‘It’s just because … foreigners know best’: readers’ views

Some readers’ views on John Spiri’s May 1 Zeit Gist column, “It’s just because . . . foreigners know best”:

Why does Japan fire us all up?

I applaud John Spiri for his long but well-balanced Zeit Gist article, and I note The Japan Times sensibly placing Debito Arudou’s “Just Be Cause” column alongside.

As a long-term resident (and teacher), I too have both criticized and praised Japan, but only on specifics. I always try to refrain from the generalizations (positive and negative) to which both Spiri and Arudou refer and indeed utilise.

I too, like most of your readers, have a profound respect and admiration for the well-written and well-read Japan Times for its attempt at “All the news without fear or favor” in a language I can best understand. But I often wonder if there are other such journals, in other countries, written in a language understood by the majority of its resident expats, that allow such criticisms of that host country. For example, is there a Japanese-language paper in (say) “liberal” countries such as the U.K. or the USA, and do the readers regularly criticise or defend their host country?

Why? Why? Why does the foreign community here feel the need to vehemently attack and defend Japan, especially in sweeping generalizations? Why does Japan (and the Japanese) stimulate such passion in its expat residents? Those to me are the most important questions and they are never asked. Why?


Spiri defeats his own argument

In “It’s just because . . . foreigners know the best,” John Spiri commands, “If you’re serious, condemn any stereotyping in any form.” Mr. Spiri himself, though, manages to negatively stereotype missionaries and critics of Japan rather severely in this article. In so doing, his criticism that Debito Arudou has gone too far rings hollow.


Relativism has its limits

I think Spiri is right that the comments posted on Debito.org, insofar as they claimed that Japanese attitudes are genetic, are racist. However, his argument that foreigners who criticize Japan are behaving like missionaries is just silly. It’s a good way to shut people up without ever considering the merits of their ideas.

Let people criticize anything they want to, wherever they want to, whoever they are, freely and openly. For example, if Spiri wants to promote Japanese politicians who believe that 9/11 was an inside job (“Lawmaker takes 9/11 doubts global,” Zeit Gist, June 17, 2008), let him do so and let no one deny his right to involve himself in Japanese politics. I’m for debating all these ideas out in the open.

The cure for being a dupe is not, as Spiri says, discouraging people from making arguments. It is in testing these arguments as much as one can.

Furthermore, his claim that the “deeper truth” is in “individual behavior” is glib in this context. What is in question is the extent to which people have the freedom to analyze how society affects the way individuals behave.

Finally, Spiri’s message about limitations on value systems is relativistic and downright pat. I’m glad no one convinced Chiune Sugihara (the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who issued transit visas to thousands of Jews so they could escape Nazi-occupied Poland and Lithuania) that his ideas about “equality, democracy and justice” were “merely limited truths.”

I’m sure Spiri will say that this is a rare case when an issue was “black and white.” However, since actions like Sugihara’s were extremely rare, we may conclude that today’s grey area is tomorrow’s black and white.


Clarifying the Mormon mission

Mr. Spiri, as a long-term resident of Japan I found it fascinating and appreciated your defense of the Japanese against Mr. Arudou’s article. While all cultures have their idiosyncrasies, it has been a pleasure for me to live in Japan for so many years. You presented many interesting examples and anecdotes to make your case.

I was a little disappointed, however, in the way you portrayed the Mormon missionaries as “ethnocentric” white men who look down on the Japanese people. I was one of them many years ago and did not feel that way. I supervised 269 of them from 1999-2002 in Tohoku. They did not feel that way. I don’t think our missionaries feel that way today.

Now, 36 percent of our missionaries are native Japanese young men and women who are simply trying to render service and a positive message to their countrymen based on strong families, good health, higher education, community service, positive morals and, of course, Jesus Christ.

Our Mormon missionaries also work hard in the U.S. to deliver the same message. In fact, we have many Japanese-native missionaries who are serving in the U.S. and other countries around the world with a message of hope and happiness in what are troubled times. I don’t think this exhibits an ethnocentric undercurrent.

You make the comment, “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.” While there was a day when we had more missionaries in Japan than today, we still have 640 young men and women pedaling around on their bikes. (I wish we could afford cars for them!) I do not think that “Mormon missions might be on the decline” in Japan, as you wrote. The Church continues to grow here, with over 123,000 members, one of the largest Christian churches in Japan.

I would like, however, to thank you for giving us credit for “the good the missionaries did — teaching English for free and helping the poor.” These activities continue. We now have 4,200 students studying English for free in Japan. It is certainly the largest free English program in Japan and likely one of the largest schools, period.

Our service to those in need is still a part of our work here. We have sent 27,088 volunteers to Tohoku, including all the missionaries who were close enough to go and serve. These volunteers have worked 192,404 hours as of this writing. We do not disclose the money spent here to help the victims in Tohoku again become self-reliant, but one publication listed the church as the fourth-largest NPO contributor after the Red Cross, etc. You can refer to our website for details on this work in a publication we produced for our members: www.ldschurch.jp/index.php/newsmedia/2012-01-25-08-17-08

We provided the same kind of service and donations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. I think we see the Japanese as much as our brothers and sisters as we do the people in Louisiana or anywhere else. I am personally very grateful that I had the chance to come here as a 19-year-old missionary and learn some very important values from them.

Again, your article was compelling and well-written. I simply want to point out what seemed like a misunderstanding of who we are and what we feel toward these wonderful people.

Directors of Public Affairs
Asia North Area
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Arudou is a Japanese citizen

John Spiri seems to have forgotten that Arudou is not a foreigner commenting on Japanese, he is a Japanese citizen. Just because he’s a naturalized citizen, it doesn’t make him some kind of second-class Japanese who should “give up efforts to change, help or save Japan.”

Spiri seems to think that there are no longer missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints active in Japan. If he seldom sees them, it may be because he’s not getting out much. They’re still around, still active. Often I see them in pairs of one Japanese and one non-Japanese.


Better to build on what we share

I have read some articles discussing the discomfort that results from the different cultural backgrounds of the Japanese and foreigners. I agree with Debito Arudou in the point that it is useful to share the foreigners’ perspective of Japan. However, I cannot accept a one-sided critic with a single conclusion that “the Japanese are wrong,” because any dialogue should encompass the points of view of all its participants.

Therefore, I share John Spiri’s suggestions about the attitude towards people of different backgrounds. First of all, nobody should be surprised that the Japanese are different not only at first glance, but also psychologically. One must be aware of this if one wants to stay in Japan.

I agree that it might be tiring and depressing to always face the same stereotypes and prejudices. Still, it is very useful to try to think why the Japanese are like this. Sure, some Japanese avoid any contact with foreigners, who are supposed to lack any sense of the Japanese concept of harmony. In cases like this, it is sometimes better to let them be, because the confrontation would just confirm the Japanese stereotype of barbarian foreigners.

For understanding more about the Japanese thinking, I recommend Lafcadio Hearn’s book “Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation” or his essay “The Japanese Smile,” which explain some difficult issues regarding Japanese behavior. Again, Hearn analyzed his experience in Japan, thus his writings are also interesting for the Japanese who want to know what European or American people find difficult to understand in Japan.

As for supporting change in Japan, cooperation and friendship are the best way. But it is impossible to expect miracles overnight. At the beginning, the observation of positive aspects of the foreign community in Japan can create better conditions. It is always easier to build on what we share or would like to share than on what divides us.


Arudou risks being forever gaijin

Reading Mr. Spiri’s article “It’s just because . . . foreigners know best” tonight really put a finger on something that’s been bothering me about Arudou Debito for some time now.

I don’t remember when I first read Debito’s blog, but I remember that I found it very interesting. I admired him for his fight against discrimination, and his social activism.

However, the more I have read, the longer I have followed his blog, the more I see exactly the same problems that Mr. Spiri outlined in his article. I think the criticism is fair. Mr. Arudou says he fights for equality and fairness, but his actions and words betray that cause. Instead of trying to understand Japan, he labels them, berates them, and insults them. He focuses on tiny problems and frictions, as if they were the biggest problems in the world, and ignores much larger and more important issues and trends.

The worst thing, though, is that for all of his ranting about how Japanese people alienate non-Japanese, he seems to be shooting himself in the foot. It seems to me that he will never be considered Japanese, until — instead of an outsider looking in — he starts realizing that he’s part of the society that he’s criticizing. He seems to still talk as a gaijin, not as a Japanese citizen. He doesn’t take ownership of his government, his society, his country. Until he decides to actually accept the culture of his country, and stops thinking of himself as a gaijin, he always will be a gaijin.


American ‘dancing with wolves’

Arudou Debito is unabashedly, even breathtakingly self-promoting and brashly self-confident, and yet my guess is that most people who meet him, including those, such as myself, who strongly disagree with his views, will find it difficult to dislike him.

What I find most striking about Arudou-san is just how American he is — the way he proudly brandishes his Japanese passport makes him seem all the more so.

Americans tend to have what I call a tairiku-konjō, a continental mentality. There are many who have never traveled abroad, do not possess a passport, and know only their own country and their own culture. Edwin O. Reischauer drew a (now somewhat outdated) contrast between Americans, who assume that deep-down inside every human is really an American or a want-to-be American, and the Japanese, who assume that they constitute an all but distinct species of human being.

On the other hand, there are also Americans who yearn for “the other” to the point that they seek to be the other. It’s what I call the “Dances With Wolves” mentality. This is, of course, not unique to Americans, but they may be more prone to it than most, especially. if they grow with a naive and narrow sort of rah-rah patriotism and then sharply react to it. A young German who has been around the world twice or thrice and was never nationalistic to begin with may be less inclined to go to romantic extremes.

I agree with John Spiri’s criticisms of Arudou Debito but disagree with his “missionary” analogy, which strikes me as unfair and misleading. (It’s also snobbish. A sure-fire way to give the impression of intelligence at a fashionably liberal cocktail party is to let it be known — preferably in a posh British accent — that one is an atheist. Dumping on missionaries no doubt does the same trick.)

A better argument to be made is that what Arudou-san and the young, squeaky-clean Mormons in Japan have in common is their Americanness. The non-American Catholic missionaries I know are dedicated to their faith but don’t go around hitting people over the head with it — or denouncing Japanese ways as wicked.

Arudou-san’s experience outside of his native country appears to be limited to Japan. Furthermore, contrary to what he seems to think, he really hasn’t been here that long. He has no memory of the country when all the things he complains about were much worse. The rap that Japan gets as standoffish and even xenophobic is laughably untrue, and yet it stubbornly endures.

I was hoping that as he lived here longer, Arudou-san would mature and mellow, but he seems to grow only more shrill. His utterly unjustified and embarrassingly absurd attack on Donald Keene (Just Be Cause, April 3) was chiefly damaging to himself, but the ill will he is stirring up will also harm us all.


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