Activism vs. academia

by Debito Arudou

Back in January, I was a panelist at Waseda University’s Global Institute for Asian Regional Integration, invited to give an “activist’s perspective” to an academic crowd.

Academics are a tough audience. In a way, they’re the activist’s antithesis. Researchers must offer “dispassionate” analysis — looking at data without taking any sides or showing any “bias.” This means academics often view the fight for human rights fundamentally differently.

For example, when I talk about the nationwide spread of “Japanese Only” exclusionary signs, academics often become doubting Thomases. To them, a few signs up are not necessarily indicative of a trend. Their issue is a matter of degree — i.e. are there enough signs up to demonstrate, say, “statistical significance”? For the activist, however, it’s a matter of incidence. One “Japanese Only” sign is too many. Even one sign is enough to violate the Japanese Constitution and United Nations treaty.

So naturally, some academics have been rather skeptical when I claim racial discrimination here is growing in magnitude and scope. One even asserted at this forum that my online “naming and shaming” of discriminators ( www.debito.org/roguesgallery.html ) is counterproductive — that too much “attacking Japan” alienates potential allies. Again, I understand why never the twain. The academic observer, particularly in the social sciences, is bound by a “prime directive” — not to interfere with their object of study when collecting data; plus there is an incumbent resistance to making value judgments (think of “cultural imperialism” etc.; to an anthropologist, I’m probably the Antichrist). In sum, academics observe societal or global “standards.” Activists, however, try to create or adjust them.

So during the Q-and-A, I made the case that praxis makes perfect — that academics also need to be more “activist.” The following essay, taken almost verbatim from a recording, sprung from nowhere:

“Let’s do a meta-discussion here about the whole ‘global standards’ thing, because this is really the bedrock of our argument. Whenever we look at ‘globalization’ and ‘global standards’, who sets those? It’s not really clear.

“If we look at America (as an example of a world standard-setter), we might say, ‘Oh, well, they’re having a xenophobic wave. They’re actually instituting fingerprinting for other people, so other countries might start doing it too. Look at Britain, they’re bringing it in voluntarily for people that want to go through the border smoothly.’

“Yes, but just because a couple of other countries in the world do it does not mean; a) it’s happening everywhere so it’s indicative of a trend; or b) that it’s justifiable. We as activists don’t say, ‘This is OK because other people are doing it.’

“Our starting point is more, ‘What’s the better way for people to reach a good potential within the society they live in? What will help people live more successful, more fulfilling lives?’ as opposed to, ‘What’s the best way to observe, control or monitor?’

“I’m afraid the Japanese government still has the attitude of not ‘making things easier for non-Japanese to integrate and associate.’ It’s a matter of policing and control.

“Especially when you hand over issues of immigration over to police forces. They will always look at it from the point of view of, ‘How do we keep order? How do we make sure laws are being followed?’

“The problem is that the police’s rubric is not, ‘Foreigners are also being legal and following the laws too.’ They focus on the bad things. It’s almost constantly an attack. And as a person in the audience commented earlier tonight, he is the victim of that attack. Whenever he walks out of the supermarket, the police check on him, thinking: ‘He might be a lawbreaker.’

“And that’s what I was talking about at the very beginning of this presentation: Let’s talk about the good things that foreigners do too. Don’t just attack.

“We have to untie this attitude of making the enforcement of law based upon physical appearance. There are ways to untangle that, but you have to break out of the whole meta-argument of; a) any criticism of Japan is a bad thing; or b) global standards are encouraging this right now.

“As researchers, of course, we can only look at the trends . . . But our steps as activists is to say, ‘What is the better path to choose?’ and to give advice. And I think that is what our research should also be leaning towards: how to nudge things in a more positive direction.

“Because if we don’t, and we just sit back and look at trends as dispassionate academic observers, saying, ‘Things are getting bad, ah well,’ that’s really a half-measure. It doesn’t really help anyone.

“Even corporations are talking about corporate social responsibility. I think there’s a certain degree of ‘academic social responsibility’ we can engage in, when we are advising people in these difficult times of globalization, to try and find ways to help people lead better lives.”

Listen to the entire speech at www.debito.org/index.php/?p=1224. Debito Arudou’s coauthored book “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants” (Akashi Shoten Inc.) is now on sale (see www.debito.org). Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp