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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012

Japan as a role model for civility

Special to The Japan Times

WASHINGTON — Japan's future lies in learning Chinese or Korean, not French or German. Or so argued Japan's outgoing ambassador to Washington, Ichiro Fujisaki, at his farewell speech to Washington's intellectual elite last month.

It's unfortunate, though, that the ambassador's appeal for greater understanding among neighbors fell on deaf ears among the intelligentsia, as Fujisaki was bombarded with questions at the Washington forum from a largely non-Japanese Asian audience about Tokyo's position over the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are known in China as the Diaoyu Islands. Granted, he probably didn't endear himself to the audience, as the Japanese Foreign Ministry's top representative in the United States made a point to refer to the rocks solely by their Japanese name, which alone is an act of defiance to many people these days.

How the dispute over the island is resolved, either by referring the case to an international court or by another means, remains in question. And perhaps there will not be an agreement anytime soon to call the territories by a single name. What is clear, though, is that despite some disturbing nationalistic rhetoric in the media and the blogosphere, the Japanese public at large has not acted out on that venom. Even at the height of the pillaging of Japanese businesses in cities across Chinese, not a single Chinese enterprise was vandalized in Japan. There have not been any incidents of Chinese citizens living in Japan getting assaulted in the country either, even as Beijing sanctioned aggressive public demonstrations.

Such civility on a national scale is no small feat, and one that Japan should rightly be proud of.

Over 800 acts of violence and vandalism against Muslims and Arabs have been reported in the United States since the 9/11 attacks, and many are concerned that anti-Muslim rhetoric has increased over the past decade despite concerted efforts despite concerted efforts by lawmakers and activists alike to increase understanding. Stories of mosques being vandalized and Muslim shopkeepers being assaulted both verbally and physically are all too common, and fear is being stoked by some politicians too, who argue that disloyal Muslims are infiltrating the U.S. government. In August, a U.S. Army veteran with ties to a neo-Nazi group killed seven Sikhs and injured four more during a shooting rampage at their temple in Wisconsin. It is suspected that the killer believed the Sihks were Muslims.

In the Muslim world, meanwhile, violent protests against the U.S. occur with alarming regularity, the latest being the wave of hostilities spreading across 10 countries in the region following the release of an anti-Islam video. Anger toward the obscure video that was launched on YouTube hardly seems like a source uniting Muslim rage, but indeed it did.

Such blind hatred toward a specific racial group or nationality is unfortunately all too common worldwide, from the Middle East to Europe to Asia. Seeking retaliation and vengeance is, after all, an all too human response, and technology has made it far too easy for haters to gather and wreck havoc.

One real long-term solution to limit such outbreaks is to increase understanding of different cultures and value systems. Learning foreign languages undoubtedly correlates to greater empathy with societies outside of our own, and a breakdown of linguistic barriers between Japan, China and Korea can only help bring down the barriers of fear-driven intolerance.

Passions run high when it comes to ownership of the East China Sea territories, and there is a very real possibility of a fuse for violence being lit anywhere at any time. It is in the interest of the global community at large, but particularly for China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan to ensure that the squabble over rocks dies down.

The Japanese public should pat itself on the back for resisting any temptation to pursue a tit-for-tat tactic, and any new political leadership in Japan must protect that tradition of civility instead of inflaming further tensions.

Shihoko Goto is the Northeast Asia Associate for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Asia Program based in Washington.

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