got an A- and managed to keep my tongue in my mouth.

    • Oh, I don’t do knives, only barbs. Why did you keep your tongue in your mouth?

      • I love your site and find your non-reporting reporting to be fascinating and informative. But whether you like him or not, Curtis really is one of those people who has probably forgotten more about Japan than you’ll ever know. I agree, however, that Kingston’s a bit less than.

      • Well, he does have a 27-year head start on me… I wouldn’t even dare to step into the same sumo ring. But then, while he may speak far better Japanese than I do and be extraordinarily well-versed in Japanese politics, I can’t help but seditiously wonder how much day-to-day politics actually matters in Japan – or, to a greater or lesser extent, in any advanced post-industrial democracy. (In Venezuela, yes it matters.) Clearly there are some big political decisions that should be – need to be – taken in Japan, as elsewhere (obviously), over the next decade, but spending your life cataloguing the ins and outs of already long-defunct and forgotten parties like Shinshinto and Shinseito seems in some ways like the waste of a good brain.
        Japan is too big a place for anyone, inside or outside, to grasp in its entirety, no matter how hard they try, just as the UK and the US are. The best of us can only aim at approximations and hope our inevitable misrepresentations counterbalance other ones to produce some kind of truth.

      • Despite fearsome competition, I think that is the single worst article about Japan in a supposedly respectable newspaper I’ve ever seen. Congratulations on digging it up! I wonder what caused this gross inaccuracy:

        “Japanese real estate, too, is only worth about a quarter of its value in 1974”

        Funnily enough, I have the land price data from the MLIT back to 1974 right in front of me. Residential land is 47.1% more expensive than in 1974 and commercial land 24.3% cheaper. Is that where the “quarter” came from, through misunderstanding and mistranslation? Or am I being too kind?

        As for the largely false recounting of the Bubble and the outlandish spinning of the “missing centenarians” non-story, well, where do we start? And that’s just the first page.

        I really despair about the state of the media in the West.

      • Ooh! Ooh! I just thought of another one – Pico Iyer.

        (Stands back, smiling, waiting for what should be several paragraphs of entertaining and deserved vitriol.)

      • I have to ‘fess up – never read any. Just the blurb to “The Lady and the Monk” had me coming over all queasy.

      • You’re missing nothing. He falls more-or-less into the same category as Kingston – a go to in-the-know gaijin who can be counted on to spout the most outlandish/superficial bullshit about Japan.

  6. Firstly, thank you for calling journos on inaccurate reporting!
    I have a question though. I can appreciate that the magazines and newspapers you mentioned above are cutting costs to the bone in many cases. Sure, inaccurate and shall we say creative reporting is not limited to stories about Japan. But do you think that Japan gets a worse quality of coverage than say China? Is this perhaps due to media entities closing down or downsizing their Tokyo offices and moving to Singapore and Hong Kong? Or is it a part of “Japan passing”? For a country that is still the world`s number three economy, it is rather sad that Japan doesn`t attract better reportage.

  7. Pingback: Tweets that mention Spiked redux: A postscript | Spike Japan -- Topsy.com

  8. Several times in recent years I have read articles on Japan in major publications which did not match my understanding or experience of the country. I had always assumed that correspondents would have done careful research and editorial staff would have been doing fact-checking and thus any differences were due to my own misunderstanding. The Spiked series puts all that in a different light.

    I have listened to the promotional podcast, purchased the November 20th edition of the Economist and share your hope that Tricks, Cukier, et al, get it right.

    • Please let us know what you think of the feature. I will probably write about it at some point but won’t comment yet so as not to prejudice others’ reactions.

  9. The latest issue of the Economist has a special report on Japan, including an article that reports on Yubari. I’m sure you are reading it with great interest.

    Some of the articles display the same signs of having been written by someone with only superficial familiarity with Japan. Like this one:

    http://www.economist.com/node/17492848?story_id=17492848

    which refers to “federal largesse” in a country that has no federal government.

    • . . . which refers to “federal largesse” in a country that has no federal government.

      It may not be called a federal government, but finance and much of political life in Japan is controlled by the central government. That’s been a real weakness since the bubble burst. In the bad old good days when LDP pork was paving mountain sides and providing as many bridges and tunnels as local LDP Upper and Lower House members could bribe for, prefectural and even local governments got a great deal of direct financial support from the central government since they didn’t really have much control over local financing. It may have changed and had been evolving a bit last time I paid this any attention in the mid-90s.

  10. True, Jeffrey. I was just pointing out that the use of the term “federal” could be taken as an indication that the writer probably had only a superficial familiarity with Japan. Japan is a unitary state with a central government, unlike the US or Germany which have “federal” governments.

    Actually this might be just reflect a bit of confusion among American writers who assume that “federal” is equivalent to “national” because that is what the situation is under the US constitution.

  11. Spiked,
    I love your writing, but what’s with this personal vendetta thing?

  12. I just read one of Pico Iyer’s pieces and vaguely remembered him being mentioned on here, so I thought I’d drop back.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2010/oct/16/tokyo-japan-pico-iyer?intcmp=239

    This is ultimate guide to Tokyo, the Guardian readers’ favourite non-European city. Most of the dog-eared cliches get another runout, but this is the first time I’ve seen someone recommend a trip to Kamakura a day after arrival. He’s not suggesting Tokyo is somehow lacking something surely?

    • I think he just might be… Thank you for the link. To be honest, if I were a hack journo or a jobbing writer, I don’t think I could have done a lot better – that’s what the market wants, you really don’t have a lot of options on this kind of puff piece to indulge in the personal.
      I do adore certain things about this gem, though. It’s titled “Big in Japan”! How could you not love it already! Of all Iyer’s lines, this one tickles me the most:
      “And never spurn a convenience store, because there is more in their small heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy.”
      Hamlet on the presence of the supernatural pressed into the service of the purveyors of the strip-lit and the sublimely humdrum triumph of supply-chain mangement. Sheer class.

    • A Facta reader! Never thought I’d encounter a gaijin one. Tell me that it’s worth registering to get to the bottom of the Y500 move in Nintendo’s share price…

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