Misunderstanding in the Making

Main copyVarious things have kept me away from this blog for too long. One has been the birth of a little daughter, another the pitching and producing of some radio documentaries – the latest of which goes out tomorrow on BBC Radio 4.

Misunderstanding Japan‘ is an instalment of the ‘Archive on 4′ series: telling a story by mining the rich radio and TV archives held by the BBC and other big media organizations.

The original idea for our programme came from a BBC producer who went out to Japan years ago on the JET scheme (Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme). He was struck by the way that UK and other western media have been hooked on the same old stereotypes about Japan for years – the submissive women, the fads, the tech, the all-round strangeness…

Joe Queenan: big shoes to fill

Joe Queenan: big shoes

So I put together a pitch and we ended up making the programme over the past few weeks, starting with some superb archival research by one of my students, Enzo DeGregorio. One of very many things about which I was naive in starting to do broadcasting work (my first documentary was Freud in Asia, last year) was the role of the producer.

In my mind, the producer is the person who runs around and books guests or venues and makes cups of tea. Keith Moore, the fantastically savvy and talented producer for Misunderstanding Japan did all these things as it happens. But a great deal more besides: the producer has huge creative input, and much ends up hanging on presenter and producer wanting to make the same sort of programme, in the same kind of way.

Luckily, we did. Inspired by a dazzling predecessor in the series, A Brief History of Anger, presented by American satirist Joe Queenan and produced by Miles Warde (two sets of big shoes to fill), we set out to make a programme that would relish every marvellous moment of western ‘misunderstanding’ while trying to explore where these things come from and what they might saying about us

What we didn’t want to do was say ‘Hey ignorant and racist Radio 4 listeners, here’s why your images of Japan are ignorant and racist and here’s how we’re going to re-educate you…’ Nor did we want to spend time picking pedantic holes in the work of supremely talented travel writers and presenters like Alan Whicker, Clive James and Michael Palin. We wanted listeners to enjoy their work for what it is: still funny and engaging now in the way they intended it, but with a new layer of comedy they probably didn’t intend, provided by the passage of time.

Here’s the kind of material we had to work with:

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One of the big issues we faced, making the programme around the time of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, was how to handle Japan’s war record. We couldn’t ignore it: that war – the extreme violence, the abuse of ‘comfort women’, the maltreatment of POWs, etc – has been a big part of how postwar generations in the West have understood Japan. And in contemporary East Asia it’s not history, it’s live politics.

Anti-Japanese protests in China

Anti-Japanese protests in China, 2012

On the one hand, we wanted to acknowledge the real roots of Japan’s reputation for violence and cruelty: much POW testimony is lurid and has elements of caricature, but it’s hardly ‘misunderstanding’ – it’s hard to ‘misunderstand’ a beating or starvation rations or slave labour.

But on the other, there has been ‘misunderstanding': in the tendency to take the violence of young samurai in the 1850s and 1860s or soldiers in World War II and claim that the Japanese as a nation have an unpredictable, duplicitous, dangerous side to them.

We wanted the programme to be a provocation here: most people would be quick to disown feelings like these, but I can promise you they’re out there.

‘Misunderstanding’, then, as caricature, as selective attention, as massive generalization, and as a failure to engage successive generations and individuals on their own terms. Partly about what is observed but very much about the observer.

That includes creepy western men who spend more time than they should with videos like this:

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The same goes for outraged western feminists who can’t stand the cutesy subservience of a particular young female demographic in Japan – their anger is both totally justified and entertaining to watch as it plays out in cities like Tokyo: British women caught between being tolerant and respectful of another culture and incensed at what looks like the betrayal, on an industrial scale, of progressive ideals.

And while we didn’t want to insult the intelligence of our audience by indulging in corrective finger-wagging, we did want to hold out some hope – from two sources.

jet copy

The JET interview at New Broadcasting House. Left to right: Sarah, Charlotte, Nathaniel, Hugh (BBC producer), and yours truly

First, is a younger generation of people getting to know Japan at first hand and in a sustained way, thanks to initiatives like the JET programme.

Sarah, Charlotte, and Nathaniel took the trouble to come to the BBC to talk to us about that – sharing the inevitable early-days-in-Japan faux pas but also talking about their frustration with the rather hackneyed images of Japan still offered in our media.

The second source of hope is Japanese art forms coming West – literature, comedy, music, and anime.

If we can’t rid ourselves of our fears and fantasies about Japan, then thanks to these art forms we can at least join the Japanese in exploring theirs. Hence the final piece of music in the documentary – which, as the perfect symbol of the harmonious presenter-producer relationship, Keith and his colleagues went out of their way to license for us: Maki Otsuki’s ‘Memories’, used as the theme song for one of Japan’s greatest anime series, the pirate adventure One Piece:

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