Though “Large subjects” are convenient to use… A Discussion on the Degradation of Language in Journalism
A Dialogue between journalist Jun Hori and musician Haruo Chikada
In recent years, it seems that language has been deteriorating, both in the press and in the statements of politicians. Politicians say they will carefully explain, but they never do. Additionally, reporters hardly scrutinize politicians only making vague comments such as, "That policy will not gain the public's understanding," and other simplified or meaningless words are repeated. Journalism seems to be leaving out the importance of conveying the essence of an issue.
Meanwhile, we can clearly see an increase in divisions and disputes triggered by words on social media, and it seems that people are unconsciously becoming more cautious when using words.
Recognizing once again the importance of words, we organized a discussion on the theme of “words”.
We invited Jun Hori, who leads citizen journalism and works daily to convey the essence of the issues using easy-to-understand language. Haruo Chikada, a musician who engages in a variety of expressive activities including music and writing. Both were invited to discuss the issues from their unique perspectives.
- Posted on
- 06 Feb 2023
“I should do my best to collect small subjects and report on issues in a straightforward manner.” – Hori
Do you have anything in particular, in your daily field of news reporting, that you are conscious of when conveying the essence of things?
Hori: “I usually say, ‘Why don’t you use a small subject (as in grammar) rather than a large subject?’. This comes from a bitter experience I had. I tried my best to report on the Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear power plant accident, and I thought I was supporting the victims and the affected areas. But about three years after the disaster, when I sent out a message saying, ‘People are still suffering in the disaster areas. Please don’t forget them,’ I received a message like, ‘Thank you, Mr. Hori. Yes, we are still in a situation where we can’t even get in to reconstruct housing.’ But I also got a message saying, ‘No, Mr. Hori, you keep saying through the media that the disaster-affected areas are suffering, and it’s hard and tough. These words are what creates harmful rumors. You have no idea how hard we worked these past three years to get our life back to normal…’ I didn’t mean it that way, but I realized that the subject ‘the disaster area’ was too large. Then maybe ‘Fukushima,’ but there are many different areas in Fukushima. When I thought about it, the smallest subject was ‘Yoshiko Fukaya, who has been running a barber shop in front of JR Tomioka Station in Tomioka Town, Fukushima Prefecture.’ And I would continue, ‘She is still unable to regain her livelihood several years after the disaster.’ Only when the subject matter is focused so tightly can the message be conveyed accurately. Large subjects are convenient and so, used by too many. Since I realized this, I have come to think that as an interviewer, I should do my best to collect small subjects and report on issues in a straightforward manner. I understand it feels good to use large subject lines such as ‘Japan,’ ‘society,’ and ‘politics.”
I see. Small subjects.
Hori: “When you try to use mass media to convey a message, you have limited time, and if your story or report doesn’t make it that day, you don’t know when you will be able to report on it the next time. Being rushed in such tight schedules actually makes the subject larger and larger, and the people watching the report also don’t expect specific details. This creates a kind of complicity between the media and the audience to use a large subject. I realized this was an error in media reporting after I became an independent journalist.
In TV news reporting, there was inevitably a clash of subjects, and there was a sense of urgency or obsession that the message would not be conveyed unless the subject was large. So, like Kenji Miyazawa, I would just keep on reporting specific cases, even if I was called an idiot. I would argue, ‘This is the case of someone at the site. I can certainly understand that. But there are other cases like this, too.’”
Mr. Chikada, what do you think about this?
Chikada: “I certainly agree. To put it in another way, there are those who use ‘large subject’ as a convenient means. Because a large subject sounds plausible. But when you think about it later, you may not understand what they were actually talking about. Especially today’s politicians who have improved their ‘skill’ in this regard. The people who are listening to them understand the whole thing somehow, but they don’t know how to refute what they say. They intentionally speak in that way.
I think the news media, who deliver such politicians’ words, probably have no choice but to do so, but I think the recipients have to discern the fact that there are people who intentionally speak in such a way out of convenience.”
Hori: “You are absolutely right. When I was a university student, my research topic was on propaganda. The main technique used in propaganda was to ‘use a large subject to entice people towards an image rather than facts, attracting fanatic followers.’ The subject they use are always ‘we,’ ‘the people,’ ‘Germany,’ ‘the Empire of Japan,’ and so on. But that is an image, a stereotype of the world. With the advent of social media, individuals have access to a large system, which makes it easier for large subject lines to spread. In the past, it was very difficult to get the media to air your ideas, but now we can send out messages by ourselves.”
Chikada: “As we live in such an era, I think in order to compete with new media outlets, those who conduct interviewers need to improve their skills to scrutinize a little more. When I watch press conferences, I feel that reporters are only allowed to ask one question at a time, but many of them waste the first one. Just like in tennis, the one who has the right to serve has the advantage, but since the right to serve is in the hands of the politician, you need to ask questions that will turn the tables and take the right to serve. I think there are still areas where you can cut into your opponent, not so much in what questions you ask, but in how you ask them.”
Hori: “That’s right. In order to break up the exchange, I think it is important to ask questions using very small subjects, which seek specific policies, in response to the very large subjects used by the politicians.”
In terms of the importance of questioning in politics, the role of the opposition as well as the press is important, but when watching news reports, the headline often reads ‘Opposition parties rebuffed,’ giving the impression that they are just complaining. When I actually watch the live coverage of the Diet proceedings, I see that they are making valid points and objections, but I think that one word in the headline can change the impression a lot.
Chikada: “There is a lot of sheepishness in the headlines, as if they are trying to stir things up, but when you actually read the article, the content is different. It is not so different from the old sports newspapers. I understand that you want people to read the articles, but I would like those who are involved in news reporting to change their mindset a little more, because I will read the articles even if they have a plain title, the title doesn’t have to be incendiary. If you have the feeling the actual story is somehow different, it makes you think that the entire report is exaggerated. For example, each newspaper has its own characteristics, but as long as I read an article from one newspaper, all the members of the Liberal Democratic Party look bad, while reading an article from another newspaper, all the opposing parties look bad. Then I get the feeling that all politicians, left and right, are bad. We get into the habit of looking at things through a set of colored glasses, wondering what these evil people are doing for their own personal gain. I think this is a waste of time and money.”
Hori: “I agree with that. That’s why I always want to unravel large subjects whenever I hear them in daily conversations or on a TV program. When someone says, ‘What the government is doing now is not right,’ I acknowledge their opinion and ask, ‘Who do you mean by the government? Is it the Chief Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister, the cabinet ministers, or the cabinet bureaucrats?’ When they answer, ‘It’s what the Chief Cabinet Secretary said the other day.’, then I ask again, ‘The Chief Cabinet Secretary. What did the Chief Cabinet Secretary say?’ In this way, you can reduce the subject from a large subject to a small subject. Then they will realize what the speaker was focusing on, and further discuss what other people may be thinking.
I think the time and effort to pursue the subject should never be neglected. Otherwise, we will never fully understand anything or solve problems. We will be left with only resentment and uneasiness and move on to the next topic. I don’t think we should repeat such a situation.”
Chikada: “Since ‘even a rumor about a person lasts 75 days,’ we have come to assume that everything will become ambiguous before we know it.”
Hori: “Really. I feel sad when I think about how few the number of people who are still thinking about the nuclear power plant issue. Everyone used to think about it together before.
But that’s largely the media’s fault. It is easy to forget, and it is also easy to jump to the next issue, while it is not easy to keep facing and working on a certain issue, especially in visual reporting. For me, I want to grit my teeth and keep working. I can’t do it on my own, so I decided to do it through citizen media.”
” In the age of social networking, the greatest challenge for those who transmit information is the ability to write.” – Chikada
Hori: “This dialogue made me realize how nice it is to have people with completely different backgrounds come together to talk about language. This reminded me of my previous trip to Gaza, Palestine. It is said to be a prison without a ceiling, and those who enter are not allowed to leave on their own. When I said to a local, ‘I hope peace will come soon,’ one of the Palestinian drivers asked, ‘Peace for who?’ The Israeli and Palestinian people are probably both seeking peace, which is why the war is still going on.
After returning to Japan, I asked many people what peace meant to them, and found there were 50 different answers. “To be quiet,” “to be free,” and many other meanings came up. However, when those who say that peace is to be quiet and those who think peace is to be free got together to hang out, they will say, “No, please be quiet,” or conversely, “Why don’t you enjoy your freedom more?” Even the single word “peace” cannot be understood unless we confront each other with it. My ‘peace’ is this, but is everyone else’s ‘peace’ the same? When you confront someone else’s definition of peace, we can try to figure out ways to make peace. The more variations there are, the better, and this kind of miscellany can only be brought together spontaneously.”
Chikada: “Since social media has become so popular, I’ve realized that everyone has a different way of thinking in a very real way every day. In the past, you couldn’t really get this feeling. I think this development of civilization has been good for that part. But if your words are not conveyed well to the other person, you may lose your temper immediately. I think this is one of the dangers of the age of social media.”
Hori: “I think that, too. That’s why, I would not want to go back to the time before social media. But I think we can set up some suggestions. First of all, I think it is necessary to be less efficiency-focused and too quick to unify everything. For example, when we talk about ‘peace,’ if there are many different views of peace, we might say, ‘Well, let’s just settle on one of them,’ but we should leave it as it is. When Hitler united Germany in such a way, the most important keyword was ‘nationalization of the masses.’ Naturally, a mass society is a state in which there are many people, each with his or her own life, own aspirations, and own goals, and they are all floating around. However, this would not make Germany strong, so Germany’s most powerful keyword was ‘We must become a ‘nation’ with a single, noble purpose.’ When I look at Japanese society today, I have a sense of crisis that we are becoming ‘nationalized.’ We feel as if we have to fulfill something, or we have to unify as one people.
I would like to reverse this trend and ‘popularize the people.’ I believe that global cooperation is within reach after that. Nations that have become so nationalized are now starting to fight each other again, and with nationalism on the rise, powerful nations are starting to do things one after another, solidifying their own footholds of power.”
Chikada: “Things are decided more quickly when a nation is united to some extent. If everyone keeps expressing various opinions, it will be difficult for things to be decided. The question is whether or not the country has enough room to look at the consensus or conclusion, with a little more leeway, as something that will land naturally. It’s not easy.”
It seems difficult, and I even feel that while social media has made many different ideas visible, it has also increased division, making it harder to have a discussion.
Chikada: “In the age of social media, the most important thing for people who communicate is their writing skills. For example, when influential people express their opinions about a certain issue in a debate, specifically when the other person opposes, instead of a debate taking place, they say, ‘I just dislike you as a person saying that.’ The discussion will inevitably turn into an emotional clash. This is probably due to the structure of the Japanese language. The first person (as in grammar) in Japanese can be ore, and the second person could be teme, omae, (both meaning ‘you’) and so on. Just by slightly changing the ending of a word, the impression you get of the same content can change drastically, especially in Japanese. This is one of the interesting features of the Japanese language, which is fine for quarreling, but not for discussion. And people who are influential on social media need to be more aware of this when expressing with words. There are plenty of words that are insulting to others, so social media is becoming more and more a place for arguments. We need to show that this is not the case by using proper sentences. The Japanese language is deteriorating rapidly, and I think we are responsible.”
I understand the Japanese language has a linguistic characteristic that tends to incline toward emotionalism. On the other hand, I often see cases where a casual remark is met with political-correctness and blows up. I think many people have become very careful about words as a result of seeing such cases. There are many media people who hide their true feelings and say only safe things because they don’t want to get in trouble if something is said about them. Mr. Hori, are you conscious of anything when choosing words to use on digital platforms, taking into consideration the characteristics of the Japanese language as mentioned earlier?
Hori: “Yes, I am. That is why I think expression is necessary. As I said earlier, words will inevitably be misunderstood unless we sit down and check with each other. If we don’t have the energy to face each other, we will end up in conflict. That is why I think ‘diverse expressions’ are the ones that can encompass such things. Since I am in the field of visual arts, I would like to create something that, even without words, makes the audience feel various things by watching the scenes in the video, such as the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘view of peace.’ There are many forms of expression, such as poetry, music, dance, and recently, I think the world of computer science is also an expression. Nazi propaganda used films, music, posters, and everything else, but depending on the intentions of those who used them, it could change dramatically. That is why I would like to think about the use of expression in a separate way now.”
“The reason we need to deepen and broaden our expression is, I think, for the happiness of human beings.” – Chikada
I see. As for this “expression,” Mr. Chikada, as you express through musical and written works, what do you think about the need of expression?
Chikada: “I have always thought that expression is important. The reason we need to deepen and broaden our expression is, I think, for the happiness of human beings, even though it may sound extremely trivial. However, as Mr. Hori mentioned, each person has a different concept of happiness, whether it is ‘freedom’ or ‘being happy’. So, expression gives us a hint that we can look at things more flexibly from various angles. This way of thinking and living can be applied to other things as well. As you mentioned social media, it is easy for people to share their thoughts to others in this day and age. Therefore, the meaning of ‘expression’ has become much more diverse than it used to be. In the past, the words ‘art’ or ‘expression,’ referred to music, but in today’s age, expression is possible even without art, and even a single smartphone can be used as a tool for expression. In that sense, I think it is important to note that even though the current age has its many problems, it is a time that should not be neglected.”
Hori: “Yes, the first thing those in power do is regulate expression. A society with expression will be challenging to handle for the authorities. Therefore, the countermeasure against big authoritative politics is to continue to have a variety of expressions. We want to make it difficult for those in authority and show them that they’re not easily going to get what they want. The media must express this kind of attitude more and more. In Hong Kong and Myanmar, the variety of communication has been limited. Even in Russia, for that matter. That is why I think it is important for people to express what they like wherever they are, and not limit each other’s expressions.”
Chikada: “Expression is a general term, but I think at the center of it is ‘language.’ Going back to our previous conversation, there’s a type of Japanese expression I think we should avoid. I think people should stop using condescending expressions. People are extremely polite on the surface, but in fact, their intention isn’t very nice.”
Hori: “They make fun of you, or underestimate you, thinking you wouldn’t understand them anyway.”
Chikada: “Yes. Because it is hard for others to catch the gist of what you’re saying if you speak condescendingly. On the surface, people use very respectful language. A lot of today’s politicians use this condescending language. I have always wondered where it all started. It’s from that guy who said, ogiron itadaku (meaning ‘let us have a discussion’). Since we have made society use condescending expressions, how can we undo it? Maybe we should start an anti-condescension movement.”
Hori: “When I thought about what I could do to get rid of condescension, I decided to make sure to put ‘I’ as the subject of my sentences. As mentioned earlier, one of the characteristics of the Japanese language is that a conversation can be established without a first-person subject. People should make sure to say ‘I’ think that way when they make comments like ‘this is how it is now,’ or ‘this is how it should be.’ But they don’t, so it sounds as if ‘everyone’ thinks that way. In other words, they’re saying the whole society thinks a certain way. This will blur who or where the responsibility lies on.
It is fine to express a variety of opinions, but I think that by adding the subject ‘I’ to each and every statement, we can create responsibility. Responsibility means having a sense of duty in English, but it also means ‘the ability to respond.’ When you say, ‘I,’ the person to whom you say it will respond with ‘I am.’ This is how a conversation begins. If you don’t have a subject, it becomes either a vague agreement or a source of backlash. People won’t be able to enjoy the difference.”
At press conferences, the press may tell the politician that he or she is “misleading the public,” but this is a very vague statement. So the politician replies, “I will explain it carefully,” which is not an answer to the question. This is repeated endlessly. They could have said, “I don’t understand this part, so please be more specific about this part,” but instead they say, “The public has a misunderstanding, so please explain,” and then they say, “I will explain it to the public in detail.”
Chikada: “Does the press have rules when they ask questions?”
Hori: “It’s the atmosphere.”
Chikada: “And that atmosphere should be the thing the media should avoid most.”
Hori: “I hated going to those press conferences. Beyond being a ‘deterioration of language,’ it’s also a custom of a give-and-take relationship that’s there. It’s so obvious. But that kind of atmosphere creates distrust, so they’re better off taking a different approach, but of course they don’t realize that.”
But there is also a time at the press conferences, in the Prime Minister’s Office, for example, when Ms. Shoko Egawa and Ms. Isoko Mochizuki changed the atmosphere slightly by continuously raising their hands and appealing that they still had questions. So, I think that getting out of the atmosphere and speaking out will be one of the opportunities to change the times.
Chikada: “One word can change a lot, can’t it? For me, I act as if I’m engaged in a ‘one word’ movement. When I shop at a convenience store, I say something to the clerk. When I do, they say something to me. ‘Beer again today?’ (laughs) Even in the elevator at my apartment, I always say hello when I am with a stranger, and I start a conversation like, ‘It’s cold today, isn’t it?’ And now, when I meet people in my apartment, we all greet each other and have conversations. That is very important, isn’t it?”
Hori: “I agree.”
Chikada: “And it’s also important to have a smile and be humorous when you talk. Mr. Hori, though this is our first meeting, you have a nice smile and your comments are funny, too. That’s what’s important.”
Born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1977. President of NPO 8bitNews and representative of GARDEN Inc.
After graduating from Rikkyo University with a degree in German Literature, he joined NHK in 2001. He was a reporter for “News Watch 9”, “Biz Supo”, and other news shows. In 2012, he launched the citizen news website “8bitNews” and retired from NHK on April 1, 2013. Currently, he is active in a wide range of activities, including reporting and writing both domestically and internationally. He is an official columnist for Forbes JAPAN, and from
2019, he became an invited researcher at Waseda University’s Institute for the Integration of Global Science and Knowledge, where he is involved in events and information dissemination across the public and private sectors at the SDGs Frontier Lab. In 2020, he directed, acted in, and produced the released film I Will Not Allow Division.
Born in Tokyo in 1951. An active professional musician since he was a student at Keio University.
In 1972, he formed his own band, Haruo Chikada & Haruofon. In 1978, he released an album with a punkish arrangement of songs called “Blitzkrieg Tokyo,” which attracted much attention. In 1986, he launched the hip-hop label BPM and began working as a rapper under the name “President BPM.” In 1987, he formed the human-powered hip-hop band Vibra Stone, and since then has been actively performing live. In addition to being a musician, he also writes and appears on television. In 2021, he will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his music career and his 70th birthday.