Joking about ‘the Unluckiest Man in the World’

The BBC and the production company Talkback Thames, after receiving a letter of complaints from the Japanese embassy in London, issued a joint statement of apology about an episode of the popular comedy quiz show QI featuring Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who had survived the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and died last January at the age of 93. The QI host Stephen Fry introduced him as ‘the unluckiest man in the world’ and talked and joked about Yamaguchi’s experience with guest comedians. The news has sparked national outrage in Japan. The conservative Sankei newspaper said ‘any Japanese person would find this disturbing’.

The BBC is of course legally entitled to produce and show controversial programmes. But were they morally wrong to treat Yamaguchi’s story as they did? The answer is ‘yes, but’.

What is wrong is that the show caused predictable, unnecessary and non-negligible suffering and grief to atomic bomb survivors, the family and relatives of the victims and those who are struggling to deal with the effects of the explosions. The atomic bomb is, in the words of a monumental scientific report (p.67), ‘crucially different’ from the conventional weapon in that it releases ‘an enormous amount of radiation’ whose effects and aftereffects on the human body and the environment may continue for generations. Cancer – probably caused by exposure to radiation – killed Mr Yamaguchi, his wife and their son.  It was thus highly insensitive that one of the QI guests made a radiation joke, saying: ‘Is the glass half empty, is it half full? Either way, it’s radioactive. So don’t drink it!’

In addition to physical damage, atomic bomb victims and their family and relatives have suffered psychological problems, social stigma and legal troubles to obtain due recognition and compensation. As Stephen Fry mentioned during the show, it was only in 2009 that Yamaguchi was officially recognised as the first niju hibakusha or person who experienced the two atomic bombings. It is hardly surprising that Mr Yamaguchi’s daughter should feel she ‘cannot forgive [the quiz show] as it looked down on my father’s experiences’.

That said, however, I see no reason to believe that the show was intended to offend Yamaguchi’s family and relatives or the victims of the atomic bombings in general. There were several undeniably insensitive remarks, but most of the jokes were either about the inefficiency of the British rail service or the irony of life itself. Yamaguchi’s life-stories – that he went from Hiroshima to Nagasaki by train, that he lived until the age of 93 despite his ‘twice-bombed’ experience, etc. – were introduced to dramatize those fairly innocent jokes. The BBC cannot be blamed for willed wrongdoing.

By contrast, some Japanese newspapers seem to have deliberately exaggerated the show’s thoughtlessness, writing that QI ‘ridiculed’ ‘laughed at’ or ‘scoffed at’ Yamaguchi and the atomic bomb victims. The domestic TV news coverage in Japan has often been no less sensational, showing a clip of Yamaguchi solemnly talking about his experience in tears before turning to another clip of the QI host and guests cheerfully talking and joking about the survivor’s story in Hawaiian shirts. The comparison is complete with somewhat suspicious translation. If the BBC is blameworthy, so are the Japanese media.

In addition, excessively offensive TV shows cannot be prevented unless free speech itself is abandoned. We must therefore accept the risk that free expression often brings about unforeseen consequences and sometimes trespasses beyond the boundaries of minimum decency. This is hardly news in free societies, including Britain and Japan.

So it is sensible that the BBC and Talkback Thames swiftly apologised, adding: ‘QI never sets out to cause offence with any of the people or subjects it covers. However on this occasion, given the sensitivity of the subject matter for Japanese viewers, we understand why they did not feel it appropriate for inclusion in the programme’. But here, it must be reminded that the nuclear attacks killed or injured many non-Japanese nationals as well, including 65,000 (or more) Koreans who were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Currently, atomic bomb survivors live in more than 30 countries including the United States, whose citizens were also killed in the atomic bombings.

Finally, the recent diplomatic furore should not become another occasion for an irrational blame game. We already see popular websites filled with chauvinist comments from both sides. ‘The Japanese’ have been mocked as incapable of understanding the ‘British sense of humour’ and its distinctly witty way of dealing with tragic events. This is wrong. Humorous laughter is a universal human response to disasters of various sorts and Japanese art and literature are rather rich in satirical jokes and dark humour. The BBC and ‘the British’ on their part have been condemned for being ‘racist’, ‘inhumane’ and ‘ignorant’. This too is wrong. For better or worse, insensitive treatments of tragic events are widely observed in human societies, and the BBC has produced a number of sensible programmes about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ironically, of the ‘Big Five’ Japanese media groups’ news websites, only the liberal Asahi has more resources than the BBC about Yamaguchi and his peace activism.

While the current controversy is another sour reminder that the audience of a TV programme is not confined to national borders in the age of globalization, it may also be noted that sympathy for suffering is not confined to those borders, either. The controversy should be seen as an opportunity to increase our human capacity for imagination and understanding – especially if one wants to take seriously the message of Yamaguchi, who refused to let his experience of two man-made ‘Hells’ ruin his love of humanity, and who hoped that the official record of his niju hibakusha status ‘can tell the younger generation the horrifying history of the atomic bombings even after I die’.

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