Posted by debito on April 7th, 2007
Hi Blog. I covered some of this material in a previous post on the blog. However, for the newsletter I did a significant rewrite last night, describing how flippant and unresearched comments from a noteworthy person (Alex Kerr) can cause problems for others (particularly through unscrupulous anonymous editors on places like Wikipedia). I don’t want this new version to be buried in a newsletter, so I repost it separately and delete the older version from the blog. Debito in Sapporo
Some time ago, Alex Kerr, author of DOGS AND DEMONS and LOST JAPAN (and a person I have great respect for), was asked in an interview with the Japan Times (Oct 25, 2005) about he thought about activists (and, er, about me in particular). He responded:
JT: In Dogs and Demons you argue that Japan has failed to internationalize. What do you think about the work of Debito Arudou and others to combat racial discrimination in Japan?
AK: Well, somebody has to do it. I’m glad that there is a whistle-blower out there. But, I am doubtful whether in the long run it really helps. One would hope that he could do it another way. He’s not doing it the Japanese way. He’s being very gaijin in his openly combative attitude, and usually in Japan that approach fails.
I fear that his activities might tend to just confirm conservative Japanese in their belief that gaijin are difficult to deal with.
That said, perhaps we who live here are slow to stick our necks out when we sense an injustice, and quick to self-censor in order to get along smoothly in our communities.
To me the most interesting aspect of Arudou Debito is that, in taking on Japanese citizenship, he has brought the dialogue inside Japan. His activities reveal the fact that gaijin and their gaijin ways are now a part of the fabric of Japan’s new society. A very small part of course, but a vocal and real part.
This sticks in my craw for two reasons: One is that Alex, who does incredible amounts of research for his books, seems ill-informed about the ways we have combatted racial discrimination. If he had read my book JAPANESE ONLY (and despite receiving a copy from me nearly two years ago, he wrote me last January that he still hadn’t read it), he might understand that ARE doing it the so-called “Japanese Way”. We took every channel and route available to us WITHIN the Japanese system, as I meticulously detail in the book. In fact, there are plenty of Japanese who do exactly what we do (and more), and don’t get slapped with a “gaijin” label. It is out of character for Alex to comment on something he hasn’t done thorough research on.
The other reason is that this quote has been lifted out of context and selectedly reproduced by the unscrupulous on places like Wikipedia:
Some critics question Arudou’s brand of conflict resolution: the judicial system. Alex Kerr, author of the best-selling Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan (ISBN 0-8090-3943-5), criticize such tactics as “too combative,” is doubtful “whether in the long run it really helps,” noting that “in Japan…[the combative] approach fails.” Acknowledging that “gaijin and their gaijin ways are now part of the fabric of Japan’s new society,” Kerr also notes that Arudou’s activities may “confirm conservative Japanese in their belief that gaijin are difficult to deal with.”
The essence and thrust of Alex’s comment, which is in fact about two-thirds positive, is lost.
Anyhow, the reason I bring this up now is because Matt Dioguardi in a recent, thoughtful essay, grounds this phenomenon in historical context, from an angle I hadn’t considered before:
=========== MATT DIOGUARDI WRITES =================
As a foreign national who is making a life for himself in Japan, I’m personally concerned that remarks like his have a negative effect on me (as a so-called “gaijin”). Because regardless of what one may or may not think of Debito, unintentionally Kerr is commenting on all “gaijin”.
Compare this to C. Eric Lincoln’s vivid description of a “smart nigger” in Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America:
The smart nigger was likely to be everything the good nigger was not. Most likely he was educated above the norm considered sufficient for colored folks; whether he got it in school or some bigger fool than he had put it into his head, he had some dangerous notions. In either case, Mr. Martin said that the smart nigger was a pain in his own ass, and everybody else’s too. He wanted too much. He wanted his street paved, and he wanted it paved because he paid taxes rather than because his wife cooked for the judge. His house was painted and well kept and he didn’t waste his money on rattletrap cars. He didn’t “owe money downtown,” or “take up” advances on his pay every Monday morning. More than likely he had “been up North,” and he had a colored newspaper come to his house in the mail. The smart nigger paid his poll taxes, and he was mighty slow, it seemed to Mr. Dubbie Gee, to answer when somebody said “Boy!” He didn’t think that the bad nigger was funny, or that the good nigger could be trusted. Clearly, every smart nigger would bear watching. “They don’t last long,” Mr. Martin said, and he “flat out had no use for them.” He said that if he were colored he’d either kick a smart nigger’s ass down off his shoulders or keep away from him. A smart nigger, he said “is a damn fool hell-bent for trouble. And mark my words, he’s gon’ find it quicker’n a catfish can suck a chicken gut off a bent pin.”
Is Alex Kerr saying Debito is a “smart nigger”?
I’d like to note that Kerr should be more specific in his comments, because is it really the case that there are no non-”gaijin” doing the things that Debito does? Is he saying that when Japanese file lawsuits, this is a natural evolution of culture, but when Debito does it, it’s reinforcing the notion that “gaijin” have an “openly combative attitude”?
Is he saying the teachers who refuse to sing Kimigayo are acting like “gaijin”?
What exactly is the definitive way some one displays an “openly combative attitude”?
Moreover, what is the definitive “Japanese way”? And in what specific way is Debito not doing it?
It’s very disappointing to see some of Alex Kerr’s calibre engaging in Nihonjinron. He should know that there is nothing so destructive to Japan’s traditional local customs as Nihonjinron. Do I need to quote from his own books? Just like the centralization of construction standards begins to make all parks and all buildings look bleakly similar, the centralization of identity around the concept of “Japanese” in an essentialist sense is just as destructive to the development of a full personality.
=========== END MATT DIOGUARDI ==============
The point is, I always find it amazing how easily people can fall right back into the “Guestist”-sounding paradigms of “nicely, nicely, don’t get too uppity, for it’s not ‘The Japanese Way’”. When in fact everything we have ever done has also been done by Japanese. I hope Alex gets around to reading my book (http://www.debito.org/japaneseonly.html) and will offer more informed comments. Arudou Debito in Sapporo