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Much ado, but micro-important

Those daily annoyances don't add up to a whole lot of aggression

by Colin P.A. Jones

A few weeks ago, as a panelist at a symposium on Japan’s accession to the Hague Convention on international child abduction, I found it hard to disguise my ire. One of the speakers was a lawyer opposed to Japan joining the convention, and who refused to even use “abduction” to discuss what she called “moving with your children.” Another was a law professor who declared that parents had only duties, not rights, when it came to their children.

This was annoying because (a) the Hague Convention specifically uses the term “abduction” in its title, so trying to discuss it in other terms is simply disingenuous, and (b) Japan’s Civil Code plainly states that parents have both rights and duties when it comes to raising and educating their children.

As a lawyer who has drafted hundreds of contracts, I appreciate that the ability to define things is a source of power. The reframing that takes place in academic debates like this, however, is often maddening. On one level it can devolve into futile discussions about a particular word means (“abduction” vs. “moving”). Yet if the attempt at reframing debate is successful, things can lurch off into an often unhelpful direction (i.e., goodbye, parental rights . . .).

I was reminded of this dynamic when I read Debito Arudou’s May 1 column on the “microaggression” supposedly suffered by foreigners in Japan.

As a visible (Caucasian) minority resident of Japan, I certainly appreciate the tedium involved in having yet another conversation about my ability to feed myself using only a combination of two sticks, nattō and raw fish. I had always assumed that this sort of repetitive small talk was just part and parcel of being a stranger in a strange land where polite but generally meaningless conversation is a cultural norm. It never occurred to me that it was part of a process of being micro-assaulted, -insulted and -invalidated.

“Micro,” as we all know, means “tiny.” So if the tiny acts of aggression apparently present in daily life are actually, well, not tiny, then perhaps the same applies to other things as well. Yet nobody seems eager to use terms like “micro-charity,” “micro-help” or “micro-kindness,” probably because they would sound like bad jokes at worst or utterly trivial acts at best.

So why does a term like “microaggression” slip through our static filters and make us stop and think? I suspect the reason is because it can be used to describe something that happens to me, me, me — and nothing about our own lives is ever trivial, is it? By identifying microaggression as a “powerful analytical tool” (as Debito does), we can transcend the trivial, apparently by treating the cumulative effect of umpteen minor annoyances as a form of real aggression. It is a tool that turns minor, unintentional slights into part of a “frequent sufferer program,” where accumulating enough points get you a free flight to Victimland.

The problem with this is that it involves redefining the whole concept of “aggression” into something so utterly subjective as to be meaningless to anyone other than me, me, me. I am indeed tired of being asked my height (190 cm, just in case having that out there helps speed me to a real conversation in the future). That said, I don’t recall minding the first few dozen times the question came up, so I don’t see how some poor Japanese person becomes an “aggressor” just because they happen to be interlocutor No. 10,000. After all, the only thing that has really changed is how I feel about being asked the question, so whatever angst it causes me now is probably not Other People’s Fault, but rather a function of the terrible, terrible reality that I am not the center of the universe.

I can see how numerous small slights could accumulate into a significant problem in the context of employment or some other ongoing relationship between the same repeat actors, but this is a very different dynamic from the cumulative effect of random encounters between strangers.

One of the reasons that me and my ilk have to answer the same question over and over again may also be because, rightly or wrongly, we are of more interest to many Japanese people than, say, the folks who deliver their mail, mop their floors or ring up their purchases at the shop. In this light, if microaggression is a legitimate type of harm, then its biggest victims should be Hollywood movie stars. Imagine the tediously repetitive micro-assaults that the likes of Tom Cruise have to endure from the legions of boorish proles purporting to be his fans — no wonder he avoids going out in public!

No sympathy? Perhaps being subjected to endless small talk is a high-quality problem, since the alternative is probably being ignored (a term which doesn’t really work with “micro” affixed).

Have you noticed how many Chinese people there are working at convenience stories in Japan? If so, have you ever taken the time to compare notes with them about their own experiences as foreigners in Japan? If not, is this because (a) you think they might find the discussion tediously repetitive, or because (b) they are convenience store clerks?

According to the article by the psychologist Dr. Wing Sue cited by Debito, most “microaggressive” behavior is unconscious. Certainly a great deal of stereotyping and discriminatory behavior may be “innocent” — based on misconceptions or a general lack of knowledge. For this reason education can be a powerful counterbalancing force, so I am all for gently letting people know when their questions are out of line (like the Japanese guy who, on a flight to Fukuoka after fortifying himself with a couple of beers, leaned over to ask what I thought about the doctrine of immaculate conception).

In fairness, however, Japan is in fact visited every year by hundreds of thousands of visibly foreign people, many of whom can’t speak Japanese, use chopsticks or suppress the gag reflex when it comes to pickled squid guts. How is the average Japanese person (some of whom may well regard being addressed in English as a different form of microaggression) supposed to know the difference between them and me, me, me? That being the case, I don’t see that the world would be made a better place by me declaring everyone an aggressor and treating every time someone hands me an English menu an Infringement of My Rights.

I admire Debito’s efforts to combat discrimination in Japan, but I have a basic issue with framing the way Japanese people interact with foreigners as “microaggression,” i.e., what’s the goal? Is it to have Japanese talk to foreigners less? To treat us exactly like Japanese people (even though we plainly are not)? To have public awareness programs to encourage people to . . . do what again?

By being so completely subjective, the concept of microaggression fails to launch because whatever solutions are out there (short of ignoring us) would have to be as subjectively tailored as the sense of victimization itself.

Here we come to the reason why I felt compelled to write a response to Debito: Microaggression is disturbingly familiar to what I perceive to be the Japanese government’s strategy (a term that credits it with more thought than is actually involved) of “protecting” human rights by trivializing them. With definitions of harassment, abuse and even violence that are so broad that they can be applied to just about any type of behavior that makes someone unhappy, everyone can be a victim, but everyone is a potential human rights violator too.

Perhaps the government devoting significant resources to identifying causes of unhappiness is a good thing. At the same time, however, if you have ever worked for a Japanese institution and witnessed the vast number of hours of otherwise productive people’s time that can be diverted to addressing a single person’s baseless claims of persecution, you can’t help but wonder if the life energy of everyone involved wouldn’t be better spent on other endeavors.

It seems ironic that a country supposedly famous for valuing social harmony is making it so easy for its people to complain about each other’s behavior. A common thread, however, is that the people moving this agenda forward — well-intentioned bureaucrats and politicians — naturally tend to exclude themselves from the scope of potential infringers. Japan would seem to have plenty of issues when it comes to human rights of the classical sort (i.e., where the infringement is by the government), whether it is the death penalty, criminal justice, immigration detention, or systemic discrimination — or even the authoritarian mind-set reflected in the LDP’s recent proposed amendments to the Constitution that would make singing the national anthem a constitutional duty and restrict freedom of expression that threatens the public order. Yet as characterized by the government, human rights problems are apparently caused by Japanese people not being considerate of other people’s feelings.

Furthermore, it is also the government that offers the solutions, which tend to be pretty low-impact and easy to provide: a set of mushy guidelines, a toll-free hotline and perhaps a stable of people of the right age and pedigree to listen to complaints and tell those in disputes what they are doing wrong. There is probably plenty of room for a microaggression-based set of solutions for foreign residents here, but I would rather be asked if I can use chopsticks a few thousand more times before conceding the field to such trivia.

Colin P. A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp