On this day, Jan. 15, the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 89 years old. His life and nonviolent philosophy have interested me for many years.

To gain a bit more clarity on how King is viewed in Japan, a while back I corresponded with two Japanese professors who have written about King and the civil rights movement in America.

According to Makoto Kurosaki of Kanda University of International Studies, the common Japanese student’s experience of learning about King in school is limited.

“The initial encounter with King’s name,” Kurosaki says, “is probably in a high school English textbook in which some part of his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is quoted. They learn a bit about King in the context of studying the English language. This leads them to regard King only as a great orator.

“The second encounter is probably in a high-school world history textbook, in which King appears as a leader of the civil rights movement with only a few sentences, which does not help to sufficiently understand King. Average people’s knowledge about King probably stops here.”

There are inevitably a few people who push beyond this limited content into books about King, Kurosaki says, but they would have a great deal of trouble finding out about and understanding King’s nonviolent strategies specifically.

Civil rights scholar and Kitakyushu University professor Miyuki Kita echoes these remarks: “I think MLK is regarded (by students) as only the leader of the civil rights movement because Japanese high school world history textbooks only mention MLK and the March on Washington in 1963. Some junior-high English textbooks have the text of ‘I Have a Dream,’ too.” In addition, she says, “Some students know the name of Rosa Parks if they have chance of studying further.”

Professor Kurosaki has studied King’s life and nonviolent methods, but believes the U.S. and Japan view the idea of nonviolence in very different ways.

“Peace in the United States is essentially regarded as a presence of justice instead of an absence of tension,” he says, whereas in Japan, “it is often considered to be the state in which there is no conflict.

“In this regard, I have to say that most Japanese people misunderstand nonviolence. As King explained and practiced, nonviolence is a method of deliberately creating tension and conflict so that the opponents will have no alternative but to face the issue. Most Japanese people, however, incorrectly equate nonviolence with nonresistance.”

This hasn’t stopped many Japanese citizens from demonstrating using King’s name as a symbol of resistance. In 2015, for example, there was strong opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which dictates national security policy. Instead of allowing for a majority vote in the Diet on whether Article 9 permits “collective self-defense” — i.e., coming to the aid of allies under attack — Abe decided to work around what he knew would have been an unpopular decision, tasking the Cabinet with approving his take on what the “peace clause” really meant.

As Kita recalls, the younger generation was angry, but they couldn’t figure out an accurate and progressive way of displaying it.

“More than 100,000 people gathered at the gate of the Diet building and had a series of rallies against it,” Kita says. “A student group called SEALDs played an important role. In their speech, they sometimes cited MLK and referred to the unconstitutionality of the U.S. government against racial segregation. I think the students’ behavior was very valuable and precious … but I also felt sorry that they only knew a little about MLK and their view on him was limited.”

There is also a large question mark over whether King’s nonviolent methods could work in Japan, a country with a completely different relationship between government and citizen than America. I asked the professors about this, but both were somewhat skeptical.

“In the United States,” Kurosaki says, “the process of establishing a democratic government was achieved by the hands of the very people who fought the War for Independence, which, in essence, was a bottom-up process. Therefore, it is quite natural for American people to take a stand that the government has to be closely monitored so that it does not abuse its power over citizens.

“In Japan, on the other hand, the process of creating a democratic government was,” he says, “a top-down process. Democracy in the real sense was planted in the soil of Japan after World War II, when it was given to the Japanese government by the United States and then to Japanese people by the government. For that reason, it is quite natural for Japanese people to cultivate a tendency in thinking that the government is basically trustable and people should follow its policies.”

As King showed in 1950s and 1960s America, orchestrating economic withdrawals, boycotts and sit-ins was a nonviolent way of bringing attention to an important matter. But according to professor Kita, there is a problem with the way the Japanese media interprets this idea of “nonviolence.”

“In my limited view, the Japanese press confuse protests with uprisings and riots,” Kita says. She cites coverage in Japan of demonstrations against police brutality and racism in Ferguson, Missouri, and after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police, both in 2014. “I saw several examples of … Japanese news reports about Ferguson and New York describing protests as ‘riots.'”

When Dr. King, after years of doubt, was faced with speaking out against the war in Vietnam, he read one line in particular that harmonized with his feelings: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” As I continue to grow accustomed to this culture, I can only hope that, when the time calls for it, a nonviolent demonstration will be viewed more as a call to action rather than a brief flicker of frustration that will soon pass.

Patrick Parr’s book “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age” will be released by the Chicago Review Press in April. See www.patrickparr.com. Foreign Agenda is a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan.

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