The Japan Times – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Dominique Flemings

***Sergio’s excuse for not writing a review was work. Mine, I am afraid, is pure laziness. Many is the night that I have watched a movie rather than dutifully review a website – just ask Fritz. Fortunately, one of those films served as the inspiration for this review***

My guess is that most of you have seen the classic Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In this film, a good-looking Clint Eastwood stars as Blondie (the “good”), who eventually aligns himself with Tuco Ramirez (the “ugly”) to kill Angel Eyes (the “bad,” of course). Things are a little different at the Japan Times corral. If the newspaper’s website had only the good and the bad, then I would be writing a thumbs up review for a very decent newspaper and website. Unfortunately, there is an “ugly” on the scene, and perhaps only Blondie himself properly could rid the Japan Times of this cowboy who is anything but the “good’s” amigo. Keep reading to find out just who this Tuco is.

Contrary to how the movie introduces the characters, let’s start with the good of the Japan Times. As a dog-owner and lover, I look forward to any and all articles written about the wonderful admirable work of ARK, specifically the animal of the week article. Every week, one of the (many) adorable animals rescued by ARK is showcased for future loving owners to see. I applaud the Japan Times for allowing ARK to use their newspaper as a medium to find homes for the animals they have saved from often horrible settings. Kaori Shoji and Mark Schilling’s movie reviews are humorous, enjoyable and often poignant (though Giovanni Fazio, one of the other reviewers, often falls flat with his reviews that often result in my wasting money on a bland movie he recommended). Another highlight is “Ceramic Scene,” a terrific column by Robert Yellin, whose personal website I heartily gave a thumbs-up to last summer. Yellin is full of insight in every column, and one wonders if he could begin to replace some of the other writers. The same for Robbie Swinnerton, whose restaurant reviews are always spot on and are most often as mouthwatering and fascinating as his subject matter. And whenever I see “Alex Martin” or “Eric Johnston” at the top of a news story, I know that it’s bound to be good. Those two simply excel at well-done journalistic writing. There are a number of good columnists I like as well. And before we get onto the “bad,” let me say that the newspaper has a very impressive history, with it’s first publication date of March 22, 1897. Its 11th president, Hitoshi Ashida who worked at the Foreign Ministry for twenty years, even went on to become prime minister of Japan.

True to the film’s title, there is a “bad” in the Japan Times. Again, I must emphasize that the good could and does easily outdo the following – it’s the ugly that leaves the Times hurting. That said, I’m not sure what the first thing about the Japan Times was that left a bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps it was the fact that they dropped Garfield from the comics section; I may be a dog lover, but the rotund feline always gave me a laugh and, what’s more, helped make up for the dull humor offered by Roger Dhal. Perhaps it’s that, every now and then (perhaps a little too frequently), I’ll spot an error I would expect to see in an elementary English class, not in the celebrated columns of the Japan Times. I can disregard these, though – not everyone likes Garfield and not everyone is as fastidious when it comes to grammar and English as my college writing professor taught me to be.

One thing that I can’t put aside as easily, though, is the overall tone of the paper. It is true that, first and foremost, the Japan Times is a Japanese paper. This is not entirely the case with its readership. If the Reader’s Forum is to be believed, the Japan Times is read over coffee and sausage back home in Canada, a croissant in Paris and before a siesta in Spain, just the same as it’s read in a Tokyo café. The paper is an international news source, much in the same the way the Wall Street Journal is. As such, one would think that the Japan Times would be written in such a way to appeal to a broad audience – it really isn’t. Some of the stories, it seems, are written in Japanese and then hastily translated to English in what seems to be an afterthought. The Japan Times would have made a wonderful local paper, but for the self-ascribed “World’s Window on Japan,” it seems that those in charge assume readers were born in Japan and have no need to look through the window in the first place.

Before we get to the “ugly,” there is one thing about the Japan Times website that I’d like to mention. I suppose I can compare this to the bridge that Blondie dynamites in order to dispel the Union and Confederate armies from the treasure site, in the sense that the Japan Times could easily correct this problem. The website version fails to utilize fully one of its printed form’s biggest strengths: the Reader’s Forum. This part of the paper is an excellent opportunity for readers to contribute to the Japan Times as if they themselves were writers. Now, imagine the forum, but intensified over tens of thousands of web pages instead of the meager half-page that it’s given in the printed form. How would this work? Simply allow online readers to comment on the stories directly. Readers would be sure to utilize it fully – already, the readership of the Japan Times comments extensively on news stories through the Forum, and often the conversations that ensue after a story are as enlightening (or, at least, amusing) as the story itself. Better yet, the Japan Times could enhance its revenue flow with the increased exposure it could offer its advertisers online. This has already been introduced to great success on websites like Japan Today – it certainly could work for the Japan Times. The Times needs to catch up with the times and take full advantage of their website as their competitors have already beat them to it.

Despite its shortcomings, the truth is that the Japan Times, in both newspaper form and on its website, has some very good parts that make it an enjoyable paper to pick up from the stands or peruse on the website. I could compare it to an art gallery that has some phenomenal works that make the rest of the mundane pieces endurable. There is only one problem to this otherwise thumbs up-deserving site, and, indeed, newspaper – a stain that is too big to ignore. This, friends, is the ugly.

The ugly is none other than Arudou Debito. My reaction, when I see the latest Just Be Cause, is always something between disgust and embarrassment as a member of the community Debito supposedly fights for. Debito’s shtick, as most of you know, concerns the discrimination that foreigners sometimes face when living here in Japan. I’ll agree with Debito in that, yes, there is a problem of discrimination, and yes, we do need to work towards a resolution of that problem – but my approval ends there.

Debito has become an entirely repulsive figure who certainly doesn’t represent the majority of foreigners living in Japan with his rambling and oft-offensive writings. This writer, who compared the plight of the foreigners here to that of the African Americans in early America (infamously comparing gaijin to “n*****,” resulting in an onslaught of criticism), seems to fancy himself as Japan’s version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Debito’s columns are an exercise in self-pity instead of an advancement of positive change. Making things worse is the fact that he never seems to learn from past mistakes. Not too long after the “N*****” incident, which badly backfired in his face, Debito likened the comparatively minor discrimination foreigners experience here to the experience of Jews living in Germany during the thirties and forties of the last century. This is simply taking things too far.

I’ll say it again – there is no doubt as to whether or not there is discrimination against foreigners and Japanese of foreign origin in this nation. It is a problem that should and ought to be solved. But Debito has embarked on a quixotic quest to fight an issue he artificially inflates so that his writings can have more weight. None of the evils exacted on the Jews of pre-war Germany have ever been faced by foreigners living here, and to compare segregation here to that experienced by African Americans in the antebellum American South is a mockery of those who fought to undo such injustice. There are legitimate and positive ways of fighting the discrimination that does occur here, but Debito has yet to use any of them; he chooses instead to wallow in self-pity and point fingers. Consequently, he has, in my humble opinion, made the situation worse. Not just for the community that he is intent on protecting, but also for the Japan Times. When I’m finished with an issue of the Japan Times, I usually notice two stains stand out the most – my coffee mug stains and Debito.

Debito is the last straw, I am afraid, for the once highly-regarded Japan Times. Such tripe is simply unfit for publication in an international newspaper, but I suspect Debito is retained simply for the fact that his controversial writing sells. It’s a possibility that, the Japan Times, in years when money is tight for publications across the board, has turned to the reliable pulp fiction that always sells because of its sheer absurdity. I would hope that the Japan Times was above such a move, instead focusing on its existing strengths instead of retaining its attention-getting weaknesses; it would seem that this is not the case.

And that, dear readers, is why I am afraid that the Japan Times, and Debito, get a Good, Bad, and Ugly rating. Perhaps the best solution to their problems – and the best way to get a thumbs up, here – would be to follow the path laid out by Blondie himself. Get rid of the bad, and leave the ugly in the middle of nowhere with his paycheck and no horse!


~ by Japan Blog Review on May 9, 2011.

11 Responses to “The Japan Times – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. Excellent analysis. I have been feeling for quite a while that Debito is a real danger to the integration of those of us from the outside into Japan. As a great admirer of MLK and someone raised by social activists, I noticed that Debito has not taken on the hard, gritty work of knowing and representing a real person for a long time. Real activists work on the ground, with real people, real situations, not just spinning (poorly based) ideological blather out of nothing. Debito is a nag, besides.

  2. Excellent review. I am somewhat surprised you don’t have Amy Chavez in the bad category, however.

    • Thanks for the compliment, Jen! Regarding Amy Chavez, she’s something of a “lite-weight” compared to other folks we want to give thumbs-down to. We might change our minds, though!

  3. I couldn’t agree more about all of this review. Debito is quite uncomfortable to read sometimes.

    • Debito is almost always an uncomfortable read! However, my chocolate lab finds the paper version of the Japan Times most comfortable, regardless of its contributors. One man’s trash is another dog’s mattress…

      – Dom

  4. Nice post. I couldn’t agree with you more… except for Garfield. Jim Davis is almost as contemptible as Debito.

  5. Also on the good side, it is the only eigo paper with regular book reviews; sadly, Donald Ritchie has retired, but Jeff Kingston’s reviews of Asian politics books are usually interesting. Phillip Brasnor’s media mix is also a good column. Another bad point is that they seem to have cut back on the Friday fine arts coverage by getting rid of the gallery listings; a real shame, as it was a handy device for planning a weekend trip to Kanto/Kansai.
    Up here in Miyagi-ken, it arrives a day later than published, so as a written news source it is pretty useless. They should cultivate more essays and review articles to bring back paying readers.

    • Pessoa,

      I agree entirely. They could certainly use more essays and reviews as a whole, not just to attract customers in areas where the paper is delivered late, but also to attract people in general. In a day and age where the same news is available through any number of mediums, a unique and non-prosaic collection of reviews and thought-provoking essays would attract many more customers to the Japan Times than just news stories.

      – Dom

  6. More bulls**t. Debito is the only source out there that really “gets it” Discrimination here is rampant and in your face. Gaijin is comparable to the N word, its used in a derogatory way daily. I hate the word. What I hate worse is apologist, touchy feely naive f**ks like you. Japan has its head up its a** and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. There isnt much grey to the experiences I have had here. They are real, and therefore shape how I feel/think. Anything else is manipulation and kool aid drinking.

    • Jose,

      I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m also sorry that it incenses you so for someone to actually find Japan an enjoyable place here and say so. Minor discrimination here is undeniable, but it has no way approached the suffering experienced by African Americans in the American South during the last century, and much less the heinous crimes exacted on the Jews of Nazi Germany. Yet Debit brazenly compares our inconveniences to their abject sufferings. This is a disrespect that I simply cannot tolerate as a human being.

      Morever, I am beginning to agree with the sentiment I’ve seen expressed many times and many places by foreigners living here -those that do the most complaining about mistreatment and discrimination are also those who do their best to deserve it. To be honest, it is no surprise that someone who proclaims Japan to have its head up its a** would receive a similar sentiment from those that live here.

      This theory, I feel, is evidenced by your unwillingness to accept any other grounds, such as yourself, as reason for discrimination. If anyone implies that Japan does have potential for those willing to earn it, you call it “manipulation and kool aid drinking,” and call them touchy, feely and naive expletives of your choice. Such defensiveness implies that perhaps you actually do know who is at fault for your predicament, but are unwilling to admit it.

      – Dom

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