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Number 1 Shimbun


NUMBER 1 SHIMBUN 2016 (116)

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January 2016 (10)
January 2016



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January 2016


2015 by the Numbers

Monkeying Around:
FCCJ Correspondents Predict the Year Ahead

Listening with Pen and Paper
A deaf mother and politician is breaking new ground . . . by Sonja Blaschke


Profile: Stefano Carrer
 The Il Sole 24 Ore correspondent . . . by Tyler Rothmar


Into the Valley of the Trolls
Is online harassment just part of the job? . . . by David McNeill

 Pakkun's View from the Inside
Stories from a gaijin talento . . . by Julian Ryall

A Messy Maul for Japan's Rugby PR
Eddie Jones' last words in Japan . . . by Fred Varcoe

Exhibition: Art is Mirror Reflecting Nature
 by Taiyo Keita


From the President    Suvendrini Kakuchi    

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New Members/New books in the library


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February 2016 (10)
February 2016



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February 2016
From the Archives:

by Charles Pomeroy

Collections: David Bowie in Japan

I Testified for Sankei in a Seoul Courtroom

by Donald Kirk


The Many Lives of Yuri Kageyama
The veteran AP reporter has a multifaceted creative side . . . by Tim Hornyak

Profile: Gregory Clark
 Former diplomat and journalist tells his own story . . . by Gavin Blair

U.S. Military Newspaper Still Publishing in Japan
The Stars & Stripes meets the emperor . . . by Mark Schreiber

 In Need of a Career Boost?
Some tips on fellowships and other funding . . . by James Simms

Exhibition: Into the Heart of the Arctic
 by Yoichi Yabe


From the President    Suvendrini Kakuchi    

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New Members/New books in the library

Statement by the so-called "Ex-Presidents" Group


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March 2016 (11)
March 2016



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March 2016
From the Archives:
Sadako Ogata, Humanist Extraordinaire

by Charles Pomeroy

Collections: Fukushima by the Numbers

Life Behind Walls
How massive slabs of concrete affect Tohoku communities . . . by Sonja Blaschke

Return of a Perilous Beauty
The state of reconstruction as seen by a local resident . . . by Charles Pomeroy

Is Coal the Answer to Japan's Nuclear Aversion?
 What's behind the mad rush to old fuel . . . by Gavin Blair

When the Big One Comes
Tokyo's earthquake manual . . . by Geoff Tudor

 Fukushima Students Turn to Science, Shun Hysteria
Kids take research into their own hands . . . by Julian Ryall

 Profile: Shiuan Sheng Fang
by Suvendrini Kakuchi


Exhibition: Road to Recovery, Five Years & Counting
by Shinpei Kikuchi



From the President    Suvendrini Kakuchi    

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April 2016 (9)
April 2016



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April 2016
From the Archives:
Neil Armstrong: The Eagle Has Landed

by Charles Pomeroy

Is Twitter for the Birds?
How journalists can use (or be used by) the ubiquitous SNS . . . by Richard Smart

The government's game of chicken with the media . . . by David McNeill

Profile: Anna Fifield
 The Washington Post's Tokyo correspondent . . . by Lucy Alexander

Rewind: Looking Back with Our Favorite Local Cinema
The Club's Film Committee marches on . . . by Karen Severns

 Journalism in Flux: The Global View
A panel of ex-Tokyo correspondents take the stage . . . by Justin McCurry

Exhibition: Color Harmony Kataezome Art by Shinpei Kikuchi


From the President    Suvendrini Kakuchi    

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May 2016 (9)
May 2016


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May 2016
From the Archives:
Kiichi Miyazawa's Travails

by Charles Pomeroy

Kyushu Earthquakes by the Numbers

Wreckage . . . and Recovery
Photographs in the wake of the Kyushu earthquakes

State of the Art
 An FCCJ photography roundtable  . . . by Tim Hornyak

A portfolio of FCCJ Member's photographs

 Profile: Bob Kirschenbaum
The founder of photo agency PPS . . . by Bob Neff

Exhibition: Ise Jingu and the Origins of Japan 
by Miori Inata


From the President    Suvendrini Kakuchi    

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June 2016 (11)
June 2016



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June 2016
From the Archives:
The Digital Duo

by Charles Pomeroy

Climate Change and Japan



Fighting Back
New skills are needed by today's journalists . . . by William Horsley

South Korea's Internet Crackdown
 Journalist's court fight with the censors . . . by Julian Ryall

Standing Tall
Japan's most fearless publications . . . by Gavin Blair

The State vs. the Japanese Press
UN rapporteur finds lack of independence . . . by Justin McCurry

Profile: Said Karlsson
by Tyler Rothmar

Flotsam, Jetsam and Uncle Sam
Taisho-era con men . . . by Peter O'Connor


A Tale of Too Many Cities
Yubari's Mayor has a problem . . . by Dan Sloan



Exhibition: Forest  photographs by Hisashi Mochizuki


From the President    Suvendrini Kakuchi    

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July 2016 (10)
July 2016



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July 2016
From the Archives:
"The Greatest" in Action

by Charles Pomeroy

When the World Was Watching

Behind the scenes at the G7 summit . . . by our correspondents

Profile: Lucy Alexander
 A free-lance journalist on and changing roles . . . by Tyler Rothmar

My Two (Foster) Sons
A volunteer parent on her experience . . . by Caroline Parsons

Rescue Squad
Fixers with a focus on Tohoku . . . by Lucy Birmingham

The Mogul and the Japanese Media . . . by Mark Schreiber

Exhibition: On the Water  photographs by Rai Shizuno

From the President   
Peter Langan  

Club News 

New Members/New books in the library



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August 2016 (8)
August 2016


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August 2016
71 Years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki

What's the Fuss?

BuzzFeed wants to shake up Japan's media . . . by Richard Smart

The "Feeling a Little Bit Better" Election
 An analysis of the recent upper house election . . . by Michael Cucek

Profile: Martin Hladik
Former kayaker turned photographer . . . by Andrew Pothecary

Death by Firing Range
A 1957 military crime and the uproar around it . . . by Mark Schreiber

Lessons of the Dhaka Tragedy
What we can learn from it . . . by Monzurul Huq

Seeking to Create a "Normal" Nation
Defending the Nippon Kaigi . . . by Julian Ryall

Exhibition: Kao
photographs by Shintaro Shiratori

From the President   
Peter Langan  

New Members/New books in the library


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September 2016 (7)
September 2016


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September 2016
Disability in Japan

From the Archives:
Ted Kennedy, "Lion of the Senate," visits Hiroshima
Charles Pomeroy

The proposed plan for the new home of the FCCJ
The first look at what might be in store in 2018

Profile: Hans Greimel

Reporting on Japan's auto industry . . . by Julian Ryall

Whatever happened to the Panama Papers?
The follow-up to the uproar seems relatively tame . . . by Gavin Blair

Exhibition: FantaSea
photographs by Sachi Murai

From the President   
Peter Langan  

New Members/New books in the library


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October 2016 (9)
October 2016


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October 2016
Newsprint Numbers

From the Archives: "Doomsday" Cold Warrior and Futurist Herman Kahn
by Charles Pomeroy

The Independent, RIP
A eulogy by a former stringer . . . by David McNeill

The Future of the Media is You(Tube)
There's a huge audience for Japan vloggers . . . by Richard Smart

Newsflash or False News: The Abdication of Emperor Hirohito
Political games and media manipulation in postwar Japan . . . by Eiichiro Tokumoto

Profile: Robin Harding
The FT's Man in Japan . . . by Gavin Blair


From Russia with Love
Looking back at a fascinating life . . . by Geoff Tudor


Exhibition: Tsukiji Fish Market
photographs by Shun Kato

From the President   
Peter Langan  

New Members/New books in the library


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November 2016 (11)
November 2016


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November 2016
Childcare Numbers

From the Archives:
"Le Bulldozer" visits the Club
by Charles Pomeroy

The Troublesome Task of Covering Kim
Reporting on North Korea . . . by Andy Sharp

Behind the negotiations for the Kuril Islands
A history of confusion and obfuscation . . . by Gregory Clark

Profile: Motoko Rich
The new bureau chief of the New York Times . . . by Tim Hornyak

Beyond the Nobels
Japan has its own share of science prizes . . . by Jerry Matsumura

Red-light Reading Matter
A new bookstore opens in Yoshiwara . . . by Mark Schreiber

Turning Down the Heat
Sir David King's press conference . . . by Julian Ryall

The People and the Forest

photographs by Yasuo Ota

From the President    Khaldon Azhari 

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December 2016 (10)
December 2016



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December 2016

The battle for press freedom on Okinawa
The struggle continues . . . by Jon Mitchell

Profile: Ken Moritsugu
AP Tokyo's bureau chief . . . by Tyler Rothmar

 The making of a Twitter documentary: The last wish of Mr. Hata
Using a short form media for an in-depth story . . . by Ian Thomas Ash


An evening with Donald Keene
One of Japan's most cherished authors visits the Club . . . by Suvendrini Kakuchi

Behind bars in Iraq
A journalist returns with his story . . . by Julian Ryall

No sympathy for Park's pickle
A former Seoul bureau chief on the South Korean president . . . by Julian Ryall


photographs by Akihito Yoshida

From the President    Khaldon Azhari


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Into the Valley of the Trolls


Is growing online harassment just part of the job or should it be confronted? And when does it cross the line?

by David McNeill


or most correspondents, it has become an unpleasant morning ritual: opening the laptop and wading through abusive tweets and mail. One of my recent articles, on Japan’s plunging press-freedom rankings provoked this response: “You’re anti-Japanese scum. Japan grows weaker because left-wing traitors here mix with the likes of you. Get out, moron.”

That’s mild compared to the slurs that percolate on the Twitter feeds of star reporters. Hiroko Tabuchi, former Tokyo correspondent for the New York Times, recalls a stream of invective laced with sexual and ethnic smears (see sidebar).Justin McCurry, Tokyo correspondent for the Guardian has been branded an “ultra-leftist North Korean spy” and repeatedly invited to “Fack off.”

Many reporters trudge the path taken by McCurry, from engagement to frustration, and resignation. “I have tried several different ways to deal with trolls, from snapping back to taking the time to dream up what, in my mind at least, is a rejoinder so withering that it will surely be the final word on the matter. It never is, of course.” Increasingly, he says, he reaches for the Twitter mute button: When trolls send an abusive message now “they are simply pissing into cyberspace.”


Cyber abuse is a serious issue, notes a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review. “There’s far from any kind of consensus on how to deal with it and what journalists’ roles are,” says the author


But McCurry says it’s important to understand the difference between legitimate criticism and trolling. “I’ve had my share of critical emails, tweets and Facebook postings,” he says. “When the point is made in a temperate manner and, more importantly, with a real name attached, I take in what has been said and, if necessary, respond. But I regard this as reader feedback, not trolling.”

Cyber abuse is a serious issue, notes a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review. “There’s far from any kind of consensus on how to deal with it and what journalists’ roles are,” says author Lene Bech Sillesen. Law enforcement struggles to deal with the proliferation of anonymous online harassment. Platform providers often “suck” at dealing with trolls, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo memorably admitted this year.

Increasingly, the consensus seems to be shifting toward confrontation. The Review cites a growing genre of stories about unmasking trolls. In the Swedish TV show Troll Hunters, journalist Robert Aschberg tracks down and confronts offenders on camera. “It’s a huge problem,” says Aschberg, “and it’s no different from exposing, let’s say, corrupt politicians, or thieves.”

THE RISE OF THE troll, and the shifting terrain it represents in our networked society, is a particular dilemma for journalists. For decades, virtually the only rejoinder available to print readers was the carefully moderated letters page, but the internet has opened up multiple channels of feedback. Many bloggers view journalists as fair game because they are public figures.

Inevitably, the result is a steady river of bile, but most journalists are understandably wary of trying to block it. As Martin Fackler, a former Tokyo bureau chief of the New York Times notes: “You’re walking a fine line. Journalists dish out criticism, and need to take it with the same grace. Otherwise, we look hypocritical. And we need to support freedom of speech, even for our critics.”

In practice, most journalists follow Fackler in not feeding the trolls, and many don’t even block them to avoid the providing the veneer of cyber-street cred. Fackler, who says he has yet to block any troll accounts, advocates only shutting down those that cross boundaries of decency. “Short of that, I think everyone deserves the same freedom of speech that we demand in our own work.”

Where, however, do these boundaries lie? Perhaps the only line everyone agrees on is the one dividing incivility from threats of violence.


In one of about 300 YouTube messages he declares: “Every university, every academic, every nuclear scientist will be hunted down and fucking murdered.


The debate is about to get a legal airing in North America in a case that involves reporting on Japan’s nuclear accident. As most correspondents are only too aware, Fukushima has triggered terabytes of outraged online commentary by anti-nuclear activists alleging a cover-up by the establishment media. Some have attacked journalists and experts, and at least one, Dana Durnford, has threatened the lives of two scientists: Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and Jay Cullen of the University of Victoria (British Columbia).

Durnford used Facebook, YouTube and other social media to reach a large audience with a disturbing – and deluded - message: much of the Pacific Ocean is dying from the impact of Fukushima’s payload. Scientists who disagreed were “mass murderers.” In one of about 300 YouTube messages he declares: “Every university, every academic, every nuclear scientist will be hunted down and fucking murdered. We want you dead.” Ironically, Buesseler agrees that governments and journalists have done a poor job of documenting the impact of radiation. But there came a point where he felt enough was enough.

“I can put up with being called a liar,” he says. “Lots of people don’t agree on radiation. But when you get these threats to thousands of followers, it became a bit cult-like. We counted four death threats.” Buesseler and Cullen called in the authorities and Durnford has been charged with two counts of criminal harassment. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he claims he is being silenced and has appealed to his followers for money to pay legal costs.

Buesseler insists that the abuse had to be confronted. Durnford has been forced to expunge his videos and commentary from the Net. “In the short term it has brought more attention to him and has taken a lot of time and energy to deal with – but it has slowed him down,” he says. “I can see the reluctance to tackling it head-on but these people need to be told that there are rules against threatening people for doing science.”

SUCH EXTREME EXAMPLES ARE rare. For most correspondents, the problem is limited to irritating but mostly harmless nitpicking. Still, popular Twitter accounts (one attacking the FCCJ and specific journalists recently boasted 18,000 followers) can creep up Google searches, leaving freelancers more vulnerable. As Michael Penn of Shingetsu News Agency says: “Anyone searching my name on Google in either English or in Japanese is going to find this garbage among the top results.”

Female journalists are particularly vulnerable, says the NYT’s Tabuchi. “Trolls elicit eye-rolling from our male colleagues and advice to ‘just ignore them,’ rather than any acknowledgement that this is a critically serious and deep-rooted problem that’s threatening to silence prominent female voices online.” Michelle Ferrier, an African-American journalist, felt strongly enough about her harassment to create Trollbusters, a platform that allows women suffering from online harassment “to type in the URL of an offensive message in order to locate the troll,” according to the International Journalists’ Network.

Still, says Ferrier, the best advice for journalists being insulted – but not threatened – is to often simply step away from the computer. Trolls are simply not worth bothering about.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT: Correspondents weigh in

Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times correspondent formerly based in Tokyo: “I talked to several journalists I respected for advice on the harassment I was receiving, and was basically advised to ignore, grin and bear it. I think the (let’s be honest, basically still white male-dominated) world of foreign media in Japan has very little understanding of how sick, personal, and sexual online attacks on women can be – in a way they usually aren’t for men. Being a local journalist also means there is little escape. I was personally very disillusioned by the lack of any collective rage or even public support among the foreign journalist community for female journalists (not just me) who were publicly harassed online.”

Julian Ryall, the Telegraph: “I’m firmly in the ‘ignore them and hope to hell they go away’ faction. I just have too much to do to start a conversation with someone who, firstly, almost certainly has plenty of time on their hands – they’re unemployed (for good reason), they’re students of the issue I’ve written about and want to nit-pick over a 300-word article that I’ve written, or they’re some sad foreigner who has lived in the middle of nowhere in Japan for 20 years and assume that gives them the right to pontificate about all things Japanese and to tell everyone how much more intelligent they are than anyone else. The desk in London tells us to basically ignore the comments section on the bottom of stories. I get the impression they’re there to generate traffic and keep people coming back.”

Michael Penn, Shingetsu News Agency: “I agree that smaller trolls should be ignored. However, certain trolls have gained large followings and can wield an uncomfortable degree of public influence. When confronted by one of these more formidable trolls, simply remaining silent can eventually become a counterproductive strategy. It is a regrettable fact that a certain percentage of people tend to view dignified silence in the face of public accusations as some kind of an admission of guilt. If you are holding a position in which public perceptions about you can have a significant effect on your career or status, you simply have to defend yourself publicly in these cases, though different opponents may call for varied strategies to counter them.”

Teddy Jimbo, “I’ve been in this business for a long time so the abuse doesn’t bother me any more, unless there are physical threats to me, my family or staffers. It’s just toilet graffiti and people give it too much attention because they don’t know how to deal with it. Shutting down abusers works in one way, however: instead of sitting back and just bearing the attacks, you do something and feel better. It makes it easier to cope.”

Tim Hornyak: “Because of the endless torrent of stupidity and abuse online, comments on news sites are on the way out. They’ve been eliminated at sites like Popular Science, Reuters, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Beast, CNN and others. More and more people are recognizing that there’s little value in allowing anonymous users on websites and social media. I expect the online landscape will move toward more of a Facebook-style basis of real names for dialogue as it matures.”


David McNeill writes for the Independent, the Economist and other publications. He has been based in Tokyo since 2000.



Profile: Stefano Carrer


Watching recent developments in Japan, this Italian correspondent sees parallels with his own country.

by Tyler Rothmar


tefano Carrer, who is from a small town in northern Italy between Milan and Lake Como, was born to middle-class parents in the early 1960s. In his youth he threw himself into a study of ancient Greek, “a very beautiful language, but a luxury. I regret not studying German,” he says.

He knew early on that he wanted to be a journalist, and made his choices accordingly: “I never wanted to make much money, I just didn’t want to do repetitive things. And maybe I was idealistic. I wanted to contribute, to spread news. And so I thought it would be good for my journalistic aspirations to have a background in law.” He took a law degree from the University of Milan, and a Master of Journalism at around the same time from the Institute for Journalism of Milan.

The beginning of his career in journalism was marked by encounters with two men who went on to become among the best-known Italians in the world. At the tail end of a year of compulsory military service, Carrer joined a lifestyle magazine focused on horse riding. His first assignment was to travel to the countryside with a photographer named Tiberti, who he later learned was a member of Operation Gladio, a clandestine “stay-behind” NATO operation for armed resistance in the event of a Russian invasion of Italy.


The beginning of his career in journalism was marked by encounters with two men who went on to become among the best-known Italians in the world.


Together they drove to Tuscany, near Siena, to write about a blind young horseman known for terrorizing the countryside on his steed. Carrer’s editor later titled the piece “I See with the Eyes of my Horse,” and it became the first time that Andrea Bocelli, now a legendary opera singer, made the national press. “Bocelli gave me some tapes of his singing that I passed on to a music company in Milan,” he remembers.

The tapes were instrumental in Bocelli’s discovery, and Carrer still has the tenor’s letter of thanks. The remarkable story is capped off by the fact that Carrer was hired at the magazine by none other than Pierluigi Collina, a frustrated media company manager who later quit and went on to become the single most recognizable soccer referee in the world, officiating the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup final between Brazil and Germany.

Carrer traveled to New York to join the large community of Italian journalists there and was soon stringing for Il Sole 24 Ore, a large Italian financial daily rivaled only by the Financial Times. His first trip to Japan in 1991 was as a freelance international courier, a wonderful way to globetrot in which one called a number and chose a destination, paying perhaps $75 for a round-trip ticket in exchange for transporting documents and no checked luggage. Unfortunately, the system came to an end after 9/11.

He continued to write for Il Sole 24 Ore after returning to Italy, officially joining in 1993 to cover international finance and commodities. From 2000, Carrer’s reporting was increasingly Asia-oriented, and he became the de facto Asia correspondent from 2006 to 2009.

Carrer was based in Italy but on vacation in Tokyo when the triple disaster struck in March 2011, and he extended his stay to cover the unfolding events in Tohoku and Tokyo. “I noticed that Japanese authorities were not particularly efficient in the first few days. Japan works best when the situation is under control, when the dimensions of the disaster are known and resources can be allocated according to an understanding of the big picture,” he says.

One week after 3/11, Carrer found himself being contacted for comment by other international news outlets, as not a few reporters had repaired to Osaka to do their jobs. His interviewers, in search of panicked on-the-ground reporting, were disappointed by his calm answers and cut things short. “In one interview I told them, ‘The only thing I am at risk of here so far is getting fat from the strange vending-machine drinks until more water arrives.’”


Carrer taught himself video journalism on the fly, both shooting and editing, and has made more than 400 short videos in two years


Carrer wonders what life as a foreign correspondent might have been like in the pre-internet age, given the time lag and the mechanics of filing a story in those days. To keep up with the demands of modern journalism, and to find an outlet for reporting that doesn’t make it to the printed page, Carrer taught himself video journalism on the fly, both shooting and editing, and has made more than 400 short videos in two years that can be seen on the “Pianeta Giappone” section of Il Sole’s website. They cover a wide range of topics, from culture to politics and finance.

As Il Sole 24 Ore’s East Asia Correspondent since April 2013, Carrer has been watching recent developments in Japan with great interest, and sees parallels with his own country: “Italy is constitutionally committed to repudiation of war as a means to solve international disputes,” he says. “But with our Italian planes, we ended up bombing Baghdad, Belgrade, Tripoli. We were dragged into counterproductive foreign wars by our allies, only to realize later that it was against our national interest. I worry that Japan may also lose the way to stay out of conflict that has until now served its national interest well.”

As this interview at the Club wound down, Carrer insisted on visiting the hallway leading to the elevators. “I’m impressed by Mishima, and of course by Kenzaburo Oe,” he says, indicating the portraits of past visitors. “But here! . . . maybe the most important guest of the FCCJ’s last 70 years: Roberto Baggio!”

Tyler Rothmar is a Tokyo-based writer and editor.


Listening with Pen and Paper


As Japan prepares for the 2020 Paralympics, a deaf ex-hostess and single mother turned politician is striving for a "barrier-free" Tokyo

by Sonja Blaschke


n a nondescript narrow meeting room in the Kita Ward city hall, a young assemblywoman sits erect on one end of the sofa. Her demeanor is friendly, albeit with a hint of insecurity, and it’s hard to fault her for this. Only nine months ago, 31-year-old Rie Saito became the ward’s first deaf assemblywoman, and she’s the first to admit that she has yet to get completely comfortable in her role.

She describes her strength as being “good at listening to people’s hearts.” She has no choice, really, because Saito has been unable to hear ever since she came down with meningitis just before turning 2 years old. The brain infection left her as one of about 340,000 people with a hearing disability in Japan. It didn’t have any effect on her ambition, however, neither deterring her from pursuing a lucrative career as one of Tokyo’s top hostesses, nor from successfully entering politics in April 2015.

An interview with Saito today is far from a silent affair. While she prefers to give her answers in writing, she is also adept at voicing her opinions. Becoming familiar with her way of speaking takes some time – her intonation is quite different from that of a hearing person, and she cannot pronounce some letters, like “s.”


When Saito speaks, it is with a visible effort to produce words with clarity, which are accompanied with frequent gestures.


“In the beginning we conversed with one another via the computer, even though we sat facing each other,” recalls her secretary, Ryo Masuzawa. He has been working with Saito since her election victory at the end of April 2015, and has become her second voice: for the sake of the interviewer he repeats many of her answers slowly and clearly, sometimes repeats questions very slowly so that she can lip-read and other times types comments into her computer.

When Saito speaks, it is with a visible effort to produce words with clarity, which are accompanied with frequent gestures. Her movements are not shuwa, Japanese sign language, however, which she only knows on a beginner’s level. There are two ways of thinking on educating the deaf in Japan: One method is to have children attend special schools and learn sign language. The one that her parents followed believes in schooling deaf children like regular children, which is why Saito learned to read lips.

SAITO’S ELECTION SUCCESS WAS revolutionary. But her disability was not the only reason. People who only know her in her present mode of conservative costume, neat bob and modest make-up might not be able to picture her as she was just a few short years ago.

Saito’s life has been anything but straightforward. Frustrated by the discrimination she faced as a deaf child in Aomori, she became a rebellious teenager: She began smoking and drinking at an early age, and was even caught shoplifting. She left high school before graduation. Eventually, her attractive looks helped her gain work as a hostess, pouring drinks and entertaining male customers. In 2007, Saito moved to Tokyo, where she became a top hostess in Ginza.

The hostess industry is an unforgiving one, and listening skills are considered key. Saito resorted to writing down her thoughts with an elegant fountain pen. Luckily, calligraphy lessons had given her beautiful handwriting, and Saito soon had a lot of regular customers.


Her autobiography Hitsudan Hostess (“The hostess with a pen”), published in 2009 by Kobunsha, became a bestseller.


While in her mid-twenties, the unmarried Saito gave birth to a daughter, who she is now raising as a single mother. It was another challenge that she faced in Japan, a country in which 98 percent of the children are born within wedlock.

One would think that just one of the factors that labeled Saito as an “outsider” would be enough to stymie a political career in a society that cherishes uniformity. But despite all that, Saito has made it to the mainstream of Japanese society, perhaps precisely because her story strays so far from the typical path. Her autobiography Hitsudan Hostess (“The hostess with a pen”), published in 2009 by Kobunsha, became a bestseller. That, in turn, inspired a TV drama and a manga based on Saito’s life story.

Then, after eight years of working as a hostess, Saito left her job. While continuing to write, she became active in campaigning for and supporting other disabled people. She began to realize that there was only so much she could do as a regular citizen, and an acquaintance encouraged her to run in the local elections. Saito agreed – and took another step in her unusual life.

Japan’s strict election laws make things even more challenging for the disabled. The ban on the distribution of flyers and documents forces candidates to rely on speeches – a distinct disadvantage for Saito. But she excelled at the frequent meet and greets, and her life story seemed to help: Some voters told her that they had read her book and cheered her on. Others, she believes, could identify with her being a single working mother struggling to raise a child. She was elected with over 6,000 votes, far more than any of her 50 fellow candidates.

Saito’s success, she believes, is part of a sea change. “In Japan,” she says, “diversity is becoming much more accepted.” Japanese society has become more open and diverse in the last few decades – something that applies not only to fashionistas or foreigners, but also to people with a disability, like Saito.

WHILE THERE IS STILL progress to be made, Japan has come a long way from being a country where disabled people were locked up out of sight from society. Until 1948, children with hearing disabilities were not required to attend school. And it was only in 1973 that deaf people were finally allowed to obtain a regular driver’s license, provided they were using a hearing aid.

The new regulations did not apply, for example, to bus and taxi licenses, thereby limiting the choices of work for the disabled. But even that will soon be rectified. An amendment to be implemented from April will allow deaf people to obtain any type of driver’s license. Masashi Matsumoto, director at the Japanese Federation of the Deaf (JFD), welcomed the planned revision. “We will tackle an enlightenment campaign to have people understand that there is no problem with hearing-aid users’ driving,” he said in an interview with Kyodo News.

Deaf people faced discrimination in many other aspects of life as well. Until 1979, in fact, they were legally regarded as quasi-incompetent persons, i.e. comparable, for example, to people with a mental disability. As a consequence, their rights were severely limited: they could not get a loan, buy property or succeed the family business. It was only after pressure from the JFD that the Civil Code was changed to give them equal rights.


Communicating change
Rie Saito in discussion with her secretary Ryo Masuzawa.


Now, in the run-up to Tokyo’s hosting of the 2020 Paralympics, Saito has vowed to make not only the city, but also the hearts of its citizens “barrier free.” “This would make life for everybody easier, especially the elderly,” she says.

Disabled people are still quite rare in Japan’s political arena. But about the same time as Rie Saito’s election win, another deaf woman was elected to a local parliament in Hyogo prefecture. Saito interprets this as yet another sign of change.

HER PRESENCE HAS ALREADY resulted in visible changes in the halls of power. Her office was outfitted with a colored lamp indicating the presence of a visitor. The assembly chamber was also technically enhanced. Saito can now give her required speeches using software that audibly reads out her words, a system that she finds very workable.

“Hearing” what other people say, she says, has been more problematic. Voice recognition software displays on a tablet PC the words spoken by other legislators at the microphone. However, the error level of the system, especially during discussion sessions, can at times exceed 50 percent. In those cases, ward office staff sit next to Saito and jot down what the speakers say on a piece of paper.


The feeling of being obliged to her voters weighs far more heavily than any fears of stumbling. “I want to work hard and deliver results,” she says.


The technological inroads used to help Saito’s disability have also been revolutionary, as legislatures throughout Japan ban technical devices, including mobile phones. Now, for what is likely the first time in Japan, not only Saito but all legislators are free to use PCs in Kita Ward’s assembly. And deaf citizens who wish to attend public meetings can now borrow the devices. Saito has become a symbol, and her secretary says that whenever it is her turn to address the public at the assembly, around a dozen deaf people show up.

For the time being, Saito seems much more challenged by the demands of her new work environment than by disability-related hurdles of communication. Many of the routines of a legislative year are new to her. She has struggled with some of the professional lingo, but she says she receives a lot of understanding and support from her fellow legislators.

She also draws strength and courage from her voters: “We need people like you (in office), who live with a disability,” is something she often heard during campaigning. The feeling of being obliged to her voters weighs far more heavily than any fears of stumbling. “I want to work hard and deliver results,” she says.

Saito keeps her ears open to the needs of others, and the requests for support are many. Saito’s attentive way of listening and communicating with pen and paper, which she honed during her time as a patient and attentive hostess, now comes in handy in her new career in politics. “By choosing the appropriate Kanji characters for what one wants to say,” she says, “one can sometimes express even more than with words that are spoken.”

Sonja Blaschke is a German freelance journalist writing for publications in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. She also works as a producer for TV filming in Japan.


Monkeying Around



2016 promises to be a year of antic swings between craziness and simply more of the same -- that is, if any of our journalist prognosticators' crystal-ball musings come true.

A fresh poll ahead of the upper house election says a record percentage of Japan’s electorate would re-elect Shinzo Abe “in the right circumstances.” Nearly a fifth of those polled said they would most likely opt for Abe if they bumped into him after “4-5 glasses of shochu” in a small bar. Abe, who has yet to score higher than 18 percent of the popular vote, said he had never been to an izakaya in his life, but “might have a rethink.”

– David McNeill, Independent


Japanese cyber-crime prosecutors announce defeat over Bitcoin theft case; French CEO of Mt Gox declared innocent after 6 months of looming incertitude.

– Nathalie Stucky


1) The estimated costs of the Olympics rise, as do electric bills and Tepco’s profits – but not the earnings of the average person. 2) Stories about weird Japan continue to proliferate as new players join the media circus in Tokyo. 3) Newly flavored Kit-Kats appear on the market.  

– Jake Adelstein


Demographic and economic reality make it clear the center of world gravity has moved from the Atlantic Ocean to Eurasia. Expect continued geopolitical turbulence, especially in the Middle East, as a result.

– Benjamin Fulford


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the new focus of his “Abenomics” economic program. “It will be robots,” he said and changed one of his ministers for a machine.

– Alexander Lenin, Rossiyskaya Gazeta

There will be several shouting matches in the Main Bar between supporters of the so-called ex-Presidents lawsuit and their opponents, and at least one fist fight, leading up to the March GMM vote on the merits of the case. But when it is all over the Club will still be standing. (Fingers crossed on that last one.)

– Bob Whiting

The government cuts the target again for women in leadership roles, this time to 5 percent by 2050, with Abe explaining in a speech at an international conference, “Japan must address its problems of low birth-rate and shortage of elderly care workers before it can allow women to abandon their duties in the home.”

– Gavin Blair

In a dramatic volte-face, Japan relaxes its immigration policy to accommodate millions of U.S. citizens following the election of President Trump.

– Justin McCurry, Guardian

Tokyo’s basic taxi fares rise to ¥10,000.
Abenomics backfires.

– Yosuke Watanabe, Kyodo, Beijing


An interceptor drone from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s newly deployed crime-fighting drone squad brought down a mysterious unidentified aerial vehicle (UAV) by trapping it in its net. No claims of ownership by terrorist organizations have been received.

– Tim Hornyak

After the July House of Councilors election, Seiji Maehara, Sumio Mabuchi and Akihisa Nagashima will leave the DPJ to form, along with some survivors of the JIP, a political party called the New Security Club. Seiichiro Murakami will quip: “They’ve left the DPJ? When were they ever in it?”

– Michael Cucek


Tensions in Okinawa will boil over after clashes between police and protestors over the relocation of Futenma air base to Henoko lead to fatalities. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will continue to insist there are no other alternatives.

– Eric Johnston, Japan Times


Horoscopes will be scientifically proven to be so accurate that the difference between primates will render reddish-brown orangutans entirely unsuitable stand ins for red fire monkeys, and climate change will re-introduce dragons to areas of Central Asia (and Wales).

      Andrew Pothecary, cover designer, ox

As enthusiasm for Japanese food spreads around the world, 7-Eleven is awarded its first Michelin star for its famous cold spaghetti sandwich.

– Richard Lloyd Parry, the Times



At an electrifying FCCJ press event, former prime minister and kingmaker Kakuei Tanaka, who was believed to have passed away in 1993, announces his return to politics. Appearing remarkably spry at age 97, Tanaka says he’d been in hiding at an undisclosed location in Niigata Prefecture while undergoing rehabilitation from a stroke. Explaining that he “could no longer abide” by the policies of the Abe government, he announces his candidacy for the summer upper house elections as a member of the newly formed Ganso Jiminto (Original Liberal Democratic Party), with Ichiro Ozawa and other core members of the former Tanaka faction. The new party’s manifesto assumes a strongly pacifist stance, calling for repeal of the new Security Law, improved relations with neighboring Asian nations and stemming the widening gap between the affluent and the poor.

      Eiichiro Tokumoto


Despite the ruling by the Japanese Supreme Court against allowing married couples to keep their surnames, the prime minister’s wife Akie goes back to her maiden name Matsuzaki. To show that he is serious about “Womenomics,” her husband Shinzo follows suit and adopts his wife’s surname.

      Sonja Blaschke


Beijing faces serious unrest in Xinjiang

      Greg Clark

Abe reads election victory as mandate to rewrite Constitution

– Julian Ryall, Daily Telegraph


Abe to launch panel to study Donald Trump’s immigration policies

– Andy Sharp, Bloomberg



Toyota Motor Corp. widens its lead as the world’s biggest automaker. But airbag supplier Takata Corp. is forced to abandon the airbag-inflator business after regulators order it to recall every single inflator it has made using the suspect ammonium nitrate chemistry linked to deadly airbag explosions and millions of recalled vehicles.

– Hans Greimel, Automotive News

Seismologists Masaaki Kimura and Katsuhiko Ishibashi’s next prediction: a “big one” soon with an epicenter in Shizuoka Prefecture. Dr. Kimura says “by 2017.” The year 2016 will prove they’re not quacks on quakes.

– Lucy Birmingham

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admits during his treason trial that he has been working as an agent of the Chinese government. His mission, Abe testifies, was to facilitate China’s takeover of Japan. “Abenomics would reduce Japan to an economic basket case, and crypto-fascism coupled with historical revisionism would make us a global pariah,” Abe says. “Then no one would care when the Chinese offered to buy Japan and turn it into a giant theme park.” Prime Minister Toru Hashimoto says that when Abe is found guilty he will be sent to the government’s new re-education facility on the Senkaku Islands.

– Steve McClure

Increasingly common sights in Japan, 2016: Goromaru, tornadoes, and mosquitoes in December.

– Mary Corbett



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