17 June 2005

Charles Robert Jenkins and the Japanese Media

I have to confess I'm fascinated by the story of the U.S. Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins and his kidnapped Japanese wife Hitomi Soga, both of them far outliers by any standard. They're in North Carolina now, and most accounts of their visit are rehashes of the same wire service stories from AP, Kyodo, Reuters, etc. But one story by Jim Nesbitt, a staff writer for a major North Carolina regional paper, the Raleigh News & Observer, stands out. Unable to get much more than the time of day from an extremely tight-lipped Jenkins, Nesbitt decides to report on the Japanese media coverage. (Yes, I know, reporters covering other reporters is all too common these days, but I think this one works pretty well because Nesbitt is discovering different cultural perceptions, not just reinforcing his own conventional wisdom.) Here's a sampling.
WELDON -- On the tree-lined avenue in front of the two-story brick home of Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins' sister, scores of Japanese camera crews and reporters practice an electronic form of brinkmanship.

Sharp-elbowed and competitive, they aim to capture every moment of Jenkins' first visit to North Carolina since he spent four decades as a defector in North Korea.

But unlike their American counterparts, their focus is on Jenkins' wife, Hitomi Soga, 46, who was abducted by North Korean agents in 1978 while shopping with her mother in their hometown on Japan's isolated Sado Island and spirited away by speedboat to the Communist dictatorship.

Since her solo return to Japan in 2002, Soga has become a leading symbol of the abductee saga, her story wrapped in Japan's enduring interest in the fate of as many as 60 Japanese citizens who were also abducted by North Korea from 1977 to 1983.

Her quest to be reunited with Jenkins, 65, who stayed in North Korea with their two daughters because he feared punishment for desertion, became the focus of negotiations led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who made a personal appeal to North Korean officials for their release.

In the eyes of the Japanese, this is a love story and a tale of motherly devotion -- with Soga at center stage....

Her story is made more poignant by the uncertainty surrounding her mother, Miyoshi Soga, who also disappeared the same day. The North Korean government has never admitted abducting Soga's mother.

The Japanese see a psychic connection between Soga's missing mother and her husband's desire to see his own mom -- a wish Soga has said she wanted fulfilled so she and her daughters could meet [her husband's mother Pattie] Casper.

"It's a double image," [New York-based TV Asahi senior producer] Nakamura said. "The union of Jenkins and his mother reflects her [Soga's] fantasy dream of being reunited with her mother."

For the Japanese, Jenkins has been a sideshow, a supporting actor whose remarkable story has been seen through the lens of his wife's saga. They've known from the start that he was a 25-year-old Army sergeant who deserted the squad he was leading during a patrol of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in January 1965.

Until they hit North Carolina, though, and started talking to U.S. veterans and visiting his hometown in nearby Rich Square, about 25 miles southeast of here, they didn't realize the anger some have for him.

"The people didn't really know Mr. Jenkins was a deserter and how serious that was," said Toshiyuki Matsuyama, a Washington-based reporter for the Fuji News Network. "Now, we're focusing on the negative aspects of his visit."...

In the three days Jenkins has been in Weldon, the sight of Japanese reporters interviewing locals at the Weldon Super Market or the Trustworthy Hardware Store on Main Street in Rich Square has become common.

But coverage that has been almost round-the-clock has given Japanese reporters, producers and camera crews little time to explore the local delights.

Tomohiko Murayama, who covers Sado Island for the Niigata Television Network, spent a year as a high school exchange student in Kentucky 20 years ago and wasn't unhinged by being stuck in Weldon.

"This is the typical small town in the United States, isn't it?" Murayama said.
Yes! If only the reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the wire services understood small-town America (and Japan) as well as Murayama seems to. Hats off to Nesbitt, too, for an original and informative take on the media circus.

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