New Editor of Quarterly; Dumbing Down

by Doreen Simmons

Need a friendly ear to pour your troubles into? A shoulder to cry on? Somebody, anybody, to whinge at? Write to Aunt Eva, who has been through it all and can share your pain. The names are changed, but the situations are real.

Today, the palmy days of the quality publishing business in Japan are over; Aunt Eva commiserates with a victim of the recession but takes a rather jaundiced view of alternative solutions.


Dear Aunt Eva:    

I’m discouraged. As hard as many of us in SWET have been working for years to support high standards of English publishing in Japan, and to raise consciousness about them, lately it seems like we’re fighting a losing battle.

The latest news is that an English-language quarterly journal that has been published since the 1950s by a major Japanese-language daily newspaper company is going to be “overhauled” in order to become a money-maker for the company. The word is that this venerable publication—which was one of the few venues where Japanese writers could express their views in sophisticated English through translation—may become a journal through which Japanese can study English, with the writing “simplified” and fact-checking and editing dispensed with.

Is all serious English writing and editing doomed to become grist for the bottom-liners and reduced to the lowest common denominator? What can I do besides . . . weep?

Ida Goodmind, Tokyo

Aunt Eva answers:

Oh, wouldn’t it just rot your socks! Life for the foreign professional in Japan certainly goes round in circles. The only question is: is it a turntable or a spiral staircase? In other words, do we keep coming back to the same identical point, or are we at the same place but at a somewhat higher level? The basic problem, as I see it, is that the people who make the big decisions are not the ones who deal with the foreign language, the gaijin staff, or the foreign consumer of whatever they are putting out. Their overwhelming concern is to show their masters, who are even further removed from the product and from the consumers, that they are doing a good job. If a prestigious magazine aimed at foreign intellectuals doesn’t quite pay its way, find a more profitable readership—and what more profitable than the millions of Japanese who have been taught from childhood that, although they don’t hear or speak English very well, their reading comprehension is perfect? Make the magazine easier, add some notes or subtitles, and with any luck you’ll triple the circulation in no time. If you don’t, simplify it still more, get rid of any remaining sub-editors with publishing experience, and hire someone who’s just arrived and thinks it’s wonderful to have a job—any job—in this great Land of Opportunity.                           
And this, dear Ida, is the soft underbelly of our profession. Only the well-nourished cat turns its nose up at diseased or lame mice. For every one of us who can afford occasionally to tell a client to deep-six his genkō or keep his money, there is a horde of newcomers who will do what they are told. They may even display a naive delight in their usefulness to Japanese society. One young man told me proudly, “I was unemployed at home; but after a few months of teaching in a language school here, I’m actually helping to produce an English   dictionary.” (It turned out to be a dictionary of such lively colloquialisms as “toodle-oo”  and “chin-chin,” and he was a bit worried about it.)                         

It’s probably too late to help the journal you mention, Ida; but some SWETers are also in the business of reviewing Japan’s English-language publications. I hope it gets a fitting epitaph.

Eva Hartupp

Quickie question:

Aunt Eva, have you come across any errors that couldn’t be handled by one of the checking programs?   
A: Not sure. How about these: a) “Arrangements were made to evacuate Japanese and foreigners out of Kuwait.” Is there a Wordstar or similar program that recalls that in Kuwait, Japanese are foreigners too? b) “The XXX foundation has donated sound and lightning equipment to the YYY Theater.” Maybe they’ve stolen somebody’s thunder too? c) “Old parliamentary papers and statues are kept in the Archives.” I suppose old statues have to go somewhere, but in this case it was statutes.

From Newsletter Number 69 (March 1996)