Podcast of “Bullshit Journalism and Japan” – 6th Mutual Images Workshop, Cardiff 1st May 2018

I spoke at the 6th Mutual Images workshop on “Mediatised Images of Japan in Europe” at Cardiff University on the 1st May. The working title of the paper is “Bullshit journalism and Japan: English-language news media, Japanese higher education policy, and Frankfurt’s theory of ‘bullshit’”. It takes a look at a symptomatic case of English-language “bullshit journalism”: The improbable reports in the last half of September 2015 insinuating that the humanities and social sciences would virtually be abolished in Japan. It will be written up and submitted for puFrankfurtVsMediablication soon. In the meantime, the draft is available on www.academia.edu. Click on the image or follow this link to listen to a podcast of the presentation in Cardiff.

The abstract is as follows:

The last sentence in Andersen’s fairytale There is no doubt about it reads: “It got into the papers, it was printed; and there is no doubt about it, one little feather may easily grow into five hens.” In September 2015 a process very similar to the rumour-mill in Andersen’s satire swept across the internet. An inaccurate – and on inspection highly implausible – report was picked up and amplified by several British and US news organisations. Thus an improbable claim about the Japanese government’s decision to effectively abolish the social sciences and humanities quickly became established as a morally reprehensible truth. Once the “facts” of the matter were reported by authoritative English-language media organisations, the outrage spread to other languages, and an online petition was launched to make the government “reconsider” a decision it had not taken. In light of the “misunderstandings” that had circulated in the foreign press, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology eventually felt compelled to issue a statement, in English, to clarify that it had no intention of closing social science and humanities faculties.
What transpired in these transactions between Times Higher Education, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, Time, the Guardian and other news outlets is of more than passing anecdotal interest. Consideration of the case offers insights into the dominant role of the English-using media in constituting Asia as an object of Western knowledge and of the part played in this by what Harry Frankfurt (2005) theorised as the sociolinguistic phenomenon of ‘bullshit’. The Times Higher Education article and the ones that followed were all examples of the ‘bullshit’ that arguably increasingly proliferates in both journalistic and academic discourse, especially when ‘circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about’ (Frankfurt 2005: 63).
The presentation will take the case of the purported existential threat to the social science and humanities in Japan to discuss wider arguments about the role of ‘bullshit’ in journalistic and academic knowledge production and dissemination about the non-Western world. ‘Bullshit’ is ‘produced without concern with the truth’, but ‘it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong’ (Frankfurt 2005: 47-48).

Pasts Entangled: East Asia in Europe and Europe in East Asia

The 18th April 2018 was an enjoyable day spent in excellent company at a seminar on “East Asia in Europe and Europe in East Asia” at the Centre for East Asian Studies at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. The three other speakers, the audience, and the welcoming hosts made it a pleasantly memorable visit.

I was invited to speak on Uchimura Kanzō’s 1911 lecture/article “A Story of Denmark: A Story of how Faith and Forestry Saved a Country”, which I argue was – in Karl Mannheim’s sense of these words – an originally utopian tract, which later became a defining text of postwar ideology and which has lately come to be reinterpreted in utopian ways.Pasts Entangled: East Asia in Europe and Europe in East Asia

The story has been an enduring source of the generally favourable, albeit stereotypical, Japanese image of Denmark and the wider Nordic region. Its original purpose, however, was to construct an idealized image of Denmark in order to criticize certain aspects of the political reality of Meiji Japan and to suggest that following the Danish rather than the British example was more appropriate for Japan and all modern states. Denmark, as imagined by Uchimura, thus became a Christian, pacifist and liberal utopia with universally applicable lessons in normative political theory and public policy to teach the world. This notion that Denmark after 1864 offered an alternative to Anglo-American militarism and imperialism that could turn Japan into a truly great global power with a spiritual world-historical mission was an idea that stuck in Uchimura’s mind. As he would go on to argue some years later, in 1924:

Denmark by reducing her armament to the strength (or rather weakness) of mere police never thinks to have put herself in danger of losing her independence. Denmark in her martial weakness and rural strength is now per capita the richest country in the world, and essentially the strongest…

Now is the time for Japan to awake from sleep. This Western civilization with its big budget for fighting machinery is to be completely disowned. She is to start a new civilization, a civilization which is civilization indeed, a warless civilization, Denmark on a bigger scale, an army and navy on police-standing, an empire founded on the goodwill of the world, a secure, industrious, peaceful nation, the leader of “Christian” Europe and America, in the divine policy announced by God’s prophet, twenty-six centuries ago” (Uchimura 1932 [1924]: 572-573).

The text uses the story of the war veteran and engineer, botanist and patriot Enrico Dalgas’ lead role in the afforestation and regeneration of the depleted heathlands in the Jutland Peninsula to argue for faith-based ethical politics, freedom of religion, ecologically sustainable capitalist modernisation, pacifism, anti-colonialism, international trade based on comparative advantage, and a conception of citizenship that includes religious and ethnic minorities as full members of the polis. This, he believed, had all been achieved in Denmark in a mere four decades, and his wish was for Meiji Japan’s “frivolous and flippant statesmen” to change course and turn the country into a “Denmark on a bigger scale”. Following the British example, Uchimura warned prophetically, would only lead to disaster.

Uchimura’s warning fell on deaf ears, and it would take years of war and devastating military defeat for Japan to abandon the militarism, imperialism and great power ambitions it had pursued since the Meiji Restoration. Japan in August 1945 found itself in the same state as Denmark after the Second Schleswig War – defeated, demoralised, impoverished and territorially reduced to a small nation state. And it was in the post-war context that “A Story of Denmark” began to be read again as a prescient warning that had not been heeded, but which could now guide a new Japan to become a pacifist, religiously tolerant country that would pick itself up by its bootstraps as the Danes had done. The new Japan would base its security and prosperity on human development, peaceful relations with the outside world and international trade in the sectors in which it excelled. Because the text spoke to the concerns of the post-war era, it quickly re-emerged from obscurity and became established as a classic studied by generations of middle school pupils. In this sense, it became one of the ideological pillars of the post-1945 trading and developmental state.

“A Story of Denmark” has been reprinted on average every three and a half years since 1946 and seems to enjoy renewed popularity after the 2011 seismic and nuclear disasters. And now, at the close of the Heisei era, it is arguably being read for purposes of utopian critique, particularly with regard to energy and security policy. The aspects that are seized upon today are thus its spiritual, ecological and pacifist arguments. From the vantage point of post-Fukushima Japan, the text and Denmark’s later development illustrate that it is possible and desirable to power an advanced economy without nuclear energy. And with some disregard to post-cold war Denmark’s participation in US and NATO-led military operations, the pacifist ideals of the text rather than actual Danish history are tools with which to argue against remilitarisation and revision of the constitution.

The political reception history of this text, or what in German is called its Wirkungsgeschichte (“history of effects”), is a fascinating example of how ideas thought and written in a particular historical context acquire a life of their own and in ways neither imagined nor intended by the author. What is also curiously interesting is the way in which Uchimura’s arguments here prefigure Francis Fukuyama’s idea of “getting to Denmark”, which was published a century later in his 2011 book on The Origins of Political Order. Both conceive of “Denmark” as “the logical endpoint of social development” and “Denmarkness” (“stable, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and honest societies”) as something to strive for.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to discuss this with such an engaged and insightful group of scholars and students as I had in Madrid.