Roiling American politics last week was a retort by President Donald Trump toward congresswomen of color critical of his policies.
First he questioned their standing (as lawmakers) to tell Americans how to run the government. Then he said they should “go back” to the places they came from and fix them first.
For good measure, he later tweeted, “If you are not happy here, you can leave!”
The backlash was forceful. CNN, NPR, The New York Times, Washington Post and other media called it “racist.” Others called it “un-American,” pointing out that telling people to go back to other countries might violate federal antidiscrimination laws.
The Atlantic was even apocalyptic, arguing that “what Americans do now (in response) will define us forever” as the world’s last great bastion of multiracial democracy.
Why is this an issue for this column? Because it’s hard to imagine a similar backlash happening in Japan, even though this kind of alienation happens here often.
For example, consider the standard opening question asked of anyone who doesn’t appear to be Japanese: “Where are you from?” I dare you to answer with “Tokyo” or “Sapporo” or something like that. I have. Chances are you’ll get blinks of incomprehension, even requests for clarification: “No, where are you really from?” Because clearly Japan can’t be “where you’re from” if you seem to be non-Japanese.
“Where are you from?” may sound like a normal question, but Japan’s “normal” has been changing. More and more kids here have been born into mixed-race and non-Japanese families, foreign residents have become naturalized citizens and some communities have had enough with being treated like temporary guests — especially because “guests” shouldn’t criticize their “hosts.” But just like many Japanese citizens, they have their share of praise for the country … and their share of criticism. Except they’re often met with: “If you don’t like it here, leave.”
“Love it or leave it” is a hackneyed debate tactic to shut down any criticism about Japan or anywhere for that matter.
For example, I remember one grouchy professor at my university in Hokkaido ordering me to “Jibun no kuni ni kaere!” (“Go back to your own country!”) after I was critical of school policies during a meeting — even though he knew I had obtained Japanese citizenship. I raised the issue with school authorities but, in the end, the onus was put on me to understand and accommodate his situation. His reaction was apparently “understandable,” mine wasn’t.
Denying people a “home” just because they voice criticism has enormous political consequences. Consider how minorities and naturalized citizens elected to public office (and there have been several) face similar scrutiny for being “foreign.”
For example, Japan-born and naturalized Diet member Renho, advocating budget cuts in 2010, had her sensibilities questioned by opposition politicians because “she is not originally Japanese.”
Or, as this column reported in the same year, when leftist leaders proposed more rights for foreign residents, those individuals were effectively deemed “fake Japanese,” doing it, according to former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, out of “duty to their (foreign) ancestors.” The faulty logic here is that people with roots overseas can’t have the same loyalties (or homeland) as “real” Japanese
And that brings us back to Trump, who has similarly questioned the loyalties of critics who are people of color. He even claimed they “hate” America.
Granted, comparing Japan with America has its shortcomings. America’s narrative is of a country built by immigrants. Japan’s is one of homogeneity and monoethnicity.
But in this debate, the dynamic is the same.
By alienating criticism from ethnic groups, Trump is trying to rewire America’s multiethnic society into an ethnostate where only the people with the right ethnic backgrounds can “belong” to it without conditions or caveats.
Will taking a page out of Japan’s exclusionary playbook reelect Trump in 2020? It might. A year is a very long time in politics, and Trump’s recent job approval ratings have been largely unchanged by these events.
But remember: Depriving whole peoples the right to belong based on racialized hatred has a long history. And history is clear where that leads next.
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