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Why I Don’t Like Reading the Japanese News

October 18th, 2006

There are too many stories like this one [short-lived link]:

Woman, who made 9-year-old stepdaughter eat rubbish off floor, arrested

There are just too many stories about horrendously depressing personal tragedies in the Japanese press, more often than not having to do with child abuse and family members killing each other. A few examples from the last few week’s news include:

  • Woman commits suicide after losing boyfriend in derailment
  • Aichi man sentenced to life in prison for killing 6 relatives
  • Osaka man arrested for beating woman, letting her freeze to death
  • Mother given 12-year prison term for starving 19-year-old son to death
  • Body of woman wanted for questioning in deaths of Nagano family found in river
  • Three found dead with nails stuck in their heads in Nagano home
  • Couple admits to strangling woman in Gunma apartment
  • Aichi woman slashed by knife-wielding stranger
  • Driver who killed 4 children in Saitama caused accident in May due to same reason

— Stories gleaned from Japan Today

Now, I’m not one of those people who want the press only to publish feel-good, positive news stories; I simply have little desire to read about the gruesome details about how badly individuals abuse each other, and the Japanese press simply seems to me to have far more than the usual share of stories about how people abuse, maim, and kill each other, with the grisly details spelled out in the headlines so you can’t avoid cringing at them.

I’m not sure about this, but I really started seeing this trend grow in the 1990’s. In the 80’s, there would be some stories of this nature, but not so many. However, after the bursting bubble and economic decline between those decades, I started seeing a lot more in this vein, especially after a few landmark stories, like the serial killer of little girls who had massive amounts of porn in his apartment, and the student who decapitated another student and put the head in a storage locker at a train station. This was about the same time that Japan fell from it’s superior Japan-is-safe mentality, when people were afraid to travel to places like Hawaii for fear of the horrible crime wave that awaited them; that reversed in the 90’s as people saw Japan as falling apart, full of crime–despite the actual crime stats not wavering all that much.

There is some personal preference involved in my reaction as well; I am averse to news which peers too closely into the private lives of others. I deliberately avoid reading the stories about celebrities’ private lives; I could not tell you much if anything at all about Michael Jackson’s escapades, Britney Spear’s baby troubles, Brangelina’s bouts with paparazzi, or Madonna’s current adoption story, outside of what I glance in the headlines as I pass the stories by. I could care less. But the same goes for the private lives of anyone, doubly so for depressing stories. Maybe I’m just not a people person, but I just don’t want to hear about it. I’d sooner read stories about local zoning ordinance changes discussed in the city council chambers.

(OK, I’ll fess up to approving of the spilling of details about Republican politicians’ private lives, but only because [a] they sell themselves as the high-family-values-and-morals crowd, an [b] they do the same in spades to Democrats–it’s more of a sauce-for-the-goose kind of thing.)

Part of this is also my standing on what the press should be reporting. Zoning ordinances aren’t sexy, but they are relevant and important. People’s private melodramas are sexy, but have zero relevance to anyone not immediately related to the participants, unless it somehow or other touches on law or social issues.

And I seriously believe that news organizations should be restricted when it comes top reporting on private matters. Yes, I know, the First Amendment in inviolate–but not when it conflicts with other rights just as important. You can’t publish libel, you can’t incite murder, etc.

And it seems to me that freedom of the press was intended to report to people about what was happening publicly, so as to lead to an informed population; it was not intended to make the entire population into an inviolate peeping tom. Gossip columns, “news” stories about personal affairs and dalliances, and stories about others’ personal details might be entertaining to most, but that does not make them protected. The right to a free press is being taken and abused in a way that I do not see as necessary for maintaining a free press; I do not believe that gossip is a necessary evil.

Just as much as I believe in the right to a free press, I believe in the right to privacy; and where there is a conflict, the freedom of the press should only win out in cases where public relevancy can be demonstrated. I think that this is a clear enough distinction that there would be no risk to losing the true protections of the First Amendment were this to be enforced.

Okay, I’ve strayed a bit. But there is a common thread here–we really should stop nosing into the private affairs of strangers. For me, that’s easy: I have no desire to in the first place. But for those who love it, it is still none of their business, and only serves to harm.

This all brings to mind a line I very much enjoyed from an episode of the new TV show Ugly Betty (a surprisingly good new series), where a fashion gossip show host smugly told her audience: “Remember, we only make other people feel bad to make you feel good.”

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