by Yuko Kato
This is about the BBC's 'QI' segment on the Japanese man who suffered both bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how the Japanese embassy in London protested to the BBC, how the BBC apologized, and how the Japanese media (even the usually dour Nikkei) are incensed by it all. I write as a Japanese person who has studied in England, grew up on Monty Python, love the Blackadder, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, and The Office (to the extent of splurging on DVD box sets).
A lot of Japanese are infuriated that the BBC of all things dared to trivialize and make fun of a "double-hibakusha", i.e. someone who experienced the atomic bomb both in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To begin with, many Japanese tend to have a favourable impression of the BBC, so there's a sense of having been let down. Et tu, BBC? The reason many Japanese people have this sort-of ongoing, unrequited love-affair with the UK is a historical one, so I'll not venture to explain it here, only to state that it exists. And that since the BBC is the UK's national broadcaster, many Japanese people expect it to be constantly, totally respectable (in fact, many Japanese people have a vague, general impression that all Britons are respectable people. Ah, the myth of the English gentleman!). This should indicate how very little most Japanese people know about Britain.
On the other hand, my impression is that many Britons know precious little about Japan and its sensibilities, in this particular case our raw sensitivity to the atomic bombs; so my verdict of the 'QI' segment is that without any intent of malice, 'QI' was insensitive to the possibility that in this day and age of YouTube, Japanese people might watch and take offense.
In addition, on yet another hand (running out of limbs), the majority of the Japanese public is totally, totally unaware of British comedy and what it's about. Most Japanese have never heard of, let alone seen, such classics as the works of Monty Python, Blackadder (although they do know Mr. Bean), The Office, Little Britain, and lastly but not leastly, 'A Bit of Fry & Laurie'. Most Japanese have absolutely no idea that Hugh Laurie aka Dr. House is actually English and used to be the Prince Regent, or that Stephen Fry is Britain's 'national treasure' (eyes rolling). Hence all the Japanese print media articles I have seen reporting this incident fail to refer to Stephen Fry at all, just calling him "the emcee clad in a Hawaiian shirt."
So, in this sad case, literally a comedy of errors, the lack of knowing and understanding goes both ways. The BBC and the people involved in the QI segment (including Stephen Fry, whom I dearly love) failed to anticipate Japanese sensitivities; and if they had but still went on with the broadcast then that's even worse. For as a Japanese (despite my unabashed love of British comedy), I was very uncomfortable with the segment, especially with the audience tittering. On the other hand (no limbs left), most of the Japanese public have absolutely no idea what British humour is about; they simply don't know that it's a form of expression that strives to tell things like it is, that it's an art form that tries to illuminate all the foolishness and idiosyncracies and negativities of the world through irony. And although members of the Japanese public who are not London correspondents or lead writers of major newspapers don't need to know any of this, I think it's a great shame that the Japanese media people who reported this bit of news showed little if any knowledge or understanding of who Stephen Fry is, or what his brand of humour is about.
So, to recap, as a Japanese, I was rather offended by the QI segment on the man who suffered both atomic bombs (mostly by the audience laughter, not so much by the guests, and not at all by Stephen), but as a lover of British comedy, I understood what they were getting at, and Stephen's repeated observation and professed amazement that the trains were running the day after the Hiroshima bombing was, actually quite funny, ironic, quite interesting (QI), and very Stephen.
It's just a pity that there are very few people who can bridge the gap between Japanese sensitivities and British sense of humour.
By the way, the recent American brouhaha over Ricky Gervais's totally predictable roasting of the Hollywood glitterati also stems from the fact that the 'tell-it-like-it-is' branch of British humour is something of an acquired taste (although in the Golden Globes' case, they should have known they were just asking for it, and besides, Ricky was -- to use his words -- only calling out the elephant in the room. So actually quite mild by Gervais standards, and also qualitatively different from the QI segment).
18 Feb Postscript: I feel I need to add this in the aftermath of the furious debate that followed this blog entry, or more to the point, this entry in which I transcribed/translated the exchange in the show's segment (with subsequent permission from QI Ltd). In it, I spelled out all that was said and asked my readers to make up their own minds whether or not the show was 'mocking' the bomb survivor, as the Japanese press had said. The ensuing debate online was heated and quite interesting.
Many said, 'If this was what they said, then I'm not offended.' Others said, 'I now understand they weren't mocking the survivor but rather mocking the British rail system; nevertheless, I'm still offended. Our A-bomb experience isn't something to be dealt with lightly on a quiz show.' Still many others said, 'I still think they were mocking Mr. Yamaguchi. The subject matter is totally off-limits to any kind of humour, British or otherwise. I remain infuriated.' Also many people were of the opinion that perhaps British people didn't understand the horrors of the bomb and the horrendous after-effects of the burns and radiation poisoning.
And sadly, some people had already made up their minds that the BBC would never make fun of the Holocaust like this, and despite efforts by myself and several other people familiar with British comedy to explain that well, actually, there is this famous Monty Python sketch called the 'The North Minehead Bye-Election'... for those who had already made up their minds to be offended, our efforts were futile. In fact, there is a (I hope small) group of people who have made up their minds to be infuriated and offended no matter what. I say this with great regret, but in the minds of some Japanese, there is a definite 'victim's mindset' with regards the Second World War -- which is, I'm sure, perplexing and exasperating, even infuriating to many non-Japanese people, not just Britons. It is both tragic and ironic that one major cause of this Japanese 'victim mentality' is in fact, the two A-bombs.
Yet, all is not lost, for as I said, many people have realised that the show never, ever meant to mock the sufferings of Mr. Yamaguchi, and that it was all an unfortunate misunderstanding, lost in translation.
(@mizukawaseiwa on twitter)