It cant be helped?

Fight fire with fire?  Maybe it can’t be helped…

On the 5th of April 2009, after a few false alarms, North Korea successfully launched a ballistic missile, with the (supposed) intention of putting a communications satellite into orbit.  In the end the missile passed over Japanese airspace, the first stage dropping in the Sea of Japan.  The launch was the latest episode in turbulent North Korea – Japan relations.  It also marks a possible turning point in political moves towards revision of the peace constitution.  Here I want to show how television programmes contribute to the framing of events so that revision takes on an air of inevitability in the general public.

Earlier that morning I watched two programmes that carried comment on the potential launch: a current affairs news corner (a segment in TBS’s Sunday Morning waido show) called kaze wo yomu (風をよむ) and another Sunday morning waido show called Sunday Japon (サンデージャポン).  Kaze wo yomu can be considered a ‘hard’ news segment with one presenter and a panel made up of academics and journalists.  Sunday Japon, on the other hand, can be considered a ‘soft’ news programme, with a much more diverse panel of guests and comedians acting as presenters.

For kaze wo yomu, which means literally ‘read the wind’, a reporter was sent out to ask the public about Japan’s stance towards North Korea in the context of a potential missile launch, and other questions about securing peace with Japan’s military in general.  The people interviewed all replied in the same fashion, which can be summarised as: ‘as Japanese we don’t want to use force but in these times it can’t be helped.’  The finally refrain of this sentence was expressed in a multitude of ways, with the interviewees using terms such as shikata ga nai, shou ga nai or yamu wo enai, which can all be roughly translated as meaning ‘it can’t be helped’ or ‘there is nothing that can be done’.  The programme picked up on this refrain and put its findings to a panel of political experts.

The experts, a collection of academics and journalists, were stunned by this general lack of contestation.  They all expressed the view that military action could indeed be helped, and that not enough diplomatic work had gone on to warrant such a fatalistic point of view.  They all bemoaned the lack of public debate over the North Korea issue, as well as the precarious position of military use in relation to article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which renounces the right to wage war.  It was agreed that public debate over the best way to approach North Korea and international security, as well as on the status of the constitutional ‘peace clause’ was needed.

So the question to be asked is: why is there such a split between the opinions of the people on the streets and the panellists?  This is an important question, because the fatalistic attitude towards military engagement opens up a gateway for the government push through constitutional reform.  If nothing can be done about the dangers present in the world, other than addressing them with force, then revision of the peace clause in the constitution would be commonsense and therefore beyond questioning.  Framing issues in such a way that only one option seems conceivable is to set the limits for debate and potential outcomes.  Furthermore, by strategic utilisation of threats and claims to act in the name of ‘national security’, dissent can be stigmatised as ‘unpatriotic’ or worse just plain foolishness.

Media coverage of events surrounding the missile launch produced two complimentary discourses – one of threat and one of powerlessness – that make military responses commonsensical while shutting down other avenues.  Both of these discourses were present in Sunday Japon.  Sound, image and language combined to frame the North Korean rocket as something to be unequivocally feared, as well as present Japan as a hapless and panicked victim ill-prepared to deal with the ‘real’ world of international threat.

Sunday Japon, aired by the TBS network, describes itself as ‘a comedy variety news programme bringing issues to you on a Sunday morning’.   Like most variety shows broadcast in Japan, it takes the form of two presenters, usually comedians, a female continuity announcer, and a panel of guests drawn from the geinoukai (world of entertainment) and one or two political ‘experts’.  Sunday Japon runs through the news of the previous week one segment at a time and invites the panellists to make comments.  Each news segment begins with a VTR presentation followed by the panellists’ discussion.  Typically a small box will be laid over the VTR where images of the panel and presenters watching the presentation will be displayed.  News stories covered included the North Korean missile, the wedding of two celebrities and the election of the new Mayor of Chiba-ken, who promised to make Chiba the number one prefecture in Japan.

Sunday Japon carried directly on from the earlier kaze wo yomu and this particular episode, because of the impending missile launch, began with the same news story.  A composite VTR presentation was shown that discussed the North Korean rocket and recapped some of the news coverage from earlier in the week.  It is here that the missile launch was framed and narrated in terms of ‘threat’.  This was achieved through both linguistic and non-linguistic means, such as use of sound, colour, image and lighting.  This discourse left little room for any counter explanations as to why the rocket was being launched and also the potential for pieces of the rocket actually falling on the Japanese island of Honshu.  What follows is a short description of some of the methods through which the effect of ‘threat and powerlessness’ was achieved.

The VTR presentation was assembled from interviews with ‘ordinary people’ and experts, North Korean news broadcasts and images of North Korean weapons, images of Japanese defensive weapons and a short segment from the day before when the early warning detection system had thrown up a false positive.  The last section of the presentation featured comments with a military ‘expert’ known as Terrence Lee.

First, fast-paced music played throughout the video, which a certain points rose to crescendo not unlike the last few seconds of an action movie trailer.  At this point the video would switch to another subject and the music would start again.  With the music providing a background of mounting tension, we see interviews with people living in Akita-ken, where it was feared that part of the missile would fall.  The video showed comments from an Akita fisherman and numerous middle aged mothers, one of whom expressed the concern that ‘even if I ran I wouldn’t know where to go because it [the missile] could fall anywhere.’  These interviews were juxtaposed with images taken from North Korean news broadcasts of a female announcer relaying information about the launch subtitled in red.

Images of the Japanese Self Defence Force (jieitai) setting up PAC3 defensive weapons were also accompanied by tension filled music.  PAC3 interceptor missiles were deployed in Akita prefecture and Iwate prefecture, as well as in Tokyo.  The deployment of these anti-missile missiles drew some criticism in newspapers on the day after the missile launch, although questioning voices were restricted to small opinion columns.  The Mainichi Shimbun carried a small piece, nestled next to a picture of panicking officials in Iwate prefecture that called form a calm response to the missile launch that suggests the deployment of PAC3 missiles was over the top, arguing that ‘now is the time to stay calm’.  Another critical comment article appeared on the front page of the Tokyo Shimbun.  The piece noted that PAC3 interceptors were set up less than 100 metres from skyscrapers in the capital without any explanation offered about the potential risks posed to the surrounding area from debris and radar.

At one point in the VTR presentation images from a government office in Morioka city, Iwate prefecture, were shown.  As information of a possible North Korean missile launch came in from the national warning system the office descended into panic.  The camera followed the action closely.  It later turned out that the information was incorrect (gotanchi), although a second possible launch (also incorrect information) sent the office into panic again.  The overall effect of this segment was to represent a room of scared people held hostage by the spectre of the missile.  It is this picture of chaos that contributes to an overall impression of powerlessness as the people, living in a state of apprehension, could only react to information as it arrived.

Finally, the VTR cut to an interview with Terrence Lee, who was presented as a military expert.  Terrence, an imposing figure wearing sunglasses, was bathed in red light and shot from a multitude of angles. He expressed the opinion that this missile launch was only the beginning of the threat, and that Japan has much more to fear from North Korea.  At random points in the interview the audio was manipulated to sound like a conversation taking place over military walkie-talkie, further adding to the militaristic overtones emanating from the music and conspicuous shots of military hardware.  Also, the editing style was replete with quick cuts and when coupled with the aforementioned odd camera angels generated a sense of panic that complimented the earlier video taken in the government offices.  Terrence appeared as the personification of the military option, tough and pragmatic.

Fear sells.  It is exciting: missiles, military hardware, fast music and menacing red lettering make good television.  But media coverage of this kind, the way in which the issue is framed, may be contributing to a general feeling of fear and powerlessness.  If real threats abound, then a more militaristic stance may by unavoidable: shikata ga nai, shou ga nai, yamu wo enai.  The above mentioned opinion column in the Mainichi Shimbun notes that after the last missile launch from North Korea the missile defence (MD) programme was pushed through with little debate.  The people hate North Korea, they fear the missile: what do they want this time?  ‘To fight fire with fire?’ the journalist muses.

This might not be what the people want, but it may be the only option that makes sense.  After all, the argument goes, with so much danger all around, it cannot be helped.  There is of course another way of looking at the situation – the diplomatic option that the panel on kaze wo yomu suggested, or, as one of the panellists argued, a stance that recognises relations between common peoples rather than opposed states. But the more threatening North Korea appears, the more commonsensical a military move is, and the less debate there will be. Whether reluctant or not, the potential outcome is one further step towards constitutional revision.


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Civic service

The March edition of Prospect Magazine makes a bold and convincing argument for the introduction of compulsory civic service in the UK.  The authors observe worsening attitudes towards the younger generation, just as young people themselves struggle to plot a course into adulthood.  Civic education is therefore a moral imperative.

There is no doubt that the UK is becoming ever more fragmented.  The worlds we create for ourselves continue to shrink just as the barriers between us become more visceral.  A scheme that promises to bridge these worlds and facilitate greater cross boundary exchange can only be a good thing.

But does this concept of ‘the civic’ have anything to do with politics?  The authors argue that producing better citizens is the main purpose of their scheme.  However, their conception of the good citizen seems to be one fully engaged in the social sphere, but not the political.

It may be the case that social civic engagement leads to greater political awareness.  However, this linkage needs to be questioned.  What if the civic becomes a substitute for the political?

Part of the problem is distance.  Westminster is both physically and metaphorically miles removed from the everyday lives of most young people in this country.  The idea that one can affect political change seems remote.  In fact, it is not even rational to vote: the time and effort needed to get informed seems to outweigh the miniscule impact you are likely to make.

Creating a better citizen entails not only promoting civic responsibility but also giving young people real political empowerment.  This would entail politics taking a central place in school curriculum as both a subject of study and ongoing experience.

Doing this would go some way towards assuaging fears that civic service is a way of getting the state’s work done on the cheap.  Rather than a benevolent government looking down on its people as they construct civil society, the distance between these two realms would shrink as the civic and political become entwined.

Creating a sense of belonging in no easy thing.  But it is clear that creating more socially and political aware citizens is a step in the right direction.

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Response to npcu post


See original post here: anyone else feel that technology which reads your thought processes and translates them to the screen is slightly sinister? Gaping holes in internet security mean that people on the other side of the world can get my credit card details. If ones mind is integrated into the system, what else could people steal?

Also, online worlds are pretty addictive as they stand (here is an extreme example: With more sophisticated force feedback devices or even technology that bypasses our senses to go straight to the source (something like this maybe:, will we still want to go out into the physical world where it is cold, pretty gray and we can’t fly/fight dragons/command armies/rule the world?

Lastly, the technical development of the internet is pretty exciting (if a little scary in its implications), but there are still good old fashioned worries about people being exposed to things they shouldn’t. Recently it has been suggested that we need some kind of internet bbfc warning system ( Although I find the idea of censorship on the internet pretty abhorrent (especially when the suggestion comes from a government minister) and cannot see how it can be implemented, a truly immersive web will only compound the issue. Are we just opening up a realm of unfettered play, where we can safely do all the things we can’t in the real world? What are the ethical issues?

I think science fiction comes into its own here. The aforementioned William Gibson, as well as Isaac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick (to name but a few) all grappled with what technological development would mean for human society. A serious rereading may be in order.

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Coolest game ever?

Found this in New Scientist and think it is pretty awesome.

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Ha Ha! Theoretical physics is on my side!

My studies have recently taken me on a very interesting diversion into the world of knowledge. To be more specific: the ontological and epistemological assumptions that we use when we go about placing things in categories, so that we can do useful things such as talk about the world around us and compare stuff. When we are talking about Japanese identity we are also talking about the categories that separate ‘Japanese’ from ‘foreigner’ etc. Of course, these categories need to come from somewhere and in the case of Japan, John Clammer suggests that a lot comes from indigenous cosmologies (read Shinto and Buddhism) that have shaped the ways in which the Japanese think about basics such as inside and outside, purity and impurity etc.

But another, perhaps even more fundamental categorising element is language. I was lucky enough to get Steven Pinker’s excellent “The Stuff of Thought” for Christmas, which is a great book about how language and thought are interlinked. Although I am by no means a theoretical linguist, the idea of language determining how people see the world seems very rich: the immediate question being can learning another language allow one to think outside the confines of one’s own mother tongue? This has implications for my study: are Japanese who can speak foreign languages and foreigners who speak Japanese slowly modifying their respective world views in a way that is challenging hegemonic cultural understandings of each other?

The physics bit comes from this week’s New Scientist. In it there is an article entitled “Trapped in a World View” that reiterates and builds upon an argument made by Niels Bohr that: “it is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out about nature. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” (p. 42, my italics) The article suggests that Western European languages are getting in the way when it comes to understanding the latest in theoretical physics. Why is this? Well, it seems that the concepts that ideas such as string theory deals with are not wholly compatible with the basic mechanics of our language, which is made up of nouns acting on nouns in various ways using verbs. The author suggests, however, that different languages offer a ‘better’ set of categories for understanding the weird world of quantum mechanics, notably the Algonquian family of languages that have lots of verbs but little in the way of specific noun categories. In this world view the world is a set of processes that we are part of and the world is in a continued state of flux – quite close to the physicist’s own observations of particles that showed them to be more process than thing. What is stunning about this revelation is the fundamental importance of language – to the extent that the cutting edge of physics is only now (well, 1992) making insights into the universe that some of us on this planet have had access to from day one thanks to the language they grew up with. But here is the kicker. The author suggests that by studying other languages we may be able to break down categorical walls and address the limitations that they impose upon us. “The study of other types of languages opens us up to other world views, to complementary ways of speaking about the cosmos.” (p. 43) Back in the universe of me, I wonder if the same holds true for the world views that come with national identity.

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Thoughts after a long, long flight

Japan has instigated a new customs procedure for foreign nationals who come into the country – along the lines of the American system tourists are required to be fingerprinted and take a retina scan.  This is supposedly for our own protection, although a promotional video that accompanied the announcement of the scheme suggested otherwise through some iconographic imagery of 9/11 and a rolling list of terrorist attacks (the fact that Japan’s only case of terrorism to date has been the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks didn’t pop up).  I must admit I was not too happy about going through this process, although at least I didn’t have the same experience as at JFK last year when I spent an uncomfortable couple of minutes as the customs officer worked out I wasn’t Chris Perkins the international smuggler (thank god he is a short man)! But, through conversations with friends both Japanese and Western, it seems that Japan is still having trouble dealing with people whose identities straddle tug at predefined notions of ‘Japanese’ and ‘foreign’.  By way of forcing this point home, it seems, the last thing I saw at the airport was an example foreigner registration card that sported the name Jennifer Yoshimoto.

But when I got back to Europe and opened up a copy of the international Independent, my perceptions of Japan were put into context.  It seems that the British government is contemplating a £1000 tariff on visiting family members from abroad that come to see their loved ones in the UK.  Coupled with the clamour over deporting foreigners who commit crime here at home (not necessarily such a bad thing, but as an editorial in the Observer remarked, it doesn’t help with our already soured perceptions of foreign workers in the UK when media coverage is all about ‘their’ criminality) England is not looking particularly open itself.  Maybe Japan isn’t so bad after all…

All this leads me to wonder if national identity and nationalism only split into two distinct concepts when individuals observe others. In other words, national identity is what ‘we’ have and nationalism is what ‘they’ do.   It is hard to argue that national identity is a bad thing, in much the same way as it is equally hard to argue that nationalism is a good one.  Therefore national identity is appropriated for our own use and nationalism is thrown at others. But would it not be more profitable to recognise that these two elements are fluidly intermingled; splitting only as we intervene through an observation that is itself located within a nationality?  And what happens when people who push at the ideas of national membership, those caught between the lines, make their own observations?   If anything positive came out of the last 2 hours of the 17 hour trip back from Japan (never again!) it is the conviction that not considering these questions will make it all the more difficult to come to terms with our nationalism and the national identities of others.

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Draft of article: soul searching

I felt like writing down some responses to a letter I found on the Project for the New American Century website. I think I will continue to revise it in public so to speak.

In 2004, after the terrible acts at Beslan school No.1, an open letter was sent to the heads of the European Union and NATO from The Project for the New American Century, signed by 100 prominent US politicians and political thinkers. After a brief note of sympathy for the victims, the letter proceeds to warn that Vladimir Putin has used the incident as an excuse to erode democratic values within Russia. The letter states that:

He has systematically undercut the freedom and independence of the press, destroyed the checks and balances in the Russian federal system, arbitrarily imprisoned both real and imagined political rivals, removed legitimate candidates from electoral ballots, harassed and arrested NGO leaders, and weakened Russia’s political parties. In the wake of the horrific crime in Beslan, President Putin has announced plans to further centralize power and to push through measures that will take Russia a step closer to authoritarian regime.

I find it difficult to read these words without a certain amount of irony. For although it is certainly the case that Putin is systematically repealing what little liberal sensibility there was in Russia, it seems that the US has, in using a horrific event to repeal civil liberties, a lot in common with its former Cold War rival.

Let me explain. By using the fears set out by the 100 signatories of the letter we have a set of criteria with which to examine the US. A number of ‘democratic’ values (I use scare quotes as these are not really democratic but rather liberal values) are undoubtedly under threat in Russia: freedom of the press, (b) the checks and balances of the federal system, (c) freedom of political expression/freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and (d) free elections. Using some of these points we can now talk about how America is shaping up in the wake of 9//11.


Freedom of the press in the United States is a tricky subject to tackle, mainly because to even voice the question ‘are the press completely free?’ goes against all accepted wisdom. Of course the press are free in the United States, it is after all the country of the fourth estate, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal. Media freedom has been demonstrated by Watergate and by the Vietnam War, two examples of asking hard questions and documenting hidden facts that brought about great shifts in power (although I have sympathy with Baudrillard’s position that Watergate was the anomaly that reinforced a misguided vision of purity in American politics).

Nonetheless events such as Watergate demonstrate how the press in the past have been courageous and critical. But arguably the media landscape we are presented with now would be mostly unrecognisable to journalists from that era. As I see it this change comes from a few significant developments such as the emergence of 24-hour news channels, the changing sensibility of news coverage and the framing of debate.

A report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) stated that on the run up to the second Iraq war, out of almost 400 interviews conducted on major news outlets, only 3 were with anti-war activists. How can this be the case?

One factor was the out-pouring of patriotic sentiment that came after the 9/11 attacks and the overwhelming tendency of mainstream media outlets to stop asking questions. This climate was maintained not only by government officials but also in the news media itself, and an ‘us and them’ mentality was seen to develop. On MSNBC’s Hardball programme in September 2002, the hosts refer to World Bank/IMF protesters in Washington DC as hating America, which is indicative of much of the coverage protest received:

“Those people out in the streets, do they hate America?” “Yes, I’m afraid a lot of them do. They hate America. They align themselves with Saddam Hussein. They align themselves with terrorists all over the world.”

The debate was thus framed in terms of good and evil, with us or against us. This is what the geographer Derek Gregory refers to as ‘opposing’: “reducing the complex roots of political violence to an opposition between Civilization (always with that imperial capital, and almost always meaning a particular version of the United States as somehow the universal civilization) and the rest, savage, barbarian others”.

In the climate generated by the press, freedom of expression becomes not a question of clumsy state censorship, but much more dangerously of self-censorship. In the face of overwhelming patriotic support for a war framed by the good and evil, Civilisational rhetoric from not only the state but also your peers, it takes an incredible amount of courage to stand out and ask difficult questions. Those who did, such as former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, were demonised by the news media: Paula Zahn from CNN put it to him that “people out there are accusing you of drinking Saddam Hussein’s Kool-Aid”. This would be acceptable if pro-war interviewees were posed similar questions. But as an Iraq war media timeline produced by FAIR and a documentary by Amy Goodman show, such critical questioning was distinctly lacking. To stand out as a commentator was media suicide, to protest as a private citizen was to be ignored. In environment so hostile to dissent, how can we in all honesty talk of freedom of the press?


The Civilisational conflict theme extends to our next point: freedom of political expression/freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. To a large extent I believe that the framing argument can be extended to cover freedom of political opinion, the most glaring example being the demonisation and subsequent banning by many radio stations of the Dixie Chicks after they protested America’s plans for war. As such I would like to focus on freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. But first a disclaimer: the examples I am about to cite are not examples of US citizens. However this does not mean they should be discounted, as they are both display frightening arbitrariness of action: they are seemingly random, causeless and meaningless. They have little or no logical rational basis. And once the wheels of the procedure are set in motion the question of citizenship becomes irrelevant.

The first example is of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria who subjected to ‘extraordinary rendition’ (a wonderful piece of what Steven Poole calls ‘unspeak’): put more plainly he was deported to Syria, kept in solitary confinement, tortured for 10 months and forced to sign false confessions. The second example is of Ms. Ghuman, a music scholar from the UK. She was also detained while passing through an American airport, interrogated and deported – although luckily back to London and not Damascus. However, Ms. Ghuman’s career as an assistant lecturer in the US has been ruined and she still does not know if she can ever return to the US.

Maher had ‘suspected links to terrorism’ (which all proved to be false); Ms. Ghuman’s was simply a case of mistaken identity. Both of these people were denied any rights or access to lawyers. Maher, like the detainees at Guantanamo Bay that have dropped so resolutely off the media radar, was for 10 months reduced to a state of bare existence: he was ‘opposed’ and as such became a nobody, a non-entity. For a few chilling hours Ms. Ghuman also experienced the same denial of being, dropped out of civilized modernity into barbarism. How long before US citizens with Middle Eastern ethnic backgrounds are subject to the same treatment? Their white Anglo-Saxon friends?

Speech and elections

Finally, a recent incident in the press highlights both issues concerning freedom of speech, but also those of governmental checks and balances and free elections. After running over his allotted time while asking presidential candidate John Kerry why he did not contest the 2004 election results, a student at Florida University was forcibly removed by police. When he refused to leave the police used a taser to subdue him and he was taken into custody.

The question he was asking is valid, and his treatment – even if he was acting up – was excessive. Election results have been questioned before. The documentary film “American Blackout” (2006) has detailed instances of crossovers (where Republican voters turn out to vote for a more sympathetic democratic in democrat controlled areas), systematic redistricting, problems with voting machines and lists of felons (who are not eligible to vote) being used erroneously to restrict the black vote – who historically vote democrat. McKinney herself became the object of media slander when comments she made about 9/11 were taken out of context by media outlets, and she was cast as a conspiracy theorist. If the events in the documentary are true, they amount to systematic disenfranchisement and deserve mainstream debate. But this debate would strike at the core of America’s national confidence in its freedom, and I wonder if the comfort that comes with knowing will ever be willingly replaced by the discomfort of questioning.

However, I think it is now possible to ask the Project for the New American Century a question. Have the 9/11 attacks led to the erosion of liberal values in the United States? As soon as liberal values are taken for granted they run the risk of being lost. It may be worthwhile for the US to look at Russia and engage in a little soul searching.


Filed under America, Amy Goodman, Baudrillard, Documentary, media, news, politics, Power, US elections