Recently the BBC announced that it cancelled plans to send Stephen Fry to Japan to make a documentary. This greatly saddens me, as I am a huge Fry fan, I love his work and I would be sure to enjoy not only one of my favourite personalities, but starring in a show about Japan. However I agree with the BBC. I think it’s a smart decision, because recently the BBC and Stephen Fry have come under fire in Japan over the following segment from a QI episode.
So, why has that got the BBC/Fry into trouble? Well, that’s something I’m still trying to figure out myself. Most native English speakers would probably agree that the show isn’t being insulting or offensive about or towards Yamaguchi, and is in fact being quite complementary about the Japanese rail system. On the surface the easy answer is that the majority of Japanese people don’t understand English and therefore don’t understand what’s going on in the program. If you can read Japanese, a lot of the comments are about the fact that the audience is laughing, and that this program is trivializing the horror of atomic weapons. So, in a way it’s true that the language barrier is one of the problems, but it also runs deeper than that.
The atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are considered a taboo subject in Japan. It’s not that they are never talked about, I have been to both the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum, and I can say they are the most sombre and reflective places you can visit in Japan. However in everyday life, the bombs and World War Two are just not talked about. And personally, as an Australian, it’s not a topic I would bring up with a Japanese person, although once I had a Japanese man apologise to me for the war, and another time a student was reading a book about a Harvard debate of wether the US should apologise for the bombs (incidentally, she’s 15 and doesn’t think the US should apologise).
The Japanese seem to feel a certain ownership of the bombs. The tragic loss of approximately 250,000 people within 5 years of the bombing and continued effects are a pretty damn good reason to be strong advocates against nuclear weapons. The impression you get when you go to the museums above is that this should never happen again.
And after a bit of thought, you would have to admit that certain parts of the segment are insensitive. For example, joking “the bomb landed on him, and it bounced off” and “it was the wrong(right) kind of bomb” certainly leave an opening for misunderstanding. To be honest, even I don’t understand some of the humour towards the end of the segment (which is probably more indicative of the decline in my English ability more than anything else). The BBC did issue an apology for ‘Japanese atomic bomb jokes’ and ‘any offence caused’ which was the appropriate thing to do.
However, none of the program was intended to be malicious, and the show did raise the level of awareness about Yamaguchi and other double bomb survivors, which most people would never have even known of in the first place. Yamaguchi and his fellows certainly were either very unlucky or lucky, depending on which way you choose to look at it. It was a topic fitting for a program whose name is an acronym of quite interesting, but maybe it’s not appropriate for a comedy show. I might not think that there was any harm in what QI did, but I will still try to understand why there was.