Daily Archives: 17 June 2005

Charles Robert Jenkins and the Japanese Media

I have to confess I’m fascinated by the story of the U.S. Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins and his kidnapped Japanese wife Hitomi Soga, both of them far outliers by any standard. They’re in North Carolina now, and most accounts of their visit are rehashes of the same wire service stories from AP, Kyodo, Reuters, etc. But one story by Jim Nesbitt, a staff writer for a major North Carolina regional paper, the Raleigh News & Observer, stands out. Unable to get much more than the time of day from an extremely tight-lipped Jenkins, Nesbitt decides to report on the Japanese media coverage. (Yes, I know, reporters covering other reporters is all too common these days, but I think this one works pretty well because Nesbitt is discovering different cultural perceptions, not just reinforcing his own conventional wisdom.) Here’s a sampling.

WELDON — On the tree-lined avenue in front of the two-story brick home of Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins’ sister, scores of Japanese camera crews and reporters practice an electronic form of brinkmanship.

Sharp-elbowed and competitive, they aim to capture every moment of Jenkins’ first visit to North Carolina since he spent four decades as a defector in North Korea.

But unlike their American counterparts, their focus is on Jenkins’ wife, Hitomi Soga, 46, who was abducted by North Korean agents in 1978 while shopping with her mother in their hometown on Japan’s isolated Sado Island and spirited away by speedboat to the Communist dictatorship.

Since her solo return to Japan in 2002, Soga has become a leading symbol of the abductee saga, her story wrapped in Japan’s enduring interest in the fate of as many as 60 Japanese citizens who were also abducted by North Korea from 1977 to 1983.

Her quest to be reunited with Jenkins, 65, who stayed in North Korea with their two daughters because he feared punishment for desertion, became the focus of negotiations led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who made a personal appeal to North Korean officials for their release.

In the eyes of the Japanese, this is a love story and a tale of motherly devotion — with Soga at center stage….

Her story is made more poignant by the uncertainty surrounding her mother, Miyoshi Soga, who also disappeared the same day. The North Korean government has never admitted abducting Soga’s mother.

The Japanese see a psychic connection between Soga’s missing mother and her husband’s desire to see his own mom — a wish Soga has said she wanted fulfilled so she and her daughters could meet [her husband’s mother Pattie] Casper.

“It’s a double image,” [New York-based TV Asahi senior producer] Nakamura said. “The union of Jenkins and his mother reflects her [Soga’s] fantasy dream of being reunited with her mother.”

For the Japanese, Jenkins has been a sideshow, a supporting actor whose remarkable story has been seen through the lens of his wife’s saga. They’ve known from the start that he was a 25-year-old Army sergeant who deserted the squad he was leading during a patrol of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in January 1965.

Until they hit North Carolina, though, and started talking to U.S. veterans and visiting his hometown in nearby Rich Square, about 25 miles southeast of here, they didn’t realize the anger some have for him.

“The people didn’t really know Mr. Jenkins was a deserter and how serious that was,” said Toshiyuki Matsuyama, a Washington-based reporter for the Fuji News Network. “Now, we’re focusing on the negative aspects of his visit.”…

In the three days Jenkins has been in Weldon, the sight of Japanese reporters interviewing locals at the Weldon Super Market or the Trustworthy Hardware Store on Main Street in Rich Square has become common.

But coverage that has been almost round-the-clock has given Japanese reporters, producers and camera crews little time to explore the local delights.

Tomohiko Murayama, who covers Sado Island for the Niigata Television Network, spent a year as a high school exchange student in Kentucky 20 years ago and wasn’t unhinged by being stuck in Weldon.

“This is the typical small town in the United States, isn’t it?” Murayama said.

Yes! If only the reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the wire services understood small-town America (and Japan) as well as Murayama seems to. Hats off to Nesbitt, too, for an original and informative take on the media circus.

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Muninn’s Linguistically Fractured Conversations

While Muninn is in South Korea trying to add Korean to his already proficient Japanese and Chinese, he has been posting some charming and insightful accounts of his experiences with the new language and culture. Here’s a little taste:

I have had some of the most interesting conversations talking to random old people and as someone who is interested in the history of East Asia, I especially enjoy those who I have met while on this side of the Pacific pond….

Today I had another one of these experiences, this time, sitting just across from the entrance of Korea’s National Library.

It actually started yesterday when I went to meet a friend who works at the National Library for dinner. While I was waiting I was approached by an elderly man wanting to try out his English on me. It didn’t work very well, as his listening skills were minimal. My Korean sucks too. He managed to tell me he was born in 1932 and after a few more frustrated attempts at making some sentences, I asked him if he spoke Japanese. Of course, he did, he was taught Japanese in elementary school and was only 13 when the colonial period ended.

Once we shifted into Japanese, our conversation moved much more smoothly. However, we both had six o’clock meetings to go to so we agreed to meet again at the library tonight at six to continue our conversation….

It was a wonderful chat, and I’m sure he had many more stories to tell but it was getting cooler and dark, so we exchanged contact info and parted ways. It was then, towards the end of our conversation that I noticed something about his Japanese. He spoke surprisingly well, albeit with a lot of common mistakes that I often hear less skilled Korean speakers of Japanese make, and had a vocabulary roughly equal to his half dozen years in the Japanese education system of the colonial period. He would throw in more difficult Korean nouns, which we either looked up or were similar enough to Japanese that I could often guess them from context. However, what took me longer to notice was something I found fascinatingly similar to how Sayaka and I communicate (a mish mash of English, Japanese, and Chinese): He had basically been using Korean particles and grammatical words (e.g. (으)니까) at least half of the time. One reason, I realized, why this took me so long to notice is that it simply fits so well. It rarely, if ever, altered the order or structure of his sentences.

Also, since I have been here over a week now, these words don’t seem out of place so I didn’t even recognize them as not being Japanese until the end of our conversation. Also, he was essentially doing the reverse of what I have been doing here when I speak to Japanese classmates or Japanese speaking Korean friends. I feel so much more comfortable talking to them in Korean because I can randomly throw in Japanese words or grammar into the various gaping holes of my Korean and not skip a beat in sentence construction. Of course, I know, I am supposed to be filling those holes with real Korean, but you know… I got stuff to say, debates to win, long-winded stories to tell!

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紐約洋基勝明尼蘇達雙城 4 : 3

Sinography-solver Amritas leads you down the garden path toward the real meaning of this actual headline from a Chinese newspaper, and in the process counters a few myths about Chinese characters. Hint: 明尼蘇達 doesn’t really mean UNTIL BRIGHT NUNS LIVE AGAIN, although it does have something to do with St. Paul, Mingnisuda.

If that’s not enough for you, pay a visit to Language Hat‘s post about a site that lists the most common Chinese characters in order of frequency.

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Siberian Light on Mongolian Elections

Siberian Light shines a spot on the Mongolian elections:

Nabetz at New Mongols has a look at some international rankings, showing that not all of Russia’s non-European neighbours have problems with democratising, or resisting pressure from Russia and China to maintain pliable authoritarian regimes:

With numbers like this, it’s easy to understand why Mongolia has been able to have nine national parliamentary and presidential national elections in about 15 years–all of them free, fair, and, perhaps most tellingly, friendly (compare elsewhere in the region). That political power has changed been passed back and forth between several parties is an indication that the Republic is advancing more strongly, more peacefully, and more openly than ever….

Hopefully, the example of Mongolia will also bring an end to the sometimes fashionable belief that countries without a Christian tradition and/or occupation by American troops can’t democratise.

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