Tackling the 'empathy deficit' toward non-Japanese

by Debito Arudou

Special To The Japan Times

In 2006, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech about people’s “empathy deficit.” He described empathy as “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town.”

“When you think like this,” he continued, “when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.”

I agree. Enormous social problems arise when people don’t understand (or rather, don’t try to understand) what’s going on in other people’s minds. I was mindful of that during my Ph.D. fieldwork, when I interviewed dozens of “Japanese only” businesses. I always asked for (and got, often in great detail) the reasoning behind their exclusionism. I never agreed with their stopgap solutions (shutting out people they thought were “foreign” because they didn’t look “Japanese” enough), but I gained some sympathy for what they were going through.

But sympathy is not the same as empathy, and that is one reason why discrimination against foreigners and minorities is so hard to combat in Japan. Japanese society is good at sympathy, but empathy? Less so.

Of course, Japanese people have great sympathy for human suffering worldwide. Look through the media (particularly material from human-rights NGOs) and you’ll see plenty of pictures of starving or impoverished people abroad. The government has also been extremely generous with overseas development assistance, and is one of UNICEF’s biggest donors and promoters.

For hundreds of years, “sympathy” has meant a feeling of sorrow or pity for others. That’s very different from the ability to understand and share another’s feelings — empathy, which only evolved into a widely understood concept during the 20th century. That is not to say that empathetic behavior is anything new, of course: Many societies have a long history of axioms and examples (“walk a mile in his shoes,” “do unto others,” Buddha and Christ surrendering their worldly possessions for a higher calling, etc.) encouraging altruistic behavior. In his best-seller “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Steven Pinker devoted a whole chapter to how empathy has recently fostered human-rights revolutions worldwide.

However, there remains a marked lack of empathy in Japan towards outsiders, especially minorities and foreigners. Why? I would argue it’s because few Japanese ever leave their carefully constructed comfort zones to become minorities or foreigners themselves.

If you think about it, concerns about security, safety and comfort basically dominate all levels of Japanese existence — especially if it involves leaving the Japanese existence entirely. Even though going overseas is the only way Japanese will ever walk in the shoes of a foreigner, many still spend their short jaunts within group buses on package tours, experiencing a foreign land from a controlled environment geared to Japanese comfort levels.

I do sympathize. Why would anyone pay all that money for a quickie trip and suffer the discomfort of unpredictability? Being a member of a rich, developed country with a high expectation of quality, service and social order should have taken care of all that.

Who wants to deal with all those scary foreign languages and potential criminal behaviors lurking beyond the hotel stoop, anyway? It could spoil a stress-free vacation.

But there’s a deeper disconnect going on here. I’ve written before about Japanese society’s overwhelming conceit with social power maintenance, and power plays a part in this discussion too.

You see, sympathy is in fact about power. People worthy of sorrow or pity have to appeal to people in a position to give that sympathy. Sympathizers have the power to decide to be charitable or merciful.

On the other hand, empathizers have to give up their power. They have to live situations like somebody else, feel their discomforts and disadvantages, walk in their shoes.

But we won’t. We’re rich. We’ve earned the right to stay in our own shoes.

So never mind empathy. Sympathy’s simpler, for if anyone needs our help, we’ll send money — if they’re within our ambit of concern. It’ll still have no real impact on our lives — or, more importantly, no real impact on our perceptions of their lives.

Now let’s seal off the attitudinal loop from foreigners in particular: Hey, if you don’t like living in Japan as a disadvantaged foreigner, you shouldn’t have come here in the first place. We don’t go to your country as a guest and tell you what to do in your house, do we?

And now let’s close it further with selective empathy: Ever wondered why many Japanese get so het up when their compatriots get discriminated against overseas? Such as in 1962, when Japan successfully lobbied apartheid South Africa to make Japanese into “honorary whites”? Or in 2010, when the British government threatened to put caps on special visas for Japanese (and other non-EU nationalities), and Japanese firms threatened an investment boycott? Or when even normally stoic Emperor Hirohito in 1946 expressed rare public outrage at racism towards Japanese in California?

Probably not, because one can understand the feelings of fellow Japanese in this situation. Empathy, however, generally doesn’t go outside the tribe: Japan can discriminate against foreigners, but woe betide the foreigners if they do it to Japanese!

Again, I do sympathize, since a lack of empathy is by design. The government has long portrayed foreigners as Japan’s opponents — agents of crime, terrorism, disease and land grabs.

The end result is that even the most well-intentioned people in Japan, who do protest clear examples of racial discrimination (e.g., the “Japanese only” signs at businesses, the racist street demos saying “Kill all Koreans,” the “Japanese only” banner by Urawa Reds soccer fans), use a different subtext.

They denounce racism as “Nihon no haji,” decrying the shame (haji) that xenophobia brings upon Japan on the international stage: It makes Japan, and by extension themselves as Japanese, look bad.

Shame is a very effective message — thank you for it — but the more empathetic tack would be to argue that foreigners are people too; that they live in Japan just like any Japanese; that they deserve to live in Japan as residents, patronize bathhouses and restaurants as customers, attend soccer matches as fans, like anyone else; that foreigners deserve exactly the same human rights and access to public goods as any other Japanese.

But equal treatment is rarely part of the debate. Instead people argue, “If they want to be treated the same, they should naturalize,” as if that fixes everything. Trust me, it doesn’t.

Again, empathy is key. If more people had it, they would advocate for Japanese society to “do unto foreigners,” because they would understand how foreigners feel, as Obama argued, and wouldn’t wish that treatment upon anyone.

Japan, let’s work on that empathy deficit. Less dōjō (sympathy), more kyōkan (empathy). Broaden your ambit beyond the tribe and you just might realize that power is not “zero-sum,” i.e., that giving more power to foreigners in Japan does not mean less power for you. In fact, it makes things better for everyone, as it gives more people more opportunity to fulfill their lifetime potential in society.

Now, who wouldn’t empathize with that?

Debito Arudou, who has just received his Ph.D. in International Studies, is editing his dissertation on racial discrimination in Japan into a book. Your comments and story ideas: