Thursday, March 22, 2012

Back To Its Bad Old Habits

Someone recently sent me a series of questions -- which I had better hurry up and answer (Sorry, I will get to it soon, I promise).

Anyway, one of the questions was why I air my thoughts, as disreputable as they may be, online.

I have used a lot of "waiting for the train" time to think about a concise response to that question. Hard it is, though, for over the years the answer has changed. For a while I was just trying to keep up in an informal debate-conversation with Okumura Jun and Tobias Harris -- and failing spectacularly in doing so. For a while I was posting appreciative reviews of what Japanese pundits derisively called Koizumi Theater -- and oh, what a glorious show it was!

One of the first reasons though -- and it is a decidedly bottom-dwelling, mud-sucking reason -- was to spur professional journalists into putting in an effort at the office. With what the Web was to inflict upon the journalistic profession, to have been so critical and demanding then might now be seen as my having wasted my time beating a soon to be very dead horse. However, Japan had stories to tell which were not being told, particular how scrutable its politics could be if you just gave enough of a damn to identify who the players were and what they were after.

A particular cause of worry, even before I began writing online, was the quality of political reporting on Japan by The Economist. As the newspaper of the smart, or at least smarter, set, it had a special status in the global discussion of world events. Reading its political pieces on Japan, and knowing them to be misleading, made me concerned that all of its political reporting was similarly unreliable. In the days before Tim Berners-Lee's baby bounced out of its crib at CERN, and one had a limited budget, pretty much all one would ever read regarding the politics of many countries was what was printed in The Economist. If The Paper misrepresented the political and social landscape of this blessed land, what did I or any reader know of any other country's politics and society?

For the longest time, however, The Economist has been a faithful friend, even when the views in its articles have not hewn to my own. The anonymous authors did their homework (like making sure London got the names of the politicians spelled correctly) and treated their sources here like they would sources at home, with skepticism.

Hence my nearly going into coronary arrest at this most recent article.

The 21st-century samurai
Good and bad ways to revive Japan’s national spirit

MITSUKO SHIMOMURA is an unlikely steward of old-fashioned Japanese values. First, as a woman who was a trail-blazing foreign correspondent in the 1980s, she does not quite fit the samurai mould. Second, with a pink mobile phone and Louis Vuitton handbag, she unambiguously belongs to the modern world.

Ms Shimomura is fed up with Japan’s drift, however. Most of its leaders are weak, and the country has lost its national spirit, she says. Politics is in a state of paralysis, but, as she acidly puts it: “You get the politics you deserve.” The Japanese she most looks up to is her friend Kazuo Inamori, founder of Kyocera, an industrial-ceramics company based in Kyoto, who has recently applied what he calls his Buddhist management philosophy to bring Japan Airlines back from bankruptcy. Like Mr Inamori, Ms Shimomura has established a juku, a kind of academy whose roots date back to the 17th century, in order to revive Confucian and Buddhist values. She says she wants to put some spine back into the Japanese people.

Her type of juku is different from Japan’s ubiquitous cramming schools of the same name. Students as young as 15 or as old as 80 come to her home in Fukushima prefecture, where they practise Zen meditation, discuss oriental philosophy and end the day—in one Japanese rite that thankfully endures—with several glasses of sake. Mr Inamori’s juku is more exclusive: he mostly takes in business-owners. Someone has called it “McKinsey in the lotus position”, but that probably sells it short. Every day at Japan Airlines workers chant parts of a white book of Mr Inamori’s management thinking.


Mr Matsushita would be “so disappointed in heaven” if he knew how shallow-minded his protégés had become, Ms Shimomura laments. Her type of juku may be more promising. On March 11th she challenged her students to gather before dawn on the windswept shore 30 miles (48km) south of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant to remember the tsunami. They were asked simply to hold hands and pray quietly. As many as 1,800 people, including this correspondent, turned up. It ended in a reflective journey home, after a drink of sweet sake. Japanese values at their best.

What in Amaterasu's name is this? Inflight magazine writing? And who the %&#&!* is Shimomura Mitsuko?

Well, what does a little poking about the Web reveal?

- She is from Fukushima, probably Koriyama.

- She has a B.A. in Economics from Keio and a M.A. in Economics from NYU.

- She is a former journalist and editor for The Asahi Shimbun group.

- She is on the boards of more organizations and corporations than she could likely name, much less steward.

- She is fabulously wealthy. Come on, she has own juku.

- She, Hatoyama Yuki (former prime minister Hatoyama Yukio's wife), Hosokawa Kayoko (former prime minister Hosokawa Morihiro's wife) and music critic Yukawa Reiko are a singing quartet. They call themselves "the Swan Sisters" (I am not making this up. I wish I were but I am not).

- Her Wikipedia page is composed almost entirely of insults of her journalistic and editorial skills by journalist-icon Tachibana Takashi.

- After retiring from journalism, she became the chairman of the 120 year-old Zaidanhojin Nihonkenbikyoin. No, it is not, as one would guess from the name, the Japan Institute of Microscopy. It is instead a hospital and medical testing group, with an extraordinarily expensive taste in real estate. Shimomura-san succeeded her mother as head of the organization. Her mother had succeeded her husband. The current chairman seems to be Shimomura's younger brother, a former Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ Banker.

- She was a director of the Asian Women's Fund (uh-oh).

- She is a member of the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan (ahhhhh...).

What about this juku of hers?

Anyone can join, if he or she pays the 25,000 yen fee for the 6 full day sessions to be held over a half year. Yes, for an extra fee, you can party into the night with Shimomura-san (Photos here).

Unfortunately the new member will have missed session I and II but he or she can still get in on session III, which takes place on April 21 and features...talks and a concert by the Swan Sisters! (I am not making this up.)

Now somehow she talked the Dalai Lama's handlers into having His Holiness swing by Koriyama last year to speak at an event organized by her group. So membership in her juku is not without its privileges.

So if you are interested, here is the link.

I know that The Economist's excellent economics writer Kenneth Cukier is headed to London. I am not sure whether or not his move is what The Asahi Shimbun is talking about in its article on the travails of the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan (E).

You can guess who I think should be going to London instead.


Anonymous said...

I gave you a critical poke several years ago concerning the glee with which you bashed Martin Fackler. Lately I have regretted that and this column gives me the opportunity to apologize. Please keep up the good fight!
The Swan Sisters. OMG.

Joe said...

You know, Dave Barry often says in his articles, "I swear I am not making this up."

MTC said...

Joe -

Mr. Barry is a very, very funny man.