Dusting off the A-word


Causes are what activists take up as a matter of course. But in Japan, just doing that is a challenge, given the general aversion towards activism here.

I’ve been called an “akuchibisuto” for many years. At first I was leery of the label because of its negative ring in Japanese. Even its vernacular equivalents —”katsudoka,” “undoka,” even “puro shimin” (“professional citizen,” a negative term like “do-gooder”) — make “activist” sound like “extremist” (“kageki ha”).

No wonder. Civil society — nongovernmental or nonprofit organizations, networks and voluntary associations promoting “a common good” — is curiously underdeveloped in Japan.

Sure, volunteer groups have long existed in Japan, but the “father-knows-best” paternalism still found in our bureaucracy precluded much grassroots philanthropy. NGOs and NPOs weren’t even allowed official registration until a decade ago.

To most people, “acting in the public interest” wasn’t our job — it was the government’s. And our government, believe it or not, was once seen as practically infallible. From the 1950s to the late 1980s, the best and brightest were mandarins creating good industrial policy. Most people cashed in on the high-growth economy instead of helping those less fortunate in society, such as the homeless, the handicapped and other groups that faced discrimination.

Even after the bubble burst and faith in the government dimmed, many still had difficulty believing that certain problems, such as racial discrimination towards the growing number of non-Japanese residents, even existed in Japan. After all, standardized education said that racial discrimination was an overseas phenomenon, epitomized by the American South under segregation and apartheid- era South Africa.

The Ana Bortz and Otaru Onsens lawsuits, where our judiciary openly acknowledged that “Japanese Only” establishments were discriminating by race, removed a lot of plausible deniability. But even today, Japan officially claims to the United Nations that there are no real ethnic minorities in Japan — ergo no racial discrimination. Frictions and “gaijin allergies” are mainly due to misunderstandings by Johnny Foreigner, unable to grasp our unique culture.

Mandarin say, public do: In any public discussion on why exclusionary signs stay up on shop fronts, justifications turn to “culture” too automatically, which means an activist has an uphill slog convincing people why they should care.

But I believe the biggest reason why activism in general is so frowned upon in Japan is because it has no history of resounding success.

In the West, the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s is held up as the paragon of a successful demonstration of “people power.” Speeches, public demos and conscientious objectionism helped topple administrations (Lyndon Johnson in the U.S., Charles de Gaulle in France, for example) and change political landscapes. People engaging in peaceful protest — for a cause now vindicated in popular culture — is part of the historical narrative. Activism isn’t even all that scary: The sky won’t fall because people picket. It’s even seen as a benign phase students go through.

Contrast that with the demonstrations against the revision of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in the late 1950s and early 1960s — Japan’s biggest street protests. There were student riots, huge rifts in society, even violence and deaths.

However, those struggles didn’t amount to much. We are still under the Security Treaty. The perpetually empowered big cheeses in the Liberal Democratic Party have never been toppled by street demonstrations.

Instead, leftwing extremists cleaved into camps (most famously the Japanese Red Army), turned on themselves in murderous purges, and set off bombs and riots that maimed authority figures and bystanders alike. In doing so, they destroyed any positive image of civil disobedience.

So with no clear example of activism “working” in Japan, it’s difficult to argue that causes are worth the time and energy. Instead of being heroic, they’re associated with rioting extremists.

When I eventually took on the mantle of activist (my cause: establishing a law against racial discrimination in Japan), I found I must constantly dispel the image that I am doing anything extreme. I’m just doing what other fellow Japanese (however few), working within the law and the Constitution, do.

That means lobbying politicians, notifying ministries, “naming and shaming” discriminating businesses, and crafting essays and Web sites as a permanent record for future researchers, even if it means I’m swimming against the current, perpetually gainsaid by naysayers because they are apathetic, cynical, culturally relativistic, or debate dilettantes.

This monthly column will be part of that essay-writing effort, discussing things that matter to Japan’s ever-growing non-Japanese communities.

I hope to spark debate about what should by now seem obvious in any developed society: That everyone regardless of nationality, national origin or any immutable social status affixed at birth should get a fair chance at reaching their potential in society.

That’s not obvious in Japan, because too few people actively push for it.

I’ll write because it’s a just cause. Or even just because.

Debito Arudou’s coauthored book “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants” (Akashi Shoten Inc.) goes on sale March 15 (see www.debito.org). Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to: community@japantimes.co.jp