These are troubling times for human rights activists.
For 27 years I’ve been writing about civil, political and human rights for non-Japanese (NJ) and other minorities in Japan. And I’ve never been more confused.
Not least because the United States, the putative paragon of human rights, has been flouting them.
Remember, this is a country so cocksure about its own record that its State Department offers annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” for each United Nations member.
Yet President Donald Trump has been undermining international norms of law, justice and society — and with the glee of a super-villain.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, recently we’ve seen U.S. leadership abrogate numerous treaties, erode well-established security and trade regimes (such as NATO and the G7), cozy up to the world’s most authoritarian regimes and mimic their tactics, invoke the language of white nationalism to dehumanize minorities, and foment a culture of fear, loathing and vindictive reprisal towards anyone not in their ideological camp.
Speaking of camps, who would have ever imagined that the U.S. would put foreign children in cages? Create “tender-age” internment centers for toddlers separated from their families at the border? Force 3-year-olds to represent themselves in American immigration courts?
Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for undocumented migration and asylum seekers is so cruel that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights denounced it as “unconscionable” and “illegal” under international law.
Distracted by ‘whataboutism’
In Just Be Cause’s view, the worst thing about these rapid-fire shocks to the system is not the confusion but the distraction. Presidential historian Jon Meacham, author of “The Soul of America,” pointed out how Trump “owns our mind space” in what he calls “the world’s longest hostage siege.” We are prisoners of a self-promoting celebrity so adept at managing news cycles that he sucks the oxygen from other issues.
So this is where we arrive at the big question of this column: How can JBC focus on human rights in Japan given the distractions in America?
I’ve faced this dilemma before. Back in 2002, before I started writing for The Japan Times, I wrote a column for Japan Today lamenting how President George W. Bush’s cronies were playing similar “divide and conquer” games for personal profit and political gain.
The results were similar: denial of civil liberties for foreign residents; legitimization of torture as an interrogation tactic; interminable entrenchment in wars overseas; and further confirmation of the axiom that “power corrupts,” as America unilaterally assumed the mantle of the sole world superpower, and lost its soul as hegemon.
I kept being asked why anyone should care about Japan when America is wreaking havoc. My answer was: Don’t be distracted by the “whataboutism.”
Whataboutism is a logical fallacy in which you accuse someone of hypocrisy for focusing on a problem here by pointing to a problem over there — thereby avoiding discussion of that problem here. For example, “How can you talk about how Japan treats its foreigners? What about America?”
More commonly known as “false moral equivalence” or “the pot calling the kettle black,” whataboutism is in fact a Soviet-era propaganda tactic to confuse debate.
And that was precisely the tactic used by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley as the U.S. left the U.N. Human Rights Council: What about HRC members’ own human rights records?
In Japan’s case, you see it in debates about, say, racial discrimination. Japan’s officials claim that what goes on Japan is insignificant from a comparative perspective, and is therefore ignorable.
This argument is so prevalent that I don’t even need to cite a Japanese official. A former U.S. ambassador: “I must admit I have not heard of shootings in Japan over race issues which is a phenomenon of American society.” Years-worth of hate crimes and hate speech cases in Japan equated to “a typical Saturday night in the U.S.,” the ambassador said. “Not to rationalize but Japan is a 10X+ safer place than the good ol’ USA.”
So does JBC have standing to criticize Japan’s rights record when things are worse elsewhere?
Yes. Because it’s always been worse elsewhere. Unless you’re living in an abominable place like, say, North Korea.
So does that mean any country can avoid critique because they’re doing better than North Korea?
Surely not. We must compare a country’s practices not to others but to established standards of human rights, especially the promises made by signing international treaties. And from that it’s clear that Japan has much room for improvement in how it treats its foreign nationals and other minorities.
U.S. and Japan: the difference
Let me give but two examples.
Japan’s foreigner-only compounds (which do not have to meet actual prison standards for humane treatment) enable numerous abuses, including indefinite detention, overcrowding, poor diet and exercise, inadequate medical treatment and brutal treatment in custody resulting in deaths, including suicides.
Japan also has a terrible record for officially sanctioned exploitation of foreign workers. Its “trainee” program for temporary migrant work has long been exposed as a system of indentured servitude and slavery. Despite the Labor Standards Law banning discrimination by nationality, official unemployment agencies (“Hello Work”) offer job postings that are for “Japanese only.” And many of Japan’s visa systems have been exposed by JBC as specifically designed to be “revolving-door” work only.
And that’s before we get to the issues of Japan having no official immigration policy (i.e., an established procedure encouraging newcomers to become permanent residents or citizens) or a national law against racial discrimination.
Moreover, even when Japan is compared to the U.S., there are important caveats. Remember that American society, with its inclusive narrative of “a nation of immigrants,” offers far more support to its foreign residents.
For example, the overwhelming majority of Americans (87 percent, according to a CBS News poll in January) support the continued and legal residency for America’s children of undocumented immigrants (affectionately known as “Dreamers”). That issue alone has caused enormous political gridlock at the national level.
Try finding that level of support in Japan for NJ. Japan’s narratives of homogeneity and racial purity afford NJ residents, even as they visibly agitate for equal rights and treatment, little more than a collective shrug. As the Asahi Shimbun headlined a column dated July 27, 2017, “Japan treats 1 million foreign workers as ‘non-existent.’”
Yes, even though Japan’s police forces are no slouch at “smoking out illegals” through the institutionalized racial profiling of street ID checks, they are nowhere near the level of overzealous U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But then again, that’s why America has a prominent movement not only to slow ICE down, but even abolish it!
And don’t forget America’s federal courts have repeatedly struck down Trump’s travel bans. Try finding any court in Japan willing to go against government policy.
So let’s conclude with a nuanced assessment: Yes, things aren’t great in America right now. As Meacham notes, “Right now the [U.S.] presidency is not a force for good. … Trump thinks of us not as a country, but as an audience.”
But they’re also not great in Japan. And they deserve an audience as well.
Don’t let the constant spectacle that Trump thrives upon, or the whataboutism on constant spin cycle, distract you from what’s going on in Japan.
Especially with the advent of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As JBC has repeatedly reported, whenever Japan invites over waves of foreign nationals (be they workers, tourists or diplomats), hate speech and reactionary policies emerge. The most recent are the minpaku laws restricting home-sharing rentals — officially justified by certain local governments on the grounds that foreigners might be ISIS terrorists or child molesters!
These policies have great potential for calumny and national embarrassment. And JBC won’t be distracted from pointing them out — just because it’s the right thing to do. What about that?
Debito Arudou’s latest book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” is now available in paperback. Twitter: @arudoudebito
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