Street View Japan and Weak Journalism

August 25, 2009

I use google alerts as a great way to get news about certain specific topics that I have an interest in. I have a google alert for “kindle japan” because I’ve written about my what I want from the Kindle in the past, my wish that it would be able to handle manga, and that Amazon would work with Japanese publishers so that I could read my Japanese novels on a Kindle as well.

Another google alert I have set up is for “street view japan”. This is actually my least favorite google alert… the reason is that any time there is any tiny protest against google street view, any time there is an anti-google street view comment on any tiny blog anywhere in the world, I get an alert because the news story, blog post, or letter to grandma that comes up in my alert inevitably refers to the ”

Recently there is word that the Swiss government would like Google to cease filming with their street view cameras in Switzerland. Many of the stories also bring up the “protests” against Google street view that took place in Japan. The problem is that there were no protests that I know of, there were bulletin boards on which the legality and appropriateness of Google street view was debated. Later Google lowered its cameras to film again, but this was not a response to these “protests” or “outraged bloggers”, this was just the right thing to do for a Japan with tiny streets. The higher cameras were unable to get good shots of some of Japan’s major streets which happen to be really tiny roads with 2 lanes which require cars traveling in opposite directions to slow down and make room for each other.

I am not saying that there were not a certain number of people speaking out against Google street view in Japan, I am saying that the case of Japan is a horrible example of people considering street view a violation of privacy and “forcing” Google to acquiesce to their demands for privacy. Google street view exists in Japan and is often used by people who know of it. There are enough people that don’t even know enough about street view in Japan to want to protest it.

I also mentioned in other posts how many businesses and cultural centers are welcoming street view Japan with open arms as a means of getting publicity. When the google street view tricycles were introduced in Japan, many of the temples and smaller areas in Japan jumped at the chance to have their streets and roads filmed.

I think the weak journalism that we see here also a sign of the “pop-japanology” I often mention on the blog. See my short editorial rant on how Japan is represented on CNN. There is a belief somewhere in the media that Japan is an easy country to explain, and that such basic ideas as “saving face” and “being shy” and “the education system making them automatons” can be used to explain behavior in Japan.

These are undoubtedly people unfamiliar with the intricacies of Japanese society (which are surprisingly similar to American society and other cultures and societies… funny that with all of us being HUMAN, there would be similarities, and complexities) who believe that things are simple and one-sided. They follow the rules. They are polite. They are shy. They don’t want to lose face. They take care of their elderly. They respect teachers. I could write a few more pages detailing things I have heard said about people in Japan (with no reference or evidence). Some of the worst perpetrators are people who have lived in Japan for a year or two without learning the language or culture on a deeper level and come away with a lot of misconceptions based on having lived in Japan as a “guest” for two years. I liken this to people vacationing in Hawaii for a few weeks and thinking that Americans go to the beach and eat out every day based on their experience there.

This article in Business Weekly about the Swiss Ban on Street View claims that the cameras for street view in Japan were lowered because the Japanese government “insisted” they be lowered. However, it seems more likely that Google decided internally to do what was best for the company and customers they served. There was a committee formed in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, but there was no overt edict issued.

I’ve written a long article to make my point, but I do believe that there needs to be better fact checking in articles referring to Japan, and more open-eyed, open-minded view of the reality of Japan. It is difficult to understand Japan culturally on the level of someone raised here, but part of that is because there is not a lot of conscious self-reflection happening here. There are not a lot of watchdogs from the media, or tell-it-like-it-is radicalism going on.

I also believe that there is room for a lot more, deeper study of the spoken language in Japan. Scholars often talk about the indirectness of the Japanese language, but I find it quite direct, although I understand that if you thought of the English language counterparts to the Japanese words that are spoken, one might think the people are being indirect when they speak. Trust me, however, when I say that those words in Japanese can be as direct as a sentence in Hemingway novel no matter how flowery and oblique they may seem.