Tuesday, September 8, 2009

To Venus in a UFO, part 1 (the media)

On August 30, the Japanese held an election for the lower house of Parliament, which (as is the case in the U.K.) is the primary branch of government; the leader of the Parliament is the Prime Minister, who is not chosen directly by the people, though everyone knows who that is when they vote. On September 3, the New York Times and other Western media started reporting that the wife of the new Prime Minister had, a year ago, written a book in which she said the following:

“While my body was sleeping, I think my spirit flew on a triangular-shaped U.F.O. to Venus,” she said. “It was an extremely beautiful place and was very green.” Her first husband suggested that it was probably just a dream — but Mr. Hatoyama, she insisted, would not be so dismissive. “My current husband has a different way of thinking,” she said. “He would surely say, ‘Oh, that’s great!’”

Now, it's not extremely difficult to find people who believe such things, but it is relatively rare for such a person to be the spouse of a head of government. I can't be sure, but I'm fairly confident that if Michelle Obama had said this, her husband would never have been elected president. So of course, one of the first things that came to mind was the question, 'did the Japanese voters factor this in when they voted?' Luckily, as a teacher of conversational English in one-to-one lessons I'm in a position to find out, though in a purely anecdotal and unscientific way.

On the 4th and the 5th, I had six students read the brief article, and I was very surprised to find that while all were reasonably well-informed people, none had heard of this. Some shook their heads with an obvious 'the woman is crazy' expression, some chuckled, and one exclaimed 'wow!' every ten or fifteen seconds as she read. (I should say that this comes across as crazy in Japan as it does in America.) Afterwards, when I asked them why the Japanese media hadn't reported this during the campaign, to a person they responded 'I don't know.' Finally, on Sunday, I got someone who'd heard of it, apparently just the day before on a TV program; it seemed as though it had been picked up in their media because it had already been widely reported by the Western media.

But, again, why hadn't it been reported in Japan? One of my regular students works in the Japanese media. (I don't want to be too specific, but it's the kind of media in which popularity is much more important than any consideration of what a well-informed citizen should know.) She's extremely well-informed about entertainment-ish matters, and pretty well-informed about more 'serious' matters. Since this story leans toward the former, I thought for sure she would have heard of it, but she hadn't, and was herself surprised that it had escaped her notice, and that of the media. She suspects that equal time provisions may have had something to do with it, and she mentioned that there's a general tendency in the media not to report on political spouses on the grounds of privacy. She did say that she thought the news would raise the popularity of whatever media outlet aired it.

The government doesn't censor the media in Japan. It doesn't have to, as the media does a pretty good job of censoring itself. I've been told that large media outlets avoid, for example, any critical reporting on the Japanese royal family (which would bring protests from aggressive rightists) or the relatively powerful religious group Soka Gakkai (which could prompt advertiser boycotts). If there was a serious scandal involving either group, then it might be reported, depending on what the scandal was. But an ordinary 'is there a dark side to (such-and-such group)?' story is verboten.

Not that Western media is immune from groupthink, or that there are no boundaries that it wouldn't respect. Generally, the more prominent the media outlet, the more pressure it feels to only report what's in line with mainstream attitudes, and not to report what the 'establishment' doesn't want to see reported. (As an example, you don't see many people in the mainstream media saying that those in the Bush (43) administration who ordered and carried out torture should be prosecuted, even though the fact that laws and treaties with the force of law were broken is extremely clear.) And there are, even in Japan, less 'reputable' media outlets that report what others won't. For example, it's very well understood that in professional sumo, some bouts are thrown. Not a majority, but not a tiny few, either. Occasionally a former wrestler speaks openly about it, but their words are rarely if ever carried by the major media outlets; a weekly tabloid-type magazine called the Shukan Post tends to carry such stories. The mainstream media say they don't carry such stories because they can't be proven, but I believe the real reason is that there are informal agreements between the sumo officials and the media, as well as with Soka Gakkai, the royal family, and others, that such things are not to be reported on. In both Japan and the U.S., the mainstream media is part of the establishment, and there are understandings. I think it could be said that, like many other aspects of life, those understandings are more restrictive in Japan.

In the end, of course, it isn't all that important whether Japanese know that the wife of the Prime Minister believes that her spirit traveled to Venus in a UFO. But I did find it remarkable that such an out-of-the-mainstream belief managed to avoid mass notice in the heat of Japan's most contentious political campaign in decades. Then again, maybe another way to look at it is that the opposition party made no reference to in during the campaign, which to us would show admirable restraint and gentility. Maybe they couldn't have profited by doing so, but if so, then we can credit the Japanese public for disapproving of such tactics. Either way, it shows politics operating with more manners and class than Americans would be capable of. Maybe (what I would consider to be) a muzzled press contributes to having that kind of society. Whichever society you prefer to live in, it's the kind of thing that's interesting to consider both sides of.

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