Three 2017 Niemen Fellows Discuss Media and Culture in Japan, Nepal, and South Korea

May 15, 2017
Niemen Fellows panel

In a technologically interconnected, yet culturally divergent world, how would one tell stories about his/her own country to a global audience? On this question, Andrew Gordon, Acting Director of Harvard Asia Center and Professor of History at Harvard University, chaired a seminar featuring three journalists, all Nieman Fellows at Harvard this year, from South Korea, Nepal and Japan. The journalists–Kyoungtae Kim, editor of the prime-time news program of the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) in Seoul; Subina Shrestha, filmmaker and correspondent for Al Jazeera in Kathmandu; and Roland Nozomu Kelts, author, journalist and lecturer on the U.S. and Japan–each talked about their work and careers from different perspectives.

As tensions in the Korean Peninsula escalate with each missile test by North Korea, occupying front page news these days, foreigners are often baffled by the cool posture of South Korean journalists: how can you be so calm in such a dangerous time? Kim showed a cartoon picture that captured South Koreans’ feelings over the past three decades or so: it showed a boy crying out, “The wolf is coming!” But the wolf never came, so no one believed his desperate plea.

Every time anything happened to the North Korean leadership, South Korea was on high alert, braced for the worst outcome. In 1994, when the supreme leader, Kim Il-song, died of a heart attack, Seoul halted its regular military exercises with the U.S. In 2011, when his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, died, South Koreans tried to keep calm in preparation for any possible consequences. After his grandson, Kim Jong-un, took over in 2012, Pyongyang’s relations with the outside world markedly deteriorated. In the spring of 2013, North Korea annulled the cease fire agreement with the South, announced a return of a war-time situation, reactivated its nuclear     reactor, and recommended foreigners in Pyongyang to withdraw. To the disappointment of many South Koreans, President Kim Dae-jung’s sunshine policy (1998-2008) toward the North failed. But South Koreans have become accustomed to living with the threat from the North. North Korea has conducted so many missile tests that one more test wouldn’t raise South Korean journalists’ emotional temperature.

Kim explained the difference between the approaches of the U.S. and South Korea to North Korea. President Trump tries to pressure China to help resolve the problem; South Korea much prefers using its own power, along with U.S. help, to achieve ultimate unification of the Korean Peninsula, which would be friendly to the West. Kim anticipated that Trump’s reliance on China would not achieve this goal because China prefers either the status quo or unification on its own terms. China’s official rhetoric is always to urge all sides to remain calm and rely on diplomacy, but in fact, Kim pointed out, China enjoys the importance that the U.S. attaches to China as long as China keeps perpetuating this problem, just like Kim Jong-un enjoys all the worldwide attention to him aroused by each of his missile tests.     
Shrestha, a native of Nepal, highlighted the contributions which native journalists make to the Western media due to their cultural connections deeply rooted in their own country. She has worked for Al Jazeera in Nepal since 2009, after working in Bangkok and covering stories of Burma. She reported the 2015 devastating earthquake in Nepal, in which almost 9,000 people died. She brought a personal touch to her story as the camera crew filmed the earthquake wreckage and human miseries in her grandmother’s courtyard and the neighborhood of her relatives, where people had touted the preservation of local architectural legacies just days before the earthquake struck. This is something that foreign–particularly white male–journalists without any cultural or family connections wouldn’t be able to do. Her reporting helped heighten the need for international aid to this devastated land.   

She acknowledged a challenge for foreign audiences to understand native stories. Journalists often have to invoke clichés familiar to foreigners in order for them to relate to the stories. This is especially challenging in today’s fast-paced media world where an article is supposed to be no more than a few hundred words and a video less than two minutes long. Shrestha believed that in international newsrooms where views are generally not inclusive, reporting by native journalists is particularly valuable to foreigners’ understanding of Asia, as it provides alternative points of view and the nuances in the local perspective. Under-appreciating this will hasten all kinds of conflicts at the peril to the West itself.  

Kelts, a half-Japanese and half-American writer living in Tokyo, revealed that behind the facade of typical Japanese reticent and restrained appearances are some deep-rooted Japanese cultural characteristics. These cultural traits help explain how the supposed “sick man of Asia” might be a model for other countries to emulate. They include self-discipline for the benefit of the common good, social harmony above self-interest, and being considerate of and respect for others. These characteristics manifest themselves in ordinary daily life, from making room for others in a crowded train to cleaning up one’s own trash in order to leave a clean table for the next customer in a McDonald’s in Tokyo.

Japanese society has a stark divide between the inside and the outside, making it difficult for outsiders to penetrate. But an outsider also has an advantage: he/she can be excused for asking questions that the Japanese don’t ask themselves or talk about among themselves. When Kelts had enough confidence from his Japanese interlocutors, he gained insights into the Japanese society on how it copes with its own challenges.

In contrast to the Chinese who would like to live overseas despite their domestic bustling urban life and dazzling economic growth, the Japanese are generally content with living in Japan despite their economic stasis and rapidly aging society. They live in a highly civilized society where order and harmony permeate every aspect of daily life, not least in the punctuality of public transportation, a clean environment, and polite and respectful interactions among the people. The Japanese assiduously avoid conflict and cultivate their valued ethics of diligence and stoicism in face of adversity, as demonstrated by the relief efforts during the 2015 tsunami recovery period. From this cultural perspective, it is not surprising that Japanese society exhibits remarkable stability and social cohesion in the 21st century, when so many other countries are struggling with intense social divides and even disastrous wars.  

Listen to the talk here.