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Culture Shock

Author: Edward J. Lincoln, Director, Center for Japan-U.S. Business and Economic Studies, New York University
June 7, 2004
Newsweek Japan

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Since the Bush administration began the buildup in the fall of 2002 for war against Iraq, Americans have been inundated with news and analysis of the Iraq situation. Recently, leading U.S. newspapers have been running three to five major articles a day related to Iraq— either reported directly from Iraq or from Washington. Television news has been the same, including extensive on-scene footage. As a result, the public has been provided a massive amount of news and analysis on which to make its voting decisions in this important presidential election year.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I arrived in Tokyo in mid-May for a three-week visit. Newspaper and television coverage of Iraq was very limited, and viewers got little sense of the continuing controversy over the Bush administration's policies. On NHK's "Ohayou Nippon" show, Iraq received only one to two minutes a day during most of the time I was in Japan. To be sure, when the two Japanese journalists were killed, the result was a couple of days of extensive reporting. But only those Japanese who regularly watch CNN or BBC get broader and deeper coverage of these events.

At one level, this experience was a humbling lesson in the differing priorities of our two societies. Because the U.S. government chose to invade Iraq, supplied virtually all the soldiers, and remains firmly in control of the postwar occupation, it is appropriate for Americans to be strongly focused on news from and about Iraq. Japan, meanwhile, has been more concerned about developments in its very close neighbor North Korea as well as domestic issues. Perhaps it was a healthy reminder to me that events in Iraq are not perceived in all parts of the world as the most important development in the opening years of the 21st century. Despite Japanese soldiers in Samawah, it can be argued that the major policy developments in Iraq are mostly an American affair, with little direct relevance to Japan.

Perhaps Americans are so absorbed with the continuing saga of Iraq that they are paying insufficient attention to the Korean crisis. But I worry that the human-interest story of the abductees and their family members that has so dominated the news in Japan has diverted public attention from the core issue with North Korea. That issue is the question of how we should react to an unpredictable government that may now possess nuclear weapons. Getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile programs is an extraordinarily difficult and important task. As devastating as the abductee story is at a human level, the fate of a dozen individuals and their family members pales in comparison to the potential destruction of human life that could result from renewed military conflict on the Korean peninsula.

Several years ago Americans allowed their views of Cuba to be skewed by a somewhat similar human-interest episode. This involved the escape to Florida of a small child whose mother died before reaching the United States and whose father was still in Cuba. The U.S. government returned the child to his father over the strong objections of other relatives in the United States. The American media frenzy over that story was quite foolish. Likewise, while the abductees are a truly tragic human-interest story, they are not a serious foreign policy issue that could affect war and peace on the Korean peninsula.

Furthermore, the Iraq story does matter to the Japanese public. Prime Minister Koizumi has been unusually outspoken among national leaders in his support for the Bush administration's policies. Koizumi has sent over 500 Japanese soldiers to Iraq, and he has decreed that they will stay on as part of the multinational force after June 30. Even though they are present to carry out humanitarian projects, they are armed soldiers present in a dangerous environment. The Japanese government is inextricably linked with the Bush administration's controversial policies.

Governments making controversial decisions— like the Bush administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq or the Koizumi government's decision to support these policies— should face a vigorous public debate. For such a debate to be well informed, the public needs the facts. With regard to Iraq, the Americans may be getting even more information than they need, but I fear that the average Japanese is getting too little.

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