Issues | JUST BE CAUSE

The empire strikes back: the top issues for non-Japanese in 2013

by Debito Arudou

Welcome to JBC’s annual countdown of the top human-rights events as they affected non-Japanese (NJ) in Japan. Last year was more complex, as issues that once targeted NJ specifically now affect everyone in general. But here, in ascending order, are six major events and five “bubble-unders” of 2013 for your consideration:

11. Marutei Tsurunen, Japan’s first foreign-born Diet member of European descent, loses his seat (see “Ol’ blue eyes isn’t back: Tsurunen’s tale offers lessons in microcosm for DPJ,” JBC, Aug. 5).

10. Donald Richie, one of the last of the first postwar generation of NJ commentators on Japan, dies aged 88.

9. Beate Sirota Gordon, one of the last living architects of the liberalizing reforms within the postwar Japanese Constitution, dies at 89.

8. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto takes a revisionist stance on Japanese history regarding the wartime sex-slave issue and reveals his camp’s political vulnerability (“By opening up the debate to the real experts, Hashimoto did history a favor,” JBC, June 4).

7. Tokyo wins the 2020 Olympics, strengthening the mandate of Japan’s ruling class and vested construction interests (see “Triumph of Tokyo Olympic bid sends wrong signal to Japan’s resurgent right,” JBC, Sept. 1).

6. Xenophobia taints No. 1 cleanup

The Fukushima debacle has been covered better elsewhere, and assessments of its dangers and probable outcomes are for others to debate. Incontrovertible, however, is that international assistance and expertise (despite this being an international problem) have been rejected due to official xenophobia.

Last January, The New York Times quoted Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director of the Environment Ministry and the man in charge of the cleanup, as saying that foreign technologies were somehow not applicable to Japan (“Even if a method works overseas, the soil in Japan is different, for example”), and that foreigners themselves were menacing (“If we have foreigners roaming around Fukushima, they might scare the old grandmas and granddads there”). Nishiyama resigned several months later, but Fukushima’s ongoing crisis continues to be divisively toxic both in fact and thought.

5. Japan to adopt Hague treaty

As the last holdout in the Group of Eight (G-8) nations yet to sign this important treaty governing the treatment of children after divorces, both houses of the Diet took the positive step in May and June (after years of formal nudging by a dozen countries, and a probable shove from U.S. President Barack Obama last February) of unanimously endorsing the convention, with ratification now possible in 2014.

As reported on previous Community pages, Japanese society condones (both in practice and by dint of its legal registration systems) single-parent families severing all contact with one parent after divorce. In the case of international divorces, add on linguistic and visa hurdles, as well as an unsympathetic family court system and a hostile domestic media (which frequently portrays abducting Japanese mothers as liberating themselves from violent foreign fathers).

The Hague treaty seeks to codify and level the playing field for negotiation, settlement and visitation. However, Japanese legal scholars and grass-roots organizations are trying to un-level things by, among other things, fiddling with definitions of “domestic violence” to include acts that don’t involve physical contact, such as heated arguments (bōgen, or violent language) and even glaring at your partner (nirami). Put simply: Lose your temper (or not; just seethe) and you lose your kids. Thus, the treaty will probably end up as yet another international agreement caveated until it is unenforceable in Japan.

4. Visa regimes get a rethink

Two years ago, domestic bureaucrats and experts held a summit to hammer out some policies towards foreign labor. JBC pointed out flaws in their mindsets then (see “In formulating immigration policy, no seat at the table for non-Japanese,” July 3, 2012), and last year they ate some crow for getting it wrong.

First, a highly touted “points system” for attracting highly skilled workers with visa perks (which JBC argued was unrealistically strict; see “Japan’s revolving-door immigration policy hard-wired to fail,” March 6, 2012) had as of September only had 700 applicants; the government had hoped for 2,000. Last month, the Justice Ministry announced it would relax some requirements. It added, though, that more fundamental reforms, such as raising salaries, were also necessary — once again falling for the stereotype that NJ only alight in Japan for money.

In an even bigger U-turn, in October the government lifted its ban on South American NJ of Japanese descent “returning” to Japan. Those who had taken the repatriation bribes of 2009 (see “Golden parachutes for Nikkei mark failure of race-based policy,” JBC, April 7, 2009), giving up their accumulated welfare benefits and Japanese pensions for an airfare home, were now welcome to return to work — as long as they secured stable employment (as in, a one-year contract) before arrival. Good luck with that.

Again, what’s missing in all this is, for example, any guarantee of a) equal protection under labor and civil law against discrimination, b) equal educational opportunities for their children, and c) an integration and settlement program ensuring that revolving-door visas and tenuous jobs do not continue forever. But the Abe administration has never made a formal immigration plan one of its policy “arrows”; and, with the bigger political priorities discussed below, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

3. Hate speech turns murderous

This was also the year that the genteel mask of “polite, peace-loving Japan” slipped a bit, with a number of demonstrations across the nation advocating outright hatred and violence towards NJ. “Good Koreans or bad, kill them all,” proclaimed one placard, while another speaker was recorded on video encouraging a “massacre” in a Korean neighborhood of Osaka. An Asahi Shimbun reporter tweeted that anti-Korean goods were being sold on Diet grounds, while xenophobic invective (even rumors of war with China) became normalized within Japan’s salacious tabloids.

It got so bad that the otherwise languid silent majority — who generally respond to xenophobia by ignoring it — started attending counterdemonstrations. Even Japan’s courts, loath to take strong stands on issues that might “curb freedom of speech,” formally recognized “hate speech” as an illegal form of racial discrimination in October, and ordered restitution for victims in one case (a Zainichi Korean school) and a year of actual jail time in another (for harassing a company that had used a Korean actress in its advertising).

However, leading politicians offered only lukewarm condemnations of the hatred (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called it “dishonorable,” months after the fact) and no countermeasures. In fact, in April, Tokyo’s then-governor, Naoki Inose, slagged off fellow Olympic candidate city Istanbul by denigrating Islam — yet Tokyo still got the games.

Meanwhile, people who discussed issues of discrimination in Japan constructively (such as American teacher Miki Dezaki, whose viral YouTube video on the subject cost him his job and resulted in him retreating to a Buddhist monastery for a year) were bullied and sent death threats, courtesy of Japan’s newly labeled legion of anonymous netto uyoku (Internet rightists).

This political camp, as JBC has argued in the past two annual Top 10 lists, is ascendant in Japan as the country swings further to the right. With impressive victories:

2. LDP holds both Diet chambers

In July, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party accomplished its primary goal by chalking up a landslide victory in the Upper House to complement its equally decisive win in the Lower House in December 2012. Then, with virtually no opposition from the left, it got cocky in its deceptiveness.

Shortly after the election, Deputy PM Taro Aso enthused aloud about Nazi Germany’s policymaking tactics, advocating similar stealth for radical constitutional reforms before Japan’s public realizes it. Later it became clear that LDP reform proposals (excising, for example, “Western” conceits of individuality, human rights and a demystified head of state, and replacing them with the duty to “respect” national symbols, the “public interest” and “public order”) might be too difficult to accomplish if laws were actually followed. So off went Abe’s gaijin-handlers on overseas missions (see “Japan brings out the big guns to sell remilitarization in U.S.,” JBC, Nov. 6) to announce that reinterpretations of the Constitution’s current wording would resolve pesky postwar restrictions.

Meanwhile, Abe was being rebranded for foreign consumption as a peace-loving “ethnic nationalist” instead of (in JBC’s view) a radical historical revisionist and regional destabilizing force. Not only was his recent visit to controversial Yasukuni Shrine repackaged as a mere pilgrimage to Japan’s version of Arlington National Cemetery, but Japan’s remilitarization was also portrayed as a means to assist America and the world in more effective peacekeeping operations, as seen in Abe’s “human security” and “proactive peace policy” neologisms.

As always, a liberal slathering of “peace” talk helps the munitions go down. Just pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. For curtains are precisely what are being drawn with the passage of:

1. The state secrets law

In a country where most reforms proceed at a glacial pace, the Act on Protection of Specified Secrets took everyone by surprise, moving from the public-debate back burner to established law in mere weeks. We still don’t know what will be designated as a “secret,” although official statements have made it clear it would include information about Fukushima, and could be used to curtail “loud” public rallies by protesters LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba likened to “terrorists.”

We do know that the punishments for leakers, including journalists, will be severe: up to 10 years’ jail for leaking something the government says it doesn’t want leaked, and five for “conspiracy” for attempting to get information even if the investigating party didn’t know it was “secret.” It’s so vague that you can get punished for allegedly “planning” the leak — even before the leak has happened or concrete plans have been made to leak. Although resoundingly condemned by Japan’s media, grass roots and the United Nations, it was too little, too late: Stealth won.

The state secrets law is an unfolding issue, but JBC shares the doomsayers’ view: It will underpin the effort to roll back Japan’s postwar democratic reforms and resurrect a prewar-style society governed by perpetual fear of reprisal, where people even in privileged positions will be forced to double-guess themselves into silence regarding substantiated criticism of The State (see the JT’s best article of the year, “The secret of keeping official secrets secret,” by Noriko Hama, Japanese Perspectives, Nov. 30).

After all, information is power, and whoever controls it can profoundly influence social outcomes. Moreover, this law expands “conspiracy” beyond act and into thought. Japan has a history of “thought police” (tokubetsu kōtō keisatsu) very effectively controlling the public in the name of “maintaining order.” This tradition will be resuscitated when the law comes into force in 2014.

In sum, 2013 saw the enfranchised elite consolidating their power further than has ever been seen in the postwar era, while Japan’s disenfranchised peoples, especially its NJ residents, slipped ever lower down the totem pole, becoming targets of suspicion, fear and loathing.

Debito Arudou’s updated “Guidebook for Relocation and Assimilation into Japan” is now available as a downloadable e-book from Amazon and other outlets. See www.debito.org/handbook.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause usually appears on the first Thursday of the month but Jan. 2 was a newspaper holiday. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp.