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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

JUST BE CAUSE

Public forums, spinning wheels


A friend sent me a Yomiuri article (Feb. 10) about a neighborhood forum in Kanazawa. Its title: "Citizens consider how to live together with foreigners."

I'm pleased this event was deemed worth a write-up. After all, I've witnessed plenty of forums over the years that have been ignored.

But it wasn't really what I'd call "news." I couldn't help feeling that attendees were just "reinventing the wheel" rather than developing a vehicle that would actually get us anywhere.

The Kanazawa forum was reportedly warm and fuzzy: Seventy people discussed how to make the area a nicer place, with Japanese and non-Japanese participating in good ol' "machi zukuri" (town-building). "International communication starts with us, inside us" sorta thang.

It had the bromides about how people find it difficult dealing with different languages and cultures, giving birth to all sorts of dreadful misunderstandings. The conclusion: It's best to get together and talk more often.

Kum ba yah. I've been through these gabfests before, and it's made me a tad curmudgeonly. It's like karaoke where the only song available is "Yesterday"; a conversation that never gets beyond talk of food and chopstick use; a class full of "permanent beginners." In other words, a constantly repeating cycle without progress.

I was a panelist at another one of these get-togethers recently in Saitama. Organized by some very earnest and eager people, it was bursting with panelists to the point where we had too many cooks, stewing over how nice 'n' peaceful yet standoffish Japanese society can be.

It was a cookie-cutter of Kanazawa, except for the presence of a snooty young local Diet member who mouthed platitudes about how tough things must be for everyone, including the Japanese who have to clean up after foreigners.

At that point I began woolgathering — recalling all the warm-fuzzy forums I'd seen turn into woolly-headed worry sessions — and arrived at a sad conclusion: They are wasted opportunities.

For even if these events are put on by people genuinely concerned about the welfare of non-Japanese residents (not by the local-government "internationalization Old Boys," justifying budgets for parties and overseas trips), if one is not careful the agenda will go on autopilot, bogged down in banalities.

For example, the discussion invariably focuses on the cultural differences rather than similarities: the conflicts that arise when foreigners enter the picture (after all, people love drama). A perennial hot topic is the consequences of juxtaposing gaijin with burnable garbage sorting (they go together like steak and eggs). And gee whiz, Japanese language is "muzukashii" and people can't speak goodly. The hopeful undercurrent is that communication will ultimately fix all.

Communicating will indeed fix most. But not all. I don't mean to rain on anyone's "matsuri" (as these forums are indubitably good things) but someday they must get beyond the "permanent beginner" and "cultural ambassador" stage, because there are situations where mere talk will not work.

Bona fide racists and paranoid shopkeepers exist out there, as they do in any society. They will not accept people under any terms who, in their eyes, look or will potentially act "different." Sometimes just appealing to a xenophobe's better nature simply will not work.

This is why we need laws against racial discrimination — yes, actual laws with enforceable punishments — to deal with the stoneheads who won't see sense and accept that people should be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin or national origin. Until more people realize this, the ill treatment of non-Japanese residents discussed in these forums will continue unabated.

Thus these forums miss the point when they pass the problem off as mere cultural misunderstanding. Culture is not the core issue here: One can learn culture, but one cannot change race.

The point should be that Japanese society must stop the common practice of using race and physical appearance as a paradigm for pigeonholing people. And until we reach a common understanding (and an enforceable law) on that issue, talking shops like these will just keep spinning their wheels.

Are you going to one of these forums? Then bring this issue up from the floor: How local governments should protect local rights by passing local ordinances ("jourei"). Kawasaki City has passed one against exclusionary landlords, and so can anyone else. But it's not going to happen until more people call for it.

Don't just jaw — we need a law. And I said so on the panel in Saitama. I dare readers to copycat if you ever get the chance. Double dare ya.

Debito Arudou's coauthored book "Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants" (Akashi Shoten Inc.) is now on sale (see www.debito.org). Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to: community@japantimes.co.jp


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