Japan Today



The Japanese media and its Orwellian nature

By Ryo Takahashi

The year was 1948 -- and George Orwell had just finished writing his magnum opus, a dystopian fiction novel depicting a society where Big Brother rules the people with an iron fist. Published in 1949 (this is why most people overlook the fact that “1984″ was really just a play on 1948, when the book was written), the book has since been a must-read in secondary education.

In “1984,” one of Big Brother’s primary objectives is to minimalize the vocabulary of the people. For instance, you wouldn’t need words like “great” or “excellent” if you could take a rather generic word like “good” and simply change it to “doublegood” or “doubleplusgood.” In this manner, the ministry that oversees the shortening of the dictionary (and thus the peoples’ vocabulary), systematically and deliberately impedes the ability for people to express sophisticated ideas. This was instrumental toward achieving a more complete dictatorship, for what better to enslave the mind of man by stripping him of his mode of expression?

So, what do Big Brother in “1984″ and the Japanese media have in common? They are both culpable in preventing people from attaining higher forms of verbal expression. Japanese television, apart from being unhealthily obsessed with the trivial, sensational, scandalous and irrelevant, plays a part in making certain words and phrases “stick” (using Malcolm Gladwell’s terminology here.)

This is no more evident in how overused the word “kawaii” is today among the younger generation of Japanese women. “Kawaii,” a word which means “cute,” is used to describe a dog, a man, an object, you name it. Well, that doesn’t seem very problematic, until one realizes that the ability of the word “kawaii” to describe, say, a dog and a man at the same time is evidence of mental laziness.

Let me clarify. Say, a girl sees an adorable, heartwarming little poodle with round, curious eyes. This poodle is “kawaii.” Later on in the day, she sees in a fashion magazine a young, idolized Japanese male star with the whole feminine-unisex-guy thing going on. He, too, is “kawaii.”

Ahh. Now we see here that “kawaii” is an all-encompassing form of expression. If she likes it, it is “kawaii.” There is little incentive for young women to pick up, say, a classic Japanese novel and delve in its rich forms of expression because all of the people they look up to, who just so happen to be idols they see on TV, use the word “kawaii” so rampantly that if a device was created to pick up its use in Japan, it would have quite simply overheated.

Of course, not every woman is glued to the TV. In addition, watching TV is not morally untenable. But whatever happened to picking up a book? Whatever happened to going to a cafe and letting your mind explore the worlds created by the great writers that our society had birthed? Whatever happened to the freedom envisioned by Locke, where men would engage in public discourse and debate the common good?

Japan is, if it hasn’t already, descending into a state of mobocracy, a low-brow union of citizens concerned only with the trivial, sensational, scandalous and irrelevant. These four that I’ve just enumerated are all things that the Japanese media spew out and saturate Japan’s citizens with daily.

Looks like the agenda of that of Big Brother and the Japanese media are the same in regards to peoples’ vocabulary: truncate, truncate, truncate.

What room is left for a better polis, when the media, in all its notorious glory, have eroded any vestiges of a public sphere? How can there be an enriched public discourse when all you see on TV are one-hit-wonder comedians doing some 30-second skit, flailing their arms for a few extra months of prime-time viewing? How can the men and women of Japan be encouraged to open books, when the media encourage them to duplicate the immaculate looks of the people on TV who literally have their own hairdressers, nutritionists and the works?

I blame the Japanese media for the impoverished state of public discourse in Japan. This, I believe, is morally reprehensible, for the media has a role to play as the organ that voices how sophisticated and cultured a nation is.

Et tu, Brutus?

The writer is a student at the University of Tokyo.

© Japan Today

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This guy makes some nice--if rather obvious--points.

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I agree - nice but rather obvious. I gave away my TV a long time ago - the standard and content of J-TV tends to be extremely poor, lowbrow and nonsensical. I couldn't call it entertainment. Time for a shake up of the media perhaps? However, these things come in cycles, so let's hope that kids of the future don't mindlessly follow mindless media bores. Media, government and schools need to promote reading - it's better brain work than TV and magazines. Kawaii and sugoi - yes, I wish they'd find another adjectives. A point: the title 1984 is widely known to have been 1948 twisted around, so in fact it's not true that it is overlooked by most.

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Whatever happened to the freedom envisioned by Locke, where men would engage in public discourse and debate the common good?

It's interesting to see such statement from a Japanese writer. I've never met a Japanese person who would hang on to any controversial discussion and not quickly terminate it in one or the other way, whether in private or public. This is one of the things which I'm really missing in Japan. If the people can't handle it, how can you expect the media - or politicians - to be different?

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Japan has done it's upmost to 'dumb down' the entire population - like any communist power would do. The media is a powerful weapon for the management of information and I've found that all Japanese people generally believe anything they're told, simply because they saw it on TV or read about it in the papers. The government has created a subservient population of people with genrally low IQs who lost all their critical, logical, and intelligible thinking skills. When people start to think it gives them ideas and ideas are dangerous when the mailable populace starts to question. The result is, indeed, an Orwellian society that is structured and ordered.

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It would help if the author new the correct spelling of "dystopian".

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Why is it when ever some1 like Foggia tries to correct some one elses speling, they two make a mistake? "new" -> "knew"

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Is the stupidity of the media/ gaming/ net culture really any different in Japan than the US or other countries? And he wasted the chance of not tying it all into 1984 more, in that we are willfully being made stupid for the sake of control.

One other thing. I can't agree w/ the writer's and other commenter's complaints about the John Locke and free debate issue.

Anyone who says that just does not understand Japanese culture. The way of debate, solving problems and making human relationships is different here. You may miss something you had back home, but that is different than saying it is necessary in this society, and that its lack is evidence of a bad society.

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lowly, the media dumb down very badly in Japan. My Japanese wife cannot believe it after we watch shows in the similiar vein on British Tv on the PC. I have been in Japanese society a lot longer than you,unless you are really old of course and i can tell you the debate is not there and nor os free thinking compared to the West. Tos ay otherwise is to display ignorance or to lie.

don`t nick pick at little things, accpet in every country things need to change. Being a Japanophile and saying "it is different" is not an argument.

Japan has positives, but in this respect it is sdoing badly, it is dumbed down. it is not culture or debate it is sinking to low depths and presching anything out of the norm is not good.

Anyone who can`t see that in Japan dos not understand Japanese as well as they may think.

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this is only one facet of the Orwellian future that is coming to pass . in every country . god help us .

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sorry, steve, don't know how long you've been here, but I've been here 15 yrs and have high-level involvement in several organizations and personal relationships with difficulties overcome and not overcome continuing over many years, and that is what I am basing my comment on. I am not a Japanophile, although I admit I don't know what it means. I suppose it to mean a fan of Japan. I am not a fan. I am just a living working thinking person interacting with his surroundings and trying to do it better day by day. That means among other things looking at what I am saying, what I really want to say, and seeing how that is taken by the others I am in contact with and by keeping in mind what the real goal is, whatever we are working on at the time. I didn't say jpn was good or bad, just different.

We, in the west, apologies if you're not from the west, have a tendency to want things to be rational, explained, and above all we like reasons very much. This article and some commenters mentioned Jpn could be better if they had John Locke and debate. When I first came I often said the same things. However, I no longer share that belief, and I think it shows a lack of understanding of how things are done here. (This is not saying that every organization in Japan is healthy, 'right', better etc. Just that debate and rationalism of the West is not the only way to grow and solve problems). Here the approach is less reasons and right vs wrong, and more feeling, keeping things vague, discerning the other person's feelings on your own without having to be told explicitly, and choosing the best direction from there. In such an environment debate and stubborn reason-mongering can leave everyone with a bad taste in their mouth and if forced, really wreck the relationship/ project being worked on.

I therefore cannot agree with some of the things the article and other commenters have said.

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Lowly, I completely agree with you.

And this writer is acting like this is the first time we're seeing "dumb people" - as if this is some sort of revolution.

Every generation has its critics saying that "things are going down hill from here" and that "it was better in my day." And what do you know? We're still here.

I don't think the "kawaii" example is very good either. It's not even close to what Orwell describes in his novel, and is a counterpart to an extremely common thing around the world; in other words, every language has a general purpose "good" word.

And what is this talk from ninjaboy about communist agendas? Please. Japanese people do not believe everything they're told, even if it might look like they do. The fact of the matter is Japanese people are very polite and focus on preserving harmony - therefore, they're not going necessarily going to challenge everything they think might be wrong.

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Lowly, i dont expect things to be the same as in my home country, but to say it isnt towing the officail line which is followed by most Japanese, is naive.

An example is the Taiji and Whaling debate. I watched numerous Japanese channels and every one without exception totally supported whalers and dolphin hunters. When an involved party was interviewed it was always on the side of the whalers or dolphin hunters. Every single presenter on news or wide show and guest i may add attacked the "foretgners" as racist, not undrstanding our traditiond etc.

This isOrwellian nature, where they are scared of raocking the boat. Your voice is stifled, or your job is at risk. lowly , you kn ow i am telling the truth here. This is the problem.

If a presenter or "talent" said tehy supported Sea Shepherd for example, they would be out, gone finished, at least for a year or two. opponenst of what is state , will say "give an example", but there is none, becaus eof fear to do as i said. They would feel like traitors as big brother and the influential right wing nutters monitor the media.

The Orwellian nightmare is alive and well in Japan and free press and expression suffers, this cannot be denied.

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I think what the article and some posters have mentioned re Locke and debate vs Orwellianism and 1984 are separate issues.

Debate, how to solve problems and work w/ppl I wrote about above, though I could write more.

As to Orwellianism, I wrote that in my first post. Is it really any different here than in my home country of the US? How many newspapers and tv stations does rupert murdoch own? Like, around the world? Orwellianism is a real part of power and control in the modern media-driven world. Your example of whaling, however, is not the best one . I think most Japanese are simply not interested in whaling one way or another. But when they see protesters coming and saying Japan is doing something bad, they feel their culture is under attack, despite the fact, or maybe Because of the fact that they are not personally interested in whaling. Therefore I think there are few or no "subversives" who want to say they are anti-whaling but they are being shut-up by the 1984-like controllers. You might be able to find other issues where that is so, however, again,

Is it really any different than other modern countries?

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Lowly, we agree on the matter of them being "shut up" in Japan, i may state not everyone but a alrge majority.

I don`t knwo your country Lowly, but on British tv and other media, they go mad against the government and also whatever tehy beleive in most cases.

I garee that Murdochs grubby empire leaves a bad taste in the mouth, i would suspect especially in the USA with his Fox news channel.

Japanese media though have a fear of going against tyhe grain.Big brother doesn`t allow it. whatever influence Murdoch or similar have, media do go against the part line and brodacsters and newspapers do often go agasints public opinion. In Japan that does not happen. Anyone who did would lose their job and be an outcast, it is a fact.

Big Brother in Japan may be weaker than Russia and China, but much stronger than Europe and America.

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I agree up to a point. But. This is where the big brother idea and the rationalism vs feeling idea connect.

In jpn ppl don't really push their opinions on others. It's not that they don't have them, and it's not that they don't value them, but they view opinions and personal taste as something private and not even relevevant to public debate. (This is the same reason why jpns society can seem permissive and 'amoral' to outsiders. Another's likes/ dislikes don't concern oneself and it's not one's job to impose one's own moral system on another person. It's up to them to live or die, succeed or fail).

Westerners are constantly trying to convince each other that something is right or wrong. It could be morality, like whales, or it could be like a rock band or movie you like. We feel the need to broadcast and convince someone to agree with us that Yes or Pearl Jam is the best band, and here's why. It's almost religious, like you are a missionary for the Church of Pearl Jam, or Batman.

Jpns have no such urge. THerefore public debate on both the national lvl and the local level of friends/ neighborhoods doesn't revolve around those things and convincing, etc.

So the silence you feel in Jpn, to put an arbitrary number on it, is only half due to brainwashing/ modern media stupidity/ 1984. The other half is due to a view of the world where that opinion/reason-broadcasting-based behavior is unnecessary. I don't know that jpn is any worse than US etc., just quieter. The whole live/ let live attitude may actually mean they are less brain washed than in the West. But who knows. Are you sure you're not brainwashed?

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I'm sorry but cell phones are far more influential in peoples lives.

If you are going to get all excited and invoke Orwell a more interesting piece of opining would ask what he would have made of 'twittering' Iranian students fighting the mullahs, Chinese miners w/cell phones filming Chinese cops terrorizing villagers and J-kids writing whole novels in text format (keitai shosetsu)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/world/asia/20japan.html

"Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels."

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Steve, you must not watch or understand many news programs in Japan. Have you seen "News Zero?" They represent the opinions of the masses, the "newscasters" express personal opinions, and they often criticize the government. In fact, my Japanese wife was just reading an article posted on the web by a Japanese person criticizing the J-media for trying to get athletes to make negative comments (ie. asking leading questions).

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Watch the Century of Self and The Trap by Adam Curtis. See how well shaped we are. Japan has been an incredible 'success' story of mass order.

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As for the recent "dumbing down" of Japanese people watching TV, I firmly believe this can be attributed to "Shinsuke." How I detest this man. His shows are crap. However, most adults I know also hate him and how he insults the entire nation's intelligence on his shows. Perhaps some posters here know about the "Rekijo" boom. Young ladies who love reading up on history and visiting historical places. One more thing ... this article was written by a student. You just have to live life longer to understand certain things.

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The media in J is so dumb, that I stoped watching TV years ago. Long exposure can flaten your brain wavelentgh.

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Yes the media is hopeless in Japan. It's no more than a pastime. But just the other day I watched a quiz program in which panelists are asked to guess a masked phrase in a blank space of a senryu (a sort of haiku). Then I realized that a haiku even if it expresses emotions is basically composed of depiction of deeds or objective facts using terse trimmed words. Truncation and ingeniousness is part of the culture. And you will seldom find "kawaii" used in there either. So perhaps we have not been stripped of our mode of expression completely as yet.

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This article picked out just one of the elements of '1984' and one feature of Japanese TV. I think it hardly proves anything. In this vein I could probably choose any book from my shelf and run a story how Japanese culture is like 'The Lord of the Rings' or 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'.

What's more, limiting the number of used words in Orwell's book served as a means of thought control. In Japan the overuse of words like 'kawaii' doesn't have a in-built purpose but rather simply reflects the society's preference for niceties and cuteness. There's an underlying pressure for harmony, for avoiding conflict in Japanese culture, which probably has a stronger influence on Japanese media style than the other way round. Whether this pressure can be compared to thought control is a matter for another discussion.

The fact that 'kawaii' is used to describe a man as well as a dog doesn't mean anything, since both dogs and men can be cute. There are dozens of other adjectives which can describe a man, a dog, as well as a house or a meal. 'Big' is just one example.

Perhaps Japanese doesn't have as many synonyms as English does, but nevertheless the richness and complexity of the local tongue is often the main subject of many TV programs I have glimpsed on Japanese TV. Quite recently I saw a few game shows where the participants had to correctly identify rare and obscure kanji, or where a distinguished professor explained some of the intricacies of Japanese. True, most of these programs are shown in an entertaining, easy to digest format, but personally I prefer it to the sleep-inducing talking heads style of Melvyn Bragg.

To sum up, we have here false premises and false conclusions, barely touching on the problem of Japanese media and its relation to Japanese modern culture. The shortage of serious discussions and hard talks stems from Japanese nature rather than from an Orwellian conspiracy to dumb down the nation.

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...and the correct spelling of knew is, well, k-n-e-w.

Everything must be dumbed down, including (especially) discourse. There must be no capacity of critical thought and introspection. The public requires entertainments... bread and circuses. Plato's Analogy of the Cave comes to mind and the flashing lights projected on the wall have merely become more entrancing and desperate even.

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I think the first misconception in this article is that it is "the Media's" responsibility to educate Japan. One can easily say that Media is influential, but does it have a responsibility to teach your children? As an admirer of Japanse Culture and a Novice of the Nippon language, I find that one of the languages greatest achievements is it's ability to express wonderfully complex concepts in a simple word. Isn't that the purpose of language to begin with? With the speed at which a young person is required to grow mentally in this age, which I might add has increased exponentially since 1984 was written, I find the argument that Silly Japanese TV is having a negative effect on people's ability to express themselves fully and articulately moot. Instead I submit that entertainment is as it always has been, recreational. It does not have to stimulate the entire brain or vocabulary. Perhaps, it's inversely related to the amount of mental agility man is required to have to day in occupation or academia.

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I agree with all statement; already in "My fair lady" we learn that nobody is teaching the youth how to speak anymore. So we see a continued trend.

The question though is of the chicken and egg sort. Did the media dumb down the viewers or are the viewers so dumb that they created the content by demanding it in the first place.

At the end it comes down to the point that our modern world leads us to search for instant gratification. No wonder women give when asked about their favorable hobby as answer shopping, with a staggering 99 percentage.

As consequence we see the slow death of traditional hobbies and activities like Ikebana, tee-ceremony, reading a book, deep discussions with loved ones, well even wearing a Kimono. It all takes too much effort to master and to perform.

We all develop into consumption spastics; nothing that had value in the past touches us anymore.

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social control 'through dumbing people down' is evident in most countries media... in countries like japan where the 'individual' as never been at the forefront of society, this trend is much stronger (and easier to manipulate)...as Orwell said - ignorance is wisdom...

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Do you think manga has had the same impact?

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Yes, your right on Ryo! The Japanese media (TV and the like) have contributed to the destruction of relevant mind and language in this society. It's sad and pathetic quite frankly.

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I agree that media consumption leads to the decline of the public-- a.k.a. civic disengagement. Japan, alike the US, and the Europe, is the representative of post-modern capitalism where people are seeing the fragmentation of its culture through growing consumerism, material consumption, urbanization, cultural transgressions, etc. Many JP people are having a hard time living their own lives these days as they are obsessed with consumerism and technology to keep up with the Jones. The author should cite Barbar's "Consumed"

I blame the Japanese media for the impoverished state of public discourse in Japan.

I'm not very convinced with this. JP media can be held responsible for the decline of JP public, but they alone do not render the public discourse impenetrable. They do keep disseminating the discourse in a way to detract the public. The state is also held accountable for social control-- revising the legal system, tax codes, education policy, and voting rights. And what does the media say about the cultural assumptions and norms on Japanese public and life?

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detract the public

detract the public from sound judgments

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this article appears to have an overwhelming similarity to American Culture.. most of our media (but not all) is the worst dribble.. and its getting worse! take your average reality tv program geared towards youth culture on Mtv, VH1, etc.. Can anyone honestly tell me that Real Housewives of New Jersey is going to further our nation?? haha

If anything is crippling our popular culture of variegated linguistics, its the cell phone and all it's texting glory! Even as i'm typing this comment, i am already struggling to compose complete sentences and thoughts, and correct spellings to bring the point of this article across. Oh yes, and i could not resist the 'i haz cheezburger' relevance to my argument ;)


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This article is a good example of the dumbing down of Japanese popular culture it talks about. Poor premise, poor argument, unwarranted conclusion. From someone at the prestigious U of Tokyo. My my.

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Japanese literature is of awesome proportion, and people read book all the time here, just take a train and witness that. Even people on their cellphone may actually be reading books, and those cellphone books are especially popular with young women, the exact same ones usually deemed the most empty headed. True those cellphone books hold probable little literary value to the classic-educated people, but it's part of the voice of this generation, and it still is reading material.

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Cheers to you, Takahashi-san, for perceiving what many refuse to even contemplate. This is one of the most astute pieces I have seen on JT.

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Although correct in the assessment that Japanese media could be responsible for the degradation of intelligence in Japan, the example regarding the overuse of the word "kawaii" is not a strong one. Please try again.

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Wait, I think the author has failed to take into account the socio-anthropological aspects of Japanese language as a communication tool. It's an unfair comparison to make between the situation in 1984, where the government has made a systematic effort to simplify the language, and the Japanese language where context and non-verbal cues have been traditionally emphasized over verbal communications. There are some parallels that could be drawn, but to base the major argument on this connection is faulty.

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M51T at 04:23 AM JST - 28th March

Do you think manga has had the same impact?

I remember the ex-PM Aso. He is famous for be a big fan of read manga and become infamous for have problems in reading some kanjis during spechs. Some people criticized him for use to often the phrase "nantonaku".

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Good article, but it's a stretch to say there's a fundamental problem with any language that uses kawaii to describe both a dog and human. The English language - with the most diverse vocabulary in human history - also allows you to say cute about both a dog and human every day.

That said, this article has an English bias that comes from Anglo-saxon assumptions about how many words a language should have. English is in the extreme minority here in human history, because almost every other language including the vast majority of Europe also repeat words rather than choose diversity of expression. English is so uniquely fixated and obsessed with this that it is a rule in English that you vary vocabulary when possible by using synonyms - something unthinkable in most languages. English is uniquely obsessed with synonyms, to the point that there are words that occur 2-3 times per billion billion words in English literature.

Other than that, good work.

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Lerner is spot on and in fewer words. That's some deep irony there.

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lerner and bdiego- I agree. It cracks me up to see so many people using more sophisticated language than they are used to, in the "me too" responses to this article.

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What room is left for a better polis, when the media, in all its notorious glory, have eroded any vestiges of a public sphere?

This is a pretty good example of author's problematic assumption. He equates the Japanese democracy with a classical bourgeois model of public sphere proposed by Jürgen Habermas. The author ignores the possibilities that media’s domination and cultural jamming can instigate the critical and emotional (and sometimes irrational) responses from the public. This is exactly what we are seeing in most of the western world today. And, even in Japan, some people involve in social/democratic engagement when the stakes are high(such as relocation of US military base in Okinawa, Sea Sheppard ‘s radical anti-whaling campaign).

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amerijap is my example-

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There are like a quarter of a million English words. Most languages don't have this many words because they have not been bastardaized to the extend English has. I dont think people on TV in Japan saying Kawaii a lot os dumbing people down.

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umedayo- It cracks me up to see so many people using more sophisticated language than they are used to, in the "me too" responses to this article.

amerijap is my example-

Yeah, that's exactly what the critique is all about. You've got to articulate your ideas in a way to make your point crystal clear, and avoid using ambiguous words and circular logic just like Japanese writings and conversations.

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Japanese TV is so banal, and so mind-blowingly boring, that I seldom watch it. Thank God for satellite TV - although it is becoming more and more like rdinary TV, with its endless commercials. This is a good article - and it highlights the bad inbfluence on the general population that TV here has. Japanese language and society has been ruined by Japanese TV.

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I rather think The popular word "Orwellian" really has been misused and again overused here nowadays compared to "kawaii", its more and more losing meaningless which can be very dangerous when actual Orwellianism is happening.

Orwellianism is another popular word for when the government totally controls your life and disregard privacy which isn't the case here.

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How about banning the kisha clubs and focusing on real journalism? TV doesn't have to be educational, but it ought to be at least doing its job of holding government accountable.

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