The day I proposed this column to my editor back in 2008, I knew it would be a hard sell.
Fortunately, I had a track record. I had been writing Zeit Gist articles (45 of them in all) every two months or so for the Community page since 2002, and The Japan Times was looking for new ways to serve the community beyond pages commemorating Swaziland Independence Day (which is Tuesday, incidentally). International goodwill and advertising revenue are all very well, but what about offering practical information for non-Japanese (NJ) residents making a better life here, or drawing attention to emerging domestic policies that affect them?
So my pitch was that the JT needed a regular columnist on human rights and issues of social justice. And I was convinced there was enough material for a monthly. They weren’t as convinced, and they were especially nonplussed at my suggestion for a column title: Just Be Cause!?
But shortly afterwards JBC got the green light, and on March 4, 2008, the first column was published — on why activism is frowned upon in Japan (because it’s associated with extremism). And off we went.
Nearly 10 years and 100 columns later, it is clear that, like the Debito.org archive (started 20 years ago, one of the oldest continuous personal websites on Japan) and daily blog (now 10 years old), JBC is in it for the long haul.
In this special anniversary column, let’s look back at what JBC has covered.
The themes have been, in order of frequency:
• Japanese government policy (particularly the National Police Agency whipping up ungrounded fears about foreign crime to justify racial profiling and public targeting): 18 articles
• Politics and geopolitics (e.g., the rise of Japan’s right and its continued use of “gaijin-handling” to mask their illiberal agendas): 16 articles
• Exclusionary narrative maintenance (showing how Japanese are unique and NJ will always be outsiders): 15 articles
• Human rights and activism (including the constantly suppressed debate on racial discrimination in Japan): 13 articles
• Problems endemic to the NJ community (such as mutual identity policing and online bullying): 12 articles
• Media issues (such as stereotyping NJ and foreign-looking people as illiterate or socially dysfunctional): 9 articles
• Miscellaneous social and cultural columns written “just because” I felt they needed attention (e.g., sexlessness in Japan, inferiority complexes towards foreigners leading to resentment instead of admiration, and even — after repeated prodding from my editor — 10 things I like about Japan!): 16 articles
You can see all of these columns linked and summarized at www.debito.org/publications.html.
I’m told that JBC is one of the more-read columns at the JT (with a total of more than 1 million page views — seriously!) and I thank readers (and especially critics) for that. Most-read (and most-misinterpreted) is the infamous “microaggressions” article (“Yes, I can use chopsticks: The everyday microaggressions that grind us down,” May 1, 2012), with well over 100,000 page views. It still occasionally reappears in the list of trending articles on the JT website.
Another humdinger was “Don’t blame JET for Japan’s bad English” (Sept. 8, 2010), which argued that the JET Programme was never actually designed to teach English, and how it unfortunately contributes to Japan’s group psychosis towards foreign languages. And of course, there was the time I called the phenomenon of Fukushima radiation-fleeing foreigners a myth (“Better to be branded a ‘flyjin’ than a man of the ‘sheeple,’ ” May 3, 2011).
The other JBC Fukushima articles were extremely polarizing: Two tackled the issue of how a vicious circle of government unaccountability and media nondisclosure breeds public apathy and fatalism (“Letting radiation leak, but never information,” Apr. 5, 2011; “The costly fallout of tatemae and Japan’s culture of deceit, Nov. 11, 2011), and another looked at how this mindset is socially enforced through disempowering platitudes such as gaman (endure) and “try harder” (“Japan needs less ganbatte, more genuine action,” Oct. 4, 2011).
But JBC has also offered practical and constructive advice. It warned readers to watch out for sickos posing as police asking for your “gaijin card” ID (“Knowing your rights can protect against fake cops,” April 2, 2014). It advised NJ residents not to cooperate with hotels that have been (unlawfully) told by local police to demand and photocopy gaijin cards — and some residents have obliged (“Ibaraki police still unfettered by the law, or the truth,” Jun. 6, 2016). And controversially, JBC argued that NJ should not be humble or deferential about their progress in Japanese language ability and acculturation, as it reinforces a disempowering narrative that erodes NJs’ social status in Japan’s omnipresent hierarchies (“If you’re jōzu and you know it, stand your ground,” Sept. 10, 2013).
JBC has even offered viewpoints found nowhere else. I was uncharacteristically critical of the United Nations for its careless use of the temporary-sounding term “migrant” instead of “immigrant” when discussing Japan’s foreign-resident population (“Japan, U.N. share blind spot on ‘migrants,’ ” April 6, 2010). I denounced sacred scholar Donald Keene for his self-serving tactlessness in promoting wrongful narratives of NJ residents as criminals and deserters (“Donald Keene should engage brain before fueling ‘flyjin,’ foreign crime myths“, Apr. 3, 2012). I even called out Finnish-born former Diet member Marutei Tsurunen for “gaijinizing” himself (“Naturalized Japanese: Foreigners no more,” Feb. 1, 2011), and eventually judged his parliamentary tenure to have been a self-inflicted failure (“Ol’ blue eyes isn’t back: Tsurunen’s tale offers lessons in microcosm for DPJ,” Aug. 13, 2013).
And where else offers a roundup of the top 10 human rights issues in Japan over the past year that affected NJ residents? (See January JBCs every year.)
JBC has also been referenced in academic works. For example, the column on how the government was bribing Nikkei Brazilian permanent residents to “go back home” during Japan’s 2008 economic downturn (“Golden parachutes mark failure of race-based policy” Apr. 7, 2009) has been cited in four publications, according to Google Scholar. Researchers have also referenced “Census blind to Japan’s true diversity” (Oct. 5, 2012), “Futenma is undermining Japanese democracy” (June 1, 2010) and several others, including the aforementioned articles on JET, Japan’s culture of deceit — and even microaggressions!
But some JBCs, I believe, were unfairly ignored (some partly due to web-unfriendly headlines) and perhaps deserve a second read. The one discussing the use of the term “gaijin” picked through the word’s history to show that, contrary to popular belief, it is not a contraction of gaikokujin (foreigner) but rather a racist epithet specifically designed to “other” anyone — including (historically) other Japanese (“Once a gaijin, always a gaijin,” Aug. 5, 2008; “The ‘gaijin’ debate: Arudou responds,” Sep. 2, 2008; and “Gaijin mindset is killing rural Japan,” Oct. 7, 2008). These etymological facts should be part of the recurring debates about the word.
JBC also examined bad meta-habits in Japanese society, such as how the relative lack of cultural investment in the value of “fairness” hurts NJ in particular (“For the sake of Japan’s future, foreigners deserve a fair shake,” Dec. 6, 2011), and how the pressure on people to “like” Japan or face social exclusion stifles critical thinking (“Do Japan a favor: Don’t stop being a critic,” Dec. 11, 2012).
And of course some columns were misfires regardless of titling. My column on how North Korean spy Kim Hyon Hui (who?) skillfully played the victim card to get a lavish junket from the Japanese government (“The victim complex and Kim’s killer con,” Aug. 3, 2010) disappeared from sight as soon as media outlets realized they had been made jackasses of (although the article has still been cited by a Korean scholar). My call for a form of “corporate social responsibility” in academia (“Beyond activism vs. academia,” May 6, 2008) — i.e., that academics can push for social justice and not just be dispassionate researchers — registered not a blip. (I guess that’s dispassion for ya.) And my attempt to mimic Kafka and Swift by using insect metaphors to illustrate the social stratification of NJ minorities (“For Nikkei immigrants in Japan, it doesn’t have to be a bug’s life,” Aug. 7, 2012) was probably too far removed from my genre.
But JBC has been a steady pulpit for minority views in Japan, especially the critical ones, in a media woefully short of them in any language. And it has inspired others to take notice and take up the mantle of activism themselves (without being labeled “extremists”). Good. Because as in every society, there are things that need attention and fixing. And JBC is here for that.
Thanks for reading. Here’s to another 100 columns.
Debito’s book “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination” has just come out in paperback. Twitter @arudoudebito. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The top 10 most-read JBC columns
10. ‘Sexlessness’ wrecks marriages, threatens nation’s future, Sept. 6, 2011
9. Visible minorities are being caught in police dragnet, Sept. 3, 2014
8. Claiming the right to be Japanese — and more, Aug. 2, 2015
7. Japan’s revolving-door immigration policy hard-wired to fail, March 6, 2012
6. Time to burst your bubble and face reality, Dec. 3, 2014
5. Don’t let ANA off the hook for that offensive ad, Jan. 24, 2014
4. Don’t blame JET for Japan’s poor English, Sept. 7, 2010
3. The costly fallout of tatemae and Japan’s culture of deceit, Nov. 1, 2011
2. Knowing your rights can protect against fake cops, April 2, 2014
Headlines are taken from the website, and dates reflect when the article was uploaded.