James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • Olympic notes: good for Rio

    1) I love Chicago, but Rio is the best choice overall. Probably better for most people in Chicago (I speak from having lived through the ramp-up to the Beijing Olympics these past few years), although some of them may not feel that way right now. Certainly better for the whole spirit of the Games.

    The US has had a lot of Olympics; no country in South America has had any. I think that these events feel more special, and get a better all-out push from the host country, when they represent some kind of inclusive "first ever" achievement. Japan marked its post-WW II recovery as before and after its 1964 Olympic games. South Korea in 1988 and China in 2008 used their host role, in different ways, as big national milestones. Athens in 2004, too, had some kind of closing-the-circle fulfillment in bringing the games back to their original home. Whereas for Los Angeles in 1984, Atlanta in 1996, and I assume London three years from now, the Olympics are mainly big logistics challenges to be coped with and endured.

    2) Obama was in a no-win situation about his personal lobbying. The other candidate chiefs of state had also made personal pitches. If he hadn't made the trip and Chicago lost, you can imagine today's right-wing theme being: he didn't care enough about his country even to try. (Probably because it's not really his country. Now, if Kenya had been a finalist...) Since he did make the trip, the theme is: what a loser.

    Yeah, yeah, his advisers "should have" had a clearer sense of the nuttiness that is the modern Olympic governing process; and yeah, yeah, knowing that, he should have limited his exposure by letting his wife be his representative. But -- and I would have said this if John McCain were president and had made the trip -- it was never really about him.

    3) It's superfluous to link to anything in the omnipresent BoingBoing, but in this item, yesterday, Cory Doctorow made an important point that everyone outside the U.S. knows but that few resident Americans take seriously: It has become a tremendous nuisance, and often a humiliation, for foreigners to get through U.S. customs-and-immigration clearance. Lots of people still want to immigrate to the US, but people who have a choice are often glad not to travel here. (How to imagine this, if you hold a US passport? Think of your most unpleasant TSA screening experience, and multiply it by a hundred -- with an extra dose of, Why should we think you're not a terrorist? Yes, I hold a US passport, but I've heard tales like Doctorow's too many times not to get the point.) It's hard to know how much this affected the Olympic bid but is worth realizing as part of our connections with the rest of the world.

    4) From a Chicagoan:

    "As an unabashed Obama-phile, I'm distraught at how badly he miscalculated in going to Copenhagen.  Not only because the failure could be damaging in itself, but also because, as you promised after Obama's health care speech, the time has finally come that he wasn't able to "pull himself out of pinch with a big speech."...

    "This latest speech may not perfectly fit, as Obama didn't think he was in a pinch in the first place.  Still, his failure does break his string of very good luck  (which included, for example, his three-point shot in Kuwait)."

    The theme of luck brings us back to the main point: Anyone who appreciates big cities should always love Chicago, but best of luck to Rio.

  • Obesity compendium

    Various of my colleagues -- Corby Kummer, here, plus T-N Coates and Andrew Sullivan -- have picked up the conversation involving the connections among obesity, class, region, etc in America. Reasons for my returning to this topic:

    - When the original reader messages came in, I did not give them a consistent category tag. I've now gone back and labeled them all with "Obesity," so the whole thread (including this item) can be found here.

    - Below and after the jump, a few more reader notes to carry out the discussion.

    From a reader who works for a major US corporation:

    "[Another reader] wrote: .  I did this primarily because I was tired of my business associates in Asia beginning every conversation with "My god, you are fat!".
    "My Asian experience pales in comparison to yours (and presumably to your reader's), but my hunch is that your reader's business associates believe they were paying him a nice compliment. The long and tragic history of undernourished Asians led to a cultural view that to be of a healthy weight was to be prosperous.  Hence, "My God, you are fat!" is equivalent to a Westerner saying "nice car!" or "you look great!"  I can see how your reader might have felt insulted or hurt, but I am pretty sure the intentions were exactly the opposite. [JF note: Certainly in China, "Hey Fatty" is not a term of abuse.]"

    From a (female) graduate of CalTechCaltech [I always forget]:

    "Are science nerds fat? The answer is an unequivocal no, especially for women.
    "Our family attended MIT, U of CO Boulder, UC Berkeley alumni events in June 2009. Bad Dad and I observed that CU Boulder alumni age well. Everyone else appears to have the same % body fat (low) that they had in grad school. We felt positively obese at that gathering. We felt svelte at the MIT reunion.

    "When AAAS published their study about why people go into science, they discovered by accident that participation in competitive athletics as a teenager correlated very highly for women.  For women, encouragement from a HS teacher was #1, but competitive sports came in second, with had a higher correlation than parental encouragement.

    "Male scientists were slightly less athletic than the mean; female scientists were exceptionally athletic. Have you seen the "men of astrophysics" calendar? They tried to make a women in astrophysics calendar, but no one would pose for it.  i think we all were afraid that it would harm our careers.  the men face a different climate."

    From a reader in Florida:

    "One of the best ways to observe obesity in America is to track KFC's Double Down sandwich [below].  This "Atkins friendly" sandwich is served primarily in some KFCs in the South and Midwest. To know that KFC thought it was a good idea to sell a bunless sandwich of pure fried chicken to Southerners is a telling and sobering fact."

    kfc-doubledown4.jpg


    More »

  • More from the F'DOH: Summers, Schmidt

    Another day, a lot more stimulation, at the "First Draft of History" event, as previously reported here.

    I was the Atlantic's assigned chronicler/blogger for the interview with Lawrence Summers. First installment here; full wrapup, with clips, here. Then I got to interview Eric Schmidt of Google, who put on a real tour de force. The Atlantic's writeup by Derek Thompson, with clips, here.

    Tomorrow back to reading, interview, writing -- you know, the stuff of getting the next issue of the magazine produced. But this was a worthwhile two days.

  • The big parade

    As I mentioned in real time while watching the 60th anniversary festivities from Beijing on middle-of-the-night Chinese language TV, the whole event was a surprising relief. It had been shaping up ahead of time as a mammoth and imposing display of military hardware. The hardware and missiles were there -- but there was, to put it mildly, a lot of other stuff too.

    As anyone watching in real time can attest, the appearance of this troupe was the first time that Hu Jintao, from the reviewing stand, broke into anything that looked like a relaxed expression:
    LadySoldiers.jpg


    What this picture (by Diego Azubel / European Pressphoto Agency) tragically doesn't convey is that members of scarlet-miniskirted division were actually goose-stepping.

    A wonderful video summary from Dan Chung and Xiaoli Wang, of the Guardian, below, boils the many hours of the parade into four minutes -- and conveys the dramatic shift from tanks-and-missiles, to Mardi Gras/County Fair, at about time 1:55 of the clip.


    Two other nice summaries: a live blog from the WSJ's China staff here; and a comparison of the parade to the movie Hangover here.

    Here's one of the groups that came soon after the tanks. As I say, I'm relieved to see this chaos diversity, which reflects some of the wild range of Chinese life. Congrats to all involved.

    FlagWavers.jpg


  • More about visualizing words

    I mentioned two days ago the very nice tool for mapping word-use in presidential inaugural addresses, created by Jonathan Feinberg of IBM.

    I should have mentioned the underlying open-ended tool Wordle, also by Feinberg, which allows you to create "word clouds" from any arbitrary piece of text (or web feed etc). You can find it here, and I've used it just now to create clouds from two recent Atlantic web posts. This is how one recent post about obesity-and-class looks when word frequency is converted to graphics (most of the contents here comes from readers' letters; click for larger):

    Wordle1.jpg



    And here is how my post from a few hours ago about David Petraeus's comments looks with a slightly different layout scheme:
    Wordle2.jpg


    No cosmic point here, but interesting. Try it out -- an email from the boss, company vision statement, etc.
  • At the F'DOH

    Today and tomorrow, most of the Atlantic's staff is at the Newseum in Washington, for the "First Draft of History" conference. Live streaming webcast here, along with pictures, real-time updates, after-action analyses, and so on. Atlantic staff members are rotating in the role of Official Recording Secretary (aka blogger) for each session. My duty today was the Brian Williams-David Petraeus discussion. First dispatch here; longer followup, with four clips of Petraeus in action, here.
    __
    I spell F'DOH with an apostrophe in homage both to Homer Simpson and to Portuguese Fado music. Although I realize that for Homer alone, it should be FD'OH.

  • Village Dreamers

    In Yunnan province, two Americans struggle to save an ancient town from kitsch.

  • I take it back

    Have been watching live coverage of the 60th anniversary festivities from Beijing for the last two hours (on the local Chinese-language TV station in DC). Nice blue-sky day in town! Yes, they had the giant and threatening-seeming military displays I mentioned earlier.

    But they were intermixed among mass pageantry of every imaginable campy Rose Parade-type variety. For each deployment of tanks, there has been a Farmers' Coop float. For each regiment of goosestepping female soldiers, all exactly the same height and with skirts exactly the same length, there has been a group of Clean Energy workers, accompanying a display of wind turbines and solar panels -- or a group of athletes from the Phys Ed university. Plus some pompom group whose ID on the screen I couldn't understand, and miscellaneous other celebrations. And a float from each province or region, with waving local beauties! This is becoming truer to the randomness of China as I think of it.  Happy 60th birthday.

  • Emptying the obesity-and-class mailbag

    I will say goodbye for now to this topic, which began with an offhand mention that America didn't seem as fat as I "expected" after three years away. An unprecedented amount of mail came in; below and after the jump, samples of some of the themes I hadn't previously gotten to. Thanks for the responses.

    Eating as an available pleasure. From a reader in South Dakota:

    "An overlooked connection between obesity and class, I believe, stems from varying quantity of personal enjoyment and anticipation of enjoyment.

    "It is one thing for a successful, financially comfortable, socially accepted and respected person who has multiple things happening every day that are pleasurable (golf, driving a nice car, nice home, stylish clothing, success at work, interesting social events, kids doing well, planning vacations, etc) to take just one pleasurable aspect of life (overeating) and sacrifice some of that pleasure for the good result of losing weight.

    "Now, for people struggling financially and socially, trying to just get through the day and keep their lives together to varying degrees...their meals are often the only consistently happy and pleasurable events they can count on each day. 

    "Obviously, a generalization.  But, if one gets up and faces a day with a tedious and unfulfilling job, not much money to spend on anything but necessities, and no "fun" things ahead, how much more difficult it is for that person to also think ahead to a day of denying themselves the pleasure of their mealtimes...."

    The processed-food factor:

    "I was quite surprised to note the glaring lack of an obvious contributing major factor in your recent post on obesity: processed foods.

    "I was first struck by the weight of this factor (pun intended) during a trip to Buenos Aires a couple of years ago. During my stay, I was absolutely astonished to find such a small percentage of fat people given that:

    "a) the per-capita consumption of meat (in Argentina) is the highest in the world.

    "b) the vast majority of people eat their largest meals very late at night (9:00-12:00)

    "c) there are plenty of carbohydrates and sugar-laden foods consumed along with the meat

    "d) a very large percentage of the people who live in the vast city are relatively poor

    "So, how to account for this? No, it's not that the residents of Buenos Aires get far more exercise than their American counterparts, nor is it likely that they have far superior genes. The only possibly explanation that I can come up with is that they eat a small fraction of processed foods relative to their American (and, to a lesser extent, Western European) counterparts..."

    The rural-urban food gap:

    "If you are in a strange place as a traveler, think about where you would go to eat and what would you eat?  If you are here in Oakland [Calif], you would find all kinds of good food (fresh, well-prepared, etc) available at an entire range of prices.  If you are where I just was (Orleans, CA - population 630 back whenever they put up sign), unless you bring all your own food you get badly fried frozen chicken or badly cooked (frozen) steak or hamburger, heated up frozen diced carrots and peas, reconstituted mashed "potatoes", all covered with your choice of "country gravy" or "brown gravy".  Not only unhealthy but also atrocious tasting.



    "There are beautiful farms along the Klamath river in that area - but I guarantee you that they are selling to Redding and Eureka or beyond and not to the folks in Orleans.  

By contrast - in the smallest town in Japan you can find a nice little noodle shop of some sort that will sell you a healthy and delicious meal, often with fresh made noodles, and at least some pickled local vegetables if not fresh ones!  

    

"This is an extreme example (Orleans being a very remote place), but on road trips we prepare for the simple fact that only bad food is available in most of America outside the major metropolitan areas.  I'm not sure exactly what the causal relations are - but the correlation is strong I'm sure.  Where you have high obesity you also have bad food.  



    "So my big question - how much does the lack of availability of good food (due to the better profits from selling to big cities) influence the food culture in those areas - and how much do the food preferences cause those economics?

In the middle of Kansas you can't get fresh vegetables or good meat - go figger..."

    What makes US obesity different:

    "I think the really big difference between the US and the rest of the world is the relative frequency with which you will encounter people who are excessively overweight and not just "large" or "fat".  It's been a while since I was living in France, but between the three visits that I made since 2001 and the many years preceding, I would suggest that I have never seen 1% as many truly obese individuals as I encounter in any given month in the US..."

    The mystery of rural obesity:

    "There's a conundrum here that I can't untangle.  How in the world is it possible for rural people, especially lower-income, to have higher obesity rates than city people when rural life is so very much more physically demanding and junk food so much harder to come by?

    "I live in rural Vermont, having moved here some years ago from suburban Boston, and one of the most striking differences between living in the suburbs and the country is the much greater amount of physical work involved in just day-to-day life.  Walking to the bus stop or the corner store doesn't even begin to compare.

    "And as for poverty-- the less disposable income you have, the more of that work you have to do yourself rather than hiring someone else to do it.

    "Small-scale family farming involves an enormous amount of hard physical labor.  An obese farmer is pretty much an impossibility.

    "Lower-income rural folks who don't farm don't have to do as much work, but still a considerable amount.  Between just keeping my little two-acre property in respectable condition, managing my large kitchen garden, and most especially the firewood that, like most people around here from pure financial necessity I use to heat my home in the winter, I'm involuntarily in the best physical shape of my life.  The clothes I brought with me from my soft suburban life no longer fit.

    "On the intake side, rural people aren't shoving large amounts of junk food into their mouths, either, for the simple reason that it isn't easily accessible.  Here, the nearest McDonald's is 15 miles away.  There's only one small lunch counter that sells pizza anywhere in the area.  The general stores sell their share of potato chips and other snacks, the store is a special trip, not a casual daily drop-in.

    "So how come the obesity in rural areas?..."

    The last bastion of unashamed class snobbery. The link included in this last message reinforces the point of the message very strongly:

    "In recent posts you or your readers have mentioned the differences one might encounter walking around Wal-Mart versus Harvard Yard.  If you aren't already aware of the site, take a look at People of Wal-Mart. It's a pretty ugly display of behind-the-back classist name-calling [JF note: no kidding], but it's out there for all to see anyway.

    "Your readers aren't the only to have associated a certain class/shape/personality type with Wal-Mart. Seems like it's generally acceptable to have these sorts of prejudices. 
    It's not inconceivable to think of a website whose premise is to look and make fun of overweight people.  However, except on the very fringes of the internet, I couldn't imagine a similar website making fun of a particular race or ethnicity. [Depends how you define "fringes."]  Obesity and class, though, seem to be fair game in the mainstream."

    I agree on the "fair game" point; the other prejudice that is generally penalty-free in the media is against Southerners. (This was a big in-house theme back during the Carter years, and to a slightly diminished degree in the Clinton's era. That's a whole question for another time.) As with a lot of other social functions, there is a careful balance to be maintained here: recognizing that obesity, like smoking, has become one more marker of lower class status, without sneering or snickering about that fact.

    Upcoming: similar "clean out the queue and move on" summaries about slippery-slope rhetoric and, of course, a replacement for the boiled frog. 

    More »

  • Beijing, 3am

    Well, we're going to see a lot of these shots in the next 24 hours out of Beijing, as the 60th anniversary celebrations for the founding of the People's Republic take place. This is from a reader looking down Xidawang Lu, not far from our former home, at 3am local time October 1-- a few minutes ago as I write.

    DSC_0705.JPG


    This item, "China's Looming PR Disaster," at the Interpreter site from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, makes the point I've made frequently (including once on a live Chinese government TV show in Beijing) since the plans for a gala military parade were announced this spring: In showcasing endless seas of Chinese soldiers and weaponry, the regime may make itself look stronger to its people -- at the cost of looking threatening to everyone else. (Versions of this argument here and here.) As Alistair Thornton says on the Interpreter site:
    "I have a sinking feeling that this could turn out to be the worst PR stunt of all time. To me, it screams, 'Hey! You in the West! How's the recession? We just nailed 9% growth. Scared of a rising China? Check out all of our tanks and never-seen-before missiles'. It's not really the vibe you want to give off in the midst of unprecedented shifts in geopolitical power."
     But the other obvious point is that all politics is local, in China as well as anywhere else, and impressing the home crowd will always outweigh the hand-wringing concerns from the diplomats. So, the show begins. I will leave most further photos to the news services, but thought it was worth kicking off the observations with this pic.
  • A nice tool for envisioning rhetoric

    At this IBM research site, an interesting way to assess the themes in presidential inaugural addresses. The researcher, Jonathan Feinberg, uses fancy math to analyze which words in an address are most similar to those other presidents have used -- and which are most distinctive. The larger the words in the diagram, the more often a President used them in a given speech -- and the bluer they are, the more unusual their use is, compared with other speeches. The pink words are ones "conspicuously absent" from a speech -- ones showing up in other inaugural speeches but not this one.

    For instance, this is the graph of GW Bush's Wilsonian-sounding Second Inaugural Address, with its commitment to "the expansion of freedom in all the world." Blue words are those distinctive to this speech; pink ones, those strikingly missing.

    WordMap.jpg


    Disappointingly, the tool is not yet sufficiently honed to track the Reagan-era-onward emergence of "God bless America!" as the unvarying conclusion of presidential speeches. (In fairness, Obama left it out of the prepared text of his address this year.) And it's not set up to let you feed new rhetoric into it for analysis -- for instance, the tantalizing possibility of sluicing in newspaper columns, to depict the phrases a writer stresses and avoids. That's why researchers must still toil on. Thanks to Henry Farrell.
  • Update on McCaughey and tobacco

    Yesterday I reported this exchange with a representative of the Manhattan institute, where Betsy McCaughey was based when she wrote her "No Exit" attack on the Clinton health reform plan:

     "I wrote back to Lindsay Craig asking which of these options the Manhattan Institute was saying:
    "A: The Rolling Stone contention that tobacco companies collaborated with Ms. McCaughey and M.I. is totally false; there was no such contact or collaboration.

    "B: We are confident that Ms. McCaughey's opinions were not influenced by tobacco companies, even though she may have worked with them.
    "Her immediate response:
    "A.   Betsy never worked with Phillip Morris." 

    As a followup, I asked Ms. Craig whether there was any significance in the distinction between "tobacco companies" in the question and "Phillip Morris" in the answer. She said: No.  Her flat denial applies to "Tobacco companies (plural -- though the document in question is from Phillip Morris)."

    Clear enough. So we now have documents, reported in Rolling Stone, in which a tobacco lobbyist claims in detail to have worked with McCaughey as she put together her articles -- and a categorical denial from the Manhattan Institute that she worked with tobacco firms. Yet again it would be helpful to have Ms. McCaughey address the specifics of the lobbyist's claim.

  • Local boys make good, China version

    In an article this spring about China's recovery from the world slowdown, I mentioned a visit to the BYD company in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, where a materials-science PhD named Wang Chuanfu was leading the development of advanced battery powered cars.

    IMG_5920A.jpgOn that trip I also visited the nice-but-nothing-fancy dorm-style quarters where Wang and the rest of the BYD management lived. Here's the punchline from that article (with a shot of Wang from the press conference in December announcing his new cars):

    "The company's official goal is to be the biggest automaker in China by 2015, and the biggest in the world by 2025. Wang's unveiling of the car in Shenzhen coincided with U.S. congressional debate about emergency aid to GM and Chrysler. I asked Wang if he had any tips for the U.S. companies. He is a quiet, nerdish man who seemed to blanch as he heard the question translated. "For 100 years, nothing has changed in Detroit," he finally said (through the interpreter). "I think they need to reconsider their product lines."


    Now, according to this report, Wang has become the richest man in China, thanks to a rise in BYD stock and a stake from Warren Buffett. That is a volatile distinction, with people's fortunes rising and falling, but impressive as an up-from-nothing manufacturing success story.

    And in this article in 2007, I discussed the amazing Chinese "reality" show Win in China, which was a kind of super-capitalist version of The Apprentice. One of the finalists in the show was an earthy,  non-college-grad character named Zhou Yu and generally known as the "Lone Wolf."  Ole Schell, who has made a great new documentary about Win In China, has just posted an online report about the Wolf and his lingerie factory in Shandong province. Congrats all around. 


    The moment of truth on the show, as the Wolf dutifully claps for the just-announced winner, Song "Social Conscience" Wenming, who raises his hands in victory.
    win2guys.jpg

  • A nice offhand allusion in the NYT

    The third paragraph of Sharon LaFraniere's story today in the NYT, about the Chinese government's obsessive over-preparation for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People's Republic, on October 1 (background on the celebrations here):

    "China's government at times resembles an exasperated parent trying to rein in a pack of rebellious children. Its edicts are persistently flouted by censor-dodging Internet users, wayward local officials and rioting Uighurs."

    Two things strike me about this. First, it's good to see correspondents flat-out saying how things look to them, rather than having to rely on "Some observers say" or "Mr. X of YY think tank observes..." Second, this little context-setting aside is so much more realistic than the standard Western press references to a big, omniscient, all-powerful Chinese regime effortlessly working its will on the populace, whether in a good way by installing green technology or in a bad way by squashing dissent.

    Over the past three years, I've emphasized maybe a million times how diverse, churning, individual-minded, and generally resistant to control much of today's China seems. If I were writing LaFraniere's sentence myself, I'd say "often resembles" rather than "at times resembles," and I'd replace the reference to the Uighur uprising (an exceptional, real emergency) with something about one billion rule-evading ordinary citizens. But this is a worthy step toward a sane perspective on China -- worth bearing in mind as we prepare to see the (deceptively) precise and orderly displays on October 1.
     
    Photo from the NYT about the kind of precise pageantry we'll be treated to. Don't be misled.
    29beijing_650.jpg


  • More on Ls and Rs in Japanese

    As mentioned yesterday, the risk in correcting others is that you get exposed to correction yourself. So it turns out to be -- sort of -- with my comments about the L and R sounds in Japanese. Major point: it remains correct to say, as I did, that Japanese speakers do not "lallate" -- use Ls in place of Rs, and vice versa. Minor refinement! It's not quite right to say, as I also did, that the Japanese phonetic system "has no L sound." Its writing system has only Rs instead of Ls (when represented in the western alphabet), but the sound is more complicated. Representative messages:

    "I think it is more accurate to say that Japanese has a single sound that is somewhere in between English 'l' and 'r'.  The Japanese 'r' is certainly not standard US retroflex 'r'.  Say the name "Richard" and feel where your tongue goes (it's back towards the roof of your mouth).  Now say "baseboru" with your best shot at a Japanese accent - you'll find that your tongue is further forward in your mouth and just taps the ridge of your gums.  Now say "Lilly" - your tongue will be even further forward.  The 'r' in 'baseboru' is somewhere in between  "Lilly" and "Richard". " [JF note: this corresponds to my experience in coping with Japanese.]

    And, from someone raised in America whose husband was raised in Japan:

    "Yeah - they use "R" when they write those syllables in Roman alphabet.  I've learned though that my pronunciation is somewhat less comical to the listener if I pronounce it closer to the English "l" sound.  As best I can make out, the tongue position makes it something of a cross between our "r", "l", and "d".

I believe there is research showing that a newborn is able to "hear" most any of the sounds you can make, but by the time you are 3 or 5 (or somewhere in there) your brain has specialized for the sounds you normally hear.  My husband simply cannot hear the difference between the spoken "l" and "r", because there just aren't those distinct sounds in spoken Japanese.
"

    Also, from someone raised in Taiwan:

    "I agreed that in Japanese, they spelled both English "L" and "R" with "R". But it will be incorrect to say that they have trouble to pronounce "L". It is actually the other way around, that is, they have trouble pronouncing "R". They simply don't curve their tongues.

    "I contribute this mix-up to the mistake they made when they Romanized their language. The ra / ri / ru / re / ro sounds you mentioned actually should be pronounced closer to la / li / lu / le / lo in Japanese. This is the same problem as people in Taiwan called 台北 Taipei instead of Taibei, with the later closer to the Chinese pronunciation and the same with calling 高雄 Kaohsiung instead of Gaohsiung. I am from Taiwan and I still don't understand why they did this....
     
    "PS. By the way, I did have a Korean professor who actually "reverses" his L and R every single time."

    More »

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