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A decade serving the community

Wednesday marks the 10-year anniversary of the Community pages, which have been providing news, analysis and opinion by, for and about the foreign community in Japan since May 9, 2002.

Here, an editor, columnist and writer who helped make the section what it is today reflect on the first decade of the Community section.

The editor: Barry Brophy

The Community section as we know it was a bit of an accident really.

The brief had been simple, if a little general. In 2002, The Japan Times had decided to expand its coverage of the comings and goings of the foreign community in Japan.

The paper had even commissioned an advice column and provided a pile of pictures from recent embassy functions to get things started. All that was left to do was fill the little bit of space in the middle of the page each week with something foreigner-related . . .

Racism? Check. Pampered pets? Check. Crime? Check. Otaku? Check. Abductions? Check. Charisma Man? Check. Human trafficking? Check. Japanese plumbing? Check.

Ten years on, I’d say the brief has been met — though perhaps not in quite the way the paper imagined. And without the embassy photos.

It’s been nothing if not eclectic, and it might have been less hassle to tread a little lightly.

Certainly nobody would have complained if the section had carried a weekly diet of the kind of cross-cultural fluff that appears elsewhere in the Japanese media (and there has been plenty of that in the community section over the years, too!). But with so many stories left untouched by other media, and an ever-expanding group of talented writers — Japanese and foreign — willing to tell them for the Community Page, that was never really an option.

I’m sure the paper’s top brass were exasperated from time to time.

There was the travel firm that threatened to pull its advertising because we revealed they’d been charging foreign travelers more than Japanese for the same plane tickets. (The practice was discontinued.)

Or the correspondence from the police demanding to know why the paper had exposed their policy of foreign DNA-profiling, and then described it as racist. They certainly weren’t used to having their policies questioned by upstart journalists.

And then there was the “exclusive” interview with a Hegel-quoting sea lion. But we don’t like to talk about that.

But if the management of The Japan Times was worried or irritated by the scathing attacks on the bureaucracy, politicians, business, the police and just about everyone else in Japan over my years on the section, they never said. And no section can survive without the support of the paper.

In fairness, there was the occasional request to “put something cheerful on the page now and again.” I could often see their point.

For a section originally conceived to showcase embassy frocks, it hasn’t been afraid to probe the murkier side of life in Japan — and with justifiable cause.

There was the case of the asylum seeker who claimed he was beaten and abused while detained by the Immigration Bureau.

Since journalists were barred from interviewing detainees, a writer visited the man under the guise of a rights worker.

Hardly Watergate, but the man was released without warning the day after his story was published in the Community section. I like to think the two events are related.

Even the Imperial Household Agency paid attention, moving quickly to reject our claims that a TV producer in Manchester was the real “Last Samurai.”

I’ve no doubt the section has tackled individual cases and wider issues that other news outlets in Japan won’t, and long may that continue.

Equally, I think the diverse backgrounds of the section’s many fine contributors over the years has given the Community Page an unrivaled depth and scope of coverage.

For that, and for sticking their necks out in a society that doesn’t always appreciate it, they deserve the paper’s thanks.

And for the German reader who emailed in every week for five years to tell me the name of the column is spelt wrong: I know.

Barry Brophy was editor of the Community Page from 2002-2007. He is currently a journalist at the Irish Independent in Dublin

The columnist: Debito Arudou

I remember my first article on the Community Page back in June 2002, after I jumped ship as a columnist at the Japan Today website.

Having been an infrequent contributor to other publications, I was impressed by the comparative professionalism at The Japan Times: I was never forced to toe any editorial line by the Community Page (unlike, say, the vanity projects that pass for English-language newspapers at the Asahi and Yomiuri, who tend to take criticism of Japan in English by NJ authors as a personal affront).

It was also nice that the JT paid its contributors the amount as promised promptly, something relatively rare in this business.

Honesty has served the Community Page well. Over the past decade, we have had hundreds of contributors writing exposes on subjects few other domestic outlets would touch, including unequal hiring practices due to nationality, the merits of unionization, international divorces from the studiously ignored NJ partner’s perspective, the Japanese judiciary’s systematic discrimination against claimants based on race or social origin, the biased treatment of NJ crime by police and the media, public policies and government statements that latently and blatantly disenfranchise whole peoples in Japan, one’s rights under the law and revised visa regimes, and even new takes on the perennial debate over the epithet “gaijin.”

Where else in our domestic media could this motley collection of journalists, scholars, pundits, activists and general malcontents consistently splash their views across a page (now two) every Tuesday — and have their presence permanently recorded in this country’s best online archive of English articles on Japan?

For that matter, where else in Japan’s media does anyone even acknowledge that there is a “community” of NJ in Japan, or offer authoritative information specifically for the benefit of this community? Only here.

I have been honored to not only have had more than a hundred of my articles featured here since 2002, but also to have the ideas debated in a venue that people, including academics and Japanese policymakers, take seriously.

For example, my favorite Community Page memory is the reaction from “Forensic Science Fiction: Bad science and racism underpin police policy” (Jan. 13, 2004), where I critiqued the National Research Institute for Police Science’s highly unscientific “DNA tests for foreigners.”. They claimed that you could examine biotic evidence at crime scenes and tell whether the suspect was foreign or not. They sold this snake oil to us taxpayers for years by claiming that “foreign proteins are different than Japanese.”

When I telephoned NRIPS on different business shortly afterwards, the person on the other end immediately knew me by name, and with no invitation launched into a defense of the policy as “having nothing to do with foreigners.”

I then pulled up the policy and read it back to him. “The very title says, ‘Developing an index using biological materials in order to expose foreign crime.’ In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I can read Japanese. Can you?” I got a gasp and then a delicious silence. Plus, in a country where the police ignore media scrutiny and even get away with murder (ZG, Nov. 1, 2011), the NRIPS still felt obligated a month later to send the JT a flaccid letter of denial. Gotcha.

In sum, I have observed three definite stages in the development of the NJ “community” since I got to Japan. In the 1990s, communities were forming during the influx of foreign labor, with some regions reaching double-digit population percentages of NJ. In the 2000s, NJ communities came under attack by xenophobes and chauvinist politicians who firmly believe the fiction that more foreigners means less Japan. And now, in the 2010s, we’re watching the NJ communities attacking themselves, cleaving into one-upping camps over who is “more dedicated to Japan” in this era of perpetual stagnation, rollover disasters and seemingly endless self-sacrifice.

The Community Page, despite all of that, stands as our outlet, and our legacy. Long may it run.

Debito Arudou is the Just Be Cause columnist for The Japan Times

The writer: David McNeill

Last November there was a small, almost unnoticed story in The Daily Yomiuri about the state’s investigation into the death of Abubakar Awudu Suraj. The article said that prosecutors did not intend to indict the immigration officers who allegedly throttled Suraj to death as he was being forcibly deported from Narita airport in 2010.

With that unfortunate news out of the way, the (unnamed) journalist then explained how Suraj died. The Ghanaian “reportedly” became aggressive when the officers tried to get him aboard the airplane. The cause of his death was initially “unknown” but he was “later found to have suffered from heart disease,” according to “sources close to the investigation.”

On the (illegal) use of multiple restraints during the deportation, “it appears that the Chiba District Public Prosecutors Office has concluded that such action was legitimate in the line of duty.” On claims by witnesses that Suraj was protesting merely that he wanted to call his Japanese wife before being sent out of the country, silence.

Suraj had been married and living in Japan for 22 years and was by all accounts a law-abiding, tax-paying member of this community before he fell victim to a post-Koizumi crackdown on overstayers. According to his Japanese friends, the 45-year-old was a gentle giant, a loving husband and a talented painter. There was nothing in the Yomiuri article about that either.

The Yomiuri journalist also neglected to mention Dr. Junpei Yamamura, who had examined Suraj before his death and concluded that there was nothing wrong with his heart. Dr. Yamamura would have told the Yomiuri journalist — and probably did — that the prosecutors called on him four times to check his records. Dr. Yamamura was left with the clear impression that the prosecutors were trying to find physical weaknesses that might account for his death.

The Yomiuri journalist might have looked at the autopsy report for Suraj, released to his wife’s lawyers after she fought for it. The report listed abrasions to his face, internal bleeding of muscles on the neck, back, abdomen and upper arm, along with leakage of blood around the eyes, blood congestion in some organs, and dark red blood in the heart.

Struggling mightily with the complexities of the case, the Yomiuri journalist concluded that Suraj had a weak heart. That, after all, is what “sources close to the investigation” (i.e. the prosecutors) told him. And that sinister hatchet job by a well-paid hack is the nearest thing to an obituary that Suraj will ever get at the world’s largest newspaper.

The absent details from the Yomiuri article could be found in the Community pages of The Japan Times, as so often over the last decade, virtually the only print forum for such information. Checking through the archives is like peering into the dark corners of life in this country, a place where mainstream journalists seldom venture without a police escort.

About seven years ago, I researched the story of a Kurdish family that it seemed was literally being starved out of Japan. Erdal Dogan had spent almost a year in a detention center, leaving his wife and two children to fend for themselves. Immigration officials had arrested Dogan as an overstayer after his claim for asylum was rejected.

At the time, Dogan was on hunger strike, the only form of protest left to him. His wife and two young children barely survived on handouts. No physical contact was allowed during their weekly meetings. There were many more like him in detention centers.

Ordinary Japanese people were as angry as I when they heard about this, so where was the local media? I called around all the big TV networks and told them the story, to obvious disinterest.

In a bar in Roppongi, I ran into a producer for Asahi TV’s News Station, which could then claim to be Japan’s most liberal mainstream evening news program. “It’s difficult,” he explained when we discussed covering the Dogan case. Why? I wondered. “It’s difficult,” he said again. Then he sank his drink and walked off.

The Dogans emigrated to Canada five years later, bitter at their treatment here.

Sometimes I think we failed them. But it certainly wasn’t the fault of The Japan Times. For that, you have to look elsewhere.

David McNeill writes for The Independent, The Irish Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Send comments on the Community pages and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp