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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

JUST BE CAUSE

The issue that dares not speak its name


A few columns ago ("Toadies, Vultures, and Zombie Debates," March 3), I discussed how foreign apologists resuscitate dead-end discussions on racial discrimination. Promoting cultural relativity for their own ends, they peddle bigoted and obsolescent ideologies now impossible to justify in their societies of birth.

This would be impossible in Japan too, if racial discrimination was illegal. And it would be nice if people who most need a law passed would unite and demand one.

But that's not why getting that law is tough. It's more because the domestic debate on racial discrimination has been dulled and avoided due to rhetorical tricks of the Japanese media and government. After all, if you can't discuss a problem properly, you can't fix it.

How it works: In Japanese, "racial discrimination" is jinshu sabetsu. That is the established term used in official translations of international treaties (such as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, or CERD) that Japan has signed up to.

However, the Japanese media won't couch the discussion in these terms. This was visible during the nationwide debate generated by the Otaru onsen case (1999-2005), where public bathhouses refused entry to customers because they didn't "look Japanese." If you read the oodles of non-tabloid articles on this case (archived at www.debito.org/nihongotimeline.html ), you'll see the debate was conducted in milder, misleading language.

For example, it was rendered in terms of gaikokujin sabetsu (discrimination against foreigners). But that's not the same thing. The people being discriminated against were not all foreign (ahem).

Or else it was depicted as gaiken sabetsu (discrimination by physical appearance). But that's not "race," either. Nor is "physical appearance" specifically covered by the CERD.

This term particularly derails the debate. It actually generates sympathy for people afraid of how others look.

Think about it. If, say, some old fart is standoffish towards people who are tall, big, dark, scary-looking, foreign-looking, etc., oh well, shikata ga nai — it can't be helped. We Japanese are shy, remember.

Fortunately, there are limits: "Looks," sure, but few Japanese would ever admit to disliking people specifically by race, even though one is a factor of the other.

That's because racial discrimination, according to the Japanese education system, happens in other countries — like America under segregation or South Africa under apartheid. Not in Japan.

Then things get really wet: Remember, We Japanese admire certain types of foreigners, so we're obviously not prejudiced. And We Japanese have been discriminated against in the past for our race, like, for instance, those American World War II internment camps. And how about the time we got ripped off for being naive, trusting Japanese last time we ventured overseas? So it works both ways, y'see?

Welcome to the Never-Never Land of Self-Justification and Victimization. If We Japanese are doing something discriminatory, so what? Everybody else is doing it. So we'll keep on keeping on, thank you very much. There the debate dies a death of a thousand relativities.

Back to the media, which stifles more intelligent debate through its rhetoric of avoidance. They rattle on about minshuteki sabetsu (discrimination by ethnicity), even though it wasn't until last year that Japan even admitted it had any minorities.

Or else it's not portrayed as a form of discrimination at all: It's a matter of cultural misunderstandings, language barriers, microwaves and sun spots, whatever — anything but calling a spade a spade. That's why only one article out of the 100 or so on the Otaru onsen case actually deemed it — flat out, without quoting some radical-sounding activist — jinshu sabetsu. Not a misprint. One. And that was a Hokkaido Shimbun editorial at the very end of the case.

Pity it only took five years of debate for them to get it, and more pity that the media has since mostly gone back to claiming discrimination by nationality, looks, ethnicity, culture etc. all over again.

The Japanese government's fingerprints are also all over this rhetorical legerdemain. When the U.N. CERD Committee first accused Japan of not doing enough to eliminate racial discrimination back in 2000 ( www.debito.org/japanvsun.html ), double-talk was in fine form.

First, the government argued back that Japan has no ethnic minorities, and therefore anyone who was a citizen was a member of the Japanese race. Thus citizens were not covered by the CERD because any discrimination against them couldn't be by race.

Then they admitted that foreigners in Japan might indeed be victims of discrimination. But that's too bad. They're foreigners. They don't have the same rights as citizens, such as the right to vote or run for office. Even the CERD acknowledges that. Oh well. If foreigners want the same rights, they should naturalize.

Never mind those half-million or so former foreigners who have naturalized, such as this writer, who don't all fall into this neat dichotomy. Somehow they don't count.

Essentially, the government is arguing that the CERD covers nobody in Japan.

That's why domestic debate on racial discrimination is so carefully worded. If somebody gets denied something ostensibly because they're a foreigner, or foreign-looking, it's not a matter of race. It might be discrimination by nationality, or by face, or by culture, or not even discrimination at all.

Just don't dare call it jinshu sabetsu, the scourge that dares not speak its name. If we pretend it doesn't exist, you can't legislate against it.

Debito Arudou is coauthor of the "Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants." Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to community@japantimes.co.jp



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