Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Fry got fried in Japan--but why?

I was supposed to be on a plane back to Tokyo this week to shoot a segment for a BBC documentary on language and visual culture, both of which I write and care about deeply. Aside from being a half-Japanese raised in America and living in both countries, I have come to appreciate the uniquely visual nature of expression in Japan, from its ideographic language to its digitally animated landscape, and what it might tell us about the futures we are all rapidly inhabiting.

I have also been startled by the degree to which Americans, especially the young, have been drawn to cultural artifacts, manga, anime and fashion, from an archipelago so far from their own shores, and so fundamentally different in nature and history. I wrote about these unexpected convergences in a book called Japanamerica.

The BBC show was to be hosted by Stephen Fry, the British celebrity and author. Fry is ubiquitous in England, and I was immediately attracted by the opportunity to meet him and stroll around Tokyo game parlors and maid cafes, jousting with his wit and engaging his curiosity.

In early January, someone kindly sent me a link through Twitter about a potentially explosive story. A satirical BBC quiz show called “QI” ran a segment called “the world’s unluckiest man,” featuring the late Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the most well-known survivor of both atomic bombs dropped thus far, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In typical British fashion, the show asked whether Yamaguchi might be the unluckiest man, or the luckiest, given that he survived both bombs and lived to 93.

In video footage, one can easily see, if one speaks and understands English fluently, that the hosts are tiptoeing around the obvious offense, trying to strike a balance between humor and respect. How could one man even catch a train to Nagasaki from Hiroshima after the first bombing, the hosts ask, when in the UK, trains are stopped for leaves falling across the track?

Still, the footage didn’t play well in Japan. And in this age of instantaneous visual language, all subtlety was lost, especially on reactionary right-wing Japanese folks keen to kick up a fight.

In response to a formal complaint from the Japanese Embassy, the British Embassy issued a formal apology in Tokyo, followed by humble pie from the BBC, Fry and cohorts. Last week, after being informed of where I would meet the crew, host and director for lunch, I was told the entire shoot would need to be canceled. Threats against Fry’s welfare were dutifully recorded and conveyed by the embassies. Not a good time for him to visit Japan.

Naturally, I have personal reasons behind my disappointment. I was hoping to meet Fry, hoping to get exposure for my work, and most important, hoping to have another outlet for explaining Japan’s unique visual culture to a broader audience.

But the event also reminds me of how illiterate visual culture can become. We like to celebrate our many facile contacts via digital media, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or others, but how well do we actually know one another? A simple explanation of the BBC’s wry asides about Yamaguchi would have gone a long way toward rescuing Fry’s reputation in Japan. He is suddenly seen as a villain, when mere entertainment was clearly his goal.

Humor rarely travels well. When I hosted an evening with Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami at UC Berkeley a few years ago, I was struck by how well he understood his American audience, making successful jokes about missing a World Series playoff game and a meeting with Radiohead’s Tom Yorke in Tokyo, and how Californians in the audience should consider themselves lucky that he’d showed up.

As globalization renders our borders less rigid, we’re all going to need such wits to stay sane, I think. And a bit of forgiveness can go a long way toward understanding.


hazymat said...

This is a brilliant and thought-provoking piece.

I whole-heartedly agree with your conclusion about how the effect of globalisation requires we becoming more forgiving, visually and culturally.

Rob said...

Really interesting and well-written post, thank you.
I don't imagine that Stephen Fry has anything but the utmost respect for Tsutomu Yamaguchi, and his comments weren't intended to poke fun at all (except at UK train operators, and they deserve it).
You're completely spot-on with this article: giving people the benefit of the doubt will make this global village a happier, and more tolerant place.
Well said!

BB said...

Such a balanced & insightful piece. More please!!!

ArthurFrDent said...

for well or ill, the visual hits your brain in a much purer stream. Since language is an artifact of culture, even amongst cultures, there is a time lag of translation. There is a need for work to decrypt meaning. This also exists withing your very brain, when you read or hear words. It takes time, it takes understanding and approximation, and mushing. What is the feeling of a ray of sunlight hitting your upturned face after appearing from behind a cloud? Do I need paragraphs to explain? But in one moment of imagery, regardless of still, animated, or video, I can show it to you. If you have ever had light shine on your face, that persistence of memory will inform your brain what that feels like.

Which is the richer? Introduce a soundtrack, and suddenly even more of your brain lights up.
But there is less introspection, you don't even have to translate the word pictures into meanings in your head. If you jump to the wrong conclusion the innocent is suddenly sinister... and that conclusion is hitting your brain far beneath the logical areas.

Seeing an elder's image between two mushroom clouds. It didn't matter what they said. I was taken aback. Perhaps because I used to make my trade in photography, I'm a bit more susceptible, but representing things visually a story is told no matter what you intend, so you must tell the right story. This notwithstanding that the Japanese will always feel a wound for this type of imagery, so there is little reason to use it.

Perhaps the teachable moment is here, but what is to learn. Perhaps Fry could apologize himself personally. For using images that didn't mean what he meant. Who knows if it would be accepted. Some things you can't undo. But the willingness to try can go a long way. Understanding what has happened is hard... when an image has viscerally made you feel a certain way.

Forgiveness can always go a long way... but first you have to ask. And for that you must use words, along with the action of saying them.

ArthurFrDent said...

oi! my computer ate my witty comment, so I'll take that as a cosmological suggetion that it wasn't very good. How about this instead...
You have to translate language in your head, even if it's our own. Images, hit much deeper and without the thoughtfulness of translation. They are also less easily forgotten.

Putting the picture of an elder between two images of mushroom clouds, should have made anyone feel that it was a bad image, regardless, and somone on the show should have known that. It didn't really matter what was said.

now all that's to be done is to personally apologize for Fry, since it was his show. Forgiveness must be asked for using words, and the action is the asking. Everyone can be more forgiving, if it is being requested...

Anonymous said...

I've seen the show and in my view Fry was more towards jibing at British transport than at Japanese tran services, merely pointing out their devotion to keeping things running. I can say this confidently too as I have also lived in Japan so it struck struck an even stronger cord with me. If only the Japanese could be more understanding they would realise the joke wasn't directed at them but rather the UK.

Anonymous said...

Oh good grief! WHY should I feel sorry for Japanese right-wingers' complaints? When my Grand Father was starved, beaten and died of cholera in a Japanese 'slave camp' in Burma in 1943? Perspective and History people!

Roland Kelts said...

I appreciate the range, support and intelligence issued in these comments.

I agree that the sheer immediacy in both speed and power of visuals, divorced from the tone, context and subtler nuances of language, is likely the greatest cause of the outrage. I viewed clips of the BBC show as broadcast on Japanese television news. The pedestrian newsroom translation, coupled with the shot of Yamaguchi between two mushroom clouds above pale Englishmen laughing in their Hawaiian shirts and leis, looked pretty damning. (I'll try to find the JP clip shortly.)

I also agree that Fry had no intention of offending or insulting Yamaguchi-san or other Japanese--and poked much more harshly at British Rail. While it was risky to raise the name of the best-known survivor of both atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a more patient understanding of the tone, context and language could have gone a long way toward making the BBC's apology acceptable and their error comprehensible in Japan.

I suspect the threats to Fry's welfare came from right-wing nationalists whose reactionary approach to any perceived affront to Japan or its suffering during World War II preempts understanding and forgiveness of any nature.

As an aside, the very title of the segment, "the unluckiest man in the world," indicates its gimmickry and playful mock-seriousness--of which there is plenty on Japanese TV, last time I checked. (I'll post something on the latter shortly.)

Thanks all for your kindness and generosity. And, to Anonymous #2, my condolences on the fact and nature of your grandfather's murder in Burma, 1943.

Roland Kelts said...

PS I'll be talking about this event on "The Madeleine Brand Show" @ KPCC/NPR on Friday:

Anonymous said...

"Forgiveness can always go a long way... but first you have to ask. And for that you must use words, along with the action of saying them."

As a Southeast Asian whose grandparents bore the brunt of the Jap Occupation and barely lived through it. I'm not sure what to make of this statement. Fry is supposed to beg for forgiveness when Japan has done... what?

Aceface said...

"Fry is supposed to beg for forgiveness when Japan has done... what?"

Actually,it's for "what Fry had done in the skit regarding when American had dropped Abomb on Japan,twice"

But if you don't understand that,maybe you shouldn't say anything.

BTW,So Sorry for what my grand father did to what your grand parents whereever in South East Asia they were.....

ArthurFrDent said...

To both Ace and Anony2:43, I would suggest that it is not for us to apologize for what our ancestors did and to whom. If you go far enough back, all of our ancestors have been at war with one another at some point, some recently, and some in the long distant past. How should we take responsibility for what they did? Perhaps this is a western way of thought, but there is only one person I am responsible for and that is me. It is what I do that defines that. The same with Fry, the same with you.

That is not to say that there are not things that my ancestors did that I am not ashamed of, but how do I take responsibility for them when I wasn't there to stop them, when even my mother was not born?

When I spoke of asking forgiveness, I was talking about what a person asks for what they themselves have done, or if they are in charge, what was done in their name. If Fry said something like: "I meant no disrespect to Mr. Yamaguchi or to his memory, and I wish we had not used the imagery we did. I hope his family will accept my apology for doing so."

End of story. Some people are going to be offended on behalf of Ymamguchi-san regardless, and Fry can't change that. But it was not those proxies that Fry actually would have brought offense to, rather to the man in the picture he used.

Hopefully I have made clear what I meant...

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, if you feel that the reaction to the comments in the talk show (on a whole, rather than Fry's particular statements itself) can only be explained due to Japanese people not understanding the full "context", or because of "right-wing Japanese [groups]", then I would beg to disagree. In my humble opinion, I don't think it is really as simple.

It is largely due the fact that for many people that reside in Japan, the wounds from Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still very much fresh. Much like jokes regarding the Holocaust or other horrific tragedies, such as Nanking for instance, any joke even set within the context of such tragedies would be considered distasteful in the countries where these tragedies occurred. Innocent people died regardless in all of these incidents.

Not only did so many lose their lives, but the survivors, the hibakusha, of whom Fry, an educated Cambridge graduate, did not seem to know much about (likening it to as a kind of networking) had suffered a great deal due to nuclear exposure and radiation disease, including Yamaguchi himself, and were unfairly subjected to great discrimination due to people not being educated regarding radiation diseases.

I am personally very disappointed to see Fry not coming to Japan for his series, because I would loved to have seen his program. Whatever mistakes he makes, I am sure no one felt his comments meant any malice and most people would not have had any issues with him filming the series. I don't think the BBC should have taken these "threats" seriously as I don't think Fry experiences any danger whatsoever. It is a very sensitive subject, and many people in Japan would not think it's tasteful, but he would have still been very much welcome in the country. A shame.