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Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012

JUST BE CAUSE

Do Japan a favor: Don't stop being a critic


Remember grade school, when the most demanding question put to you was something as simple as "What color do you like?" Choose any color, for there is no wrong answer.

This is the power of "like," where nobody can dispute your preference. You don't have to give a reason why you like something. You just do.

In adult society, however, things are more complicated. When talking about, say, governments, societies or complicated social situations, a simple answer of "I like it" without a reason won't do.

Yet simply "liking" Japan is practically compulsory, especially in these troubled times. With Japan's swing towards the political right these days (to be confirmed with this month's Lower House election), there is ever more pressure to fall in line and praise Japan.

"Liking" Japan is now a national campaign, with the 2007 changes to the Basic Education Law (crafted by our probable next prime minister, Shinzo Abe) enforcing "love of country" through Japan's school curriculum. We must now teach a sanitized version of Japanese history, or young Japanese might just find a reason not to "like" our country.

But surely this is a case of mountains and molehills, a critic might counter — aren't "like" and "dislike" harmless and inevitable facets of the human condition? After all, these two emotions inform so much of our lives, including choices of food, lifestyle, leisure, friends, lifetime partners, etc. Is it really that unsavory a thought process?

Of course not. My point is that reducing public debate to "like or dislike" is too unsophisticated for thoughtful social critique — especially when it is being enforced from above. I will even argue that this rubric fundamentally interferes with the constructive debate an ailing Japan desperately needs.

Consider this: Have you ever noticed how words not only affect our thoughts, but even limit their scope and expressibility?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that they do (look up "cognitive linguistics" and its proponents Lera Boroditsky and George Lakoff). Publicly framing what should be a complex intellectual process as a "like or dislike" dichotomy vastly oversimplifies the shades of the emotional spectrum.

Now add on another layer that stifles dissent yet further in Japan: wa maintenance. Dissent frequently gets silenced to keep things calm and orderly. Remember the oft-cited axiom of "putting a lid on smelly things" (kusai mono ni wa futa o shirō) to explain away censorship and coverup? The more criticism something might invoke, the more likely it is to be suppressed. (How the Olympus and Fukushima fiascoes were handled are but two examples.)

It also engenders an element of self-censorship. If there is inordinate pressure to "like" things, then you'd better keep the "dislikes" to yourself. After all, "If you can't say something nice, don't say it at all," right?

Non-Japanese (NJ) readers of this column know this dynamic well, because the pressure on NJ to "like" Japan is relentless.

Ever notice how you are supposed to say "I like Japan" at every opportunity? Mere hours or minutes off the airplane, someone wants to hear how much you like Japan so far. As you begin to study Japanese, set phrases are less "Where is the library?" more "I like sushi, anime and Japan's unique four seasons" and other pat platitudes.

Even years or decades later, thanks to the predominance of "guestism," NJ "guests" are not to be overly critical of their "host" country (even if they are naturalized citizens, as letters protesting this column indicate just about every month). I was even compelled to devote an entire column (JBC, Feb. 6) to what I like about Japan. Why? Oh, just because.

And if you dare get critical? You face exclusionism, even from NJ themselves. The common retort to any criticism is, "Well, if you don't like it here, why don't you leave?"

With reasoned argument debased to the level of "love it or leave it," the "like or dislike" ideological prism effectively becomes an intellectual prison. The reaction towards critics of Japan is clear and immediate: Non-likers become disliked.

So why are people so quickly labeled han-nichi (anti-Japan), Nihon-girai (Japan-haters) or "Japan-bashers" just because they offer criticism? Because, linguistically, you can stigmatize and shut them up for walking on the wrong side of the dichotomy.

Thus, "like" leads to an enforcement of "like-mindedness." It is ultimately an issue of power — a subtle means to disenfranchise any dissenter and empower the status quo. And that suits the Powers That Be just fine, thank you very much.

This dynamic is being used very effectively on the eve of a historic election. As Japan wilts economically, politically and demographically, ascendant rightwing demagogues are offering simplified slogans dictating how the public can better "like" Japan by "disliking" their leftwing opponents and critics.

Not to mention "disliking" outsiders — after all, the wolf at the door in many debates is a bullying China. Or anyone who hasn't fallen in on "Japan's side."

Therein lies the fatal flaw of the "like or dislike" discourse in public debate, which critic-haters are invariably blind towards.

The act of criticizing a government is not the same as criticizing an individual, or a group of individuals, or even necessarily a society in general. A government is always — but always — fair game for critique. A government is power personified, and power must be constantly challenged. "Liking or disliking" a government is completely irrelevant to the discussion.

I should mention one more significant problem with this oversimplification process: If it is so easy in public discourse to talk about "liking" or "disliking" things without offering a reasoned argument why, it becomes just as easy to apply this to people.

As in "I like/dislike foreigners," which one hears all too often in Japan. Healthy societies should not be this unsophisticated towards other human beings. But if normalized public discourse is this unsophisticated, what can you do but choose a side? Better "like" the side with the power, or else. It's even patriotic.

That side, alas, will not favor fresh, new ideas put forth by the critics already labelled outsiders and excluded from the debate — and that's ironic. As Japan's rightists hark back to an (ahistorical) golden past of Japan's preeminence and intellectual purity, they ignore the legacies of those outsiders: Pre-industrial Japan sent envoys overseas and imported foreign specialists to investigate how modern nations ran themselves, famously adopting outside models successfully.

Sadly, rightwing exclusionism is selling well these days because it's offering, as usual, simple solutions to more complex issues, grounded in how much people love Japan and dislike other people.

We must get beyond this grade-school-level debate. That means being brave and brazen with critique. Don't succumb to the pressure to say only "good things" about any society. It beggars meaningful conversation and defangs the debate necessary to make things better.

Criticism does not signal "dislike"; it indicates critical thinking. If critics didn't care enough about a place to analyze it deeply, they wouldn't bother. Critique is their — and your — civic duty.

So do Japan some good: Offer some fresh ideas. Be a critic. Or else, as things get worse, you will only find more things to be critical of. Silently, of course.

Debito Arudou and Akira Higuchi's bilingual 2nd Edition of "Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants," with updates for 2012's changes to immigration laws, is now on sale. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp .


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