Blowback from a media consumer
Letters to the Newspaper
I began writing letters-to-the-editor of The Japan Times in June 1997, a full eight years after immigrating to Japan from Canada. I had been reading the newspaper almost daily all that time, and although I had many opinions about the news and about views of the news written by other Readers in Council writers during that time, I was never motivated to write a letter myself - or, never motivated sufficiently to actually do it. But that changed in the spring of 1997 while working as an English teacher at a private boys’ junior/senior high school in Tokyo. I had been working at that particular school for four years already. There were always two of us, dispatched to the school from a middle man “dispatch” company. I enjoyed my fellow foreign teacher. By 1997 my original partner, a bright, British vegan, had left and been replaced by an American. Both my partners and I were of a similar age, attitudes and temperament. But it was the American, John, who synchronized with me more.
We had more in common. We were of a similar age, education and experience. We were both married to Japanese
women. We both read The Japan Times in the morning, and we had similar views of the news. We were both of the Tribe of Joseph, as Lucy Maude Montgomery called the tribe of kindred spirits.
Each day we arrived to work early. It was our leisure time to relax, read the paper, chat and get ready for a day of almost assembly-line teaching. We discussed the news we read and commented on/complained about the Readers in Council letters. We agreed about so much that when I complained, John complained. When I agreed, John agreed with me. So we pretty much shared our take on things. There came a time when I just couldn’t take it any more and felt I had to add my own voice to the fray to set matters aright.
“You should write a letter to the editor.”
“No, you should.”
So I did. My very first letter was published almost right away. I was happy and grossly impressed with myself. So I did it again. Then again, and so on until I knew I had found myself a new hobby. I soon took the position that I am a teacher and I have an obligation to teach the truth to these people who sometimes write such odious nonsense in the letters column. Others, of course, would later come to warn of the danger of the over-opinionated (me). I concede the point without agreeing with it, preferring instead to see myself as full of ideas and thought, and maintaining that my letters are more propositions than expositions of my opinions. After all, in Japan expressing one’s TRUE opinion is a major social faux pas.
Beware of opinionated people. I certainly come across as that to readers. But I have two things to say on that point. First, I don’t want to come across as opinionated so much as full of thought, or thoughtful. And, second, readers should not make the mistake that reading my letters reveals my beliefs to them. A letter is a form. The content of letters is somewhat swayed by the nature of its form and, truly, a good letter writer ought to be able to write an opposite viewpoint in the same form. I always said that if I wanted to I could write an opposite letter with equal, or equally-sounding conviction just as well. So don’t read too much into a letter. My success writing letters to the editor hinges on my success at accurately conforming to the form, or format: 300-words, proper identification, referencing a printed story or letter.
To those who disagree with me and complain that they are sick of seeing my name in the column - and I know that there are those - I only say that they have just as much opportunity as me to voice their ideas and get printed in the Readers in Council column. Follow the letter-submitting instructions and conform to the form. Keep to the prescribed length. Let the topic be timely. Directly quote or make reference to published stories that your letter refers or relates to. Affix your name, address, telephone number, signature and any other personal information that the newspaper says it requires (for contact and verification purposes).
In those days the paper allowed running exchanges between letter writers. In The Japan Times, with the Readers in Council letters column running only twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays (in late 2007 the format was changed to Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday letters pages and then changed once more in 2008 to Sunday/Thursday), arguments between individual letter writers, or camps of correspondents could last weeks. Occasionally, the editor stopped the exchange with a note that no more letters on a particular topic would be printed. Some names, like my own, appeared almost regularly, and maybe readers became fans, or followers, or the opposite.
Later, after the millennium, the paper changed this policy. It began to strictly limit the extent to which letter exchanges would be published and particular writers allowed to monopolize the column. Exchanges came to be limited to one rebuttal, period, and since the tendency of some writers to hog the column was being limited, it opened up the page to others with more diverse views.
In addition to my objection to Readers in Council viewpoints, I was occasionally motivated just by false news: reporting the Olympic Games as an important event; perpetuating the myth of the crime-prone foreigner, or the harmony-loving Japanese; the loveliness of haute couture fashion, or haute cuisine food, and more. The point is that Japanese are not nearly critical enough, and there is usually no contrary viewpoint expressed, or expressed adequately in the media. So in a sense it falls to foreigners living here to voice criticisms of the society and its functions, to carry out a proper debate on social issues. Certainly that does not endear us to Japanese, especially conservative Japanese, but there you have it.
I always believed that most of what people think they know is wrong. But correspondents are so foolishly serious and in earnest about what they write! But try saying that to people and you invite an argument. First, because it is not possible for us to know the true reality. Second, because once having been raised in a culture with certain precepts we tend to continue accepting the validity of those precepts throughout our lives. It is near impossible to divorce ourselves from, or to see through the social myths we are imbued with by our culture. Japanese believe their myths of the the harmonious culture, the difficulty of their language, and the crime-prone foreigner. Americans believe their myths of the goodness of their country, etc. And, third, even if we can see through our own myths the fact is that society is conservative - even liberal societies - and will operate to conserve or protect itself. That means inevitable resistance to opinions contrary to the accepted reality. That makes letter-to-the-editors, and websites and Internet blogs easy ways to fight back with pinpricks against the giant of misinformation. I want my letters to prick at and expose dishonesty, of which I think there is an inordinate amount in Japanese culture - moreso than in other cultures because of the importance of appearances here.
Sometimes I felt discouragement with the difficulty of getting a letter printed. There have been long, dry spells during which I thought I wrote some good, pithy, humorous and timely letters. But I always found that the way to get published was just not to give up writing and sending letters. Keep at it and they will make it.
My English vegan friend fancies himself a short story writer, song writer and musician and for a long time I boasted to him my success getting my ideas across to the reading public compared to his. How many people read The Japan Times? Of those, how many read the Readers in Council column? Of those, who many people read all the letters? So, how many people are exposed to my ideas? Thousands? Tens of thousans? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?
I think a letters-to-the-editor page is a natural venue for people to air complaints, hence so many letters are complaining and negative - which does not reflect well on foreign writers like me. But in reality I am very pro-Japan. Especially when I go back home to visit family I am more strongly pro-Japan than I am when I am here, where it is easy to criticize. It is nice to see the occasional positive letter of praise, and I think, “Why couldn’t I write something like that?” Very rarely I did a positive letter, but I wish I could write more positively and humorously, like what Tom Dillon does in his Married to Japan column. Writing letters is an attempt to engage in dialogue, not monologue. This may be especially true in the earlier years when my Japanese was less proficient and I was less able to engage in dialogue with anyone. Writing letters-to-the-editor was an act of reaching out for engagement. Maybe.