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Japanamerica: Why Fry Got Fried

By Roland Kelts.

I was supposed to be on a plane from New York to Tokyo earlier this month to shoot a segment for a BBC documentary on language and visual culture, both of which I write and care about deeply. Aside from being a half-Japanese raised in America and living in both countries, I have come to appreciate the uniquely visual nature of expression in Japan, from its ideographic language to its digitally animated landscape, and what it might tell us about the futures we are all rapidly inhabiting.

I have also been startled by the degree to which Westerners, especially the young, have been drawn to cultural artifacts, manga, anime and fashion, from an archipelago so far from their own shores, and so fundamentally different in nature and history. I wrote about these unexpected convergences in Japanamerica.

The BBC show was to be hosted by Stephen Fry, the British celebrity and author. Fry is ubiquitous in England, as I discovered when I lived in London, and I was immediately attracted to the opportunity to meet him and stroll around Tokyo game parlors and maid cafes, jousting with his wit and engaging his curiosity.

In early January, someone kindly sent me a link through Twitter about a potentially explosive story. The satirical BBC quiz show, QI, ran a segment called “the world’s unluckiest man,” featuring the late Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the most well-known survivor of both atomic bombs dropped thus far, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In typical British fashion, the show asked whether Yamaguchi might be the unluckiest man, or the luckiest, given that he survived both bombs and lived to 93.

In video footage, one can easily see, if one speaks and understands English fluently, that the hosts are tiptoeing around the obvious offense, trying to strike a balance between humor and respect. How could one man even catch a train to Nagasaki from Hiroshima after the first bombing, the hosts ask, when in the UK, trains are stopped for leaves falling across the track?

Still, the footage didn’t play well in Japan. And in this age of instantaneous visual language, all subtlety was lost, especially on reactionary right-wing Japanese folks keen to kick up a fight.

In response to a formal complaint from the Japanese Embassy, the BBC issued a formal apology on behalf of Fry and cohorts. Last week, after being informed of where I would meet the crew, host and director for lunch, I was told the entire shoot would need to be canceled. Threats against Fry’s welfare were dutifully recorded and conveyed by the embassies. Not a good time for him to visit Japan.

Naturally, I have personal reasons behind my disappointment. I was hoping to meet Fry, hoping to get exposure for my work, and most important, hoping to have another outlet for explaining Japan’s unique visual culture to a broader audience.

But the event also reminds me of how illiterate visual culture can become. We like to celebrate our many facile contacts via digital media, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or others, but how well do we actually know one another? A simple explanation of the BBC’s wry asides about Yamaguchi would have gone a long way toward rescuing Fry’s reputation in Japan. He is suddenly seen as a villain, when mere entertainment was clearly his goal.

Humor rarely travels well, which is why counterexamples are so special. When I hosted an evening with Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami at UC Berkeley a few years ago, I was struck by how well he understood his American audience, making successful jokes about missing a World Series playoff game and a meeting with Radiohead’s Tom Yorke in Tokyo just to be on stage, and how Californians in the audience should consider themselves lucky that he’d showed up.

As globalization renders our borders less rigid, we’re all going to need such wits to stay sane, I think. And a bit of forgiveness can go a long way toward understanding.


Roland Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S..

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 14th, 2011.