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An Obama for Japan: Yes, we can?

Michael Hassett comes back down to Earth with a bump on the train to Tokyo

by Michael Hassett

On the long, unwinding railroad, on the sixth day — the day that, according to Christian texts, God created Man — a great dissatisfaction seeped into me as I continued to bask in the pride of seeing the majority of my fellow Americans transcend race in the selection of the next president of the United States.

Only six mornings after that historic day, the pettiness of racial disunity ripped me back to reality as I sat on a JR train a couple of stations from the line’s terminus, Tokyo Station.

The seat beside me opened up, and the Japanese businessman standing in front of it took one look at me — a white, clean-shaven, short-haired American dressed in a dark tailored suit — and continued to stand. The doors closed and the relatively crowded train continued on its journey. Nearly a minute after the seat became available, I noticed a Japanese businessman from the other end of the car slowly skirting around one, two, three, four, five, six others toward the only open seat visible — the one next to me. Once the approaching businessman reached within arm’s length, the standing businessman became aware of the impending intrusion upon his “territory,” and laid claim by, well, slowly sitting in the seat. Can you hear my sigh?

After arriving at my destination, I descended the escalators and immediately caught notice of the back of a rough-looking, apparently homeless Japanese man by a ticket counter talking to a group of non-Japanese men, one wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. The foreign men were all shaking their heads.

This homeless man was no stranger to me. Just a month earlier while waiting on a Tokyo Station platform jammed with Japanese, I had been approached by the same man, who pinged from foreigner to foreigner down the platform asking for money. And just a week later, I got to relive the experience with another homeless man, only this time I had two children in tow on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Now, what does all this have to do with “Yes we can,” “Change we can believe in” and “Change we need”?

Early next year, Barack Obama will move into the White House, a house that was built by slaves, has been occupied by slave owners, and has never been home to a black family. He was elected in a country of over 300 million that the U.S. Census Bureau recently estimated to consist of 66 percent non-Hispanic, single-race whites, 15.1 percent Hispanics, 13.5 percent blacks and 5.0 percent Asians.

Even if Obama happened to receive the entire minority vote, he would still need to have a temperament that appeals to a great number of whites. But let’s not demean minorities by suggesting that they would vote for a candidate simply based on race. President-elect Obama earned his support by first listening to the views of others, giving the issues serious thought, and then eloquently conveying his thoughts to the electorate.

But the obvious question arises: Could the same thing be done here? Could an ethnic minority ever become prime minister of Japan?

Several days after the election, The Japan Times printed a letter from a Jim Hathaway, who mentioned how his wife “laughed out loud” at the prospect of a person of African heritage ever becoming prime minister of Japan.

Activist Debito Arudou is similarly skeptical: “The United States as a nation took about a century to give black people the vote, another century to give them full rights, then 50 years to put Obama in the White House. This does not give me hope for Japan — which didn’t even have universal suffrage until the end of World War II, and still lacks even a fundamental law against racism — to do anything similar within our lifetimes.”

And based solely on what the numbers tell us, they both may be right.

In 2006, Japan had a population of 126 million Japanese, 102 million of whom were of voting age. From 1965 through 1988, 184,712 marriages between Japanese and non-Japanese were registered. From 1947 through 1964, we can estimate about 57,500 such marriages. We can then use the yearly fertility rates to calculate an estimate for 1947 through 1988 of about 500,000 births of children who were half Japanese and part something else — “children” who would now be of voting age.

We also have data showing a net increase of about 420,000 in the Japanese population resulting from change of nationality from 1965 through 2006. And to these numbers we can add the 24,000 who call themselves Ainu, most of whom have mixed blood.

All this would tally up to an ethnic- minority electorate of just under a million voters, less than 1 percent of the electorate. Of course, we could crunch some more numbers to estimate those who are a quarter non-Japanese, but in the end it would be hard to size this electorate at much larger than 1 percent.

If the 837,000 foreigners registered as permanent residents at the end of 2006 were given the right to suffrage, the percentage of ethnic-minority voters could possibly rise to around 2 percent, but that would still not amount to a large enough base from which an ethnic-minority candidate could possibly draw a significant amount of support from those who might be more accepting of him or her in a leadership role. Something else would be needed.

In 1960, Frank Petersen, who eventually became the first African-American general in the U.S. Marine Corps, was stationed at the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base in Hawaii. After experiencing race-related trouble obtaining off-base housing, Petersen penned a letter to the Honolulu Advertiser and complained that “Hawaii was referred to as the melting pot, but someone forgot to stir the stew.” Sound familiar? How many letters detailing similar bouts of discrimination has The Japan Times fielded over the years?

In his subsequent attempts to encourage greater racial harmony, Petersen came in contact with Barack Obama’s father, an exchange student from Kenya studying at the University of Hawaii. Peterson, however, did not particularly care for the older Obama, describing him recently on American Public Media’s “The Story” as follows: “Stern, very strong individual, very proud, very egotistical. I didn’t like his style. I didn’t like his methodologies. Rather than yell, scream and kick, I would be more of a ‘let’s just see if we can’t work this out’ — push and prod at the soft parts as opposed to jumping in the middle of a war with no gun.”

After President-elect Obama’s win, the French newspaper Le Figaro noted that his accomplishment was largely based on his upbringing, education and success at integrating into the larger society and articulating its values, including patriotism.

“Mr. Obama was neither elected because of nor in spite of his race. He was elected because he is qualified and his message resonated with the citizens,” adds Anthony Bianchi, a native New Yorker and current assemblyman in the city of Inuyama in Aichi Prefecture. “Given similar circumstances, a minority here has a reasonable chance to win a seat on the national assembly in a direct local election. However, to become prime minister, that person would then have to be elected president of the ruling party. That I believe, for many reasons, would be much more challenging.”

After nearly two decades in Japan, I, like many non-Japanese, have repeatedly experienced the empty-seat phenomenon, when the only empty seat on the train happens to be the one next to me.

However, I have always been hesitant to drink the Kool-Aid of racism as the cause. Japanese couldn’t possibly be so overly concerned about race that they would give up the comfort of a seat just to avoid sitting next to someone of a slightly different pigment. Perhaps they want to stretch their legs. Perhaps their destination is near. Perhaps they see us as guests and desire for us to have a comfortable train ride. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

And perhaps the election of Barack Obama teaches us that for an “Obama” to rise to power in Japan, he or she must have the temperament of one willing to step over such garbage and encourage integrity in others by demonstrating that same integrity. In a country that has an ethnic-minority electorate that is so small, a “Japanese Obama” would most certainly have to mirror the junior Obama so much more than the senior.

Instead of complaining about homeless who have been made to feel less comfortable approaching their own Japanese-speaking compatriots for assistance than someone who is not even from this country, perhaps we should be doing all that we can to be of assistance to that individual in need.

In the late 1890s, a book by Charles Sheldon titled “In His Steps” became more famous for its subtitle and what would become a motto for many Christians at that time and again in the late 1990s — “What Would Jesus Do?” In this book, a story is told about a reverend who comes across a homeless man who questions why Christians sing about Jesus so boisterously in church, yet neglect the poor afterward. The homeless man finally asks, “What would Jesus do?”

Perhaps both Japanese and non-Japanese seeking to foster greater leadership than that provided by a man who spends his days reading manga and his nights getting plastered at Tokyo’s finest hotels might be well-served by asking themselves, “What would Obama do?”

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