When I see something written in English that is criticizing some aspect of Japan, the first thing I wonder is why the person is writing it in English, presumably to an audience of people who are in no position to do anything that could change the situation. Obviously, readers often want to learn about situations in societies whose languages they do not speak. Journalists try to and often succeed in conveying information about one society to the people of another society, and when they do so, we expect them to do so as objectively as they can, showing us the range of views a native of that society would encounter.
Opinion is an entirely different matter. When you express an opinion about Society A in the language of Society B, rather than that of Society A, you are presumably doing so for a reason. It is a political choice, and I think it is fair to ask the writer why they chose to target the members of Society B with an opinion about Society A. I suppose there are any number of scenarios in which a writer would reasonably make such a choice, but two obvious reasons come to mind.
One possibility is that the author thinks Society B could learn something from Society A in regards to the topic at hand. This is actually rather common, and of course is a fine thing.
The other possibility that comes to mind is that the author wants the people of Society B to know that Society A is Bad, if only in regards to the topic at hand. Since the readers can usually do nothing about the Bad Thing discussed (other than sign a petition or donate money), the motive probably boils down to wanting to express distaste for Society A (or at least that aspect of Society A). It is an expression of contempt with no practical purpose beyond the spreading of hatred.
But perhaps there is a third possibility. Perhaps the author just wanted to get this thing off their chest, and chose to do so in their native tongue because it was too much trouble to write it in the language of Society A. This is akin to me sitting here and saying out loud to this empty room (as I sometimes do), “God, I hate this air conditioner. It makes the room smell funny and we need a new one.” Except that it is one thing for me to think out loud to an empty room, or in the presence of my wife or other close friends or family, and it is a very different thing for me to say such a thing in print or on the Internet where it can be seen by any number of people who know nothing about me and my relationship to my air conditioner.
Oh, and here’s a fourth possibility: The author chose to write about Society A in the language of Society B because someone was willing to pay them to do so. (Come to think of it, I have done this myself, and would cheerfully do so again. Make me an offer.)
The more I see this sort of thing (and I see it so very often), the more I think that the third and fourth reasons, or a mixture of the two, are actually the most common.
I am loathe to criticize anyone for writing for money anything that is not morally evil, and it’s hard to begrudge anyone the right to think out loud on the Internet (heaven knows I do it every day, and am doing it right now), but I think it’s important for writers to beware that, regardless of their motives, the effect on the reader will probably be the same as if the writer’s motive was either the first or the second described above. That is, the reader will come away thinking either, “This thing Society A does is swell, and we should do it, too,” or “Society A is as fucked up as I imagined it to be. Seriously; fuck them.”
Take this brief diatribe by Sophie Knight, “Japan Has a Cute Problem: How the pink apron keeps women down.” There is very little in here that I flat out disagree with (although Ms. Knight should know that the most current WEF ranking puts Japan at 104, thanks to the Maldives plummeting from 97 to 105), but the piece rubs me the wrong way, as do most diatribes about Japan written in English. The problem is not in the facts.
Just yesterday, I started my lecture in my Women and Manga class (女性とマンガ) with a diatribe of my own, pointing out that women make up just 8.1% of the Lower House of Japan’s Diet, that they earn just 45 yen for every 100 yen earned by Japanese men, that they hold just 11.1% of managerial positions in the Japanese business world, that they account for about 97% of victims of sexual assault in Japan, and that they account for 65.9% of Japanese living in poverty. I did so because after the previous week’s class, in which veteran manga editor Kaori Mikawa talked to my students about discrimination in the manga publishing world, one anonymous male student complained about what he perceived as “reverse sexism.” I should point out that this all took place in Japanese. I teach my class in Japanese, 90% of my students are Japanese citizens, Kaori’s talk was in Japanese, and the anonymous student’s whining was in Japanese. A Japanese problem addressed in Japanese to a mostly Japanese audience.
I think it’s fair to characterize Ms. Knight’s piece as a diatribe, since she paints in broad strokes. The piece is light on details and nuance, and heavy on generalizations. A reasonable person with little knowledge of Japan would read “As the strongest wave of feminism in decades sweeps through the West, Japan is well overdue a movement of its own,” and conclude that Japan has never had a feminist movement. It has in fact had at least two major feminist movements, arguably more, and a quick search of Twitter in Japanese will show you that there are still plenty of Japanese women (and even some non-women) who identify as feminists and fight the good fight every day. And there are in fact certain fields in which Japanese women can claim to be far ahead of any of their Western sisters, such as the creation and consumption of comics, and the production of pornography by and for women. (Seriously.)
Ms. Knight, whether she intended to or not, reinforces stereotypes held by most Westerners about Japan and Japanese women. The tone, whether or not she intended it to be, is smug and condescending. It is what we call in Japanese 上から目線 (“ue kara mesen”), or “looking down from above.”
I wrote that the first thing I wonder when I find something like this is why the author chose to write in English. The second thing I do is to search for anything the author has written in Japanese. I am much more willing to cut slack to an author who has written anything in Japanese, even if it’s just a handful of tweets. (Bonus points if the author has done the reverse, which is to say criticize Society B in the language of Society A.) I refuse to believe a person can be an authority on a society if they cannot even read and write in that society’s language. (Would you take seriously a Japanese person who claims to be an expert on American society if that person was not reasonably fluent in English?) I searched and could not find anything written in Japanese by Ms. Knight beyond the two words 記者・騎士 found in her Twitter profile. I searched her name in Japanese, and unfortunately could only find links to a Japanese brand of pantyhose with a very specific purpose. For all I know, her Japanese may be better than my own, but if she has written anything in Japanese, she has done a good job of hiding it.
If Ms. Knight had written the exact same piece in Japanese, I would not have hesitated to share it on social media.
Ms. Knight and I have a mutual friend on Facebook for whom I have enormous respect. (Like, huge.) For that reason alone, I am sure Ms. Knight is a wonderful person, and that if I had the pleasure of meeting her in person, I would think she was the bee’s knees and would want to hang out with her all the time. I am also certain she had nothing but the best intentions in writing her diatribe.
My own policy is to not criticize Japan in English, and not criticize America in Japanese. When I make an exception, I do so with a clear purpose that I have thought out in advance. (Unless I’m drunk.) But that’s just me. Still, I sincerely hope that, in the future, Ms. Knight (and you, Dear Reader) will pause before writing an opinion about Society A in the language of Society B, and first consider how it might be received and what unintended consequences might arise.
Will it spread love, or will it spread hate?