THE KUME GAFFE PART ONE
NB: I consider this to be a seminal case study of "Gaijin Consciousness", both reinforced and interfered with by the newfound social power of the internet. It also demonstrates the role the mass media can play to both instigate and stifle public debate.
This section is divided into several parts, tracing the arc of the debate and the public reaction.
KUME HIROSHI'S NEWS STATION,
BROADCAST ON MON, OCT 14, 1996
(collation originally sent to Friends Fri, 18 Oct 1996)
Background: One of Japanese TV's most popular newscasters, Kume Hiroshi, is famous for spicing up his show with snide remarks and candid comments. When debunking public figures or ludicrous policies, this has a positive effect of cutting through guff.
But one night, not for the first time, he went too far. He made a comment that could be seen as disparaging innocents--a whole people within Japanese society--non-Japanese.
Here's how it all started--with a comment on the Dead Fukuzawa Society Debate
Network. Read on:
Date: Tue, 15 Oct 1996
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (KT)
Subject: For What It's Worth
Here's something quite amazing (or may be not). Yesterday on News Station (TV-Asahi) they were doing a thing on the new MacDonald's with their Maharajah Burger (actually a lamb burger) in India. Following the Indian report they switched to an interview with an Indian restuarant owner in Tokyo who spoke fluent (really fluent) Japanese, who explained that it is not true that no Indians eat beef, some eat this and that, etc. Then after the interview Kume Hiroshi [anchorman] came on again, with his comments "shikashi, gaijin wa nihongo ga katakoto no hoo ga ii yo ne (its better to have foreigners speaking in broken Japanese...) (in his cynical manner), and turned to the woman on the program (I forget her name) for a reaction, but there wasn't any, since she never stands up to him ([snip]). The word "gaijin" is now a no-no word on TV, since one of the major Japanese dictionaries lists it as having a discriminatory meaning. "gaikokujin" is the "correct" word now. But for Kume to say something like that, when landlords use "poor Japanese [language skills]" as one of their many excuses to keep foreigners out, and people are trying to learn the language is utterly amazing. That's a nice example of the true extent of kokusaika in Japan. I thought someone might complain to the station, followed by an apology, but one was not forthcoming.
In response, there were a few whines about it on Fukuzawa, and even some comparisons between Mr Kume's reporting style and Dave Letterman's abrasive humor. But what set me off where the laments about how nothing ever changes in Japan and how nobody complains to the proper authorities.
Date: Thu, 17 Oct 1996
From: email@example.com (Dave Aldwinckle)
Subject: Kume's remark--do something about it
On the Kume snide remark on national TV: ("shikashi, gaijin wa nihongo ga katakoto no hou ga ii yo ne (its better to have foreigners speaking in broken Japanese...))
I don't mean this post as a criticism of KT or others--they have a right to feel indignant. Why should Kume feel that pidgin-Japanese foreigners are better than perapera? That is a question he should be asked.
So why be passive about it? If Kevin feels that somebody should complain, then why doesn't somebody here give Asahi TV a call? Ask to speak to Kume, or somebody who can pass the message of discontentment on to him?
It's not as unreasonable an idea as you might think. I think I've told this story before, but one time when I was minding my own business (of course), standing in front of a public genkan waiting for a bus to a sporting event with a bunch of other non-Japanese, I got filmed by Sapporo TV's STV. That evening, my image (my face in blur, with others) was used on TV in connection with a local murder (a Middle-Easterner had recently stabbed a Susukino hostess to death), with the voice over being "this is where foreigners congregate", and be on the lookout for this guy. I went roaring into STV demanding an apology for being implicated. I got surprised looks and telephone cards, but not much else. Eventually, somebody called me to do an owabi bangumi (apology program)--I got interviewed about my feelings. Then the bangumi went off on a tangent about how difficult it is for extranational Hokudai (Hokkaido University) students to get an apartment, esp if they are Middle-Eastern. Finally, it turned out there wasn't in fact any owabi in the end. Just a couple of anchormen saying that they'll have to have fewer preconceived notions from now on.
I had mixed feelings about how that episode turned out. But another time, when Hokkaido Newspaper ran a comic (one of those found on the inside back page) depicting a foreigner negatively, I complained and got results. My letter was printed in the Hokkaido Shinbun, with a response from the artist, and with a column from the newspaper saying how they'll have to watch their language from now on for their foreign readers. The (nationally-syndicated) cartoonist quietly disappeared from the Doushin pages during their April 1 "spring cleaning". I even got paid for the letter.
My point is this:
Rights are never just given to us. You must push for them. You can't expect Japanese people to censor themselves any more than you can expect bureaucrats to limit their own power. Unless, of course, enfranchised ADFLs and "complain groups", like the Burakumin, the Ainu, the handicapped, and the Chinese government, make a stink every time somebody makes a gaffe. They have made plenty of "un-words" (bikko, mekura, tsunbo, baka-chon, eta, Taiwanjin) in the Japanese language.
So why not express our discontent "on behalf of the gaijin community"? Give Asahi TV a call and tell somebody (you decide the manner of speaking) how much you didn't like the sentiment expressed in front of the whole Japanese nation.
Better yet, somebody give me the number for TV Asahi in Tokyo, give me the approximate time of the statement on the broadcast, and I'll make the call. We ought to try it and see what happens. It's better than sitting and griping how things never change when we don't make an effort ourselves to change them.
I got a lot of responses from cyberspace, all positive. But then, something occurred to me:
Why don't *I* make the call? So that's just what I did.
Date: Thu, 17 Oct 1996
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Dave Aldwinckle)
Subject: CALLING KUME--I did do something about it.
KUME'S GAFFE--CALLING TV ASAHI:
Well, I did do something about it. I realized that hey, I can just call 104 and ask for Tokyo Terebi Asahi and get the number myself. The number of the front desk is (03) 3587-5111, and I asked for News Station. I got through on my second try.
NOW TRY THIS ON FOR SIGHS
I talked to a man at some dept (I didn't understand the exact Japanese) apparently directly connected to Kume's program. He listened quietly at the start when I focussed him in on the problem (I never know in Japanese whether to start at the conclusion and give the evidence, or vice versa). I chose this order: focus in on Monday's broadcast, Rupo at an Indian McDonalds, Maharaja Burgers, Indian fluent in Japanese. Then I gave Kume's comment: "shikashi, gaijin wa nihongo ga katakoto no hou ga ii yo ne". I asked what was meant by katakoto and why it was better for foreigners to speak in broken (or "baby", according to my Kenkyuusha) Japanese. I kept my voice low and friendly, didn't shout, and stayed in high polite language the whole time with appropriate pauses.
He listened with loud grunts until he recalled the broadcast, and suddenly got defensive: "Nah, he didn't mean anything bad about that. There's nothing to the word katakoto. Aren't you making too much of this? If we have a to-do over this, there's no end."
I mentioned that there were plenty of words that TV doesn't use because they were derogatory. Bikko (cripple), for one. Even if the speaker meant nothing by it, the listener also has feelings. The word "gaijin" to many is uncomfortable. But katakoto in connection? I felt very uncomfortable about the word myself.
"That's only you. I don't think there's anything wrong with the word."
"It's not a word with a bad connotation?"
"No, it's not."
"But I as the viewer thought it was--"
"That's only you."
I realized that point was getting nowhere. So I turned to the task at hand. "All I ask is that you pass word on to Kume-san that what he said made many foreigners in Japan feel uncomfortable. Will you do that, please?"
"Yeah." He made motions to hang up.
"My name is..." and I started giving my particulars. I could tell he was not writing them down. "Are you getting this?"
"No. Look, I'll pass the message on."
"Thank you. May I have your name?" I always ask that because it ensures that people don't get camouflaged by the bureaucracy.
"We don't give names here. We don't take them, either."
"If I can't have your name, I am unconfident that you will give this information to Kume-san."
"I'll pass it on. Shitsurei." He hung up.
I paused and started getting the "sigh, Japan will never change" blues again, and as an outlet decided to record this for Fukuzawa. But when I get going, my mind always starts budding with courses of action. One blossomed. I called Asahi again and explained the situation to the front desk secretary. I told her that some guy at the News Station desk had treated me rather unimportantly (keishi shita) and I wanted to talk to somebody who can deal with customer complaints. She put me through to the Shichousha Sentaa (viewer's center--the place where ratings are apparently assessed) and I talked to a Mr Sekimoto.
Mr Sekimoto was much more sympathetic. He said immediately after being focussed in that my brusque treatment was uncalled for (ikan) and said he would look into it. We then had a conversation that felt like I was preaching to the converted. Without interruptions, I said how the comment that Kume made gave us foreigners (sorry to use "wareware gaijin" folks, but let's fight fire with fire) the feeling that our language study wasn't important. Plenty of us try to become well-versed in the language, even bilingual. We try to mix in (toke komou to suru) and live here. But why is "baby-talk" Japanese better than fluent Japanese for us? Especially said on national TV--it felt to me like an imaging-down.
Mr Sekimoto was full of the standard explanations. He hadn't seen the broadcast himself (but would look into it). Japanese with the shimaguni konjou ("island mentality") and all that aren't used to talking about subjects like this. Japanese aren't used to praising people so they use all sorts of offhand comments (sute zerifu) that aren't very flattering (such as "baka da omae"--"you stupid fool") but mean nothing in particular.
But he did agree that he could see how we foreigners might find a comment like that unpleasant. Hey, if he went to another country, he would try to learn their language, and wouldn't like it much if people told him to settle for baby talk.
But I stressed that my beef wasn't with Kume-san anymore. It was with that guy at News Station who brushed me off with a "anta dake ga sou omou kedo, boku wa sou omowanai no de..." That made me feel far more uncomfortable (fukai).
Mr Sekimoto gave me several big apologies for that, got my name and number, and said that he would call up News Station and ask for the guy who just talked to the gaijin a few minutes hence. I thanked him for his help and went to the loo to calm my nerves.
Well, after one class and one housou jyugyou broadcast I was hoping for maybe an answer from Asahi for all of this. Nothing. But what I did get instead was a note from fellow Fukuzawan Tony Laszlo with News Station's email address (email@example.com). I sat down and drafted a quick letter in Japanese. (A direct English translation of it is here.)
WELL, AT THE END OF THE DAY, DID IT ALL MEAN ANYTHING?
That remains to be seen. It could be entirely possible that Mr Sekimoto was just saying what I wanted to hear and was done with it. There is also the possibility that he had an ax to grind. A couple years back Kume was under fire for his offhand "subliminal" (saburiminaru) comments, like "don't vote for corruption" (oshoku ni touhyou shinai de kudasai). Perhaps Sekimoto wanted some more fuel for his censoring fire.
Honestly, I don't know what will become of this. Words written down take on a life of their own. For the record, I like Kume--and think he is a welcome addition to the "Press Club" dominated journalism of Japan. However, a stupid comment is a stupid comment, and I think that he deserves to be told about it.
More later when I can write better conclusions.
Okay, we're back outside the emails again. I don't mean to sound like an egomaniac, but let me post you a few responses from Fukuzawans just so you don't think I'm acting in an emotional vacuum of indignation:
Date: Sun, 17 Nov 1996
Mr. Aldwinkle, I have little to add to the discussion of Kume - san and must ashamedly admit to being no more than a lurker on DFS. For what it's worth however, I would like to congratulate you on your recent interaction with Asahi TV . I read your posts regularly and I like your intelligent fiery style. Well done. That's all.....nothing terribly intellectual, just a wee note of appreciation. CMS
Date: Fri, 18 Oct 1996
You really did do something! You've informed -- and, I hope, cheered -- us all! Please keep us posted on further developments! Good reasoning, good strategy! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but go-kuroo-sama! CDW
For what it's worth, you get an Attaboy from me; both for taking the time to do
something; and for taking the time to report it. Gambatte!! DH
Good for you! I also like Kume-san's broadcasts but when you've offended someone you need to be called on it.
I applaud your efforts and to add to them my own I will also be sending a letter
TV Asahi. Let's get some people thinking. MR
ISSHO's open letter to TV-Asahi's News Station (Japanese text) in reaction to a Newscaster Kume Hiroshi's recent comment regarding "gaijin" and their use of the Japanese language.
For the record, I also forwarded your message in English with a note of support to: firstname.lastname@example.org
For others reference, the News Station home page is:
As Sydney Crawcour and others noted, both principle and responsibility are involved--Kume should have this called to his attention.
My compliments to David Aldwinckle for his handling of constructive criticism
in obviously skillful Japanese. SJA
(to go on to the next letter in the series, click here)