Congratulations to Donald Keene, who was granted Japanese citizenship last month with great media fanfare. At 89 years young and after a lifetime contributing to world scholarship on Japan, he truly deserves it.
Unfortunately, while receiving all the kudos, Keene demonstrated that he had fallen for two of Japan’s media-manufactured myths about non-Japanese (NJ) residents: 1) that they are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime in Japan, and 2) that they fled Japan (as “flyjin”) in disproportionate numbers due to the Tohoku disasters.
In media reports, both when he applied for citizenship last November and when he got it on March 7, Keene said repeatedly that he was naturalizing to “encourage,” “endure hardships” and “show solidarity” with the Japanese people as a Japanese — unlike, the media also repeatedly reported him as saying, the large number of foreigners who left Japan after the earthquakes.
He also joshed at a March 7 press conference, quote, “As a Japanese, I swear not to commit any crimes.”
Very funny. You know a public discourse has become hegemonic when you can joke about it. But when you have an iconic (former) NJ promoting falsehoods about NJ, we need to put them to rest.
First, about foreign crime: As has been discussed in these pages before (Zeit Gist, Feb. 20, 2007, Oct. 7, 2003, and Oct. 4, 2002), the National Police Agency has performed all kinds of statistical magic to inflate NJ crime figures. Hence the rise of foreign crime over the past decade has been, to put it mildly, disproportionately reported in both scope and degree. As always, 99 percent of crime in Japan is committed by Japanese.
Even more so now. According to the most recent NPA figures (www.npa.go.jp/sosikihanzai/kokusaisousa/kokusai/H23_Z_RAINICHI_ZANTEI.pdf), foreign crime has dropped every year without pause since its peak in 2005. In fact, by more than half — so precipitously that the NPA includes crime numbers from 1982 (when there were far fewer NJ here anyway) to depict some kind of comparative rise.
Last year was no different, with crime falling by double-digit percentages in every major category, to below levels last seen in 1993! This matters because Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara infamously predicted in 2000 that in the event of a natural disaster (and 2011 had at least two), “bad foreigners” would riot and need rounding up by the Self-Defense Forces.
Clearly none of that happened. Yet the public discourse of NJ as criminal, as promoted by grumpy (or acidulously jokey) geriatrics, hasn’t changed.
Now let’s look at the renewed flyjin discourse, since Keene’s self-promotion as a paragon of virtue now threatens to similarly tar NJ as deserters.
I have talked about flyjin before (Just Be Cause, May 3, 2011), essentially arguing, “So what if NJ left? It’s not as if they were made to feel welcome and a part of Japan.”
But now that last year’s statistics are in we need an update — because it’s clear the whole flyjin phenomenon was a myth.
According to the Ministry of Justice (www.moj.go.jp/content/000094842.pdf), the NJ population registered with the government (so as to leave out NJ tourists, who must depart within three months anyway) dropped for the third straight year in 2011, by 55,671 souls, or 2.6 percent. This is little different than 2010’s drop of 51,970, or 2.4 percent — meaning this is an ongoing trend little changed by the disasters.
Moreover, look at the largest drop in terms of nationality: Brazilians, falling by nearly 9 percent, for more than a third of the total. Where are Brazilians clustered? Around Nagoya, nowhere near the disaster areas.
The point is, NJ migration (in a science riddled with caveats and complications) was happening anyway for two reasons unrelated to Tohoku: 1) because NJ are the first downsized whenever our labor market goes sour, and 2) because it is standard operating practice within Japan’s visa regimes to boot out unwanted NJ workers (JBC, March 6, 2012, and April 7, 2009).
Moreover, if this column does what the Japanese media steadfastly refuses to do (that is, compare Japanese with NJ numbers), we can see that according to the government Statistics Bureau (www.stat.go.jp/data/jinsui/pdf/201203.pdf), the numbers of “Japanese flyjin” last year (that is, those who actually left the country, as opposed to the indubitably higher numbers who moved away from the danger zones domestically) also increased: A net 24,889 Japanese left Japan in March and April 2011 alone.
And, as a brief but indicative tangent, consider the comparative migration patterns of “Japanese flyjin” during Thailand’s disastrous floods last October. Not only did Japanese not remain in Thailand “in solidarity,” they also took Thai workers with them (on one-time temporary six-month visas, of course) so as not to disrupt Japanese factory production schedules.
The hypocrisy is palpable. And from what I have seen, the Thai media did not bash either the Japanese fleers or the Thai temps as deserters.
The point is, Keene has made his life one of careful, disciplined research, and he should have tapped this wealth of knowledge and reactivated his critical faculties before shooting off his mouth like this.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not to impugn Keene’s life choices — he can live where he likes and take out whatever citizenship he desires. But he should not be denigrating other people’s complex and personal life decisions (many made with careers to consider and families in tow) based upon flawed paradigms about NJ — paradigms fabricated by a sensationalist media and grounded in a discourse of prejudice and hypocrisy.
If he does, he should be called out on it like anyone else. And in that spirit, let’s consider a few inconsistencies:
Keene has said that he wants to live out his remaining years in Japan out of respect to the “resilient spirit of the Japanese people in a traumatic situation.” However, Kyodo reported on March 9 that this move was “partly because travel (between his homes in America and Japan) had become physically demanding.” At his advanced age, that’s understandable. But why so much public self-hugging for naturalizing?
Moreover, what sort of support in “solidarity” for the Tohoku victims will Keene be involved in? The Yomiuri on March 9 notes that this month he’s traveling by ship to India and Africa for vacation. As soon as he gets back, he said, “I’ll continue to work more diligently in a suitably Japanese way. I also want to contribute to areas affected by the disaster.”
Like how? Collecting and driving supplies up to Fukushima? Volunteering to help out at gymnasiums sheltering displaced people? Organizing international fund drives? Moving rubble around, as so many NJ residents who did not “flee Japan” have already done?
Here’s one thing Keene could do: Publicly retract his denigrating statements with apologies, and acknowledge the good that NJ have done for Japan all along — working here for decades, paying taxes, raising families, and living lives that fly in the face of the hegemonic yet unquestioned discourse that “NJ disrupt Japanese society.”
People who rise to mythical status should not perpetuate myths themselves. For someone who’s spent his life helping the outside world understand Japan, it’s ignominious indeed that Keene would now do the opposite for outsiders in Japan.
Debito Arudou’s latest book is “In Appropriate” (www.debito.org/inappropriate.html) Twitter arudoudebito. Discussions on this issue on Debito.org at debito.org/?p=10017. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue to firstname.lastname@example.org