2015 was another year of a few steps forward but many steps back in terms of human rights in Japan. The progressive grass roots consolidated their base and found more of a voice in public, while conservatives at the top pressed on with their agenda of turning the clock back to a past they continue to misrepresent. Here are the top 10 human rights issues of the year as they affected non-Japanese residents:
10) NHK ruling swats ‘flyjin’ myth
In November, the Tokyo District Court ordered NHK to pay ¥5.14 million to staffer Emmanuelle Bodin, voiding the public broadcaster’s decision to terminate her contract for fleeing Japan in March 2011. The court stated: “Given the circumstances under which the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima No. 1 plant’s nuclear accident took place, it is absolutely impossible to criticize as irresponsible her decision to evacuate abroad to protect her life,” and that NHK “cannot contractually obligate people to show such excessive allegiance” to the company.
This ruling legally reaffirmed the right of employees to flee if they feel the need to protect themselves. So much for the “flyjin” myth and all the opprobrium heaped upon non-Japanese specifically for allegedly deserting their posts.
9) Multiethnic rugby team excels
Japan’s Brave Blossoms did better than ever before in the Rugby World Cup, narrowly missing the quarterfinals after beating not only Samoa and the United States but also former world champions South Africa in a nail-biting finish. Impressive, since they had won only one World Cup match before (in 1991), but this issue makes the top 10 because their squad included naturalized and multiethnic Japanese players who did not “look Japanese.”
A resounding testament to the power of diversity, this happy event came about, it must be noted, after scathing criticism in 2011 of the team’s performance in the previous World Cup. Then, Japan Rugby Union board members reportedly blamed the team’s woes on the presence of “too many foreigners” (including naturalized former non-Japanese), causing a subsequent ethnic cleansing of the team. Clearly that didn’t last, and it probably won’t happen again.
8) Ayako Sono advocates “Japartheid”
Sono, an octogenarian novelist and former member of a government panel on education reform, summoned her reserves of knowledge about South Africa under apartheid and wrote a Sankei Shimbun column in February suggesting that “blacks,” “whites” and “Asians” cannot live together. Stating that foreign workers in Japan should similarly live in special segregated zones by race, Sono never made it clear how, say, Chinese and Japanese, who are both “Asians,” would square with her theories of racial compatibility.
Although her column elicited protests from citizens’ groups and even the South African ambassador (as it was, ironically, published on the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison), it was never withdrawn, and Sono unapologetically went back to her rigorous studies of world governmental systems. Yet another example of how old Japanese bigots — like former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara with his rants about Chinese “criminal DNA” — can publish hate speech in Japan’s mainstream media with impunity.
7) Striking back against hate speech
Meanwhile, the debate on hate speech itself heated up this year. Anti-racism demonstrators held their third regular annual rally. Osaka seriously deliberated ordinances and panels to punish hate speech. Last month, the Justice Ministry issued its first-ever official warning for hate speech against the president of anti-Korean group Zaitokukai, and suspended the decade-old Immigration Bureau online “snitch sites” for anonymously ratting on non-Japanese. Even the Shinzo Abe Cabinet paid lip service to the issue in “mind your manners” campaigns.
While many of these efforts stalled before becoming codified in law, the grass roots continued to advocate for tolerance, showing up wherever xenophobes carried out public displays of hate. Thus, it seems, Japanese society no longer ignores or tolerates overt street-corner bigotry like it once did — or at least not while the Tokyo 2020 Olympics loom.
6) SEALDs burns its bridges
On the other hand, the most high-profile youth group against the Abe Cabinet’s right-wing push (and darling of the international media), the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), decided to flame out with flair. At an news conference in October at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, SEALDs leaders announced that with their impending graduation from college, they wouldn’t just be stepping down in 2016 as organizers — they would disband the group without a transition to a younger generation.
Coming off as more concerned with their own short-term individual interests than the larger movements within Japanese society, SEALDs seemed to show that even Japan’s most vibrant, cosmopolitan and appealing young activists (which matters, as this year the voting age will drop from 20 to 18) are nonetheless intimidated by power, and treat human rights advocacy as a temporary hobby.
5) Ariana Miyamoto represents Japan
One person not giving up the fight despite all the flak and pressure has been Miyamoto, the multiethnic Japanese-American beauty queen who signaled that looks transcend nationality — at least as far as the pageant judges were concerned. As for the Japanese public (which generally loves to jealously denigrate beautiful people for whatever flaws they can find), her racial background was an easy target, and people openly questioned her “Japaneseness” and ability to represent the nation.
Gracious and undeterred, Miyamoto spoke out to whomever would listen (and the Japanese media generally didn’t) to stress that she was in fact 100 percent Japanese, and that she would push back against discrimination in Japan. Sadly, Miyamoto did not win Miss Universe in December (which might have caused a media explosion in favor of diversity on the scale of that sparked by the rugby victories), but she still made the contest’s top 10. Another event underscoring the benefits of Japan’s latent diversity.
4) Battle over history spills overseas
2015 was also the year that Japan’s overseas missions attacked American publisher McGraw-Hill for alleged “factual errors” in its college history textbooks. As covered in this column (“U.S. author recounts ‘lecture’ he got about ‘comfort women’ from uninvited Japanese guests,” March 5), the Japanese Consulate in Hawaii demanded historian Herbert Ziegler delete a section on Japan’s officially sponsored wartime sexual slavery in his book on world history. Ziegler refused and prominent historians joined him in putting their names to a statement of solidarity, published in the American Historical Association’s March newsletter, against government pressure on academic freedom.
Then Japanese rightists, who were also coordinating protests towards comfort-women statues set up in locations outside Japan, began leafleting and turning the screws on signers. At the end of the year, 50 Japanese scholars signed a counter-solidarity letter renewing the accusations of fictionalized history. Thus, the fight to control the historical narrative on Japan’s wartime atrocities expanded beyond its borders, further souring Japan’s relations with its neighbors.
3) Controlling the media message
Speaking of narratives, Japan’s media conglomerates made significant moves to expand their message outside Japan in 2015. As covered in this column (“Media redraw battle lines in bid for reach,” July 6), the Fuji group (publisher of the aforementioned Sankei Shimbun) acquired the hitherto non-Japanese-owned Japan Today, with editorial judgments on the site subsequently becoming noticeably more sympathetic towards Japan-conservative viewpoints.
The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, whose parent company took a stake in U.K. group Monocle in 2014 to “further boost its global reach,” likewise had positive things to say about Japan, headlining Tokyo as “the world’s most livable city” (indeed news to some of its residents). Last month, the Nikkei group also finalized its $1.3 billion purchase of the Financial Times, giving the media group a venerable brand with a truly global reach.
Thus 2015 was the year that all of Japan’s major dailies established media mouthpieces in English, taking a cue from the decades of Japanese governmental programs to control the narrative in Japanese Studies in overseas universities (in which, incidentally, new investments in endowed professorships were also announced this year).
2) Shinzo Abe tinkers with history
This year also marked the septuagennial (look it up) year of the end of the bloodiest war in human history. World War II’s legacy remains an obsession among Japan’s elites, as they seek to shift wartime responsibility away from their relatives (making everyone, including the perpetrators, into victims of the war).
As Abe himself is a grandson of an alleged war criminal, his commemoration speech was closely watched, and heralded by some as a progressive statement. However, historians and others claimed it “fails history 101,” ignoring essential reasons behind Japan’s aggressive colonial campaigns and misportraying the millions sacrificed on all sides as a step toward Japan’s modernization. Incorrect: Postwar Japan became rich and successful despite the designs of Japan’s militarists, not because of them. But Abe was pretty much destined to get away with this egregious revisionism from as far back as last April, emboldened by the most significant event on the list this year:
1) U.S. greenlights remilitarization
Finally, 2015 was the year the U.S. “re-balance toward Asia” met Japan’s newfound “collective self-defense,” where the antidemocratic designs of Japan’s elites were ignored in the rush to contain China. Essentially, Abe remains in power because the hegemon refuses to undermine his administration (in marked contrast to the fate of his left-leaning predecessors, who sought rapprochement with Beijing).
Abe’s overt plans to remilitarize Japan can only happen with the blessing of the United States. (Similarly, the seemingly intractable comfort women issue is only now approaching a form of resolution due to prodding from the Americans.) The U.S. keeps military bases on Japanese soil not only to maintain its hegemony in the region, but also, in the words of American military strategists, “to keep the cork in the bottle.” Now, with the cork being loosened, Abe is more able than ever to destabilize the region through saber-rattling and historically ignorant rhetoric, and that, in turn, will foster the recrudescence of Japan’s theories of racial/military superiority from dark days of yore.
Based on these trends, it can be assumed that Japan will continue to ignore the civil and human rights of its perpetually subordinated noncitizen residents. Back in December 1995, Japan signed the United Nations Convention on Racial Discrimination and promised “without delay” to take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to eliminate racial discrimination. Now, exactly 20 years later, Japan still has no civil or criminal law against racial discrimination, and with all this “re-balance” toward militarism, there is even less pressure on Japan from abroad to pass one. That’s one reason why some of these issues make the top 10, often every year.
Other issues bubbling under:
• Physics Nobel laureate Shuji “slave” Nakamura advises ambitious Japanese to leave Japan.
• Ministry of Justice rules that Ryugoku University exchange student’s denial of apartment is “not a violation of human rights.”
• Overseas work and study officially seen as a black mark in hiring process for bureaucrats who might handle “state secrets.”
• Education ministry suggests universities abolish their liberal arts departments.
• U.S. Navy Cmdr. Paul Toland takes his child abduction case to Japanese court to test the country’s commitment to the Hague Convention.
• Fuji TV decides not to broadcast musical acts Rats & Star and Momoiro Clover Z performing in minstrel-style blackface.
Debito Arudou’s latest book, “Embedded Racism,” is available from Amazon, or directly from the publisher with 30 percent off. See www.debito.org/embeddedracism.html. Twitter: @arudoudebito. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org