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Human rights survey stinks

Government effort riddled with bias, bad science

by Debito Arudou

On Aug. 25, the Japanese government released findings from a Cabinet poll conducted every four years. Called the “Public Survey on the Defense of Human Rights” ( www8.cao.go.jp/survey/h19/h19-jinken ), it sparked media attention with some apparently good news.

When respondents were asked, “Should foreigners have the same human rights protections as Japanese?” 59.3 percent said “yes.” This is a rebound from the steady decline from 1995 (68.3 percent), 1999 (65.5) and 2003 (54).

Back then, the Justice Ministry’s Human Rights Bureau publicly blamed the decline on “a sudden rise in foreign crime.” So I guess the news is foreigners are now regarded more highly as humans. Phew.

No thanks to the government, mind you. Past columns have already covered the figment of the foreign crime wave, and how the police stoked fear of it. If anything, this poll charted the damage wrought by anti-foreigner policy campaigns.

But that’s all the poll is good for. If the media had bothered to examine its methodology, they’d feel stupid for ever taking it seriously: Its questions are skewed and grounded in bad science.

First, why is the government even asking whether non-Japanese deserve equal rights? Are human rights optional, a matter of opinion polls? And if a majority says foreigners deserve fewer rights, does that justify the current policy of resisting introducing laws against racial discrimination?

Not according to the United Nations. In 1998, the Committee of Civil and Political Rights slammed this census: “The committee stresses that protection of human rights and human rights standards are not determined by popularity polls. It is concerned by the repeated use of popularity statistics to justify attitudes of (Japan) that may violate its obligations under the Covenant” (CCPR/C/79/Add.102 Item C (7)).

Undaunted, the Cabinet keeps polling, as they have an agenda to fill and tax coffers to empty.

Now let’s turn to the lousy science. 3,000 people (1,776 respondents) aged 20 and up were interviewed “to poll the awareness of citizens (“kokumin”) regarding human rights protections, applying them toward shaping future policy” (survey, page 1).

Well then, the sampling is already biased. If you only survey “kokumin,” you aren’t surveying foreigners. As taxpaying residents, shouldn’t 2 million non-Japanese also have input into policy affecting them as profoundly as anti-discrimination measures?

The survey’s 21 questions covered (in summary): awareness of constitutional protections of human rights; awareness of human rights violations in Japan; what kinds of people had experienced them; whether the respondents themselves had experienced them; and what they think should be done about them.

Fine. But now examine the questions and enter the Twilight Zone.

For example, in Q3, part 2, people who felt they had experienced discrimination were to choose from a conveniently-provided list of scourges: “false rumors, bad-mouthing by neighbors,” “insults or defamation,” “bad treatment from police,” “violence, extortion,” “false accusations of crime,” “foul odors, noise pollution,” “discriminatory treatment by race, creed, gender, and social status,” “being excluded by your neighbors,” “bad treatment at work,” “your domestic utilities, such as gas or water, getting switched off,” “bad treatment at public welfare facilities,” “invasion of privacy,” “sexual harassment,” “stalking,” “something else,” and finally, “not sure, but something” (“nantonaku”).

Even with these questions leading the witness, many categories are not mutually exclusive (“gender discrimination” and “sexual harassment?”; “rumors” and “defamation?”). Some are too vague (“nantonaku?”) and others are from outer space (“gas and water?”)

Some are not even clear examples of human rights — I would call them “cry baby” categories: “People speaking ill of me” and “rumors” are scientifically difficult to quantify, if not dismissible as perceived slights by the paranoid. In fact, they don’t even qualify under the U.N. Convention on Racial Discrimination, which doesn’t cover interactions between individuals.

And how about “foul odors”? Under this rubric, one could argue a stinky public toilet or a humid fart in an elevator is a violation of human rights! No wonder people have trouble taking human-rights activists seriously, when concepts even utilized by the government are so ill-defined.

But the survey’s biggest blind spot is its approach toward issues of nationality and race.

Note how the aforementioned Q3 includes, in one category, “discrimination by race, creed, gender, and social status.” That’s painting the issue with an awfully big brush. Not to diminish the severity of these problems, but you can hardly lump them together and get meaningful results.

Consequently, 13.9 percent of respondents indicated they had experienced this kind of discrimination (probably mostly by gender).

But what are the chances of Japanese claiming they are victims of racism? If you exclude all foreigners from the survey, you guarantee an unrealistically low number, especially given the spread of “Japanese Only” signs and policies nationwide, and the long-standing practice of refusing apartments to foreign renters.

Even then, this is small beer compared to how the remaining questions on foreigners are phrased. For example, Q5 asked, “Which of the following human rights issues are you concerned about?” Discrimination against “foreigners” came in 14th at 12.5 percent, behind the handicapped, elderly, children, Internet abuse victims, North Korean kidnap victims, women, crime victims, HIV sufferers, leprosy victims, the homeless, “burakumin” (the descendants of a feudal outcast class), ex-convicts, and “human trafficking.”

Worthy causes in themselves, of course. But foreigners enjoying such low regard is unsurprising considering that the next series of questions deliberately diminish their stature in society and their right to equal treatment.

Questions six through 19 asked for comment about “human rights problems.” Each question covered specific sectors of society, with conveniently leading options to choose from: women (choices of “human rights violations” included porn and scantily-clad women in advertising), children (including adults being over-opinionated about their children’s activities), the elderly (including lack of respect for their opinions), the handicapped (including being stared at), burakumin, HIV patients, crime victims, Internet victims, the homeless, homosexuals, and Ainu.

Nice for the government to acknowledge (even overdo) several examples of discrimination. But in its two questions about discrimination against foreigners, no leading options are provided. Instead, Q12 says, “It is said that foreigners living in Japan face discrimination in their daily lives.” It then asks if they deserve the same rights as Japanese.

Is there any doubt about the existence of discrimination against foreigners in Japan? Even our courts have acknowledged it in several lawsuits — the Ana Bortz and the Otaru onsen cases being but two famous examples.

And no similar question of doubt or qualification is raised toward any other group. Question 13 even kindly proffers possible justifications for foreigners’ “disadvantageous treatment.” Out of six choices, half say “nothing can be done” to improve things because a) “foreigners have trouble getting used to Japanese situations,” b) (due to) “differences in customs, culture, and economic standing” (which got the most votes, at 33.7 percent). And — better sit down for this one — the tautological: c) “because they are foreigners, they get disadvantageous treatment.”

When a human rights survey from even the highest levels of government allows for the possibility of human rights being optional (or worse yet, justifiably deniable based on nationality), we have a deep and profound problem. Nowhere in the survey is the possibility raised that people who look foreign might actually be Japanese.

Discrimination by race gets rendered as a subset under a larger umbrella? Discrimination by nationality is uniquely undeserving of its own leading questions? Stunning just how clueless even our government is about the promotion — even the portrayal — of human rights in Japan. This survey is most enlightening viewed from that angle.

For it is worse than meaningless: It is unprofessional. And discriminatory. Yet no matter how much criticism it draws from the U.N., our dauntless Cabinet continues to survey as if non-Japanese residents don’t count.

More at www.debito.org/index.php/?p=556. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp