Anglocentrism, Orientalism and not so funny accents on Radio 4

Some thoughts provoked by Me, Putin and judo

BBC Radio 4, 11:00 GMT, Friday 9th January 2009

Kenn Nakata Steffensen

Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness. . . .

As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge.” (Edward Said)

The BBC’s use of fake foreign accents in its non-comedic drama and factual radio programmes is more than a mere aesthetic irritant; there are matters of political principle at stake and strong ideological forces at work. As in other areas of contemporary Western culture, there is an “Orientalist double standard” in the way the BBC represents East Asians.[1] The programme “Me, Putin and judo” was worse than most, but the following observations apply in general to the use of non-English accents as a dramaturgical device on radio.

The programme is no longer available online from the BBC, but it can be listened to on another website, which describes it as:

Former world judo champion Neil Adams visits Russia on a quest to meet fellow judo expert and Russian prime minister Vladamir [sic.] Putin, hoping to gain some insight into how judo has influenced his character. He speaks to Putin’s childhood friend, the Duma member Vasily Shestakov, who co-wrote a book with Putin on the philosophy of judo. Neil also meets Putin’s judo coach Anatoly Rakhlin and discovers how the Russia [sic.] are preparing for the next Olympics, especially now that judo has become so popular in the country as a result of Putin’s example.

R4Choice: Me, Putin and Judo 09 Jan 09

The programme featured excerpts from the writings of Kano Jigoro, the founder of judo. These excerpts were read in a distinctly Chinese accent. As the programme makes clear, and as most people know, judo is an originally Japanese martial art and its founder was Japanese.

The impression one gets as a listener is that East Asians are all the same to Radio 4 and that it is therefore not necessary to make distinctions that are otherwise made when representing Westerners or people from the former British Empire. French, Spanish, Russian and German accents would never be lumped together as a generic “European” accent, although these languages are closer relatives than Japanese and Chinese. However, East Asians are treated differently and no account is taken of the significant differences between spoken Chinese and Japanese, which belong to fundamentally dissimilar language groups.[2] In BBC Orientalist discourse, East Asians are treated as collectively different and internally undifferentiated. On the other hand, when it comes to the English language, fine distinctions are made between its many spoken variants in Radio 4 broadcasts. One regularly hears US, Canadian, Australian, South Asian, Caribbean and many varieties of regional accents from the British Isles.

The fact that careful distinctions are made between European languages, with English being treated far more sensitively than others, suggests that there is an implicit hierarchy of languages and cultures and ethnocentric double standards in the way the BBC represents them. Great care is taken to accurately portray nuances of pronunciation within the language at the top of the hierarchy – English. The greater the linguistic distance is from English, the less attention is paid to accurate representation of the language. In this hierarchy, languages and peoples perceived to be geographically and culturally distant and relatively unimportant, like Chinese and Japanese, are lumped together on seemingly racial grounds with no regard for the very real linguistic differences that exist. There are an estimated 500,000 people in the UK of Chinese and Japanese descent. The BBC’s treatment of them as an undifferentiated “Oriental” mass is unacceptable and seems to be incompatible with the BBC’s own policy on representing the ethnic diversity of the UK, which states that:

In a devolved, multi-ethnic and multi-faith UK, the role of the BBC in representing the different nations, regions and communities to each other and to themselves is indispensable. […] The BBC has a duty to ensure that its investment in production plays a crucial part in fostering and developing talent across the UK as well as ensuring that all parts of the UK, and all communities within the UK, are represented both in the production process and on screen., p. 97

The problem in the broadcast was not so much one of non-representation as of misrepresentation. If accents are used, they should at least be authentic. A generic actors’ Chinese is not an accurate or appropriate way to portray a Japanese historical figure.

The use of non-English accents in broadcasting is an inappropriate device in general. It serves to distance the listener from what is being read and marks it off as alien and often as something not to be taken seriously. Foreign accents in comedy productions clearly serve the purpose of affirming British superiority over Germans, Italians, Spaniards or whoever else is made fun of. Even if Kano’s words had been read by a Japanese actor with a genuine accent, the communicative effect would have been similar to that achieved in comedy. The person and the culture he represents would have come across as exotic and the passages read out would be marked off as something alien and inferior to the authoritative native English voice of the presenter.

Reading quotes from Hegel in a theatrical Spanish, Greek, Arabic, French or any other non-German accent seems inconceivable unless the purpose was comedic. In fact, broadcasters are unlikely to use a German accent when quoting Hegel or a Greek one when quoting Aristotle. Figures from the European canon are appropriated as integral parts of British cultural heritage and therefore represented without accents. This indicates that prominent thinkers from the European tradition are treated more seriously and that non-Western thinkers are almost parodied. There may be good grounds for not considering Kano a thinker of the same stature as Hegel or Aristotle, but the disrespect shown is not to the man’s intellect but to his ethnicity. As the programme was seen through the eyes of a follower of Kano, there can be no question that there was an intention to put him down as a thinker. But putting a faux Chinese accent in his mouth is far worse than saying he was a lesser thinker than Kant. Rational argument and dialogue with a person and the ideas s/he espouses is fair, but to caricature two ethnicities is not. This kind of chinoiserie is irrational and unethical.

The thinking that informs the programme is the same as that of Ernst Glockmann in the 1920s – “They all look alike and they are all called something like Yokohama or Nagasaki.”[3] What is lurking in the background is a militant yet self-doubting Eurocentrism like that of the introduction to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which ironically seems to demonstrate that Weber’s general argument holds. The Eurocentrism we can observe today some hundred years after Weber is relatively autonomous from economic forces. China, Japan and the rest of Asia may be thought of as marginal and insignificant and therefore represented in the Western media as trivial or ridiculous, but this is because ideas are not mechanistically determined by material realities. Asia has an industrial, financial, demographic and military presence in the world to be reckoned with, but Western ideology continues to be relatively unaffected by this. The Kyoto School philosophers in Japan argued for a more pluralistic, multipolar, post-Eurocentric “world of worlds” (Goto-Jones) or “global world” (Arisaka) [Their translations of Nishida’s sekaiteki sekai 世界的世界] in the 1930s, and Okakura Tenshin criticised Eurocentrism along lines remarkably similar to Said’s Orientalism as early as 1903.  But in spite of long and sustained reflection by both Western and non-Western thinkers, “Eurocentrism is a resilient creed. After all the batterings of the old century, Europe retains its philosophic centrality as the new millennium dawns.”[4] So, as Erich Maria Remarque put it, “Im Westen nichts Neues”. All quiet on the western front.


The above is based on a much shorter e-mail sent to the BBC in February 2009 to ask:

  1. Specifically, why writings by a Japanese author were read in a Chinese accent;
  2. Generally, why the device of non-English accents is used at all and according to which criteria, as it seems to be applied in an ethnically stereotyping manner;
  3. How the specific use of accent related to the BBC’s Charter and the organisation’s obligation to represent “the different regions and communities to each other and to themselves”

Just like when I asked them about why they showed footage from Korea in a report about Okinawa in Japan, they never replied. On another occasion, when I pointed out factual errors in a report about Denmark, the response was prompt, polite and appreciative. In fact, the journalist responsible asked for my help with future stories. This may be pure chance, or is it another aspect of how the “Orientalist double standard” works in broadcast journalism? There is probably not a Chinaman’s chance that I will ever find out.


[1] I am developing some thoughts about what I term the “Orientalist double standard” in the global organisation and production of knowledge, particularly academic knowledge about non-Western societies and cultures. The concept of Orientalism used is therefore both of the Saidian and pre-Saidian kind – Orientalism as a Western ideological discourse about “the rest” and Oriental area studies as practised in Western universities. The literature I critically analyse is mostly on Japanese history and politics. The problem, briefly stated, is that different standards of intellectual competence are demanded of Westerners and Orientals. Many books and articles are published by prestigious presses and journals in the West by scholars with a very weak grasp of the non-Western object of their studies. They are sometimes even dismissive of indigenous scholars whose work they are hardly familiar with because of their lack of linguistic competence. The expectations of East Asian specialists on Europe and North America, on the other hand, are much higher, both in East Asia and the West. No Japanese, Korean or Chinese can get away with writing books on e.g. Germany without being able to read German or knowing past and present debates about the subject matter in European languages. Regrettably, the double standard means that far too much incompetent scholarship is produced in the West and that what determines whether a book or article is published is not so much its intellectual qualities as the status of the author. If s/he is a white, native English-speaker with a rank of senior lecturer/associate professor or above in an Ivy League or Russell Group university, s/he can get away with metaphorical genocide and textual carpet-bombing of the non-West.  I may upload some work in progress on this soon. As Orientalism is resilient and pervades European and North American culture, the broadcast media operate in similar ways

[2] The historical absorption of Chinese culture and writing and lexical items has not made the Japanese language structurally or phonetically similar to Chinese, just like Finland’s geographical and cultural presence in Europe and use of words of Latin and Greek origin has not made Finnish Indo-European.

[3] Hermann Glockner citing Hoffman, cited in Yusa, Michiko “Philosophy and Inflation. Miki Kiyoshi in Weimar Germany, 1922-1924” Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 53, No. 1. (Spring, 1998), pp. 45-71. p. 57

[4] Williams, David “In defence of the Kyoto School: reflections on philosophy, the Pacific War and the making of a post-White world” Japan Forum, 1469-932X, Volume 12, Issue 2, 2000, Pages 143 – 156


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