Issues | JUST BE CAUSE

Past victimhood blinds Japan to present-day racial discrimination

Like the abused who then go on to abuse, Japan is too psychologically scarred to see discrimination going on within its borders

Readers may be expecting this column to have something to say about the Supreme Court decision of July 18, which decreed that non-Japanese (NJ) residents are not guaranteed social welfare benefits.

But many have already expressed shock and outrage on these pages, pointing out the injustice of paying into a system that may choose to exclude them in their time of need. After all, no explicit law means no absolute guarantee of legal protection, no matter what court or bureaucratic precedents may have been established.

I’m more surprised by the lack of outrage at a similar legal regime running parallel to this: Japan’s lack of a law protecting against racial discrimination (RD). It affects people on a daily basis, yet is accepted as part of “normal” unequal treatment in Japan — and not just of noncitizens, either.

This brings me to an argument I wanted to round off from last month’s column, about how Japan has a hard time admitting RD ever happens here. Some argue it’s because RD does not befit Japan’s self-image as a “civilized” society. But I would go one step further (natch) and say: RD makes people go crazy.

First, let me establish the “hard time admitting it” bit. (Apologies for reprising some old ground.)

As covered in past columns, Japan’s government and media are seemingly allergic to calling discriminatory treatment based upon skin color or “foreign” appearance racial discrimination (specifically, jinshu sabetsu).

For example, take the Otaru onsen case (1993-2005), which revolved around “Japanese only” signs barring entry to hot springs in Otaru, Hokkaido, to anyone who didn’t “look Japanese” enough (including this writer). Only one major Japanese media source, out of hundreds that reported on it, referred to jinshu sabetsu as an objective fact of the case (rather than reporting it as one side’s claim) — even after both the Sapporo district and high courts unequivocally adjudged it as such.

Public discourse still shies away from the term. That is why the reaction to the “Japanese only” banner displayed at the Urawa Reds soccer game in March was such a landmark. After initial wavering (and the probable realization that the World Cup was approaching), the team’s management, the J. League and the media in general specifically called it out as jinshu sabetsu, then came down on it with unprecedented severity.

Bravo. Thank you. But so far, it’s the exception that proves the rule.

This see-no-evil attitude even affects scholarship on Japan, as I discovered during my doctoral dissertation literature review. Within the most-cited sources reviewing discrimination in Japan, not one listed “skin color” as among Japan’s discriminatory stigmata, or included RD as a factor (calling it instead discrimination by nationality, ethnicity, ingrained cultural practice, etc.). Indicatively, none of them (except some obscure law journal articles) mentioned the Otaru onsen ruling either.

Now peer into Japan’s education system. Jinshu sabetsu happens anywhere but Japan. The prototypical examples are the American South under segregation and apartheid-era South Africa. But homogeneous Japan, the argument runs, has no races, therefore it cannot logically practice racial discrimination. (Again, the Otaru onsen ruling disproves that. But, again, see no evil.)

So why can’t Japan own up? Because RD inflicts such deep psychological wounds that whole societies do irrational, paranoid and crazy things.

Consider this: Harvard University anthropologist Ayu Majima, whose chapter in Rotem Kowner and Walter Demel’s 2013 book “Race and Racism in Modern East Asia” I cited last month, also discussed the aftermath of the United States’ Asian exclusion policy of 1924 — under which Japan, despite all its attempts to “Westernize” and “de-Asianize” itself, was subordinated as a “colored” nation.

Japan’s public reaction was (understandably) furious, and visceral. The Kokumin Shimbun called it “a national dishonor” and demanded that U.S.-Japan ties be severed. In the words of one liberal Japanese journalist at the time: “Discrimination from the United States was due to regarding the Japanese as a colored people. This is a disgrace to the most delicate matter of the Japanese ethnic pride.”

Public outcry morphed into mass hysteria, including countless letters to the government urging war on America. Several people even committed suicide outside the American Embassy!

Although these events subsided, Japan’s elites never let go of this slur. The Japanese ambassador wrote the U.S. secretary of state, saying that the issue was “whether Japan as a nation is or is not entitled to the proper respect” that forms “the basis of amicable international intercourse throughout the civilized world.” Emperor Hirohito later called the act “a remote cause of the Pacific War.” It has also been connected to Japan’s rejection of the West and invasion of Manchuria.

See how crazy RD makes people? Mass hysteria? Calls for war? Suicides? International isolation? Invading China?

RD also psychologically wounds people to the point that it can feed illogical exceptionalism, denialism and perpetual victim status.

It short-circuits the ability to run self-diagnostics and see the fundamental hypocrisy behind the idea that, for example, Japanese are perpetual victims of RD, but rarely, if ever, perpetrators of it — as if Japan is somehow an exception from the racialization processes that happen in every society.

Seriously. During Japan’s colonial era, when Japan was “liberating” and colonizing its neighbors under the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, officials argued that under Japan’s Pan-Asianism, where (unlike Western colonization) her new subjects were of the same skin color, Japan could not practice “racism” in the Western sense.

But the historical record indicates that Japan’s colonized subalterns were subordinated and exploited like any racialized minority — something Japan’s similarly psychologically-wounded neighbors have never forgotten.

Then, in the postwar period, Japan’s national narrative mutated from “heterogeneous Asian colonizer” to “pure homogeneous society.” How did official illogic accommodate this shift? Again, with fallacious ideas such as “Japan has no races, therefore it cannot possibly practice racism.”

This claim is easily disproven by pointing to the country’s “Japanese only” signs. But then what happens? Relativism, denialism and counterattack.

Either deniers repeat that Japan has no RD (patently false; again, that pesky Otaru onsen case), or they argue that everyone else in the world is racist and Japanese have been victims of it (citing wartime examples such as the U.S. and Canadian Japanese internment camps, or the atomic bombings) — as if racism is just how the world naturally functions, and two wrongs make a right.

Then the focus turns on you. You face accusations of racism for overgeneralizing about Japan (e.g., with the counterargument that only a few places post “Japanese only” signs — just don’t point out the standard practice of denying NJ apartments . . .). Or you are charged with being remiss for not acknowledging the “positive discrimination” that “esteemed NJ” get (some, that is), and that positive discrimination somehow compensates for and justifies the negative. Then the debate gets tangled in red herrings.

But the point is that the reaction will be as swift, clear and visceral as it was way back when. The milder accusations will be of cultural insensitivity, Japan-bashing or Japan-hating. But as you get closer to the heart of the matter, and the incontrovertible evidence moves from anecdotal to statistical, you’ll be ostracized, slandered, harassed by Japan’s shadowy elements, stalked and issued death threats. Believe me, I know.

Again, racism is not seen as something that “civilized” countries like Japan would do. To call it out is to question Japan’s level of civilization. And it conjures up an irrational denialism wrapped within a historical narrative of racialized victimization.

Thus Japan’s constant self-victimization leads to paranoia and overreaction (justifying even more tangential craziness, such as defenses of whaling and dolphin culls, international child kidnappings after divorce, and historical amnesia) due in part to fears of being besmirched and discriminated against again. Like a jilted suitor heartbroken by an exotic lover, Japan thus takes extreme precautions to avoid ever being hurt again — by forever forsaking close, equal and potentially vulnerable relationships with anyone with a whiff of the exotic.

Until Japan gets over itself and accepts that racialization processes are intrinsic to every society, it will never resolve its constant and unwarranted exceptionalism. Bigots must be dealt with, not denied or justified. Like the abused who becomes the abuser, Japanese society is simply too psychologically damaged by RD to stop its RD.

This remains the fundamental hurdle Japanese society must overcome before it can empathize fully with outsiders as fellow equal human beings. As was evident in last month’s Supreme Court ruling.

There — now you have my comment on it.

Debito Arudou’s most recent publication is the Hokkaido and Tohoku Chapters in Fodor’s 2014 Japan travel guide. Twitter: @arudoudebito. An excerpt of Ayu Majima’s chapter can be read at www.debito.org/?p=12122, and more of Debito’s analysis of the Supreme Court ruling at www.debito.org/?p=12530. Just Be Cause usually appears in print on the first Thursday of the month. Your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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