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 Wai oh why? | FCCJ: The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan

Wai oh why?

by Gavin Blair

Heard about the restaurant in Roppongi where bored rich Japanese who have tried everything can have carnal knowledge of animals before getting carnivorous with them?

Readers of the Mainichi Daily News’ popular WaiWai Web site were treated to an account of said establishment back in September 2007 in a story that had been translated from a monthly men’s subculture magazine.

The story lacked just one element: veracity. Of course, there isn’t such an eatery, and nobody with their mental faculties in even partial working order would believe that there was.

So how did stories like this wind up on the Web site of the only Japanese newspaper company to have won a Pulitzer Prize?

There were those who firmly believed they shouldn’t have, and after angry protests by bloggers, including the ubiquitous “2-channeler” bloggers and an anti-Korean right-wing group, the Mainichi axed WaiWai in June. Some of those claiming it portrayed Japan as a nation of perverts, or even that it led to an increase in sexual assaults on Japanese women abroad, were undoubtedly sincere. For others, it appears to have been simply a politically motivated attack on the Mainichi.

Mainichi Newspapers apologized for offense caused to readers, and Ryann Connell, the editor responsible for the column in recent years, has been suspended for three months. Two senior managers at the digital division have had their salaries cut for a month, and a senior editor and manager have been stripped of their titles for two months and a month, respectively. In addition, the Mainichi has faced criticism from other media outlets, canceled subscriptions and withdrawals from advertisers. Connell, meanwhile, has been the target of threats and abuse, including a video on YouTube, now removed, that called for him to be lynched.

The Mainichi released the following statement on July 20: “The Mainichi Newspapers Co., Ltd. continued to post extremely inappropriate articles in the WaiWai column of the Mainichi Daily News (MDN), its English Web site. We have reported the results of an in-house investigation into the case on Pages 22 and 23 of the July 20 morning edition of the Mainichi Shimbun.

“We continued to post articles that contained incorrect information about Japan and indecent sexual content. These articles, many of which were not checked, should not have been dispatched to Japan or the world. We apologize deeply for causing many people trouble and for betraying the public’s trust in the Mainichi Shimbun.

“The Mainichi Newspapers took punitive measures on July 20 against Managing Director Yoshiyuki Watanabe, who previously served as general manager of the Multimedia Division, and another senior official, to hold them responsible as supervisors, in addition to those who were earlier punished.”

How did it come to this, and why is a nationalist group, whose raison d’etre is to stop Japanese-born “Koreans” from acquiring citizenship and voting rights, so concerned with a column that translated lurid, and often hilariously unbelievable, stories from the Japanese gutter press?

The WaiWai page first appeared in the Monday print edition of the Mainichi Daily News in October 1989, and a team of Western writers, all longtime residents and fluent Japanese readers, scoured the weekly, biweekly and monthly tabloid magazines for stories that otherwise would have often remained undiscovered by non-Japanese. Over the years nearly 20 scribes have undertaken the job of exposing the elements of society that some, as in many countries, would rather keep hidden.

“We did used to get some infuriated complaints, but almost always about stories detailing the cruel treatment of pets, not about sexual content,” recalls a former contributor, who wishes to remain anonymous, given the current climate.

Nine years ago this month, No. 1 Shimbun carried a feature celebrating 10 years of WaiWai written by then-contributor Michael Hoffman. The article detailed debates among the team at the time as to just how much gratuitously shocking, usually sexual, content to include. There is no doubt even then which side of the WaiWai fence Connell, who was already part of the team, stood on.

“Usually, I’ll consider looking closer at a story if its headline mentions something about sex or debauchery,” he was quoted as saying. “There is a bias, no question about it, in favor of the crudely shocking,” Hoffman reported. “In any contest between nuance and sensation, nuance doesn’t stand a chance.”

It wasn’t all high-school prostitutes and kinky salarymen, however. A page pulled at random from the WaiWai archives – March 7, 1993 – contains stories about hay fever, troubles in the car industry, the effects of a strong yen, Japanese tourists getting ripped off abroad and forgotten favorite products of yesteryear. Not a whiff of titillation to be found.

In 2001, the Mainichi Daily News halted the production of its English-language print edition, and WaiWai continued as an online column with the rest of the MDN. Then in April 2004, MDN linked up with Microsoft Japan to form the MSN-Mainichi Interactive Partnership, which lasted until Microsoft switched its allegiance to the right-leaning Sankei Shimbun daily newspaper in September 2007.

It was during this time that WaiWai introduced a system called “People’s Pick” that allowed readers to vote for one of 10 headlines from that week’s tabloid stories that they would most like to see translated in full. No gold stars for guessing the results of this experiment in interactive journalism – any headlines that carried even a hint of sex were the overwhelming choice, week after week.

WaiWai translations came to lean increasingly toward sex, with occasional forays into crime, and whatever else was out there. That is not to say it was without redeeming features; the column was highly entertaining, filled with humorous word plays and asides, while giving an insight into some of the excesses of Japanese popular journalism. It was also very popular, attracting a lot of traffic to its pages, and thus the advertising required to keep the online edition viable.

Links to WaiWai stories began to appear on Web sites, forums and blogs around the world, some of whose readers, judging by many of their responses and posts, were seemingly unable or unwilling to recognize that these stories were often nothing more than the product of a tabloid journo’s overactive imagination.

No matter how much of a diet of “those wacky Japanese” stories someone has been weaned on, no matter how much of a Japan-hater someone may be, no matter how detached from reality someone is, could anybody truly believe that Japanese fisherman get oral relief from razor-toothed moray eels? Evidently, some did.

In March this year, some Japanese online forums started buzzing with posts about the “vulgar” stories the “respectable” Mainichi was allowing to be displayed around the world in its English-language WaiWai column. Complaining letters, e-mails and phone calls began reaching the company. It announced a review of the contents, but the response failed to satisfy the protesters, and the clamor for axing the column intensified.

By June, Mainichi had issued an apology, removed all the archived stories, asked search engines to do the same, and promised to punish those involved.

Still, the protesters were not satisfied, bombarding companies that advertised with the Mainichi with demands to withdraw their sponsorship and calling for further punishment of its editors and Connell.

“The Mainichi is hurting badly, a lot of companies have pulled their advertising, and readers have canceled subscriptions,” says an insider at one of Japan’s big advertising firms. A spokesperson for the Mainichi denies that there has been any loss of subscribers. Some of the Mainichi’s media rivals have clearly reveled in its misery, stoking the fires by listing some of the most sensationalist stories and gloating over the advertising withdrawals.

Not all of the Japanese media coverage has been damning. Daily tabloid newspaper Nikkan Gendai ran a story in July entitled, “Why all the fuss now about WaiWai? It’s always been vulgar.” The piece suggests that although the contents-checking was inadequate and the column should have made it clearer that the articles were not to be taken seriously, the stories were all taken from Japanese tabloids, and some were more than a decade old.

The Zainichi Tokken o Yurusanai Shimin no Kai – Citizens’ Group against Special Rights for Zainichi (Japan-born Koreans) – organized a demonstration in front of the Mainichi’s headquarters on July 2 after WaiWai had been purged and punishments announced. The small group of protesters railed against the hentai (perverted) column, the hentai journalist, and demanded further punishments and apologies. They also, somewhat inexplicably, hurled abuse in the direction of the completely unrelated Asahi Shimbun.

Makoto Sakurai, head of the group, which likes to go by the much catchier Zaitokukai moniker, doesn’t look like your average uyoku (rightist) boss. No shaven head or muscular tattooed arms, he dresses in suspenders and a bow tie, and is, in his own words, “very rotund.”

Sakurai, while professing to have been appalled at the contents of recent WaiWai columns, makes no bones about the fact that this was an opportunity to attack the Mainichi, whose liberal politics he despises. Asked why the Asahi’s name was invoked at the demonstration, he explains: “They’re both the same. I’d enjoy it if the Mainichi and Asahi went bankrupt. The left here is different from the left in other countries, because they hate Japan. The Mainichi has Korean journalists you know, who hate the emperor. That’s why we call it the Han-nichi.”

Another source of ire for the Zaitokukai and its allies is that political party Komeito’s Seikyo Shimbun daily newspaper is printed at the Mainichi, among other companies. “Komeito supports giving special citizenship rights to the zainichi (Japanese-Koreans) and it contributes to the Mainichi’s profits by having some of its newspapers printed there,” Sakurai continues. But Toshihisa Koganeya, the head of Komeito’s international affairs bureau, denies the party has such a policy, saying it only supports the right of all permanent residents to vote in local elections.

One of the stories that particularly incensed protesters was the “More moms going down to ensure grades go up!” piece about mothers going to extraordinary lengths to help their stressed-out sons study. This infamous little gem – which was mentioned in the No.1 Shimbun feature back in 1999 – topped the list of complaints from the Zaitokukai and was subsequently picked up by a TV “wide show” after the group’s demonstration.

Sakurai concedes he was unaware the article was 11 years old, or that it was originally translated from the Asahi Geino weekly magazine by a Japanese writer. He admits to never having read any of the actual stories from WaiWai because, “I’m not very good at English.”

“Back in the earlier days of WaiWai we followed trends in Japanese society through summarizing the tabloid weeklies,” suggests one of the contributors from those days. “It was a form of social anthropology.” While those lofty ideals were certainly lost in recent years, the column did deliver what readers repeatedly requested when given the opportunity to opine. When this point is put to Sakurai, he responds, smirking: “Well, I suppose men in every country like that kind of stuff.”

Whether “that kind of stuff” has a place on a Web site belonging to a “serious” newspaper, is open to debate. What seems clearer is that the Mainichi – through inadequate checks or deliberately turning a blind eye – delivered on a plate a powerful weapon to be used by those who object to its politics. ❶

FROM THE WAIWAI ARCHIVES
It would be a shame to say goodbye to WaiWai without recalling at least one of its infamous stories in a little more detail. One, which combined the elements of humor, debauchery and a total lack of credibility, was the tale of fishermen having their way with various creatures of the ocean. Originally told by comedian Taro Makeburu, a former fisherman, to a Jitsuwa Knuckles columnist, it contained some of the following pearls:

“Almost everybody in the fishing business has had sex with a manta at some point,” Makeburu asserts.
Yep. After all, fisherman out on ships spend a loooonggg time at sea without ever encountering a woman and well, let‘s face it, they can get pretty horny. Even desperate enough to do it with a manta. Right?
“Nah,” shrugs Makeburu. “Coastal fishermen poke them too.”
Apparently it's a ritual of manhood, done out of recognition of the dangers of life
on the sea.
And of course, there's the matter of protocol. To wit, the ship‘s captain, if he so chooses,
is entitled to go first… if the captain had an STD, wouldn't the other crew members who had sex with the manta contract it too?
“That‘s right,” grins Makeburu. “So some guys slip on condoms before they do it. Once
I came down with the clap. But we were in port around that time and I did it with a woman,
so I don't have any way of knowing if I picked it up from her, or from the manta.”
Is it common, then, for marine students to lose their virginity to a manta?
"Well, no, actually it‘s more common for them to lose it to a moray eel,” he confides.
Apparently once out of the water a moray becomes less aggressive. So you can force its mouth open with your hands, and then stick in your cock and let it chew on your chin-chin.
Of course you can‘t actually call that sex either; it‘s only oral sex. Or as an Italian fisherman might croon, “That's a moray!”

THE WAIWAI LEGACY
Although there may be no feature in No.1 this time next year celebrating two decades of WaiWai, some of its legacy looks set to live on. One Web site (www.tokyoreporter.com/) has already opened a “Japanese Smut Portal” page translating tabloid articles about sex, while another (www.stippy.com/category/japan-waiwai-archives/) is putting together an archive of WaiWai stories.

Posted by FCCJ Web Team on Sun, 2008-08-03 20:08