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Taboo Topics in the Japanese Media

(Created April 11, 2014; last edited February 18, 2019)

This page will not cover those things they tell you not to do when in Japan. It will attempt to describe some of the nastier topics of discussion that are particularly taboo in the Japanese broadcast and in at least the legacy print media. Naturally, the fact that these topics are taboo is not verifiable by asking the media themselves, for the very reason that the topics are taboo, in addition to the disucssions of the very existence of taboos seems to be, well, taboo. However, I (having lived in Japan more than 42 years) and most people living in Japan for extended periods of time (including, of course, Japanese natives) will realize these topics and things they never have and probably never will hear discussed in the media.

Unequivocal linking of smoking with specific diseases.

The Japanese government holds a large interest in the only company in Japan that can produce cigarettes. Until recently, in fact, it held the controlling interest. Although you will hear people on TV sometimes saying that smoking is bad for your health, it is extremely rare to hear a definitive statement linking smoking to specific diseases such as cancer or heart diseases. Not surprising, actually, since all the mass media have an interest in not being too in-your-face about the shortening of lives by smoking. NHK is essentially run by the Japanese government, which owns a good portion of the shares of Japan Tabacco, and the private broadcasters run non-cigarette ads for Japan Tobacco.

Discussion of pachinko as gambling for money.

Very few Japanese would deny this is a fact, but I cannot recall ever hearing any broadcast media seriously admit this truth directly. The presented cover story is that pachinko is not really gambling for money, but just a game, with incidental winning of prizes. The truth is that people lose their entire paycheck playing pachinko machines in the hope of winning prizes exchangeable for cash. The prizes have no intrinsic value, but are a type of special-purpose "currency" used to cash in on your winnings at a payback window that is, for obvious reasons, ostensibly run by a different place than the pachinko

Mentioning that pachinko parlors are largely owned and run by Koreans.

Again, this is something of which very few Japanese are unaware, but something which I have not once heard in the broadcast media, in over 39 years here. Because of special interest groups and because of the way Koreans have been (and are being) treated in Japan, it would not be "nice" to mention that they run pachinko parlors.

Discussion of jumping in front of trains as a common way to end it all.

If you ride the trains with any frequency in Japan's larger cities, you will numerous times each month hear announcements or see them flashing on displays on platforms to indicate that an "accident involving human injury" has happened and is casuing delays. Most people know this means someone has jumped in front of a train. Yet the media will not discuss this, which is putatively a problem deeper than just the numbers of people jumping indicate. They are are surely afraid of copycat jumpers. They do occasionally try to warn people who drink not to fall onto the tracks, thereby taking attention away from the people who jump on the tracks on purpose in the daytime, when it is pretty tough to find someone drunk.

Outing the nationality of a Korean in Japan who is for all intents and purposes passing as a Japanese.

Yasuda Narumi, an actress here is a Korean (by all reports and "inherited wisdom"). She was playing the part of the daughter of a Japanese military officer in Korea in a TV drama and left the show. On one of Japan's daytime talk/gossip shows, one of their resident commentators made a rather distressing comment that it was natural for her to quit, not feeling comfortable with the role, because she was Korean. He was essentially fired from the show, and I wonder whether he ever worked again. In Japan, outing a Korean sets you up for defamation of character even if it is true, which says something about what being a Korean and being known to be a Korean who was "passing" (worse than just being a Korean) means in Japan. This was the first and last time I have heard a Korean being outed in the Japanese broadcast media.

Japan's historical and persisting problem with the "formerly" persecuted burakumin people.

It appears that discussion of this social problem is indeed possible, but only if someone from the burakumin is doing this discussing. Any passing reference to it in the media is likely to cause a outbursts from special interest groups. The very work buraku (it just means hamlet) is itself pretty much taboo, and when NHK encounters it in the speech of someone being interviewed, unless it can be edited around they will subtitle it and change the word to the more-acceptable shuraku (集落) or sonraku (村落), which are not associated with the burakumin or the movements to promote their civil liberties. I always wonder whether they ask permission of the original speakers before they make that substitution. In no case that I have seen has the original speaker used the word in the sense in which it is unsed in the context of the burakumin problem.