Standing in line outside the Pepsi Center last night, sandwiched in between a group of rowdy lobbyists from Tennessee and what appeared to be the boys choir of Minnesota, the thought occurred to me: I could really use a valium, maybe a tazer. And then, I had one of those galvanizing chance encounters that remind me why I went into this profession. I struck up a conversation with a Japanese journalist named Shigenori Kanehira who, it turns out, is the Director General of the US office of TBS News. No, not Ted Turner! That’s Tokyo Broadcasting System, the largest commercial network in Japan.
Shigenori is here in Denver with 14 colleagues to cover the DNC for Japanese viewers. For the next hour (yes, it really does take that long to get past security), we had a fascinating conversation about how the election is perceived in Japan, US foreign policy, race, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith (he’s a big fan) and a host of other issues. I was surprised to learn, for example, that Shigenori is studying evolving public opinion on the death penalty in the US because capital punishment is not only legal and practiced in Japan, but enjoys a 70 percent approval rating. The idea that someone could look at American attitudes to the death penalty with something approaching progressive political envy was staggering to me.
Less surprising, but gratifying nonetheless, was Shigenori’s confirmation that George Bush is "the most hated American in Japan." Even Japanese conservatives loathe Bush, who Shigenori says is perceived of as "worse than Nixon." (Here I must say, it really helps to imagine Shigenori’s quotes as uttered in the most charming Japanese accent). Barack Obama is wildly popular there, due in large part to the belief that he will change US foreign policy in "Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East and Russia," says Shigenori.
Shigenori’s job is to explain the arcane US political system to his viewers, but one big question interests him more than any other. "Is America ready to elect a black man as leader?" Shigenori has been asking delegates this question all week, and he observes that most answer YES with wild enthusiasm. But "you can not just make believe it true," he says. I nod, and Shigenori goes on to tell me that some delegates have refused to touch the question, walking away when asked. I imagine being queried by a Japanese man followed by a Japanese camera crew might having something to do with that reaction, but Shigenori is also right to point out the tenderness of race here at the DNC.
I turn the tables and ask him–As a keen and long-time observer of US politics and culture, what do you think? Is America ready to elect a black man as president? Shigenori looks up, down, then grimaces and slowly shakes his head NO. This response depresses both of us, and we fall into silence and stare at the sky for a while.
During our conversation, Shigenori asks me where I work, and when I say I’m an editor at The Nation magazine, his eyes bug out. "The Nation!" he exclaims, clearly excited, "I am subscriber! The Nation my most favorite magazine! Most fortunate to meet you!" Shigenori peppers me with questions about The Nation, which I have to confess I found marvelously fun. For example, he asks about David Corn, and when I explain to him that David has moved on to Mother Jones but that we have a great new Washington editor named Chris Hayes, Shigenori treats this bit of news like a matter of high state gossip. "The Nation publish Open Letter to Barack Obama!?" he asks, even though he clearly knows the answer. "I agree with Nation policy," Shigenori says.
So folks at home in the office, please set aside some Nation t-shirts–probably size medium–for my new friend and our old fan.