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BBC please, we’re Japanese October 24, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Culture, Japan.
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Female wota, where art thou? Not in the BBC doc that’s for sure.

Over the last week or so there have been a number of articles about Japan, its declining population and, as one of the reasons for that, the Japanese people’s attitudes to sex. These are linked to a BBC documentary, ‘No sex please, we’re Japanese‘ that aired tonight (if you’re in the UK or *coughproxycough* watch it on iPlayer here). While I’m always pleased to see coverage of Japan on our flagship broadcaster, the way some of this has been handled by the crew left me somewhat bemused and despairing.

It’s not that the programme itself is bad on the whole. On the contrary, it makes an effort to cover many of the important points in the topic, such as the changing attitudes of men and women, Japan’s economy, the problems caused by an ageing population and the Japanese attitude to immigration. Particularly in the second half, it offers some thoughtful and interesting insights, visiting a prison for over 60s, an immigrant Philippino nurse, a Japanese-American economist, and some eye-catchingly desolate ghost-towns in rural areas long abandoned due to changing industries and the migration of young people seeking work. There’s certainly enough to make a viewer think and catch a good glimpse of the perfect storm that’s approaching Japan – one every bit as worrying to the government as the constant threat of natural disasters.

Yet, such good work is almost (almost) completely undone by some lazy foreigner-in-Japan and sweeping ‘look at the freaks!’ reporting. When making serious and considered narration, the script and presenter Anita Rani’s delivery is fine. But when she’s out and about the attempts at ‘fun colour’ are just plain annoying and, frankly, rather offensive. At the lighter end of the scale, remarks like “I think we’d all agree Japanese babies are the cutest” and prancing about with retired cheerleaders can be forgiven for silly gaijin naiveté. I can even forgive the pseudo-Lost In Translation music an imagery at the end. But the implicit disdain of otaku culture in the Akihabara sections I cannot. Obviously, I take issue as someone who identifies with that community, but the programme makes no effort to dial down its judgemental tone when meeting a couple of Love+ fans, contrasting completely the more objective tone adopted when later discussing immigration or the economy. It’s all very well to see these bits as light colour, but front-loading the programme with these throwaway sections – and literally blaming otaku culture – or rather male otaku – for the declining birthrate (even going so far as to say that the ‘silly Japanese should just pull their finger out, grow up and start making babies for the sake of the nation’ – not in those exact words, but almost in those exact words) is a bit of a step too far. Who are you as visiting Westerners to offer such an opinion?

I don’t expect the whole programme to focus on otaku for the sake of balance, but it wouldn’t have taken much to film some of the female wota clearly in evidence in Akiba itself and much more in force in Otome Alley in Ikebukuro. Admittedly the majority of Japanese otaku are indeed male, but that’s to ignore the significant number that are female. Where were the yaoi lovers in this segment? And where was the coverage of ‘herbivore’ men and parasite singles? Or Japanese womens’ attitudes to men (at least covered in this article The Guardian and even the Huffington Post, even if the latter blew one survey’s results completely out of proportion). The BBC team did at least have a few minutes on Japanese career women, though this was rushed in order to segue into Japan’s lack of family allowances.

Overall, the programme, and the coverage around it, has been interesting and brought this issue – and Japan – into the UK media spotlight this week. I just find it disappointing that some good work on a good subject ended up tainted by some lazy point-the-finger reporting.