Japanese society is well know for its relative safety and low crime rate. There have been many theories about how the country maintains these rates, from its relatively ethnically homogenous population, up to accusations that Japan's police and prosecutors effectively cook the books.

One theory I've always entertained is that Japan is a highly shame-centric society. You're expected to follow the rules - and if you don't, then 自業じごう自得じとく (jigoujitoku; you reap what you sow). The prospect of being socially shunned is itself enough to keep many people in line and on the right side of the law.

This is particularly true when it comes to crime. People who are formally arrested for a crime find themselves effectively labeled as criminals. E.g., if Tanaka-san is arrested, the media immediately tosses the honorary -san suffix from his name. He is now Tanaka Yogisha (田中たなか容疑者ようぎしゃ) - "the suspect Tanaka." When he goes to trial, he becomes "Tanaka Hikoku" (田中たなか被告ひこく) - "the defendant Tanaka".

If Tanaka is convicted, even his family is regarded by society with suspicion. It's not rare for people to move and change their names to avoid the bullying and social shaming that accompanies being the child of a convicted felon.

This shaming is on clear display in how Japanese society is treating the arrest of entertainer Pierre Taki (ピエールたき). The response has been so harsh that some critics are criticizing their country for denying the possibility of recovery and rehabilitation.

The Swift Fall of Pierre Taki

Born Taki Masanori (瀧 正則), Taki is best known as a techno and electronica musician who, in 1989, formed the band Denki Groove with Ishino Takyu (石野いしの 卓球たっきゅう). However, music was only the beginning for Taki, who in the past 30 years has appeared in dozens of movies, TV dramas, and variety programs. He is currently best known for his part in the current NHK morning drama Idaten, and for providing the voice of Olaf in the Japanese dub of Disney's animated hit Frozen. While I've never heard his music myself, I know of Taki from his appearances on the TBS radio program Tamamusubi, where he shows - err, showed up every Tuesday as the comic guest.

Long story short: the man is so ubiquitous, you'd have to actively try and avoid him.

That was, until this week. Since last fall, the Narcotics Control Unit of the Ministry of Health and Labor has apparently kept a close eye on the entertainer. This week, they moved in and arrested him for cocaine use, seizing evidence from his apartment in the process. Caught red-handed, Taki admitted to the charge immediately.

I've noticed for a few years now the breathless approach that traditional Japanese media - particularly television news - takes toward cases of drug use. It's been striking to me as someone living in Seattle in the US. Not only do I live in a state with legalized marijuana, but I've watched over the years as a push has developed away from incarceration and towards treatment. We still (IMO) incarcerate far too many people for drug use - particularly the poor and minorities. But there are more legal options besides "lock 'em up" available to prosecutors and judges than there were 30 years ago. As a result, drug use doesn't carry the same social stigma or impact that it did when I was growing up as a kid under the umbrella of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign.

While the attitude toward celebrity drug busts in America these days is more along the lines of "I hope he gets the help he needs," the attitude in Japan comes across more as, "How DARE he!" The offender's act is treated as a betrayal - a violation of the public trust. It also doesn't help that mental health issues are still stigmatized in Japan, which leads to addiction issues being treated as criminal rather than medical matters.

In Taki's case, the reaction has been harsh and brutal. Within a day of his arrest, Walt Disney Japan announced it would seek another actor to voice Olaf for the upcoming sequel to Frozen. NHK pulled re-runs of dramas that Taki had appeared in, such as the popular Ama-chan. Sony Music Labels announced that it had ceased selling all of Denki Groove's music and merchandise. And, in one of the most visually striking moves, three manhole covers of Taki in the city of Fujieta were pulled and replaced.

"What is The Media Trying to Achieve?"

In other words, Japan is undergoing a rapid de-Taki-fication. (Yes, that's a terrible Dad Joke. No, I'm not apologizing for it.) This has led media critics to openly question whether this process of shunning is doing society any good.

One of them is Ogiue Chiki (荻上おぎうえチキ), an editor and critic who hosts the TBS Radio news discussion show Session-22 (incidentally, one of my favorite Japanese language radio shows/podcasts). Ogiue has a special interest in this topic: back in 2017, he had an episode of his show where a panel of experts developed guidelines for how the media should handle stories about drug addiction. The guidelines included, among other things:

  • Not airing photos of white powder or needles along with the news story;
  • Refraining from statements that denoted or implied that the accused was no longer human; and
  • Not doing anything that would encourage the user to relapse.

The coverage around Taki's treatment so upset Ogiue that, according to Huffington Post Japan, he came into the studio when he was supposed to be home recovering from strep, and recorded a 22-minute segment lambasting the press for what he calls its relentless bashing of Taki. Noting that the guidelines urged broadcasters to stay away from phrases such as "I'm so disappointed" and "I hope he reflects on what he's done", Ogiue called out most major mainstream programs for violating that advice left and right:

フジテレビのバイキング、プライムニュースイブニングはこういうコメントを繰り返し使っていましたし、NHKのニュース7はわざわざ静岡の街の声を流していた。何の報道価値もないばかりか、薬物依存症問題を解決する助けには一切ならない。

Fuji TV's "Viking" and "Prime News Evening" used these comments repeatedly, and NHK News 7 purposefully aired the voices of people in Shizuoka [Taki's home prefecture]. There's no information value here, and and it does absolutely nothing to help resolve the drug addiction problem.

(JP) Link: Ogiue Chiki Has Harsh Words for Media on Suspect Pierre Taki's Arrest: "What Are They Trying to Achieve?"

荻上チキさん、ピエール瀧容疑者の逮捕報道でメディアに苦言 「何を目指しているのか…」
荻上さんが策定に関わった「薬物報道ガイドライン」に照らし、ほぼ全てのテレビ報道を検証、Twitterにコメントしています。

I listened to a bit of the episode today, which was filled with a lot of interesting observations. For example, guest Dr. Matsumoto Toshihiko (松本俊彦), who specializes in addiction treatment and has developed his own program for the treatment of methamphetamine addiction, argued that while the traditional media generally played its usual garbage role, Internet publications and commentators were the ones questioning such coverage, and pondering how Japanese society could better help treat drug users and help them on the path to rehabilitation.

In other words, societal attitudes are changing, but they're changing among the younger, more Internet-savvy generation first. Which shouldn't surprise anyone.

A Mere Cultural Difference?

It might be argued that what we see in Japan is a simple cultural difference, and that other cultures use ostracism as a weapon just as well as Japan does - they just use it in different ways. In fact, one could argue, isn't that what we're doing now in America with the college admissions case? The news that celebrities such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman paid hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to get their kids into elite schools has prompted a swift online backlash. As of this writing, at least two sponsors have killed their relationships with Loughlin and her "Influencer" daughter, Olivia Jade. More are sure to come. The children in question may well even be expelled from school.

That's fair enough, as far as it goes. The college admissions scandal, after all, shatters the American Horatio Alger myth that we are all fundamentally equal, and that anyone can advance if they work hard enough. We all know that that is, in some fundamental ways, bullshit. But we're raised to believe it, and it's hard for us to watch our cherished cows slaughtered before our eyes. And one can't deny we love a good round of schadenfreude at the expense of our supposed betters. The opportunity to lambaste the Lori Loughlins and Olivia Jades of the world is a sort of escape valve that gives us a respite from the drudgery of our daily lives. "I may have issues," we tell ourselves, "but at least I'm not THAT asshole."

Japan is no different. And this ritual impaling of the rich and famous serves a similar purpose. Unfortunately, it does so at the expense, not just of Pierre Taki, but of ordinary citizens who seek refuge in drugs as an escape, only to find themselves trapped in an ever widening gyre of addiction and loss. If someone as famous as Pierre Taki can have his entire life taken away from him by cocaine use, what hope do regular people have at rehabilitation?

Most of the rest of the world has made strides in treating addiction as a medical and psychological issue, as opposed to a criminal one. And I wish those who are seeking to make the same strides in Japan all the luck in the world.