Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mika Tsutsumi, author of "Poverty Superpower America" lectures at PSU

A View from the Other Side...

On an otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning in 2001, a young Japanese woman on the twentieth floor of the World Financial Center in New York was knocked to the ground by the most pivotal event of the twenty-first century. When she got up, the entire word had changed.

Shortly after the ten year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Mika Tsutsumi returned to the United States to share her experience as a post-9/11 journalist. Her October 13th lecture at Portland State University was her first lecture ever in Portland, and provided a rare opportunity for Americans to learn about her research, which has not been published in English.

There was a lot of hair in the audience that night.

Originally turning to journalism as a way of coping with the post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by 9/11, Tsutsumi became intolerant of American media in the years following the event, when the focus shifted to the war in the Middle East and ignored the powerful political and economics changes  occurring in the states. Tsutsumi spent the next several years documenting the privatization of American public schools, the economic draft of the US military, and the looming burden of healthcare costs in America, in hopes to shed light on some of the grim issues facing Americans today.

In 2008, at the onset of the economic depression, she published "ルポ 貧困大国アメリカ", or “Poverty Superpower America” that detailed the economic crisis affecting US citizens. Her book, originally published in Japanese, has been translated to Korean and Chinese, and has sold over half a million copies worldwide.

It was not the first criticism of America. For decades foreign countries have been quick to point out other issues that plague America, such as racism, a faulty judicial system, political corruption, and a wasteful consumer-driven culture, but Mika Tsutsumi’s book was different. It was among the first Japanese books to criticism America’s economy

To the Japanese, the United States is “a model for successful capitalism.” Japan has been mirroring US  economic policy since WWII. When an economic disaster hits the US, Japan is only footsteps behind. In other words, “the US of today, is Japan’s future.” Tsutsumi's book portrays an image of America that is completely contradictory to the one described  by Japanese media. Expressions that have now become laughable to Americans such as the “land of opportunity” and “equal chance,” are still widely believed in Japan. Tsutsumi’s book was a shocking revelation for Japanese people

The first response to her book came from Japanese teachers and students. Her detailed account of the privatization of American public schools unveiled the consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act. With school budgets and teachers’ jobs hinging on the National Achievement Test, teachers and school administrators took desperate measures to ensure that their students passed the exam.   Tsutsumi traveled around the Unites States interviewing public school teachers who revealed to her their shocking methods of cheating. Teachers were doing everything from posting answers on the board during the test day, to encouraging academically-challenged students to stay home on the test day so that their potentially low scores would not bring down the school average. American media is now reporting on similar issues:

The Japanese school system has enacted a similar national exam, and they are starting to see that same types of problems. Rising student debt also plagues Japanese college students just as it does in American.

Tsutsumi’s book also discusses the economic draft of the American military. Military recruiters openly admitted to her that many recruits join the military because they simply have no other choice. As the recruiter describes it, most of the recruits have little chance of getting into college and no transferable job skills. Without being able to work or go to school, they have no choice but to join the military.

A frighteningly similar situation is happening in Japan. Recruiters for the Self Defense Force are calling high schools and demanding the cell phone numbers of students with low academic performance. Advertisements for the Self Defense Force are becoming more and more widespread, often featuring anime girls in skimpy military uniforms as ways to attract impressionable teenage boys.  
A Japanese Self Defense Force advertisement.

The most powerful topic in “Poverty Superpower America” is the exposure of American’s failing healthcare system. Japan has a universal healthcare system which provides healthcare to every citizen at a fraction of the cost of the US system. It is unfathomable to Japanese people that fifty million Americans do not have health insurance. Even worse is the fact that people with heath insurance still risk bankruptcy and crushing debt when insurance companies deny claims.

At this point, anyone who has turned on the TV for more than fifteen minutes knows the horrors of the American healthcare system; yet overseas, the US is regarded as providing the most technologically advanced healthcare in the world. True, American doctors and scientists have pioneered remarkable medical procedures and discovered lief-changing drugs. But what good are these drugs and procedures if most Americans cannot afford them? 

Patients are not the only ones suffering from “the business” of healthcare. To keep costs low, hospitals have been cutting administrative staff at alarming rates, and doctors are constantly being overworked. In an interview with Tsutsumi, one doctor said he spends four days out of the week doing paperwork instead of treating patients. Another doctor said he is pressured by insurance companies to perform thirty minute procedures in three minutes. Applying the lean business model to hospitals requires them to jeopardize the health of their patients and staff in order to save money. Healthcare is becoming more and more like a business, putting profits before patients. 

This information should not come as a surprise to any American. We've all heard the stories. We all know the statistics. Yet, what we don't know, or don't seem to realize yet, is that the US is just the first block in a long, messy line of dominoes. Our problems are the world's problems.Yet, perhaps the same is true of our solutions. Today, on October 15th 2011, America media reported that the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread worldwide, and now protests are appearing in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Sitting in the audience of her controversial lecture, I couldn’t help but wonder how my fellow Americans were receiving the news. I suspect that critics may be quick to disregard Tsutsumi as “anti-American.” It’s certainly easy to throw that label on a foreign journalist. 
But her criticisms seem to echo the voice of the American people. America is a country founded on criticizing itself, which has in part lead to its success. However, criticism isn’t effective unless it leads to change, and change is ultimately what the American people are demanding.

Tsutsumi is often asked the questions that Americans are asking themselves. 
Who made this mess? Who is responsible? Who is our biggest enemy?  Tsutsumi has an answer. 
“Ignorance,” she say, “Ignorance is the biggest enemy.”

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