Saturday, April 21, 2007

Virginia Tech Massacre Explained on TV for Japanese Kids

Virginia Tech Massacre Explained on TV for Japanese Kids

There is no element of polemic in this blog entry. It is simply an account of what was shown on Japanese TV on the evening of Saturday 21 April 2007.

NHK, the state-funded TV outfit in Japan, has a regular Saturday evening program called Kodomo News, which translates literally as "child news," ie news for children. (Technically, "kodomo" can be read as either a singular or a plural, so the word could be translated as "child" or "children.)

The format of Kodomo News is that an adult presenter will explain something to a group of kids in the studio. The kids are aged maybe 13 or 14, the age of the junior high school kids who are the target audience for this program.

I've taught at Japanese junior high schools in Japan so I'm familiar with some of the state-approved English language textbooks used by the Japanese system in junior high schools. The textbooks sometimes deal with historical material that adult Japan is not keen to confront, such as the oppressive treatment of Koreans when Japan was the imperial master of Korea. Additionally, there are lessons in which the kids are deliberately brought face to face with the harsher realities of the planet on which they live. They're now in the process of becoming young adults and so the system does not think that reality should be sanitised for them.

Kodomo News, then, has news presented by an adult, with the kids in the studio supplying emotional reaction and asking scripted kid-level questions. Graphics, models and cartoons are used to help get the meaning across.

It's very well done, and, if it's on, I often watch it to try to get a better grip on some breaking news story that I've seen on the adult news but had difficulty following.

On Saturday 21st, Kodomo News began the Virginia Tech segment with a bare outline of the grisly statistics. We then saw a photo of the killer, whose name was given. The photo was clear enough for you to be able to make out his features clearly, but it was small in relation to the size of the TV screen. It was a portrait view, no guns in sight.

My grasp of Japanese is not strong, so possibly I missed something, but I got the impression that his ethnicity was not mentioned. He is, of course, Korean-born, though raised in the States since early childhood, and the context here is that, in Japan, there is quite a bit of prejudice against Koreans.

(That said, on the occasions when I have students from Korea show up in my English classes, there is never any suggestion of any tension between them and the Japanese students. The interaction between Korean students and Japanese students proceeds in a friendly and cheerful manner.)

The bare facts of the massacre having been established, the program then got down to the big question, the big question from a Japanese perspective: exactly how was it that this guy was allowed to buy a gun?

The answer was given in a single word, "history." It was explained that, way back when, America was at war with the British, so Americans thought everyone should have a gun so they could fight the British if the need arose.

The program made no effort to explain that America is not currently at war with Britain, because if you're 13 or 14 years old and watch TV in Japan then you know perfectly well who America is currently at war with, since you see bomb blast aftermaths and combat footage on Japanese TV on a regular basis.

The program then explained that there is nothing "mezurashii," ie nothing rare, about having guns on sale. Not in America. We saw a cartoon of a mom and pop shop in the States with guns on the walls for sale, mingled with other merchandise.

(I appreciate that, in America, guns are generally sold in gun shops, and I'm sure the Kodomo News producers understand that guns are not on sale along with American groceries, but they were simplifying things to communicate the key point, which is that the sale of guns is, for America, normative.)

The Japanese term for "constitution" was then explained, as the average kid aged 13 or 14 does not understand the concept of a constitution. And then we saw on screen the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

One of the advantages of the Japanese writing system is that by using Chinese characters you can put even the most complex word on a TV screen with just one or two ideograms. This meant that the whole text of the Second Amendment could be shown on TV in large print, very easy to read even for eye-damaged me.

The program then spent some time explaining why the Second Amendment trumped common sense, and why American politicians had their hands tied over this matter.

That matter dealt with, the program moved on to the next subject, which was the crime wave currently sweeping Japan.

There have been, recently, repeated cases of people stealing metal objects for their scrap metal value. Things that have been stolen include temple bells, bells used to sound fire warnings, handles used for irrigation pumps out in the countryside. And now, most recently, swings.

The swings in Japanese playgrounds are very sensibly constructed. Instead of two ropes being used, typically there is are two jointed metal poles, which are easily strong enough to bear the weight of a fully-grown adult. I will often join my daughter on the swings when we are at the playground.

And it is the actual metal of the swings which has, in the latest outbreak of metal looting, become the target of theft.

The Virginia Tech massacre was on the Kodomo News because that show wraps up the entire week's news. Elsewhere, in the adult world, the Virginia shooting spree is no longer a feature of news broadcasts. The planet turns and the world moves on.

But, presumably, for many kids of junior high school age, one of their earliest impressions of America is that it's a shooting range where living breathing human beings are used as targets.

The Kodomo News program did not go out of its way to artificially promote such an image of America, but it did contextualize the Virginia Tech catastrophe by giving us a brief overview of a few of the gun-powered massacres which have taken place in America over the last several years, communicating the message that carnage ground atrocities, while not common, are certainly nothing new in America.

The carnage ground, then, will be entering the consciousness of these Japanese kids as part of their concept of what is meant by the word "America."

At this point I'm tempted, despite my earlier resolution, to launch into the realms of polemic, but I'll let the opportunity pass.

But I invite you, if you're an American, to run a thought experiment on the Virginia Tech atrocity, and imagine how it must seem when seen through the eyes of a Japanese kid, living in a land where the only handguns anywhere in sight are those on the belts of the police officers in the neighborhood police box.

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