I had a shock in May with the death of a close friend, Daniel, a long-term Japan resident in his sixties who had been in bad health. We were close and I’ll miss him.
But my shock was less due to Daniel’s passing, more to the postmortem reaction of the people around him, and to how the system processed him. None of us even knew he was in hospital; I didn’t hear about his death for nearly two weeks. As Daniel had once invited me to be an executor of his estate, I would have hoped to have been one of the first told, since he had no wife, children or kin in Japan.
Instead — and this is only what I’ve managed to piece together — he went to a hospital after some troubling symptoms, fell into a coma, and died thereafter. His body was kept at the hospital for quite some time waiting to be claimed. His former employer, despite Daniel’s decades of service, has apparently not even acknowledged his passing. Moreover, although I do not suspect foul play, the cause of death has still not been made clear to us.
This is unacceptable. Daniel was a dedicated educator and activist for human rights, renowned for his involvement in groups such as Amnesty International. Generous with his time, he spent his final years visiting people wrongfully incarcerated in Japanese prisons or left to rot in Immigration detention centers. He cared about people, particularly non-Japanese, who were victims of abusive systems ignored by society. Yet in the end, he too was just a John Doe on ice in some hospital.
My point is, people should not be falling off the face of the Earth like this.
In last month’s column I talked about the lack of cohesiveness and social disempowerment within the English-speaking communities due to our lack of minority consciousness as a diaspora in Japan.
Related to this is another problem: the lack of awareness of non-Japanese legacies — of lifetimes devoted to making Japan a better place.
One problem with our NJ brethren who leave us — through returning to their native countries, finding opportunities elsewhere, or, in Daniel’s case, death — is the disappearance of institutional memory. With a constant recycling of people, we as a community often know little of what happened before us, and have to start again from scratch.
That is the ultimate disempowerment: the ability to erase someone’s life work by not recognizing it.
This is why, at least in the case of death, we have an obligation to honor and remember NJ lives and efforts. Otherwise what is the point of making those efforts in the first place?
So let me propose a corrective measure: obituaries in The Japan Times. We should offer, say, a “Legacy Corner,” where someone who knew a recently deceased NJ of note well can submit a eulogy for possible publication. This way a print record remains of what they contributed to Japan and to us.
Many overseas newspapers, including The Guardian, already have this system in place. So should the JT.
The JT already offers briefs on deceased Japanese politicians and assorted muckety-mucks (as well as interviews with perfectly healthy Japanese bureaucrats and international representatives). Yet there is scant print on the NJ who lived here and gave so much of themselves to our society (not to mention read this paper).
I think it is particularly incumbent on The Japan Times to do this. Rival English-language papers are less NJ-community-minded. After all, they have long purged most of their NJ full-time staff and reporters, and generally supplement whatever news they don’t import with translated in-house articles (replete with nativist and exclusivist Japan-centric editorial slants). The JT, the only independent English daily paper in Japan, is in the best position to continue providing information for the NJ community to live better, more informed lives here.
After all, the Japanese media rarely recognizes the efforts of long-term NJ in Japan. NJ are apparently just supposed to come here to work and then “go home.” Even if they live most of their lives and die here.
We should not support this attitude. Otherwise, all that remains of the NJ long-termer is a fungible gaijin on a gurney. As happened to Daniel.
We owe people like him more. We owe ourselves more. Let’s make space for eulogy and legacy, and help create a stronger institutional memory. Prove wrong the institutionalized fiction that only Japanese can change Japan.
Debito Arudou’s new novel, “In Appropriate,” is on sale (www.debito.org/inappropriate.html) Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org