Othered, Orientalised, and Opposingly Depicted
The Persistence of Stereotyping of Japan in the British Press
Volume 19, Issue 2 (Article 4 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 10 September 2019.
In constructing an image of Japan, Britons often get their knowledge of Japan from factual sources, such as newspapers, news Websites, and documentaries. As such, representations of Japan are constructed almost exclusively by these non-Japanese sources. Studies have repeatedly shown, however, that British news representation of Japan often appeals to stereotypical understandings of Japan. Research on inaccurate reporting of foreign countries usually criticises journalists, but does not look at journalism as an industry, which is driven by a paying audience and a need to generate income; neither are journalists given an opportunity to explain these depictions. By interviewing journalists, this paper explores whether this situation is a matter of a lack of knowledge and an appeal to Orientalist understandings, both of which are common explanations for inaccuracy in the press. This study finds, however, that it is a consequence of broader, systematic problems in the journalism profession.
Keywords: orientalism, techno-orientalism, othering, stereotyping, journalism, media representation.
Keywords:orientalism, techno-orientalism, othering, stereotyping, journalism, media representation
For a great many people, representations of Japan are Japan. The texts that they read and the images that they consume help to shape a version of Japan in their minds. Take two examples of influential scholars who have written about Japan: Ruth Benedict and Roland Barthes. Benedict wrote her anthropological study of Japan The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946, reprinted 2006) without ever setting foot in the country, but instead gathering her data through interviews with Japanese Americans, and writing with the specific mandate of compiling a guide for understanding the ‘enemy’. Barthes, on the other hand, did visit Japan, but had no knowledge of the language. In Empire of Signs (1983) Barthes positioned the country as one that is dominated by visual, cultural signifiers that are devoid of meaning; they are empty. According to Barthes, he is not writing about Japan, but is instead imagining a country where he can free himself from Western discourse and metaphysics. Yet it is clearly, recognisably Japan.
News reporting, however, does not deal with an imagined Japan, but it is nonetheless involved in the construction of depictions of the country. Moreover, it is a regularly occurring representation, providing its audience with the latest information about Japan. In the case of newspapers this can be daily, whereas on Websites articles can be published at any time and can be updated continuously to reflect changes and developments to stories. Research into news reporting about Japan in the United Kingdom has repeatedly found that it is fraught with inaccuracies and stereotyping, appealing to ‘ancient characterisations’ of Japan (Hargreaves et al. 2001, 1). This is not limited to English-language press, either. Marco Pellitteri’s study of news representations of Japan and Japanese culture found that in France, Germany, and Italy, Japan is subject to ‘framings of otherness’, albeit driven by different narratives and different priorities (2016, 13). Pellitteri argues that in such images, Japan is ‘more an imagined and fantasised place than a real one’ (2016, 6). Clearly, then, the inaccurate representation of Japan is an issue for many countries and is something that needs further investigation. Within the scope of this paper, however, the focus will be solely on British press representation of Japan, taking the example of articles about technology to explore how Japan is depicted.
In accounting for the ways in which Japan is represented and understood, two explanatory factors have appeared time and time again, namely:
- Orientalism, including related ideas about stereotyping and Othering
- Media reporting
Given the reliance upon the media to provide information about Japan, particularly the news media in the case of factual information and current affairs, one might ask where Orientalism fits in. News reporting is, ostensibly, based on fact and rooted in research and reporter fact-checking. Orientalism, meanwhile, is rooted in preconceived notions of a country or culture and requires no external stimuli for verification. How, therefore, can the two relate, if they even can?
This article will explore the links between Orientalism, including broader issues of misrepresentation, and reporting, drawing upon theories of perception and research into the media landscape. I will begin by considering representations of Japan in the Western imaginary, and the contrasts that exist in these representations. I will then consider the role of the journalist in the production of articles: first, by examining the current journalism landscape, and then examining the reporting of Japan specifically, and how it relates to the perpetuation of these ‘realities’. Interviews with foreign correspondents will explain the various factors that lead to these depictions, namely the decline of the Japan-based foreign correspondent, and the editorial pressures felt by those who remain in the profession. Therefore, while this article will discuss British news reporting and dip into problems within the journalistic profession, we are mainly interested in it for how it contributes to (mis)understandings of Japan, and how these representations persist.
Representations of Japan: A History of Contradictory Representation
From even the first encounters with the Japanese, it was difficult to apply the usual dichotomy of ‘savage natives and civilised westerners’ (Littlewood 1996, 3). Ian Littlewood argues that Japan has a history of being stereotyped in terms of contrasts, and this dates back to those first Europeans to meet the Japanese in the Sixteenth Century (1996). Then, and later, following Japan’s reopening to the West after a nearly 200-year period of isolation, Western observers were struck by how Japan displayed the qualities of both a ‘savage’ land, which was expected of the East, as well as qualities of a ‘civilised’ country. On the one hand, the Japanese looked different and their customs were strange; but on the other, they were polite, had good etiquette, and were concerned with honour (1996, 3-6). Littlewood argues that these two contrasting images of Japan have been continually held since, pointing to Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), an anthropological study of the Japanese people that has sold over two million copies worldwide since its first publication in 1946 and continues to sell to this day. He argues that works such as these present Japan in terms of ‘paradox and contradiction’: at once possessing the refinement of the chrysanthemum and the brutality of the sword (Littlewood 1996, 7).
In more contemporary terms, he suggests that this explains the contradictory simultaneous presentations of tradition and technology in Japan. This would appear to suggest that contrasting depictions of Japan are to be an expected feature of Western, stereotyped representations of Japan. As Christopher Hood points out, these contrasts are not unique to Japan, citing the example of London having modern skyscrapers sitting alongside old terrace houses and even older churches (2015, 12). While they are contrasts, the tradition of the temple and its festivals does not get in the way of Japan also having a high-tech metropolis. By the same token, the presence of very old buildings in the UK, where it is not uncommon for buildings over 500 years old still to be in use, does not preclude the country from being considered modern. And yet, this is not the case with the depiction of Japan: Japan is often characterised by its contrasts, as if to suggest that they are a unique facet of the country.
In these depictions of Japan, the country is chiefly characterised by its difference to the UK and relegated to the position of the ‘Other’. These discourses of difference and Othering have been approached in many different ways by postcolonialists, arguably most famously as ‘Orientalism’, conceived by Edward Said, who wrote of the ‘Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority’ over the ‘East’ (1978, 3). While Orientalism as conceived by Said is highly problematic, not in the least because Said includes Japan in his definition of the ‘East’ despite focussing almost exclusively on the Middle East (1978, 1), it has nonetheless been influential in stimulating discussion around power relations and inaccurate representations of other countries and cultures.
While Orientalism typically locks a country in a fixed past, to account for Japan’s rise to global leader in technological research, development, and production, an off-shoot called Techno-Orientalism was developed by David Morley and Kevin Robins (1995). The Techno-Orientalist image of Japan is a Japan that is technologically superior to the ‘West’, in this case Britain, but is nonetheless inferior in moral terms, having too much technology at the cost of its humanity, thus reaffirming the ‘West’, or Britain, as dominant and superior. It is therefore possible for Japan to be depicted as being a highly traditional country, whereas at other times, Japan can be depicted as technologically advanced to the point that Japan is in the future, where robots can be found in the home. This image of Japan was popularised in Western film and literature, particularly during the 1980s with the emergence of the cyberpunk genre, characterised by novels such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), and Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982). John G. Russell argues that while Japan is depicted as technologically advanced, the country nonetheless remains the Other—even ‘primitive’—and is depicted ‘almost always as a corrupt, repressive, sexist, and racist society which while technologically advanced, remains trapped in the 17thcentury’ (1998, 98-104). But can such representations end up in news articles, which are factual publications?
Hargreaves, Inthorn, and Speers (2001) analysed a corpus of British newspaper articles about Japan from a range of different newspapers, spanning a period of ten years, from 1990 to 2000. Their study found that, despite the globalisation of Japanese goods and cuisine, news media continue to fall back on ‘ancient characterisations’ (Hargreaves et al. 2001, 1). According to Hargreaves, Inthorn, and Speers, previous studies of media representation of Japan have established that Japan is often presented as unique, bordering on strange or weird (2001, 2-3). They found that news about Japan in the period studied tended to focus on two points: Japan’s ‘strangeness’ and Japan’s ‘economic impact’ on us (2001, 29). The ‘us’ aspect is an important explanatory factor in the prevalence of such stories. News is consumed by an audience, and so has to interest that audience. Strange stories are common ‘entertainment’ stories, whilst stories about Japan’s economic impact on Britain are popular because they hold relevance for the reader—Japan is exerting some local influence (2001, 29).
More recently, Perry Hinton (2014, 2015) has focussed on the representation of Japanese popular culture in the British media, highlighting the extent to which Japan is shown to be different or Other, as compared to the UK. One of the problems facing the representation of Japan in the media, Hinton writes, is that the Japanese context is not given. Rather, the British media are mostly concerned with emphasising Japanese distinctiveness, this same mechanism of differentiation that has pervaded depictions of Japan since first encounters, as seen in Littlewood’s study. One example he gives is the 2013 BBC television documentary No Sex Please, We’re Japanese, a programme about Japan’s falling birthrate and declining population, and yet the ‘only Japanese men under pensionable age interviewed were two men identified as otaku’ (2014, n.p.). Here, the presenter gave the impression that those interviewed were typical Japanese men, portraying them as deviants for playing a high school dating simulation game, in spite of the global popularity of simulation games.
Accounting for Misrepresentation in the News: Academic Perspectives
These studies demonstrate that Japan is perceived in terms of difference, and even deviance in some cases, but they do not explain why journalists might depict them in this way. A review of different academic perspectives surrounding stereotyping by Larsorsa and Dai (2007) shows that there are a number of different potential reasons why stereotyping continues to be a feature of the press, not just in the reporting of Japan but in general. The sociological perspective, as advocated by Tuchman (1978), would suggest that journalists ‘typify’ events so that they can decide how to proceed with the story, making expectations about who may be involved and what will follow (Lasorsa & Dai 2007, 281). Meanwhile, a cultural perspective, as advocated by Soloski (1989), suggests that stereotypical depictions are used by journalists when events are unfamiliar and would otherwise be difficult to comprehend to the audience (Lasorsa & Dai 2007, 281). Lastly, a psychological perspective on stereotyping suggests that stereotyping occurs when ‘job demands’ impede information processing and the story is sorted into a ‘prototype’, around which a theory is built (Lasorsa & Dai 2007, 281). Shared among these viewpoints, argue Lasorsa and Dai, is the idea that ‘in the presence of a mass of potential facts, stereotyping tends to occur to streamline work and ease the perceiver’s discrepancy between what is expected and observed’ (2007, 281). Lasorsa and Dai go on to argue that journalists must be motivated in order not to stereotype (2007, 282-291), and that such journalists write ‘authentic’ stories (2007, 283). Those who do not are termed ‘deceptive’ reporters, who lack the motivation to write accurate stories and instead fall back on established stereotypes (2007, 281).
To relate this to the reporting of Japan specifically and the perpetuation of stereotypical depictions of the country, we can propose two hypotheses:
- Journalistic factors: reporters do not have the necessary expertise to write about Japan without appealing to pre-existing perceptions, or it is felt that the public does not have enough knowledge of Japan to understand the story without the simplification of the stereotype.
- Editorial and systemic factors: editorial demands and systemic pressures of the job result in the typification of Japan. That is, stereotypical depictions and the Orientalising of Japan are a consequence of the job itself, be it a matter of the time allocated to a story or the brief prescribed by the editor.
In order to consider these two hypotheses, we must turn our examination away from the content of the news articles and instead focus on their production: who are writing these articles, and in what contexts do they operate?
Who are the Journalists?
For decades the state of foreign correspondents across the world has been an object of concern for researchers. Studies have traced the coverage of foreign news through the 1960s and ’70s (Livingston & Van Belle 2005), through the ’80s (Mowlana 1985), and through the ’90s to the present (Aalberg 2013; Jones et al. 2013; Segev 2017). While the majority of studies available are in the English language, there is a consensus and evidence to suggest that this is an issue for foreign coverage globally. According to Segev (2017, 3), who analysed world news in sixteen countries, ‘economically leading’ countries tend to dominate news coverage, and often highly reported countries tend to be those who had historical dominance (such as Britain) as well as contemporary dominance (the US).
Segev’s main argument is that ‘unbalanced world coverage not only reflects a certain world order but also reinforces it’ (2017, 2). Other studies have shown that representation is indeed is indeed unbalanced (Kim & Barnett 1996; Mowlana 1985; Otto & Meyer 2012), and, moreover, is in decline. Various research has shown that major US and British news media have seen a decline in the number of dedicated foreign correspondents in employment (Carroll 2007; Moore 2010; Otto & Meyer 2012). In terms of Britain specifically, according to Moore (2010), between 1979 and 2009 international news stories dropped by 40%, falling from being 20% of the newspaper to only 11% (2010, 5). This comes in spite of the fact that newspapers have in fact grown in size (2010, 10), but international news stories have not grown with them. A consequence of fewer international stories is that there are fewer dedicated foreign correspondents for media organisations (2010, 25), and many news sources are relying on wires and obtaining additional information from the Internet, including foreign news Websites, YouTube, and social media (2010, 45-46). While Moore acknowledges that the Internet and social media have given people the ability to find news on things that specifically interest them (2010, 50), as well as has allowed for an increase in citizen journalism, since many people have mobile phones (2010, 45-47), he highlights a number of problems with this new reliance on information obtained this way.
Firstly, if journalists are not based in the country where the event is happening, then they can only play catch-up, reacting only when information reaches them, rather than being on the scene as it happens or finding it for themselves (Moore 2010, 49). Secondly, Moore describes the new reporting structure of international news as like an ‘inverted pyramid’, in the sense that there is far more news being generated, but fewer journalists supporting it (2010, 48). Moore argues that this structure is unstable, because if newspapers and news Websites use an agency source and it is later found out that the agency made a mistake, then that mistake has been exponentially multiplied, as smaller news sources quote the larger newspapers (2010, 48). This leads to the third issue, that if journalists are not on the ground, then there is an issue of knowledge: they cannot interview people involved, they cannot directly record what is happening, and by not witnessing the event first-hand, they cannot adequately convey it to the audience (2010, 47).
How has this decline in foreign news coverage affected the reporting of Japan? Table 1, below, lists ten of the most popular news sources in Britain, both online and in print. Only half of these have a Japan correspondent or a correspondent covering Japan amongst other countries. Moreover, even this figure demands further scrutiny, as no information could be found whether journalists hold a full-time position, or whether the journalist works as a stringer (a journalist retained on a part-time basis to cover events when required).
|Publication||Japan Correspondent||Publication Type|
|BBC News||Yes||Online news source|
|Daily Mail||No||Midmarket tabloid|
|The Daily Mirror||No||Popular tabloid|
|The Guardian||Yes||Quality Berliner|
|IB Times||No||Online news source|
|The Independent||Yes||Online news source|
|The Metro||No||Midmarket tabloid|
|The Sun||No||Popular tabloid|
|The Telegraph||Yes||Quality broadsheet|
|The Times||Yes||Quality compact|
Journalists have been accused of perpetuating stereotypes and tropes about Japan and its culture, for displaying a lack of knowledge about the country, or even being anti-Japan (e.g. Zipangu 1998), but how do foreign correspondents fit into this discourse? If they are living and working in Japan, then they must possess some knowledge about the country. Lasorsa and Dai (2007) argue that stereotyping carried out by journalists can be explained by examining the process from the following perspectives: the sociological perspective (Lasorsa & Dai 2007, 281), the cultural perspective (Lasorsa & Dai 2007, 281), and the psychological perspective (Lasorsa & Dai 2007, 281). While Lasorsa and Dai’s study is problematic, particularly in its attribution of blame to journalists and its assumptions about their motivation, their research did find that even those articles in their sample which could be described as ‘accurate’ were still not entirely devoid of stereotyping (2007, 292). This is indicative of the general universality of stereotyping, that even when journalists actively seek to give a fair and accurate representation of a story, based on considerable research, stereotypical knowledge will still be activated, albeit to a lesser extent.
Seeing things from the Journalists’ Perspective
In order to address these hypotheses, I interviewed three journalists living and working in Japan, arranged through the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ). Each of these correspondents is employed in different ways, reflecting the insecurities of the job and the relative unimportance of the foreign correspondent for news publishers. Firstly, Journalist 1 works as a freelancer for a number of publications as well as a number of Websites, such as technology blogs. Journalist 2 is the former Japan foreign correspondent for a major British publication and now writes for other publications on a freelance basis. Finally, Journalist 3 was the only dedicated foreign correspondent interviewed, currently working for a major British broadsheet publication. While Journalist 3 is a dedicated foreign correspondent, he covers not only Japan, but is Asia Editor for the publication, covering multiple countries. All three journalists have lived in Japan for an extensive period of time: Journalist 1 has spent twelve years in Japan and Journalist 2 went to university in Japan as well as did a homestay. The journalists also all speak Japanese, although unlike the others Journalist 3 often uses a Japanese assistant/interpreter when they are interviewing in Japanese.
|Interviewed Journalist||Employment Type|
|Journalist 1||Online news source|
|Journalist 2||Freelancer, formerly a dedicated correspondent|
|Journalist 3||Dedicated correspondent|
The table below breaks down the interviews into two lines of questioning, with example questions from each category. The middle column of the table presents the responses given to the lines of questioning, followed by the journalist(s) who gave the response in parentheses. Interview responses have been grouped into categories in the third column in order to identify any common themes across the interviews. The interview questions were intended to address the two hypotheses above, first considering the journalists themselves and their own knowledge of Japan, and then secondly, the production of these articles, namely the editorial and systemic factors involved.
|Line of Questioning||Response||Coding|
|Journalists’ knowledge of and connection to Japan
||Journalist has lived in Japan a long time (Journalist 1, Journalist 2)
Journalist speaks Japanese (Journalist 1, Journalist 2)
While a Japanese speaker, the journalist takes an interpreter (Journalist 3)
Other foreign correspondents are being moved away (Journalist 1)
Lots of journalists are writing about Japan from abroad with little knowledge of Japan (Journalist 1)
Publications moving to using freelancers (Journalist 2)
Fewer Japan correspondents
Fewer Japan Experts
|Editorial and systemic factors
||Robots are prime material for hype (Journalist 1)
Hype stories are easy money (Journalist 1)
Publications demand exciting stories (Journalist 1)
Topics are requested by editors (Journalist 1, Journalist 2)
Journalists write these kinds of articles because they need money (Journalist 1, Journalist 2)
Editor writes headlines (Journalist 2)
Too many short articles, not enough depth (Journalist 2)
Journalist is free to choose topics (Journalist 3)
Colour stories are popular (Journalist 2)
Weird/strange Japan stories are often requested (Journalist 2)
Editors request topics that have ‘perennial’ interest (Journalist 2)
The average reader is not particularly interested in Japan (Journalist 2)
Lack of Depth
Perennial Topics of Interest
Lack of Interest in Japan
In each of their respective interviews, journalists confirmed literature about the reduction of foreign correspondents for newspapers, providing additional information about the situation for Japan specifically. These interviews also explain how this has affected reporting on Japan and provide some clues into why Japan continues to be stereotyped. If there is a low level of interest in Japan, then newspapers will be unlikely to have a dedicated correspondent in Japan, but the consequences for this is that the news will be written from a foreign news desk in the UK. This is problematic as journalists writing from the UK are unable directly to experience events or carry out in-person interviews, and are thus reliant on received information, be it existing knowledge in the form of stereotypical knowledge, or material that can be gained from newswires and the Internet. Moreover, if there is a low level of interest in Japan, these writers will be less motivated to carry out thorough research for their articles, and may instead appeal to existing stereotypical knowledge for explanations (Lasorsa & Dai 2007). Not only this, but interviews with journalists revealed that even if the journalists are based in Japan, there is still potential for the propagation of stereotypical depictions about Japan due to the demands of the editors, who want stories that will be popular with readers.
In the case of Journalist 1 and Journalist 2, they are often given specific topics to write about from their respective editors (Journalist 1 Interview 2016; Journalist 2 Interview 2016). Journalist 1 said these are often ‘hype’ stories, for which robots can be seen as prime material (Journalist 1 Interview 2016). They said that stories about robots in Japan are an easy story for the journalist and are like ‘holding a piece of meat up in front of a human lion’ (Journalist 1 Interview 2016). That is not to say that the hype is always inaccurate, as Journalist 1 suggested that the robot Pepper is an example of a robot that has lived up to the hype found in reporting (Journalist 1 Interview 2016). Journalist 2, however, found Pepper to be ‘completely underwhelming’, but had been asked to write an article on the robot (Journalist 2 Interview 2016). Both Journalist 1 and Journalist 2 said that stories that hype up certain topics are very common, and Journalist 2 said that it is hard to write an article about robots and not play them up (Journalist 2 Interview 2016). One of the main reasons for this appears to be editorial control, as editors have an image of Japan they want to be presented (Journalist 1 Interview 2016; Journalist 2 Interview 2016). Indeed, editors will often write the headline of the article, which explains why sometimes there is a slight misalignment between title and content (Journalist 2 Interview 2016). Moreover, as these stories are popular with the readership or audience (whose role will be discussed more fully below), they are a guaranteed source of income (Journalist 1 Interview 2016), and since many journalists are now employed on a freelance basis, they need to write many articles like this, or take additional work on the side, such as Journalist 2 who lectures at a university and works for a Japanese broadcaster (Journalist 2 Interview 2016). Unlike the other interviewees, however, Journalist 3 is under no obligation to write articles about particular topics or write soft news stories (Journalist 3 Interview 2016). This journalist is, however, responsible for Asia as a whole at the publication so does not write exclusively on Japan (Journalist 3 Interview 2016). Another issue raised in the interviews is that many of these articles are simply too short to give any real depth (Journalist 2 Interview 2016). As such, readers are not able to gain a good knowledge of Japan as they are not provided with context (Journalist 2 Interview2016).
Journalist 1 and Journalist 2 both agree that the audience in part drives the kinds of articles that are written about Japan. Journalist 1 said that publications often ask for things to be ‘jazzed up’ for non-specialists as otherwise the article might be too matter-of-fact, and Journalist 2 said that the average reader is not even particularly interested in Japan. On the other hand, Journalist 3 said that the British public has a good idea of Japan, but this difference of opinion may be to do with the publications they work for. Journalist 3 writes for a broadsheet newspaper, a kind that tends to focus on political news and generally has a more sophisticated readership, compared to tabloids which focus on gossip. While there may be some specific interest in Japan from a certain kind of readership, the lack of general interest in Japan, coupled with the need to make articles interesting to read, means that the majority of articles about Japan are short, lacking any depth or context, and present only the ‘perennial’ topics.
As I’ve mentioned, a low level of interest in Japan means that newspapers will be unlikely to have a dedicated correspondent in Japan. The consequences for this is that the news will be written from a foreign news desk in the UK, by journalists who are unable directly to experience events or carry out in-person interviews. The resulting reliance on received information, be it existing knowledge in the form of stereotypical knowledge, or material that can be gained from newswires and the Internet, is obviously troubling. Moreover, if there is a low level of interest in Japan, these writers will be less motivated to carry out thorough research for their articles and may instead appeal to existing stereotypical knowledge for explanations.
In order to provide a rounded analysis of the impact of the editor on the production of news articles, it was also necessary to interview a foreign news editor, thus providing context as well as a point of comparison with journalist interviews. The foreign editor interviewed was from a British broadsheet newspaper, one of the top ten ranking publications for both print and Web. Questions were asked pertaining not only to editorial and systemic factors, but also to journalistic factors, as the editor is in a position to provide information about the staff working under them, whereas journalists can only comment on their own experiences. The table below details the general line of questioning asked during the interview, separated by the explanation covered, the responses to these questions can be found in the middle column, whilst the right-hand column has reduced these responses into basic categories.
|Line of Questioning||Response||Coding|
Journalists’ and editors’ expertise
Three correspondents are based in London, but all other coverage comes from abroad;
Newswires and other news sites (UK and overseas) are used;
Research papers, news briefings and embargoed stories are also used;
When unsure about something, asks correspondent or does research
Range of Sources
Editor not a Specialist
Editorial and systemic factors
Some countries and topics are more relevant to a UK audience and get more coverage;
Japan ranks high because it is popular with British tourists and is at the heart of the biggest geopolitical stories at the moment;
Reduced staff and budgets pose a challenge for trying to cover the world;
Pressure comes from the deputy editor and editor of the paper;
Pressure comes from managing a large staff and freelancers scattered around the world;
Newspapers respond to changes in online and mobile readership;
An article exists to be read by an audience;
Stories are commissioned because they matter, but stories are also commissioned to entertain readers
Japan Currently Ranks High
Reduced Staff & Budgets
Pressure from More Senior Editors
Pressure Managing Global Team
Articles Are Written to be Read
According to the editor, the main challenge is ‘trying to cover the world with reduced staff and budgets’, echoing the concerns raised in studies of the state of the foreign correspondent. A consequence of these reductions is that ‘fewer countries are covered in depth’, and the editor said that countries and topics are given precedence based on their relevance to a UK audience. In contrast to Journalist 2’s opinion that the British are not particularly interested in Japan, the editor said that Japan ranked ‘fairly high’ in terms of importance, attributing this to the popularity of Japan among British tourists, cultural links, and geopolitical events. But it is worth noting that Japan is only important insofar as it is relevant to a British person.
Other pressures faced by the foreign editor include pressure from more senior editors, such as the deputy editor and editor of the newspaper to ‘deliver strong content every day on deadline’ (Editor Interview 2018). Time is thus a concern to both journalists and editors alike. Moreover, the editor is under pressure to pick not only the most important stories of the day, which are defined as ‘stories that have a good chance of getting in print or displayed on the opening page of our website’, as well as stories that the audience will respond well to, because an ‘article exists to be read by an audience’ (Editor Interview 2018). Articles must therefore be engaging, and while stories ‘that matter’ are of most importance, stories that make the reader laugh or educate the reader about something new are also needed to drive the audience to the Website or generate sales.
Synthesising the Viewpoints of the Journalists and the Foreign Editor
Of the two hypotheses proposed in this paper: (i) that journalists do not possess adequate knowledge of Japan, and (ii) that systemic and editorial demands result in these depictions of Japan, the first hypothesis can only apply to those journalists who are not working in Japan, as interviews with foreign journalists working in Japan showed that they generally have a good knowledge of the Japanese language, often including formal Japanese training, as well as knowledge of Japanese culture through living in Japan. Nevertheless, exaggeration does occur, as previous studies have shown, and it is even acknowledged by the journalists themselves, lending credence to this explanation. Moreover, while the journalists interviewed had long-term residence in Japan, they said that there were fewer and fewer Japan correspondents, and that much journalism about Japan done for British publications is written from desks in the UK. The second hypothesis presented another possibility for why articles contain exaggeration, even if written by journalists based not only in Japan but with Japanese language abilities. Editors do indeed influence the way in which Japan is reported, from the topics which are written about to the way in which articles are written.
While editorial demands were one factor expressed in the interviews, they were not the only factor, as the perceived audience also plays a role in influencing what kind of articles are written, although it may be the editor who pays attention to what is popular and then demands more of these kinds of articles. Interviewed journalists also felt the pressure to comply with demands because of financial reasons, since comparatively few foreign correspondents are dedicated correspondents, but rather are freelance and therefore not salaried. Even these demands, however, were shown not to be the main factor for the exaggeration found in news articles. Rather, it was the journalists’ own perceptions and experiences informing the articles. Indeed, the interview with the foreign editor found that while journalists are sometimes asked to follow leads, they are equally encouraged to find their own stories (Editor Interview 2018). Aspects of the second hypothesis were supported by the interview with the foreign editor, who confirmed that there were many pressures affecting both journalists and editors alike, including reduced budgets and staffing, as well as the time constraints of journalism. The editor, however, said that the pressures of reduced numbers of staff and decreased budgets were challenges that were part of what made the job as editor enjoyable, as it meant coming up with solutions and working against the odds to maintain good journalism (Editor Interview 2018). On the whole, of the two possible hypotheses for the propagation of inaccurate depictions of Japan in the news media, which were (i) journalistic factors, and (ii) editorial and systemic factors, it was found that neither explanation was sufficiently adequate on its own, but rather was a combination of the two.
Conclusion: The Demand for a Certain Kind of Japan and Overcoming Orientalism
Interviews with journalists based in Japan showed that there is a definite issue of the imagined Japan taking precedence over Japan as they would otherwise report it. The editor, who does not know Japan, asks for articles on pre-existing ideas about Japan, and demands changes when the story does not fit their narrative. There is naturally the matter of stories being driven by audience demand in order to maximise profits from clicks and sales, but it is nonetheless still the same problem: the audience desires to read stories that fit with the knowledge that they already possess about Japan, for that is Japan as far as they are concerned.
If Orientalist discourse is encouraged, unknowingly or otherwise, how then can journalism move past it? At the time of writing (June 2019), The Guardian has recently held a ‘Tokyo Week’ on its Guardian Cities microsite. While any additional focus on Japan is good, particularly longform stories, I observed academics on Twitter pointing out inaccuracies in articles and asking why they or their peers had not been consulted. This is anecdotal, but it highlights an opportunity for journalists: the wealth of knowledge available in the academic community. Ideally, in depth reporting on Japan should not be limited to a dedicated week in a year, and nor should the focus only ever be on Tokyo. There is an element of pragmatism here: almost all foreign journalists will be based in Tokyo, to be close to Japanese politics and industry. However, as a result, for many people their image of Japan is more accurately be described as an image of Tokyo. Again, this is where the academic community could help: academics, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, have specialist knowledge about all manner of subjects and issues, and can be found doing their research throughout Japan, not just in the capital.
That is not to say that the foreign correspondents in Japan possess no expertise. Indeed, the journalists interviewed all possessed Japanese language skills and knowledge of Japanese culture, through a combination of formal study and through living in Japan, but even their articles cannot be totally free of exaggeration and the emphasis of difference between the UK and the Other, Japan. The journalists do their best to avoid this, but they are at the mercy of the editor. More problematic is the fact that so much journalism about Japan is written from outside the country due to the continued decline in foreign correspondent jobs, and here is where academics could make the most difference, although it is another conversation how best to facilitate this.
Both journalists and academics alike have their work cut out, because traditional forms of media are losing ground to alternative sources of information online. One does not have to read a newspaper or news Website to find out what is going on in Japan, or read a book or watch a documentary to learn more about the country—those interested can see Japan through the eyes of Internet personalities who record their experiences and post them online in highly edited, bite-sized videos that can be consumed on mobile devices, where the majority of Internet consumption takes place. These videos offer the potential to provide unique insight into everyday life in Japan, explained by those with advanced knowledge of the country and language. But videos also have the potential to perpetuate stereotypical depictions of Japan, and therefore future research should pay close attention to these media forms. News media remain important because they have a degree of authority, but as this paper has shown, the representation of Japan is determined by the news as business, as something that needs to generate profit.It would be too far to go as to say that Japan has been commodified, but Japan is only newsworthy when that news will sell.
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Article copyright Christopher J. Hayes.