‘Discontinuous minds’ block progress on discrimination

Apologists flout reason, tout group accountability as problems fester


On the final day of the Golden Week holiday this year, I found myself face to face with a young Japanese man who had let himself into my apartment, presumably with the intention of robbing the place. The intruder, who was standing in my living room looking around, fled when disturbed. A chase ensued, which ended with the intruder being apprehended and turned over to the police.

Nothing taken, nothing broken, but given that this is actually the second time I have had a Japanese intruder in my home, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should take measures to ensure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.

I asked around; various friends and acquaintances made suggestions, but no one offered a definitive solution. Then I read Paul de Vries’ article “Expat life in Japan: the good, the bad and the meaningful” (Zeit Gist, May 26) and the answer became clear: I should immediately brand all Japanese people as criminals and ban all 127 million of them from the vicinity of my house.

It sounds daft, doesn’t it, and it is certainly not what I intend to do, but it is the kind of action supported by the proponents of group accountability and its related ideals.

In his most recent article, de Vries continues to hammer away at the theme of group accountability and its importance to Japanese society. He tells us that this kind of group-based punishment is what makes Japan such a “delightfully safe” place to live, and chastises non-Japanese for not coming to terms with negative discrimination. De Vries tells us to embrace only the good. To paraphrase: “Things here are great. You don’t have to work or pay your share, and everyone treats you like an honored guest. Don’t sweat the small stuff like access to public facilities, housing and political power — just ride the wave and enjoy life here in Shangri-La.”

I can’t speak for everyone, but I do pay my way and I certainly do my fair share of work, and I am interested in making sure that my rights as an individual are not thrown out with the bath water. By telling us to look the other way as innocent individuals are discriminated against, de Vries and supporters such as the trumpet-blowing Gregory Clark (“Antiforeigner discrimination is right for Japan,” The Japan Times, Jan. 15) make two glaring errors.

First, they offer no evidence that group discrimination actually solves problems, as opposed to simply delaying, deferring or punting them on to someone else. Second, and perhaps more tellingly, they fail to see that the reason many non-Japanese complain about some of the treatment they receive in Japan is not because everything here is bad; it is because the negative aspects of life here are often a result of those in positions of power clinging to intellectually weak arguments with no basis in reason or logic.

I’ve dealt with the group discrimination issue before (“Otaru ruling beats ‘mob rule,’ ” Zeit Gist, Jan. 6), but it seems that it’s worth revisiting. De Vries tells us that this kind of group punishment of innocent and guilty alike is a way in which “problems can actually be confronted rather than swept under the tatami.”

Come again? How does separating men and women on trains “confront” the vile behavior of those men for whom female commuters are convenient playthings? How does banning the whole Kanto Gakuin University club from playing rugby stop other students from growing dope in their apartments? How does banning a Rwandan from a public bath stop a Russian from peeing in it? They don’t even speak the same language and have nothing in common other than that they do not look Japanese.

Do de Vries and Clark really think that a molester of women who can’t get his kicks on the Keio Line anymore isn’t going to be up to his old tricks when the opportunity presents itself on an overcrowded Bon holiday shinkansen? Can they claim that going to the continual effort and expense of having to turn away potential customers will actually help an onsen owner boost profits in an already-declining market? Are we to believe that Japanese rugby is demonstrably better off today because a group of innocent players who had trained their hearts out for years were denied their shot at the title?

I see no confronting of problems here. I see only lazy officials and administrators dropping their heads and saying, “The problem is hard. I can’t be bothered. This will do for now.”

Furthermore, if this kind of feeble-minded approach to problem-solving were as important and ingrained in the fabric of Japanese society as its advocates suggest, why wasn’t Prime Minister Taro Aso (and the rest of his Cabinet) forced to resign over the drunken behavior of former Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa? Or over any of a number of other scandals that have come to characterize his administration? The fact is that this kind of approach is not applied “evenly and across the board,” as de Vries contends, but is a convenient fallback position adopted by those who lack the gumption to propose and develop a real solution.

It is precisely this brand of intellectual laziness that is at the heart of most problems that non-Japanese face in this country today. No one is saying that this isn’t a great place to live; we are simply saying that things could be even better for everyone — Japanese and non-Japanese — if more of an effort was made to eliminate knee-jerk, reactionary behavior and deal with problems in a robust and rational way.

Consider the example of landlords denying non-Japanese access to housing. De Vries throws up his hands and says there is nothing much to be done because property owners will simply “find subversive ways to get around legislation,” and that we non-Japanese could probably do with being a bit quieter anyway.

How about taking more than the two seconds it took to come up with that unhelpful non-answer and looking at the problem in a little more depth? If landlords are worried that they will not be able to successfully remove troublesome individuals from their property, they will naturally become irrational and reactionary when it comes to selecting tenants. If you don’t feel confident about being able to evict problematic tenants, why take a chance on someone who doesn’t fit the mold?

In his 2001 book “September 11,” the omnipresent Noam Chomsky tells us that the search for effective remedies to such problems compels us to “consider realistically the background concerns and grievances, and try to remedy them, while at the same time following the rule of law.” In this case, that means robustly enforcing legislation that prohibits discriminatory practices by landlords while at the same time strengthening the rights of property owners to swiftly remove tenants who do cause problems, and allowing them to seek compensation for their losses. Landlords would have no reason to fear taking on tenants of any hue if they were confident that recalcitrant individuals could be swiftly dealt with.

On a related note, why should non-Japanese residents accept a ban on visits to public facilities, such as the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, as an appropriate response to the (alleged, but poorly documented) unruly behavior of a few individuals? Wouldn’t it be better for the market to employ permanent guides to act as educators and, if necessary, gatekeepers to prevent inappropriate behavior at a facility that is, after all, marketed as a tourist attraction by the Japanese government? It would improve the Tsukiji experience for visitors and vendors alike.

Imagine the uproar if the Italian government had similarly sought to ban Japanese tourists from its historical monuments after a number of Japanese students left graffiti in a basilica in Florence in 2008. And in any case, what positive outcomes would a ban have achieved?

Those who would advocate this kind of unthinking approach are victims of what the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins terms “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind,” in that they seek to assign people to arbitrary groups for punishment or reward rather than treat them as a continuum of individuals with rights and commensurate responsibilities based on their own behavior. Dawkins attacks the “discontinuous mind” as being an absurd basis upon which to formulate policy or solve problems, and rightly so.

By advocating, defending or even just ignoring irrational policies such as these, de Vries and others offer no encouragement to those in power in Japan to make an effort to improve the lives of any, let alone all, of Japan’s residents. In any large population, there will always be some people who play the race card when it is unwarranted, some people who cry wolf and some who say the sky is falling time and time again. However, for the most part, when people point out, comment on, or protest against the treatment they receive in this country, they do so with the aim of encouraging those with the authority to make decisions to bring the full weight of their abilities to bear on solving problems rather than simply hiding behind a lazy, ill-conceived facade. And that can only be a good thing for Japan in the long run.

Dan O’Keeffe is a lecturer in international relations at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp