Friday, January 22, 2010

Fads, The Setting Sun, Old Media

Back in the late 80s/very early 90s when Japan was believed to be an economic "threat," many in the US began to panic and read such trash as Japan as #1, Theory Z, and From Bonsai to Levis in misguided hopes of imitating Japan. It was common knowledge that people needed to study Japan and its language for the 21st century would belong to Japan and "the East."

Back then many folk who believed such media inspired myths majored in Japan Studies, East Asian Studies, and so on, thus suffering the cruel fate of being naturally selected out of the desirable-employees-with-useful-skills pool. Smarter, more mature people would often ask, "What are you going to do with that?"---a question that some of us are still trying to answer 20 years later.

Now we seem to be discovering a new area of must-have knowledge: China. This is the first country/area specific requirement for success since the dire need for people with Middle Eastern language skills just after 9/11. Wonder how folks with those degrees are doing?

One of the smart moves China is making is that it is actually assisting US public schools to teach Chinese:

The Chinese government is sending teachers from China to schools all over the world — and paying part of their salaries. At a time of tight budgets, many American schools are finding that offer too good to refuse. NYT

Clever use of soft power on the part of China and something that I cannot recall Japan doing during its 15 minutes of fame. Japan did fund a lot of Japan-related university chairs and promote other important things such as tea-ceremony demonstrations, but did nothing similar that I can recall for anyone outside universities. Oh, wait, I forgot---Toyotas! About all I can remember is taking the Japanese exam for the Monbusho scholarship* at the Japanese consulate in Seattle in 1990 or 91. After the written test, I had an oral interview with your stereotypical unbelievably arrogant bureaucrats, one of whom who asked if the test had been difficult. I foolishly and honestly answered yes, to which one of the expert test-takers replied "Do you know that all Japanese study English for 6 years?" WTF was I supposed to do with that?

Alas, the already minimal value of any Japan-related knowledge---let alone "expertise"---seems to have plummeted to the level of JAL stock. The country ain't even worth reporting on:

Major foreign media outlets are leaving Japan in droves, ... ...observers note that Japan is also losing its appeal as the most newsworthy country in Asia...

...While financial difficulties are a key reason for the foreign media's retreat, the government is also at fault for not extensively opening up news conferences to foreign reporters...Japan Times

Hmmm. Yukio, wasn't the DPJ supposed to do something about the press clubs? Well, don't worry. Take your time. Would next June be too soon for you to make a decision?

Anyway, this ain't exactly new. The US media has been reducing overseas staff for years. The article was inspired by the recent decision of TIME magazine to close its Tokyo branch, but I personally have never considered TIME as actually being part of the non-tabloid press. My wife bought me a subscription to it in 2002 or 2003 and it was so brown-nosing to the region (and Apple) that I attempted to cancel it.

And the NYT, and others sure, to follow are going to start charging for their online articles? I guess they'll have to in order to survive, but why on earth would anyone pay to read something about Japan that is even more disconnected and ridiculous than some of the stuff written by journalists who are actually here?

*I did not get the graduate scholarship as my Japanese was not good enough. Seems that a bizarre combination of grammar-translation and audiolingualism is not a good way to acquire a language, something that had been known for 30+ years to everyone except the Japanese language professor at my university. I was damned good at reading the texts and memorizing blocks of language for exams though. Never have used any of that in Japan.

Edited for corrections at 2200


  1. Bloody Hell D-san. You just wrote the post I wanted to write, but didn't have the knack to pull off. But then Our Man is an American Studies graduate.

    See, back in the 80s the benind-the-times folks in the UK thought the US would be the superpower to study. Dang. Didn't even gain any foreign language skills.

    Pity the poor folk who did Soviet studies though. At least Our Man got to watch some decent westerns as part of his course.

  2. So Our Man majored in American Studies and later moved to Japan. I guess that's as good an answer as any to the "What are you gonna do with that?" question.

    A woman who attended with me majored in Russian Studies, married an guy from Iran and converted to Islam. I often wonder how she is doing.