JUST BE CAUSE Column 1
Published as "Dusting off the A-Word" in the Japan Times March 4, 2008
Draft Twelve "Director's Cut", as submitted to the editor, with links to sources.
"ON ACTIVISM IN JAPAN"
Let's start my first regular column by explaining the title, starting with the word "cause".
As you know, causes are what activists take up as a matter of
course. But in Japan, just doing that is a challenge--given the
general aversion towards activism here.
I've been called an "akutibisuto" for many years. At first, I was
leery of the label because of its negative ring in Japanese. Even
its vernacular equivalents--"katsudouka", "undouka", even "puro shimin"
("professional citizen," a negative term like "do-gooder")--make
"activist" sound like "extremist" (kageki ha).
No wonder. Civil society--meaning non-governmental/non-profit
organizations, networks, and voluntary associations promoting "a common
good"--is curiously underdeveloped in Japan.
Sure, volunteer groups have long existed in Japan, but the
"father-knows-best" paternalism still found in our bureaucracy
precluded much grassroots philanthropy. NGOs and NPOs weren't even allowed official registration until a decade ago
To most people, "acting in the public interest" wasn't our job--it was
the government's. And our government, believe it or not, was once
seen as practically infallible. From the 1950's to the late
1980's, the "best and brightest" were mandarins creating good
industrial policy. Most people cashed in on the high-growth
economy instead of helping those less fortunate in society--such as the
homeless, the handicapped, and the discriminated against.
Even after the bubble burst and faith in the government dimmed, many
still had difficulty believing that certain problems, such as racial
discrimination towards the growing number of non-Japanese residents,
even existed in Japan. After all, standardized education said
that racial discrimination was an overseas phenomenon; the paragons
were the American South under segregation and South Africa under
The Ana Bortz
and Otaru Onsens lawsuits
, where our judiciary openly acknowledged that "Japanese Only" establishments
were discriminating by race, removed a lot of plausible deniability. But even today, Japan
officially claims to the United Nations that there are no real ethnic
minorities in Japan, therefore no racial discrimination
. Frictions and "gaijin allergies" are mainly due to misunderstandings by Johnny Foreigner, unable to grasp our unique culture
Mandarin say, public do: In any public discussion on why
exclusionary signs stay up on shop fronts, justifications turn to
"culture" too automatically. Which means an activist has an
uphill slog convincing people why they should care.
But I believe the biggest reason why activism in general is so frowned
upon in Japan is because it has no history of resounding success.
In the West, the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s is held up
as the epitome of a "successful" demonstration of "people power."
Speeches, public demos, and conscientious objectionism helped topple
administrations (Lyndon Johnson and Charles de Gaulle, for example) and
change political landscapes. People engaging in peaceful protest
(for a cause now vindicated in popular culture) is part of the
historical narrative. Activism isn't even all that scary:
the sky won't fall because people picket. It's even seen as a
benign phase students go through.
Contrast that with Postwar Japan's biggest street protests, against the
revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty in the late 1950's-early
1960's. There were student riots, huge rifts in society, even
violence and deaths.
However, those struggles didn't amount to much. We are still
under the Security Treaty. The perpetually-empowered big cheeses
in the LDP have never been toppled by street demonstrations (yes, media
exposés of political graft, such as Lockheed and Recruit, have
done some in; but that's not the same).
Instead, left-wing extremists cleaved into camps (most famously the Red
Army), turned on themselves in murderous purges, and set off bombs and
riots that maimed authority figures and bystanders alike. In
doing so, they destroyed any possible image of civil disobedience.[1
So with no clear example of activism "working" in Japan, it's difficult
to argue that causes are worth the time and energy. Instead of
being heroic, they're associated with rioting extremists.
When I eventually took on the mantle of activist (my cause:
establishing a law against racial discrimination in Japan), I found I
must constantly dispel the image that I am doing anything
extreme. I'm just doing what other fellow Japanese (however few),
working within the law and the Constitution, do.
That means lobbying politicians, notifying ministries, "naming and shaming" discriminating businesses
, and crafting essays and websites as a permanent record for future researchers
Even if it means my swimming against the current, perpetually gainsaid
by naysayers because they're apathetic, cynical, culturally
relativistic, or debate dilettantes.
This monthly JUST BE CAUSE column will be part of that essaywriting
effort, discussing things that matter to the ever-growing Non-Japanese
communities in Japan.
I hope to spark debate about what should by now seem obvious in any
developed society: That everyone regardless of nationality,
national origin, or any immutable social status affixed at birth,
should get a fair chance at reaching their potential in society.
That's not obvious in Japan, because too few people actively push for it.
I'll write because it's a just cause. Or even just because.
Debito's co-authored new book, HANDBOOK FOR NEWCOMERS, MIGRANTS, AND
IMMIGRANTS (Akashi Shoten Inc.), is on sale from March 15. http://www.debito.org/index.php/?page_id=582
 Source: SHOCKING CRIMES OF POSTWAR JAPAN by Mark Schreiber, see pp. 198-217.