Shukan Gendai has an article this week called “(Super-popular 21st Century Agnes Lum Has a Surprising Secret) Leah Dizon is Actually Fluent in Japanese!?” (人気沸騰“２１世紀のアグネス・ラム”に意外なヒミツ■リア・ディゾン 実は日本語ペラペラ!?)
At first I wanted to write about this as an example of the weekly magazines being a totally unreliable vehicle for news (Leah Dizon is fluent? Yeah, right), but in classic shukanshi style, the headline kind of oversells the actual meat of the article. The writer never claims that Dizon is “fluent” fluent, but does point out a disparity between her on-air Japanese — described as “カタコト” (stilted, talking like a baby) — and her off-the-job Japanese, which apparently is not so bad. In other words, Leah Dizon is intentionally being pushed (by her management?) to bring down her Japanese level in public.
The writer implies there is a need to appear adorable for her legion of otaku fans, and she appeases them through saying things like “オナカスイタ！” (Very, very liberally, “Oh, me so hungry.”)
Ever since foreigners starting showing up in Japan, many Japanese have been fascinated with the idea of non-Japanese Japanese speakers. Apparently, Tokugawa Ieyasu got a big kick out of making British wash-up William Adams repeat Japanese phrases. Even when the barbarians put in an effort, the locals did not always respond positively. John Nathan claims in his book Japan Unbound that in the early ’60s he would speak to people on the street in relatively fluent Japanese and they would ask for a translator.
These days, society seems more accepting and comfortable with foreign speakers of the language, and Leah Dizon’s allegedly-fake katakoto seems less to be about the threat of fluent foreigners and more about constructing an infantile linguistic image to go along with her cleaned-up visual package. This is very similar to Bobby Ologun whose ridiculously-complicated, fake “dumb mistakes” help paint him as the big, jolly African oaf. This latest charge about Dizon fits with this strangely-progressive 21st century conspiracy theme: The media forces foreigners (who are not white men) to speak mangled Japanese for the delight of the public. The underlying criticism seems to suggest that a certain sector wants a naturalization in feelings about foreign speakers of the language. Or maybe it’s just a larger extension of the paranoia about TV constantly lying to us (i.e., yarase).
I think that if Leah Dizon gradually starts getting better at the language before our very eyes, that probably wouldn’t necessarily damage her persona, but for whatever reason, her handlers are erring on the side of feigned incompetency. Is this some strange form of orientalization — where the (otaku) Japanese male desires the subservient American female who is sexily mute due to language inadequacy? Or do the handlers still think her audience fears the fluent alien? You would think that she would be better at connecting with fans through able use of the local language, but for whatever reason, they are making her play out a different role using a more limited script.