Plagiarism, Japanese style

I read the famed Romenesko blog almost daily, and every time it informs me of the latest scandal in American journalism (from Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair to, more recently, Mitch Albom), I wonder: what if it was in Japan? Now thanks to the TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System), a major TV station, I know.

What do I know? That it's not a big deal here.

According to a statement posted on its website today (the English site has no mention of it), for four years the TV station's 47-year-old general manager freely plagiarized material for his online sports columns (to run on the TBS site) from several Japanese newspapers. TBS hasn't disclosed the person's name. Nor did they said a word on any disciplinary action. The columns have been taken off the site.

At first, this is what TBS said. On Tuesday they gave a premature press conference after one recent column sounded very familiar. A PR guy said it was an isolated incident. "An outside freelance writer" stole material from Yomiuri Shimbun. TBS had terminated the contract with the writer.

But there was something fishy about it. Like, the title of the column series was: "Dugout: Columns by the Editor-in-Chief." Didn't TBS mind a freelance contributor calling himself an editor-in-chief (of whatever)?

Other newspapers got suspicious and began checking, and guess what, it wasn't just one column, and it wasn't written by any freelancer, either. It was all this general manager's doing. Apparently when the first question arose, the 47-year-old "editor-in-chief" of the online sports section asked the freelance writer (we don't know the person's name, either) to take the blame for him.

Now this caught my attention. I've read a lot about American plagiarists on Romenesko, but I don't recall one journalistic thief who had somebody else admit his guilt. Is this uniquely Japanese, like a punk doing time for his boss's crime? And the boss rewards the punk with a promotion when he's released. I've seen that a lot in yakuza movies, but then again, didn't I see something like that in The Sopranos, too?

The whole thing is crazy on so many levels. But I'm most intrigued by why the guy (or woman) did it. No, not the TBS big shot who plagiarized material, but the freelance writer who agreed to cover for him. What was he or she going to get out of this? Was he (or she) paid? Promised a future writing gig? TBS hasn't said anything about it.

And this is why I know it's not a big deal. A freelance writer didn't mind being called a plagiarist for whatever reward the real TBS editor-in-chief offered.

Oh, and the other thing. Whatever happens to the TBS guy (or the freelance writer, for that matter), this being Japan and not America, where every story is for sale, I don't see a book deal or a major Hollywood movie coming out of this.

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