Regarding Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president, I welcome the groundswell of hope. It’s about time. The past eight years have been, well, awkward for Americans overseas.
The Bush II administration undermined America’s image abroad. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, which surveys views of the U.S. from around the world, reported in 2007 that “Anti-Americanism is worldwide. This is not just a rift with our European allies or hatred of America in the Middle East. It is a global slide.”
There’s plenty to be ashamed of: election oddities culminating in the 2000 Supreme Court coup d’etat; opting out of the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court; the Orwellian Department of Homeland Security; “pre-emptive war” as a superpower prerogative; circumventing the United Nations with a “coalition of the willing”; lack of policy oversight in a one-party Congress; a vice president with a bunker mentality and extreme notions of executive privilege; wars in two countries grounded on lies about weapons of mass destruction; unwarranted wiretapping; Guantanamo; Abu Ghraib; signing statements; rendition, torture memos and waterboarding; forthcoming presidential pardons for connected felons. Need I go on? Even Bush’s own party had to make “change” a platform plank in its campaigns ahead of the November polls.
America’s actions affect Japan profoundly because of the closeness of our relationship. America gave us Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a Constitution, a democracy, a postwar era without forced restitution, a market for our reconstruction, and a collective security agreement. We gave America a Pacific bulwark against communism and a market for their military. We are in a tango with America taking the lead.
Little of this was seen as a bad thing. When I first got here 20 years ago, many Japanese saw America as “the society with freedoms and opportunities we lack here,” “the country we’d most like to emulate.” We had the Ron-Yasu (Reagan-Nakasone) relationship, compulsory education in American English, more people watching Hollywood films than domestic movies, “Top Gun” on TV more than once a year . . . you get the idea. The word most associated with America was “akogare,” akin to adoration. America was a template.
Nowadays it’s more complicated. Although security and business relationships are largely intact, we are looking more toward a future with China (as is everyone), while big brother America seems more of a bully. The U.S. demands we refuel ships for free in the Indian Ocean, and that we do something about Article 9 interfering with Japan’s contribution to the “war on terror.” Tangoing with America even raises fears of terrorist blow-back.
In terms of human rights, the American template cuts the wrong way. For example, last year Japan reinstated fingerprinting for most foreign residents based upon the US-VISIT program. We even bought American fingerprinting machines. Officialdom’s most common excuse for depriving non-Japanese of rights? Antiterrorism. So we assist in America’s wars, then use them to treat foreigners like potential criminals. “Hora” — America’s doing it, so can we.
America is hardly something activists can point to as a paragon of human rights. Pass a law against discrimination by race or nationality? Hey, America now denies habeas corpus to its foreigners. Respect criminal procedure and due process of law? Phooey, America abuses people in their extralegal prisons too. Refer to U.S. State Department reports on Japan’s human rights record? That’s rich coming from a country whose soldiers aren’t accountable in international criminal court; the State Department doesn’t even survey America’s own human rights record. Nowadays people talk about America less in terms of justice, more in terms of “superpower realpolitik,” especially after it dropped North Korea from the terrorism watch list.
Fortunately, with Obama’s election, American politics became a renewable resource, a fount of “change.” Obama is even inspiring opposition parties here to call for “change” in Japan’s government.
Well, maybe. And maybe America can become a template for good deeds again. That is, if Bush hasn’t made the U.S. irredeemable, and if America can learn to say no to its own excessive powers.
Obama has a hard act to follow, but if he succeeds, human rights activists in Japan will also enjoy the turn of the tide.
Debito Arudou is coauthor of the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants.” Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org