Halloween in Japan and CNN’s Lack of Research

November 2, 2010

I have many times during the early years of this blog been surprised and appalled by how little research CNN puts into its articles about Japan. I’ve noted before that there seems to be a belief somewhere that “everybody knows about Japan”.

There are a lot of people who have spent a few months or a year or two in Japan and return with observations that happen to fall right in line with the preconceptions they had before coming.

People who have been in Japan longer, who bothered to learn the language at a depth beyond “kiddie pool” level, who have made real friends and learned a bit more about the real Japan behind the “tatemae curtain” know a little better.

CNN has s history of writing flippant articles about Japan and summing up a very complicated issue with comments about “saving face” or other non-sense explanations for complicated human behavior.

The latest article is especially misinformed and is titled, believe it or not, “Halloween Craze Started in Gay Culture“. You can see how many groups are going to be misrepresented just by the title. I will give a little screen shot of the part about Japan, which is of interest to us, but I’m sure people who read the article will spend a good amount of the time with question marks floating above their heads.

Here’s what David Frum, CNN Contributor, says about Halloween in Japan.

Well, I’ve seen people dress up in costumes and have a good time on Halloween. I’ve seen recipes for Halloween bentos, and although I am sure that some supermarkets (especially those frequented by non-Japanese) carry Halloween themed Bentos, they are not a ubiquitous site. Most of the Halloween fun I’ve seen among the Japanese population has been among people that have lived abroad or are otherwise connected to life or situations outside of Japan.

If our friends at CNN had downplayed the “over-enthusiastic” part, and mentioned just the bentos and pumpkin flavored Kit-Kats (highly recommended, though I am partial to the kinako or soy powder ones), I would not be writing this article.

Yes, the attempt to in any way associate cos-play (costume play) or the “national pastime” of wearing sexy or bizarre costumes with the American or Western tradition of Halloween is just silly. Silly, bad journalism and bad research.

I’m also sure though that I am for the most part preaching to the choir when I say this to readers of Newzjapan (who tend to be extremely knowledgeable about Japan). At least now, when one of your friends in Japan knowingly nods and in all seriousness says “because, you know, all that manga costume stuff in Japan comes from Halloween.” You can be forgiving and know where to place the blame. (That is, CNN.)

Just for reference, here are some of the other posts I’ve written about misinformed articles by CNN and other major media outlets. These are by no means the number of misinformed articles I’ve seen! I actually gave up doing it so that I could focus on more fun things with the blog. I just couldn’t let this particular article go.

CNN’s View of Japan

Host Clubs in Japan on CNN’s Front Page

CNN Reports About 16 Year Old Japanese Playboy

Streetview Japan and Weak Journalism

Associated Press Perpetuates Myths About Japan

CNN ALMOST Writes an Accurate Article About Japan

As I’ve said before, it’s a good thing we have Twitter, Blogs,  and other independent media in this day and age so that the truth can at least be out there, even if it is often over shadowed by the giant factory type news media juggernauts.


1 Japundit November 2, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Uninformed, inaccurate, flippant articles from CNN…. Who wuddah thunk it!?!

I totally agree with your views and conclusions. And it is not limited to CNN. Once while visiting the states, someone said to me, “It’s not like in Japan where women remain quietly in the background and give the man free reign to do whatever he wants….”

If only they knew……

2 jay@newzjapan November 3, 2010 at 1:35 am

Yeah. That kind of thinking is one of the hidden challenges of international marriages. Once I had some friends over to visit to see a movie and hang out. All the Americans piled up on the chairs and couch leaving one little place to sit. My girlfriend at the time, just got comfy in her regular spot near the kotatsu.

Later one of my friends, with good intentions of course, said… “You know, you should really let your girlfriend sit on the couch with us.”

Apparently there was an elephant in the room about what you mention in the comment above..

Of course, my friends didn’t understand Japanese culture, language or even her intonation well enough to pick up on the fact that she was as far from the subservient stereotype as you can get. They also probably read too much CNN.

3 coffeebugg November 5, 2010 at 8:10 am

Frankly, I’ve stopped seeing CNN as a credible news source. Nearly everything they say is based on assumption based on first impression.

4 Alex Leavitt November 5, 2010 at 8:25 am

I came into this article from Twitter ready with my opinions ablaze.

But I’m really disappointed. Where is that article do they mention cosplay? Nowhere. So why are you equating “sexy costumes” with him speaking to cosplayers dressing up?

I take…
“The Japanese have taken Halloween to over-enthusiastic heart. Consumers can now buy Halloween Bento boxes and seasonal pumpkin-flavored Kit Kat bars. Bizarre, horrifying and — above all — sexy costumes have become a national pastime.”
… simply as an affirmation of Japan’s insistence to commercialize every holiday — which is a pretty big truth.

The tweet that sent me here was:
japanobserver “CNN Article Implies CosPlay Came from Halloween” (link)

The CNN article does not imply this at all. Perhaps the term “national pastime” is a bit strong… but are you seriously mistaking his article for linking cosplay and Halloween? Because if you are, then aren’t you also considering cosplay to be a national pastime? If I remember correctly, otaku culture is still looked down upon heavily across the nation.

I mean, I’m with you in that CNN has pretty bad journalism, but you’re really nitpicking here.

5 animemiz November 5, 2010 at 8:33 am

All I can say from randomly seeing the other comments on the CNN article.. one the writer is a writer under George Bush.. so of course he has his own perspectives, then he obviously needs to do more research.. so he’ll get more bombed on the comments there.. and if you have be be nitpicking.. then you forgot to mention that people in Japan are not cosplaying all the time.. since they have to go to specific venues, pay a fee and then change only at that venue… or is working as an advertiser near Animate or Akihabara or so.

6 jay@newzjapan November 5, 2010 at 10:00 am

The only “sexy costumes” I have ever seen or heard of in Japan were a very few random pockets of people in Japan celebrating Halloween (not by any means common, especially accompanied by the adjective “sexy”), and the “sexy costumes” one would find in Akihabara or other little cosplay areas.

I argue that Halloween is not even close to a “craze” in Japan, and many people don’t even know when it is.

If this had been written in a personal Japan blog, or online I would not have felt a need to respond… but the front page of CNN could give a lot of people the wrong idea. Not that there’s any harm in people thinking Halloween is a craze in Japan with people running around in sexy costumes, but academia and journalism is all about the dialogue.

For the record, I’ve often been corrected on this blog and have no problem retracting, correcting, or rewriting when I’m wrong.

I’m really happy about all these comments as well, because we learn so much through the dialogue.

7 C at Talk to the Clouds November 7, 2010 at 4:28 am

I don’t have any comment on this particular CNN article, but it does form a kind of pattern. The BBC tends to do really superficial reporting on Japan as well, and they have a much better reputation than CNN does. I wrote about this kind of thing here: http://www.talktotheclouds.com/2010/06/18/news-of-the-weird-phenomenon/
It’s a bad thing because it contributes to a fairly patronizing and reductionist view of Japan, I think, that fails to treat it with the same recognition of complexity given to some other countries.

8 blues November 7, 2010 at 8:04 am

Keep up the critiques. Why does no one call it what it is? Isolated it is just ignorance. The enthusiasm with which people trash Japan, Japanese and Japanese culture and especially the consistent media misrepresentation is racism. There I said it. In this case what David Frum wrote is racism, pure and simple. Such lying, stereotypical trash would never be tolerated about African Americans, Hispanics, indigenous people, women, Caucasians…
Actually it’s worse than racism, it is intentional cultural chauvinism – that is attempting to assert one’s culture as superior by attacking the falsely stated (or imputed) values of another culture.
It is not just that CNN is terrible journalism. In this case it is propaganda for American cultural superiority. Or as racists (ooops there’s that word again) on a blog I read often say “WTF Japan?”

9 Martin November 7, 2010 at 10:02 am

Very recognizable. If you were Chinese, you would be perfectly be able to write the same kind of articles….
World press is still dominated by American and European news agencies, and that comes with a certain amount of ‘cultural expansion’. The result is too much superficial, exaggerated, distorted etc. news coverage. And as said, Japan is not the only victim.

10 jay@newzjapan November 7, 2010 at 10:33 am

Thanks again for the comments. As Martin said above, Japan is probably not the only country about which superficial or distorted news is reported.

I haven’t looked to nitpick mistakes about the Japan in the media for some time now. I read this article because I was a bit suspicious about the title but was surprised by the article mentioning Japan.

It really surprised me to see comments above mention me nitpicking on CNN. As I said, I wouldn’t have written this if it were on the blog of someone living in Japan who got the wrong idea. On a news site that reaches millions, I think I have a right to criticize (as do any other group incorrectly represented in the article). I’ve even seen the blog post called “stupid” by a commenter.

So to make a general response… I think there are several Japan’s a person can get to know. The depth to which someone can get to know Japan depends on their real language ability, time in Japan, and the extent to which someone gets involved in the culture. A person can live in Japan for years immersed in ex-pat culture and walk away feeling their preconceptions had been confirmed.

A person can learn Japanese without having lived in Japan and used it in real situations in which case the words and grammar may be correct and get the message across, but sound stiff or lack necessary nuances (or even the often-mentioned example of a man who learns Japanese and speaks mostly with women, and then is surprised to hear that his Japanese sounds feminine).

The same is true for the culture. When you get to know people, speaking exclusively in Japanese and hearing what they really think (in Japanese mind you). I think ones perspective on Japan changes. It’s easier to see the good with the bad.

I’ll give one example of a common myth about Japan that is proven to have an asterisk next to it when you’ve reached another level. Many English speakers make good careers for themselves teaching English in Japan. Some of them only touch the surface of the education system. Others jump into the pool and attend meetings, counsel students, and interact with their co-workers in fluent Japanese and without linguistic barriers. If these teachers also play a role in how students’ futures are determined, i.e. what colleges they apply to and attend, where they look for jobs, there’s another level of depth.

Being involved in how students apply for schools, how the private and public schools work, the relationships between “juku” cram schools, universities, and the private and public schools, and how the finances of the process work sheds light on the “exam hell” people often talk about in reference to Japan. What I am mean is that it is “exam hell” for some and in some ways, but for many the process is smoother and more “heavenly” than the process is for some in the West.

OK. I went a bit long here, but I’m making my point to people who are actually involved with Japan on the level that I mean, and not simply fans of Japan from a distance with only access to English language portrayals of the country.

Like many things, Japanese culture and language are not as shallow a thing as “overworked businessmen who don’t want to lose face”. There is always more to the story, however in the case of Japan, often the rest of the story is often only told in Japanese, or left unspoken.

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