You seldom see the sight these days of pairs of crew-cut white males in pressed white shirts and ties pedaling around cities in Japan. The sight is from a bygone age, largely relegated to history: The white man with a burden to educate and enlighten the natives, in this case about the one true religion, Christianity.
For many of us in the 21st century, the missionary mentality of seeking to “save” the locals by spreading your own truth has been discredited. For whatever good the missionaries did — teaching English for free or helping the poor — underneath it was the inherent ethnocentrism of “we know better.”
But how much has changed? Sure, Mormon missions might be on the decline here, but the same notion that “we foreigners know best and should enlighten Japanese” appears in other guises.
Such a point has been argued by Mike Guest, Daily Yomiuri columnist and ETJnews.com blogger. In a 2010 article on the ELT website, Guest raises “the missionary, neocolonial charge” against foreigners who claim they “want to build a better Japan.” He chides, “How do you think it looks when folks like us presume to be ‘saving’ other nations by demanding the establishment of attitudes, institutions and values that only had validity ‘back home’?” Guest no doubt had Japan Times columnist Debito Arudou in mind.
Arudou’s most famous foray into activism came after he was repeatedly refused entrance to bathhouses in Hokkaido because of his ethnicity. Since winning a discrimination lawsuit against one onsen in Otaru, he has championed a number of other causes on behalf of non-Japanese residents, speaking out about issues including racial profiling by the police, the system of “academic apartheid” that keeps most foreigner faculty members on limited-term contracts, and abductions by Japanese parents of mixed-race children. Despite fighting for what many foreign residents would agree are worthwhile causes, Arudou still receives no small amount of criticism himself, particularly from those who feel uncomfortable about the missionarylike zeal and conviction with which he seeks to impose his brand of justice on the Japanese.
In his Nov. 1, 2011, Just Be Cause column, Arudou’s strident sermons plumbed new depths, as he castigated Japan for its “culture of deceit.” Here, Arudou was not commenting on a specific issue or injustice, but arguing that Japanese are liars in just about every conceivable situation.
As for everyday Japanese interactions, apparently tatemae is far worse than “little white lies” and has led to the breakdown of society. After all, “If everyone is expected to lie, who can you trust?” In law, witnesses are “expected to lie,” divorcees lie in court (imagine!) and judges assume people (like foreigners) are lying based on their appearance. Bureaucrats and politicians lie, and journalists barely do research. Since public trust is lost, Arudou continues, citizens end up not even believing the truth! Examples and even proverbs are cherry-picked to bolster his argument.
But the pinnacle of Arudou’s pontification comes when he looks back at Japan’s sins of the 20th century, specifically World War II. Here, with breathtaking oversimplications, we learn that Japan’s deception about its mistreatment of prisoners of war and noncombatants (yes, not the mistreatment, but its deception about its mistreatment) led to “horrifying mass murder-suicides,” “dehumanizing reprisals by their enemies,” and “war without mercy.”
Finally, any notions of imperialism, greed or patriotism leading to the tragic deaths of millions of soldiers and Japanese citizens can be put to rest. And historians no longer have to wrestle with the question of why the Allies firebombed Tokyo and dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thanks to Arudou we can point the finger squarely at devilish Japanese deception.
Never mind that it was recently disclosed that Arudou’s country of birth, the United States, lied for years about storing Agent Orange on Okinawa, or, for that matter, that it transformed Laos into the most bombed country in Earth’s history while denying to the U.S. public that the campaign even existed. Arudou makes explicit that Japan is most apt to manipulate the truth, and anyone who points out the pervasiveness of lying in other countries is an “apologist.”
Arudou makes no attempt at balance, ignoring the honesty of Japanese who typically return goods or even lost cash to the police (who can be trusted to not pocket it), the taxi drivers and shopkeepers who don’t overcharge, or even the observation that cheating is not so common in Japan’s schools.
After reading his article about Japanese deception, I started to suspect that Guest was right: Arudou’s mind-set has degenerated into a black vs. white, “Japan is evil or at least hopelessly corrupt” world view. More recently, a post this March on Arudou’s Debito.org blog leads me to conclude that he and many of his followers are more interested in attacking Japan and her people than fighting stereotyping and injustice. Arudou has become a roughneck version of a missionary whose every calculated move is made with an aim to convert. Rather than Jesus’ teachings, he has Western ideals and values on his side. The unfortunate result is an inability to present an issue with any sense of balance and fairness.
The aforementioned post on Arudou’s blog that led me to this realization was written semi-anonymously by “Eric C.” Arudou deemed his points valid enough to not only make public, but also to praise as being “considered and considerate.” A handful of readers, myself included, considered the post a racist rant, written by a bitter man who feels considerable hate for Japan.
In the post, Eric C. tells us Japan is “feudal, with only the flimsiest veneer of legality.” What’s more, “There is no real law — power and connections are all that matter.” He explains that Japanese are not worth trying to change: “Let them go their miserable way to stagnation and backwardness.”
Having already praised his own efforts to battle ignorance and xenophobia in Japan, Eric C. applauds Arudou and continues with considerable vindictiveness and comical exaggeration: “Let them sing the Kimigayo morning, noon and night. Let them teach English so poorly that no one can speak it. . . . Let them claim that their actions in WWII were one vast charitable mission to spread peace and love throughout the world. Let them sink slowly into the swamp of their own bloody-minded ignorance.”
He likens working with the Japanese to dealing with “an old geezer” who won’t take responsibility for his noisy dog, and suggests, “F—k him.” Eric C. continues, “even when (Japanese) are adults, (they) may be physically mature, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually, they are children.”
The coup de grace of his rant is the bombshell that Japanese are “xenophobic to the core, perhaps even genetically so.” The tone is uncompromising, his gripes unsubstantiated, as he suggests we foreigners should “leave (Japanese) in their misery” as their society collapses due to their own ineptitude and ignorance. His final advice for all foreigners, regardless of their family situation or circumstances, is to get out of Japan. He doesn’t specify where we should go, but the presumption is a “just” country in North America or Europe.
When I first read this I felt certain that Debito.org readers — who are presumably against discrimination — would blast the writer of this diatribe to high heaven. To my shock, however, only a few criticized him, with some agreeing “100 percent” with this onslaught of generalities devoid of any concrete examples, while others noted that he made “great points.”
Debito himself will not hesitate to label some borderline actions by Japanese as offensive. In his Just Be Cause column titled “Meet Mr. James, gaijin clown,” about a McDonald’s ad campaign, he complains that “Japanese media generally stereotype foreigners in an unbalanced and unfair manner.” To contrast, the gaijin clown’s main sin was speaking Japanese with a heavy foreign accent; Eric C. condemns the Japanese in every imaginable way, even denying them the status of adulthood. Worse, rather than offering any sense of perspective, he implies that anywhere else is better: Get out while you can! All this is “considered and considerate”; a foreigner clown with poor Japanese skills is offensive.
Eric C., in subsequent comments to the blog post featuring his diatribe, tries to repackage his message as a simple question: “Should foreigners try to change Japan?” But even this less inflammatory question betrays a basic arrogance — the missionary mentality applied to justice. How would Arudou react to discussions among Japanese about the need to “change foreigners” after labeling us ignorant, stubborn barbarians who are probably not worth the trouble?
Telling all foreigners they should leave Japan regardless of their circumstances is presumptuous. Since moving to Japan in 1997, for example, I can recall only one truly discriminatory action against me — and that happened in Vermont, when an enraged motel owner kicked me and my wife out for speaking Japanese! If I’m looking to escape racism, that eliminates my home country.
Many of the complaints against injustice in Japan are far more nuanced than they are often made out to be. For example, while it’s true that many universities have discriminatory practices against foreigners by keeping them on fixed-term contracts, it also remains true that we’re given preferential treatment in some ways. We often escape committee responsibilities and meetings, and might have work translated into Japanese for us, for two examples.
The point here is that foreigners are not merely made to suffer. Even the onsen case is not just about foreigners. Japanese businesses reserve the right to refuse people with tattoos, and nobody seems too bothered about that, least of all the Japanese. Likewise, how do Japanese fathers who are not granted access to their kids feel? More objective analyses of issues would truly explore angles such as these to better understand the Japanese way of thinking, rather than issuing endless condemnations from the viewpoint of Western ideas of justice.
Ironically, on more than one occasion I have defended Arudou publicly because I perceived the attacks on him to be unfair. Some have certainly been vindictive. But now, with his blanket condemnations of Japanese deception and posting of and praise for a terribly offensive anti-Japanese blog post, I have to conclude that his concern is not racism or justice per se, but defending non-Japanese at all costs. And with such exclusivity, his arguments become discredited. As Guest writes, “What I find particularly disturbing about the naysayers’ logic is the binary us vs. them racial uber-consciousness that underpins it all.” Using that as a starting point, I will suggest six principles for critics of Japan to keep in mind.
1. Avoid making an issue “us vs. them.” Gross generalizations and stereotypes work both ways. If you’re serious, condemn stereotyping and generalizations in any form. Let go of loyalty you might feel towards your own country or bitterness toward your host nation. If you’ve really come to believe Japanese are taught to lie, and that they never grow up, do consider returning to your home country; more importantly, it’s time to get out of the business of social commentary.
2. Choose issues carefully. As Guest has noted, if you’re looking for slights and offensive treatment, you’ll find them in innumerable places. Don’t make everything about race (e.g. a McDonald’s commercial). Save your energy for when real discrimination takes place.
3. Be aware of the limitations of your own value system. Very few issues are black and white. Your ideas about equality, democracy and justice are merely limited truths you have come to believe due to your particular circumstances in life. Apply them to the situations in other cultures with caution.
4. Never forget that no matter how many tendencies people in a culture may display, at the end of the day, the deeper truth is that everything depends on the individual. Some Japanese are very outgoing and progressive; some Americans very humble and patient.
5. Be careful about pointing out how indoctrinated and duped your perceived adversary is. If the nature of brainwashing is that a person can come to believe all sorts of nonsense without even knowing that they have been manipulated, it stands to reason that you too may have been fooled in such a way throughout your life. No one is immune to mind manipulation and skewed views.
6) Finally, understand that people, whether they are aging bureaucrats or articulate activists, don’t change easily, especially when the criticism leveled at them is strident.
Debito finally comments on Eric C.’s message: “I always chose to . . . lend a hand where I could to the people who were on the receiving end of nasty treatment.” Sadly, he fails to see that in this case, Japanese were treated nastily.
Given his missionary mentality, I will say that Eric C. is right about one thing: Debito should give up efforts to change, help or save Japan.
John Spiri is an associate professor at Gifu Shotoku Gakuen University. He is also webmaster for the Japan Writers Conference (www.japanwritersconference.org) and self-publishes textbooks and the Asians at Work series (globalstoriespress.org)
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