After Joe Mitchell’s accounts of mid-century New York had entered the shared canon of journalism and literature, an interviewer asked him whether, in all the years since he’d stopped writing, he’d considered going back through his old work in search of his lost impulses. He replied that a reporter’s regrets — and he was certain that was all he’d find — are abundant, uninteresting and deserve the ignominious fate his had long ago earned: a few inches in newsprint. During the five years I spent pretending (or so I felt) to be a reporter in the pages of this newspaper, covering the African community, I developed two regrets I’ll commit to the same ignominy.
In my early coverage I referred to African immigrants who solicit customers for nightclubs as “touts.” In a dictionary sense, this is correct. But in Nigeria, it’s pejorative, and it’s often misapprehended as the English translation of an inflammatory insult in a local dialect. I hadn’t been to Nigeria when I began my reporting; if I had, I would have known the word would become a distraction. Occasionally I meet members of the African community who are wary of my coverage based solely on my use of that word. To them, and to anyone who shares their sentiments, I apologize.
In 2013 I wrote about Gilbert Otaigbe, a Roppongi nightclub owner whose overnight success, subsequent battles with Tokyo law enforcement and eventual return to Nigeria had defined an era of nightlife entrepreneurism for African immigrants in the red light districts. The article contained information that Otaigbe’s contemporaries presented as evidence of his self-destructive slide toward cynicism and greed. Although the behaviors described by these sources were — and remain — Otaigbe’s responsibility, it was also true that law enforcement had acted in bad faith. Which is why I called the legal pretext for a raid on Otaigbe’s club “archaic” and paraphrased sources who believed his resulting bitterness was warranted.
Still, I omitted details I now consider important: The police brought drug-sniffing dogs with them on the raid, and they brought television news crews, using the media to create the unfounded impression that Otaigbe was a drug kingpin; the raid became an ethnically charged publicity stunt. If Otaigbe hadn’t refused to be interviewed for my article, he might have chosen to describe the raid along those lines. In publishing a story that could affect his reputation, I owed him the inclusion of every mitigating detail he could rightfully have mentioned.
Perhaps his reputation wasn’t affected. Web analytics indicate this story wasn’t read much. None of my African community coverage was, except the first article, in 2011, which generated enough traffic to convince my editor and me that readers would be interested in more.
We set out with two goals in mind: The African community would be able to rely on The Japan Times to attempt to understand what the community considered important, then publish about it; and the resulting portrayal of the African immigrant experience in Japan would offer a more complex picture than previously published accounts had achieved.
Among members of the African community, the first goal was the subject of mirth and gratitude alike. At Nigerian town union events in Tokyo I was often chuckled at — good-naturedly or otherwise — for dedicating years of work to such a small demographic. I was thanked less often, but regularly. The second goal we could hardly help but meet, since so little had been written before we began, except on crime in the nightlife districts — about spiked drinks and stolen credit cards.