Tuesday, August 29, 2006


It's odd. Very odd. The Japanese are so polite, maintain such carefully measured distances in their various levels of social discourse that, for example, close acquaintances can go years without even knowing each other's first names. And even long-term social acquaintances (these Japanese hierarchic levels are hard to delineate in English) never refer to each other in conversation - even directly - except via their family names + honorific. For example, in English, if you were talking to Bill Smith, your friendly neighbor of 25 years, you’d say, "Hey Bill, where're you going on vacation this year?" In Japanese, you'd say: "Where is Mr. Smith going on vacation this year?" To address your friendly neighbor by his first name would be intrusive and presumptuous.

That carefully maintained social distance makes it all the more shocking whenever I see the common sight, on Japanese tv news, of reportermobs trying to emotionally break down the relatives of tragedy victims on screen, as in their prodding of the father of a young businessman who was killed in the Kentucky jet crash yesterday. The sharky reporters rang the father's doorbell, knocked on his door, called out his family name (+ honorific), until at last he came out wearily but politely, still in shock, hadn't yet apprehended the full tragedy of his situation.

The mediamob moved in close, stuck their mikes in his face and began asking questions like: "Did you expect this to happen?" "Was your son a good person?" “Did he have any children?” (They knew he had no children.) "Were you looking forward to having grandchildren?" Each question digging a bit deeper emotionally until I'm cringing just watching, waiting for the next and even crueler question as the camera edges closer and closer, hoping for a quiver, a tear, a flood or, best of all, an emotional breakdown right on camera (what a news coup!) until I have to turn it off, I just can't watch. And I'm from New York! Yet the extremely polite Japanese public seems to love this grossly intrusive stuff!

The father (and every other tragic victim in such circumstances) replies politely, without a hint that he perceives the inanity of the questions, let alone their cruelty and intrusiveness or the extreme sharkiness of the reporters: "No I did not expect this." "My son was a good person." "No he had no children." "Yes, I was looking forward to having grandchildren." He was still too much in shock. They did their best with the questions though, prodding deeper and deeper, but he didn't break. Oh well, maybe the next victim will make some reporter's career as a tearjerk.

I know that paparazzi do this kind of thing photographically just about everywhere, and are well paid for it (and everywhere reviled), but this particular kind of intrusion into personal tragedy I find cruel and repulsive, too painful to watch. Some Japanese do as well, apparently; there are letters written to editors now and then, and editorial comments here and there, but the general public seems to eat it up. Why is that? The explanation that it evokes sympathy in the viewer just begs the question. If I were to call any one of those viewers by their first name they'd be offended at my presumption! But as victims they seem to have no rights in this regard.

After all these years, it still stumps me.


J said...

This bugs the crap out of me, wherever and whenever I see it. But it sells. Sad.

Robert Brady said...

It just amazes me that all (or even many) these very polite people don't phone the broadcasters and say We would be very pleased if you would kindly stop doing that!

Coll said...

I am afraid this happens not only in Japan. Why do so many "enjoy" the suffering of others? I have no answer.