Why Read the European Press re: East Asia? A Justification
I operate on assumptions that more sources, even flawed ones, are better than fewer. (I also believe, unlike the classic example of Dick Cheney in 2002-03, that as we sift through these sources, it is important to let a thesis develop out of them rather than imposing one from above.) Grabbing a wider net can only bring more perspectives to bear. So even if European reporting on East Asia were all “wailing and gnashing of teeth,” racist and hopelessly biased, we still might want to take a look at it, and feed it through our filters. And, because European reporting from East Asia is not in fact beyond hope, it is worth stating plainly: there appear to be more European reporters in East Asia than American reporters, and the substance of the reporting tends to be better.
A second reason is that, in the process of translation, we can sometimes fina a new level of analysis or a fitting phrase, a new way of thinking about a problem which has not heretofore existed in English. I’ll give a few examples below.
Now, to the quality-of-reporting issue:
Take, for instance, Le Monde versus the New York Times. The New York Times is particularly guilty or lacksidasical reporting from Tokyo; reporting from Japan is either business-centered [although there is still precious little of even this] or of the human-interest variety. Whale meat! Snow in Niigata! Girls in kimonos graduate from high school! With an occasional foray into demographic crisis or history controversies, there is simply not enough decent reporting from Japan in the financially-strapped and Middle-East oriented New York Times. Perhaps the Los Angeles Times is somewhat better; and fortunately the Seattle Times does come through with a good original story from Asia from time to time. (One on Beijing hip-hop where the author went to Mao Live House between Gulou and Dongzhimen stands out as a particular favorite; the Seattle Times also seems to have a corner on stories about Japanese baseball.)
By contrast to the NYT, reporter Philippe Pons has been writing some decent dispatches lately for Le Monde from Tokyo. The following piece is quite good; I haven’t sufficient time for a full translation, but here are a few significant points [again, with apologies for the lack of diacritical marks]:
Philippe Pons, “Pyongyang prend le risque de fragiliser ses arrieres,” Le Monde, 30 May 2009, p. 2.
North Korea, according to Pons, has been engaged in overloading the international system with problems (“montee au creaneau”) in order to attract attention.
Pons interviews Chongryon members (pro-north Koreans in Japan), describes them as “seething with frustration” over the north’s recent actions.
In a couple of solid reminders, Pons notes that the anti-“Sunshine Policy” Lee Myong-bak’s February 2008 election was a turning point for DPRK’s foreign policy; he further states the obvious but often forgotten fact that “in theory, the two Koreas are still at war every day.”
Pons describes 2012 as an “echenance” or “due date” for North Korea; the centenary of Kim Il Song’s birth is taken quite seriously by the author as a driving force for regime short-term planning in Pyongyang; presumably, this year might serve as the appropriate time for a more global or official announcement of Kim Jong-un’s accession plans
Pons may be a Frenchman in Japan, but he is on the phone with experts in Seattle (Peter Beck) and San Francisco (Scott Snyder). Beck believes that internal factors outweigh external factors in gauging North Korean recent behavior. In other words, domestic politics trumps whatever international backlash might rain down on the North for nuclear tests, grabbing American journalists, etc.
The North Korean missile launch on April 5 2009 was a means of not just testing ballistic capabilities, but also of testing Barack Obama.
Pons quotes a “South Korean commentator”/talking head Shim Jae-hoon, who states that “Kim Jong Il is playing his last game of poker.” This is a strong image without much analytical value, but it’s how Shim pays his bills.
China is described as “the queen on the chessboard on account of its ties with North Korea” (“la piece maitresse de l’echiquer en raison de ses liens avec la DPRK”). It is this kind of metaphor that has been lacking in the American press, to my knowledge. Everyone leans on China to influence the North, but to liken it to the queen in a game of (Western) chess seems to better capture the overall situation. China can intimidate, cajole, work with other partners, etc., but it is far from omnipotent. Particularly if it is distrustful of “the rook” to which we might liken Japan.
Philippe Pons, “Les enjeux geostrategiues de la crise coreenne,” Le Monde, 10 June 2009, p. 2.
Pons discusses the international/regional aspects of the crisis.
There are days when all the havoc floats away like flotsam, days when Peking blossoms into full perfection. Days when one’s roommate runs away forever to Mongolia, when blankets fill the window and allow one to chose the moment of introduction to the sun, days when noon has the aura of early morning, when clouds become distinct, when one finds that shampoo suffices to clean one’s clothes, days when the bugs recede, when one forget to pick up the business cards because there is no urgent business, days when the air clears and the mountains emerge with dignified clarity, when the archives move like concrete blocks in the constructive mind, when the mix of tea and water is right, when a line of eight North Koreans walk past with beautiful smiles, when the dumplings are 5 yuan, when the garbage is not fetid, when you see a map of unexplored territories in Europe and savor their savage urbanity, when the arc of the Foreign Ministry recedes behind trees planted by thoughtful Chinese oil company architect-planners, when one ignores the newspaper for a few hours, when one folds up everything into a small box and walks away, days when one craves a certain dish and arrives at the old haunt restaurant to find that it has looked like a bombed-out 抗战 Chongqing Dagongbao office for two years, but one admires its dusty grey beauty // its ornaments defiant amid twisted metal // days when the water flows, when the bum sits down with aspirated satisfaction on the giant bag of plastic bottles, when the little store of fan motors has not been swallowed by monolithic kitsch, when you acknowledge that you love even to hate this city, when the 青菜腐竹 arrives gently on the table, when ghosts from the past arrive with new hair cuts, when the lilies have uprooted to move to the south shore —
//on such days, the mutton shop once mourned becomes a field of orange geraniums waving like pendulums of time//
days when one has forgotten and then rediscovered a flavor at a smooth table, when a huge window looks out at a wall – you recall its construction, you no longer need to know when it is coming down – when one has planned a series of lessons and trapdoors for the young, when one reads headlines like “Americans save money, Chinese don’t worry,” when one walks directly into Vice-Premier Xi Jingping’s hortatory speech on the 7 o’clock news on the 109 to Jingshan Park and gets a seat in front of the television and is inundated immediately with “liberation thinking” “choice of the people” and the notion of comedy rapidly passes and//when it comes down to it// one becomes genuinely and inexplicably interested traversing the streets by old Peking University—
days when one coils up within the second ring road and finds again the eccentric old men, where dogs waddle, birds skate through the air, when the white hulk of an airplane can be discerned hovering beyond the Worker’s Stadium, when one has finally laid siege to a particular 字 and anticipates drumbeats of victory in this battle of annihilation, when one dreams not of Yanji or Strasbourg but of another hour of daylight, when the library closes but one finds a French pencil and turns joyfully to the bag on one’s back, when those to whom you lent Hamlet cling to it and affirm its perfection, when Anglophone thoughts thrum guiltless and powerful through the atmosphere, when one meets again a brother in 帽儿胡同, when one circumambulates the Mongol lakes, peering into their waters. Diving into these depths as the twilight recedes into amber would be perfectly natural, yet, is not needed, because one knows how it feels.