The first version of my Oct 2012 JT JUST BE CAUSE column (rejected for publication) blogged for your comments, on “sanctioned reality”: Do you “get” it?


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Hi Blog. Before I wrote my monthly Japan Times column on the Senkakus/Takeshima Disputes published on Oct 2 (see it here), I wrote a completely different column that approached the issue from the back door:  How Japan’s enormous focus on “genuine” and “legitimate” leads  to diversity getting subsumed.  And when it leads to diversity in opinion being subsumed, you get a society that is particularly susceptible to top-down control of not only the dominant social discourse, but also the very perception of reality within a society. And that leads us to crazy ideas such as a few far offshore rocks being worth all this fuss.

Heavy stuff. Unfortunately, the people who approve columns at The Japan Times didn’t “get” it, even after two major rewrites and sixteen drafts. (Actually, in all fairness it wasn’t only them — two other friends of mine didn’t “get” it either. But two of my friends in academia did. And we suspect that it was just too “Ivory Tower” for a journalistic audience.) So eight hours before deadline, I rewrote the damn thing entirely, and what you saw published is the result.

But The Japan Times suggested that I blog it and see what others think. So here it is: The column on the Senkakus/Takeshima Disputes that I wanted to run. I think there are plenty of ideas in there that are still worth salvaging. But let me ask you, Readers: Do you “get” it? Arudou Debito


By ARUDOU, Debito
JUST BE CAUSE Column 56 for the Japan Times Community Page
To be published October 2, 2012
DRAFT SIXTEEN – version submitted for edits and rejected for publication

I recently attended an interesting talk. It discussed Japan’s cultural conceit with the “real,” “genuine,” and “legitimate” as governed by the kanji “hon.” For example, genuine articles are “honmono,” the home of a famous product “honke”, one’s genuine feelings, intentions and character include “honki”, “honne,” “honshō” and “hongoshi,” you get the idea.

That made me think: What makes something legitimately “genuine” or “real” in Japan? Public acknowledgment of authenticity, of course. Certification could be an official government document, strong media attention, or even positive word of mouth.

For example, an artist or writer instantly becomes worthy of attention and accolade after becoming a “Living National Treasure” or an Akutagawa Prize winner. (Remember, this is how future Tokyo Governor Ishihara got his start.)

Of course, by definition one needs public support to become popular, and popularity begets more recognition as celebrity.

But Japan takes the “popularity = recognition” concept one step further, to “popularity = more trustworthy.” Unrecognized things tend to be seen as less legitimate in terms of quality or as a source of information.

For example, a restaurant without a write-up in the local tour guidebook can’t be any good. If something’s apparently unpopular, there must be something wrong with it. This is why tourist traps overseas pay big bucks to be featured in the Japanese “Hato Bus” media circuit.

So what is this column’s epiphany? If popularity means something is more “real” and “legitimate,” sole individuals and their opinions will have less influence over reality. This has a profound effect on Japan’s democracy. Seriously.

Start with an everyday interaction: Remember when you asked a group their opinion (particularly in classrooms). What’s the first thing most respondents do? Turn to their neighbors for affirmation.

Few are brave enough to immediately offer their “own opinion” because it might “not be commonly acceptable” (tsūyō shinai). There has to be a “consensus” before anyone declares anything definitive.

One exception, of course, is an opinion about Japanese behavior or culture. Ever notice how answers like, “because we’re an island nation” or “we have a long history of being a closed society” are immediate and standardized? Because they are the “consensus responses” – commonly-held, thus legitimate. This is one reason why Japanese society is so susceptible to talking in stereotypes.

Point is, people here have to “read the air” (kūki o yomu) first to determine reality, which takes time, energy, and guesswork to concoct. Moreover, people who buck the trend with an unpopular opinion merely look like troublemakers. This tedious dynamic forces people to default into silence.

The exception to the silent default is when someone has enough power in the group to be a sempai. Or a bully. Both will if necessary browbeat people into their mode of thinking.

Thus, reality depends on the dominant group hierarchy maintaining the dominant discourse.

One problem with a “certified reality for mass consumption” is that minority views are unacceptable. By definition, if a majority does not support a minority view, then tsūyō shinai. After all, if enough people don’t say or do it, it’s not “The Real Japan.” This majoritarianism acts as a natural brake on Japan’s diversity.

But the bigger problem is the brake on dissent.

If people are more likely to “take seriously” a fact or opinion (and, due to a lack of training in critical thinking, people often have trouble telling the difference) just because they saw that fact or opinion on TV or in a newspaper, then people who control media outlets can create “consensus” by “changing the air.”

This means that Japanese society, whose most trusted and ubiquitous media outlet is government-run, becomes more easily manipulated by officialdom.

Of course, the media manufactures public consensus in all societies. But in Japan’s case, a hierarchical social dynamic enforced at all levels of society makes people particularly susceptible to top-down decision making.

This can be taken too far. We’ve witnessed a decade of “rampant foreign crime” grounded in police media campaigns instead of careful statistical analysis (Zeit Gist Oct. 7, 2003).

But now consider the current claims that a few faraway “islands” are sufficient reason to hate the local ethnic shopkeeper. Volume has shouted down reason.

Now add one more thing to the mix: “koe.” In Japan, disembodied voices are often taken as legitimately as official voices. That’s how Japan’s media justifies rumor through anonymous sources, and how officials justify public policy by saying “koe ga atta” (there has been talk of…). This is further amplified by Japan’s anonymous Internet culture, a bullying and outrage industry in its own right (JBC Feb. 3, 2009).

Eventually any bubble of commonly-held lies and distortions will pop. But when it pops in Japan, there is little denouement. Rarely are the brave individuals who initially offered dissent commended. Most dissenters realize it’s too mendōkusai (bothersome) to pipe up and so in future just pipe down.

In sum, this social dynamic helps the ruling elite keep control of the status quo. And it’s one reason why conservatives have spent their lives dismantling liberalized education (yutori kyōiku) – for heaven forbid that Leftist teachers ever indulge in critical thinking or encourage students to question authority!

There are consequences: Every now and then Japan’s debate arenas fall into an echo-chamber “reality trap,” where circular logic based on bad social science becomes mutually-reinforcing. We’ve seen the logical excesses in public outrages about, say, human rights, gender equality, foreign suffrage, and now Japanese territorial integrity with the Senkakus and Takeshima.

Once mired in this “reality trap,” the most effective way to adjust the prevailing “reality” (aside from total defeat in a war) is by appealing to Japan’s legitimacy overseas.

Since the Meiji Era, Japan has always wanted be taken seriously by the club of powerful countries. Due to the enormous cultural value placed upon hierarchy, Japan has aspired to join the club in a superior, respected position.

Yet most people know Japan as the “fragile superpower,” and Japan’s ruling elites know well that there is much to lose by creating trouble: Not only in terms of hard-won (and paid for) international esteem, but also economic resources if bullies and zealots irritate the neighbors.

Bully celebrities and zealots have gained much ground these past decades, legitimizing jingoistic interpretations of history in mainstream media. But I think the browbeaten public is betting that reason will soon prevail amongst ruling elites.

Why? Because Japan never wants to be seen as the aggressor in any conflict, or the bad guy in any situation.

Consider the dominant discourse in postwar Japan: We didn’t engage in military conquest during WWII – a rapacious military leadership inflicted great suffering on all Japanese. Then we were subjected to horrific atomic bombings. After that, we had decades of miraculous prosperity generated from our own hard work. But then things slowed down even though we did our best. It’s not our fault: Even our current mess was caused by force majeure – our volcanic archipelago, against which we stoically persevere. We are all victims.

What about dissenting opinions to this discourse, including the public’s complicity in rooting out prewar Leftists, the wartime responsibility of the Showa Emperor, the granting of favorable terms of trade for reconstruction, and generations of government-industrial corruption through unaccountable bureaucratic rule? All drowned out under Japan’s majoritarianism, delegitimizing unpopular opinions in favor of perpetual victimhood.

But not this time. It’s pretty difficult to justify Japan’s victim status with the Senkakus and Takeshima. The rocks are just an official distraction from the irradiating food chain and accelerating economic tailspin.

Back to the concepts of “genuine” and “legitimate.” What good is this “islands” dispute if the other rich countries, looking increasingly to China as Asia’s leader, won’t see Japan as a “genuine” victim with a “legitimate” grievance?

Sooner or later the ruling elites, perpetually looking over their shoulder at world opinion, will tell the jingoists to tone it down — for business’ sake. It’s the effect of gaiatsu, or outside pressure.

Gaiatsu is basically the only way that Japan, once it gets into these ideological bully-pulpit spirals, will be calmed down. Because Japan’s general public, structurally defanged by a culture of being unable to say or think anything is “real” or “legitimate” without certified permission, cannot stop itself when domestic bullies get too powerful. It needs somebody else to put the jingoism genie back in the bottle.

Outside world, it’s nigh time to do it again.
1396 WORDS

40 comments on “The first version of my Oct 2012 JT JUST BE CAUSE column (rejected for publication) blogged for your comments, on “sanctioned reality”: Do you “get” it?

  • Outstanding article, Debito! And yes, I get it. In fact, it seems less combative and controversial than past articles you have written, so why would they not want to run it? It would have made for some interesting discussion on the op-ed page. Japan Times should be sending you a fruit basket as a “thank you” for keeping issues current and getting such a huge response after your column runs each time. In this age of Internet News, the fact that people read and respond to your articles is a real bonus for small newspapers like the Japan Times. Keep pushing the envelope. I liked it.

  • “So desu ne.”

    The most commonly used expression in Japanese has got to be “so desu ne”, as you say to turn to their neighbors for affirmation.

    The second one (to me, an NJ, anyway) has got to be “I am Japanese” or some other cultural affirmation or self declaration of national identity, (“Nihonjon wa…”). zzzzzzz.

    All you wrote is true, I just think it touched on too many points for The Japan Times to publish it in its first draft (it goes from “honne”to “gaiatsu”). Although good on them for having the balls to publish anything along these lines.

    But the truth is in the details.

  • I get the overall point you’re trying to make, but I think what’s problematic is the relevance of the Senkaku/Takeshima islands in making your point. The overwhelming consensus on the ground here seems to be that the people rioting in Korea and China are acting like barbaric idiots, their governments aren’t helping (and more specifically, seem to be actively encouraging it), all over a minor political issue that’s better handled by politicians and diplomats. Nobody much cares about the islands or who ultimately ends up controlling them (a viewpoint shared by cooler headed people on the other side of the ocean too), nobody is attacking Chinese and Korean stores or products, and it’s certainly not distracting any attention away from issues that are actually relevant to people. It’s simply a non-issue, and I think your argument would have much more potency without it. –Right now, it kind of reads like an advocate for bringing back public floggings for serial murderers, rapists, terrorists and personal file sharers—for the first three they might get some support, but once you add that fourth, the whole argument falls flat on its face.

  • Because of Japan’s need to have everything reinforced with popular opinion, doesn’t it make sense that, in order to have us foreigners be taken more seriously, we need more of us actually in Japan?

    I mean, I know immigrant families who have children born/raised in Japan. But, when the kid is 18, they go back to their home country.

    Of course, you can do and live however you want, but it seems to me that the reason Japan has an unchanging view of foreign people is because they continue to come and leave, albeit perhaps years at a time.

    Just like immigrants in US, UK, Canada, and so on, the only way to actually have a voice is to increase the population to something bigger than the currect 2-3% or whatever it is of the total country population.

    A while ago, during Debito’s Little Yellow Jap ordeal, the reason that Sambo was not considered offensive is that there aren’t many black children in schools.

    Logic would suggest that, until there ARE more, nothing will change.

    It took the US a long time to, for example, get a Black (well, actually half-black, but still…) president.

    The reason that the Black population in the US has such a presence and voice is because, instead of just going back to Africa, they stayed to make their lives, through all the hardships.

    I think more immigrants should be just that: immigrants. Get naturalized, keep your kids and families here.

    Also, I think another thing that is hurting the foreign/part-foreign cause is that so few of them do anything besides Teaching and TV related jobs.

    I know many, many ‘half’ young adults, and all they want to do is be like Bekky or Rola or Joy or Wentz.

    Why don’t these bilingual/bicultural people try being lawyers, government workers, company employees, business people, docters, dentists and so on? Or, better yet, police officers?

    In immigrant countries, many minorities go for these positions. Why hasn’t the same happened in Japan yet? You might say ‘Well, it’s hard, and there are many hurdles’. It think it’s hard because NO ONE HAS TRIED IT YET!

    Well, not no one. There are immigrants who are mayors of cities and what not, and those people have all my respect. But, it is a total of like 3 people.

    4 million+ registered foreigners in Japan, and only a few dozen have done anything remotely noteworthy. Maybe that’s too strong of language, but I think my point is valid.

  • “Sooner or later the ruling elites, perpetually looking over their shoulder at world opinion, will tell the jingoists to tone it down — for business’ sake. It’s the effect of gaiatsu, or outside pressure.”

    I’m not sure anyone is going to tell anyone to tone it down on the really sensitive issues, if a real change in public discourse is what you are suggesting – wasn’t the whole buying of the Senkakus by the national government intended as a ‘middle road’ between letting Ishihara having a direct say in international affairs through having Tokyo buy them on the one hand, and having to tell him to tone it down on the other?

  • That’s a great article. It cuts right to the heart of things in Japan and crystallises why I decided to leave. I’m not surprised it got rejected. It’s clearly written and easy to read, but I’ve spent years trying to explain this
    to people in Japan, but you really need to to have spent a long time outside the country in order to get it(there are exceptions like the great Tetsuya Ishida, and look what happened to him) . I think ‘modern Japan’ is more like a hologram than a country. TBH

  • Pondscum and Kaoru,I think you’ve missed the point of the srticle. The reason why foreigners haven’t “done” anthing (ignoring all the work we do in activism,NGOs volunteer activities, teaching children martial arts etc) is that we are excluded by the consensus opinion by our behaviour. we can either buy into it like Gregory Clark, Becky and the other, erm “talents” you mention, or we can stay outside it, preserve our sanity and be excluded. It’s a vicious circle.

    IMO Debito’s article is an analytic tool that you use to help explain what is apparently irrational behaviour.

    Japan: a tough place to raise a family but a great place for sociology 🙂

  • Baudrillard says:

    @ pondscum. I knew a Korean resident in the late 80s and 90s who was not allowed to work in government- Japanese nationals (whatever that meant) only. So thats why people didnt try until recently.

    @DeBourca. “Modern Japan as hologram”, oh I like that. Though postmodern thought would refer to it as a “brand”‘. I note in the article posted at this site on the Sekakus thread

    states a very clear (and American propaganda speak) example of rebranding:
    “The security alliance with the United States is the best strategic decision Japan made since it opened to the West in the nineteenth century. Postwar Japan, restyled as an exporter of consumer goods, signed a security treaty with the one country that could sever — or guarantee — sea and air links with the outside world. The alliance with the United States meant flows of raw materials and energy in, and finished goods out, would be unimpeded. Japan was able to concentrate on postwar economic recovery and rebuild from the devastation of World War II with astonishing speed. ”

    Wow, sounds like USSR era Pravda extolling the benefits of Comecon!

    And if this isnt rebranding of a company, sorry, COUNTRY (^-^), I do not know what is.

  • strangerhere says:

    This seems to evoke another situation, that being lack of accountability or responsibility.
    All of the situations mentioned are highly conditioned. In a social order that is premised or determined by status (sempei etc) what do you expect but people deferring to others to escape responsibility.

    Socially people defer for 2 reasons; being it is easier to have people make a decision for you and safer, and secondly ” why should I care others are to blame” Eg tepco

    The question is why should “outsiders” be responsible or accountable for fixing a country’s lack of effort or will to improve (change). I use the term here to describe what is an appalling lack of awareness of Japan’s own place in the world and its responsibilities.

  • @pondscum, I take your point. Speaking for myself, if I did not have a family I might be more willing to fight the good fight and stay on in Japan, but there comes a time when there are many more lives than your own that you are responsible for, and a choice has to be made where those precious lives would best be nurtured and thrive, in all senses of the word. Most immigrants move places to try and give a better life to their children. Would you, if you had the choice, immigrate somewhere that would give them a worse life?

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Debito,

    A brilliant article Debito! You have drawn together so many of contemporary Japans problems into a decent conceptual framework. It both explains the cause and cyclic link that these issues share. This is an important dynamic to spell out. Unfortunately, I can see the JT’s point of view; the apologists would be hysterical at such profound criticism, and give the JT some serious grief I am sure, whilst at the same time, NJ who haven’t had long enough in country o see through the tatamae just wouldn’t understand. The sad truth is that Team Japan’s international publicity campaign of pro-Japan propaganda makes this level of criticism difficult to access on an intellectual level (too many readers are blinded by the ‘politeness’, ‘safety’, and ‘unique culture of’ Japan, and have not reached their rude awakening yet).

    @ Baudrillard,

    The article you link to was very interesting in it’s analysis, but I am not sure that I agree with it’s conclusion that Japan should ‘grow-up’ ( (as it were) by normalizing it’s military, and developing a nuclear deterant. As the article you link admits, Japan is terribly immature in it’s international relations, and world-view due to cosseting by the US. I think you would agree that Japan needs to make baby steps towards the goal of normalizing it’s military, if it should ever be permitted to do so (I, for one, do not believe that it should).

    Recent nationalistic outbursts by J-politicians and J-media do not instill in me the sense that they understand the implications of their actions (some teaching of critical analysis needed in schools for a start; Socratic theory of education for dummies would be a massive improvement), take the J-media dodging responsibility for the breakdown in Japan-China trade relations in the mass gomi as proof that in international relations terms Japan is a bully that accepts no responsibility for the outcome of it’s actions;

    Full of bluster and noise to irritate the neighbors with their puffed out chests, but when the neighbors get angry, it’s ‘Japan, the victim mode’ again. Cutting off noses to spite faces is the name of the game. With that mentality, could a nuclear armed Japan really be trusted not to push and provoke China into bombing it into the stone-age, whilst at the same time being genuinely astounded that it was attacked? I think not. McNamara said in his documentary ‘Fog of War’, regarding the Cuban missile crisis, that the US and the USSR learned just how dangerous nuclear weapons were; there was no room for era, and no learning curve- if you make a mistake, it’s all over. Given the Japanese culture of responsibility avoidance, it would be just a matter of time before nationalistic pride gets them all killed.
    If you have any doubts about Japan’s inability to make mature and timely decisions with issues of national survival, see this report on the Fukushima disaster;

  • Great and very thought out article, but its just too brutally honest for this society. But this is exactly the kind of wake up call that this place needs so keep pushing the pen and post this reality check article on all the blogs that you can find.

  • @#4 Pondscum,

    Wow! What Japan are you living in? It’s certainly not the one I know and not the one that Debito is always writing about. Talk about blaming the victims! Do you have any idea how opaque, arbitrary and unjust Japan’s immigration system is? It’s not like people who want to stay can just stay as long as they want simply because they desire to. You display appalling ignorance of the difference between truly multicultural societies like Canada and Australia, where the immigration systems are transparent, fair and logical, and Japan, where the immigration system is anything but. And you have the gall to suggest that gaijin don’t get positions of power simply because they don’t try. Did you see Hiroko Tabuchi’s article in the New York Times recently about how companies won’t even hire totally bilingual haafu? If that’s the case, do you think they’re clamoring to hire 100% gaijin? And then you make the absurd claim that only a few foreigners have ever done anything noteworthy in Japan. First, I’d love to know what sterling contributions you’ve made to Japanese society that allow you to judge others so harshly. Then, I might remind you of all the contributions made by foreigners from the foreign experts who helped design Japan during the early Meiji Period, to the Western educators who brought modern education to Japan, to the American occupiers who engaged in radical land redistribution (allowing a huge spurt of economic growth after the war), to all the foreign athletes and artists who have and who continue to contribute to Japanese life. You, sir, are a misinformed person of questionable intellectual abilities (I’d use stronger language but I’m afraid Debito would cut my post). Before you post such utter tripe again, do a little research, bounce your ideas of some intelligent people, sleep on your post for one evening, and then, even then, consider not posting. And, if you are going to post, at least try to post something related to the original post. Your post had nothing to do with Debito’s article. Let me spell it out for you: Debito was arguing that gaiatsu is needed to reign in Japan’s nationalist bullies. Your post is a ludicrous ramble to the effect that Japanese would take gaijin more seriously if more of them stayed in Japan and did important things. If you’re arguing that by doing so, gaijin would then be able to sway public opinion, you’d be talking about a form of “naiatsu” since they’d be inside Japan. So, first, read the topic before posting your nonsense.

  • Great article Debito, though I would agree with some opinions that it meanders too far away from the Island Row Scam to really be called an article about the subject matter. This is an article that should stand on it own as an observance of Japanese cultural tendencies to find comfort in majority opinion. That being said, I do “get it.”

    This is one of the reasons why I really don’t trust television here now, at least in the sense of some variety and news shows. Over the years that I’ve lived here, I have come to the growing realization that all these gourmet reports, trend “navi”, and similar corners on news programs and even entire shows themselves, were a marketing tool meant to generate a public awareness whose ultimate goal was to make people feel that “everyone’s doing it, so I must too.” I quickly learned that so called “booms” really didn’t start to exist until reports on those alleged “booms” started showing up on television—a chicken and egg thing sort of speak. Things don’t really sell here until everyone is convinced that everybody else is buying it.

    I also see this in the industry I work for where a certain former idol is now taking the “actress” route even though most people I know, and the people they know (both professionals and common folk alike) find her to be a poor actress, plainly visible on the commercials she’s in. But, her agency has been busy building up her actress image, most likely paying for a few awards for acting she’s received and of course the media attention it “deserves” plus setting her up as an ambassador at Tokyo’s biggest film event where her profile mentions her only as an actress and not a former idol. All this despite only having 2 films (1 bombed pretty badly) and 1 TV drama (which rated the worst for that season) under her belt. And yet, with enough news reports of her winning awards, being an ambassador at a major film festival, and casting in high profile projects, the aim is to eventually convince people that she actually is a capable actress despite the contrary. This is the way said industry and Japan Inc. in general has become. Building an image of something good, rather than doing or building something good is how you create a “hit.” They’ve become convinced, and rightly so since it works here, that if you convince enough people of something’s worth, it will become valued and vilified.

    In pop-culture, that is to be accepted, but when we’re talking industry and politics, it starts to take on a frightening air. From the re-emerging campaign that nuclear energy is necessary and a nuclear free Japan was just silly dreaming, to the importance of rocks in the ocean for Japan’s sovereignty, we’re starting to see a media campaign to sway popular consensus, and to quell those voices of dissent. It’s brainwashing at it’s most basic level, really. Say something enough times and people will start believing it. The hope is that maybe after Fukushima, those dissenting voices won’t stop trying to be heard.

    — Yes, you certainly “get” it, alright. Thanks for commenting.

  • Eric C Says:

    Did you see Hiroko Tabuchi’s article in the New York Times recently about how companies won’t even hire totally bilingual haafu?

    Did anyone? I read all of her articles in the NY Times and can’t recall any article by her which had this as its primary topic.

    Source please?

  • @#14 Scipio:

    Have a look at the kid in the picture:

    My point is this: Pondscum seems to think that the reason that Japanese companies aren’t filled with NJ is that NJ just aren’t trying, but if they won’t even hire Japanese educated abroad (including haafu like the kid in the picture and discussed in the article), then what chance do NJ have? Pondscum just knows nothing about Japan and wants to blame the victim.

    Also, one point I forgot to mention re Pondscum’s post is this: Maybe there’s a reason why NJ and haafu leave Japan. Why the heck should they stay? It’s a rotten place for NJ and haafu. See my earlier posts on this topic in other threads. Why the hell would I stay in Japan and put up with all kinds of BS in hopes of trying to influence Japan to be a better society? I’ve got better things to do with my life and I certainly wouldn’t consign my children to growing up in Japan. I wouldn’t do that to the children of my worst enemy. Japan ain’t gonna change. That should be blindingly clear after 311. Debito is right: the only thing that might possibly change Japan is gaiatsu, and in the present situation, this gaiatsu is not going to come in the form of polite political pressure – it will like come in the form of a Chinese military attack. Then, the Japanese will delightedly seize on this to play the victim for the next 1000 years. Truly an infantile and irrational culture.

  • What can I say? Debito, lately you’ve given us serious introspection, flights of fancy whimsy and hard hitting political knockouts. 

    Even the apologist-in-chief has apparently been lauding your most recent efforts. Talent always rises and even the enemy has been forced to acknowledge as such. 

    But to read what could have, what should have been! I know I speak for everybody when I say I’m gobsmacked that the Japan Times declined to take this brilliant article. More than anything it’s the depth and breadth of thought that must have proved too much for the modern style of news as entertainment. 

    No-one cuts through the tatamae straight to the heart of this culture like Debito,it’s why he’s the top of the pack. I’d say most Japanese don’t know their own culture as well as this guy does. 

    Of course a letter writing or email campaign to JT may well be in order. This kind of information needs to get out to the wider public, especially so that younger NJ can be prepared and know what they are up against. As a supporter of this site I feel privileged to have access to this wisdom but many others are missing out, sadly. 

    — Thanks. Who is the apologist-in-chief you’re referring to?

  • Baudrillard says:

    @Jjobseeker. Japan is the ultimate postmodern lie, a fake society where nothing is real. Your comment is excellent;

    “And yet, with enough news reports of her winning awards, being an ambassador at a major film festival, and casting in high profile projects, the aim is to eventually convince people that she actually is a capable actress despite the contrary. This is the way said industry and Japan Inc. in general has become. Building an image of something good, rather than doing or building something good is how you create a “hit.”

    Reminds me of a J-marketing student I once had. He just made plans of what he wanted to study, without ever studying it. I.e. The lesson time was spent just making plans.

    The Media is the Massage (sic). Ego massage.

    She IS a good actress because we say she is.

    Imai Miki’s “I miss you”-IS deep in its meaning (its sappy).

    Globe/Komuro ARE excellent harmonic singers (actually excellent marketing/ego singers who sing hideously out of tune with each other)

    That Govt ID you have is NOT valid ID.

    Those rocks are Real Islands, not rocks. They have always been Japanese because we say so.

    Okinawa IS uniformly Japanese (despite indigenous culture).

    Nuclear power IS good for you.(or, How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Fukushima).

    I think it falls down on the last one, when children start to get sick. Nuclear power- a key definer and defiler of postmodern society.

    As DeNiro said it “wagging the dog”, “it must be true, I saw it on TV”.

  • jobseeker- I like your conclusions regarding Japanese popular culture and how it appears to come about. I guess that if you convince people that everyone is doing, buying, or thinking “something” then for many that “something” becomes a safe/ reasonable/ acceptable/ fashionable thing to be doing/ buying/ thinking. The thing is I believe that in the west more people have learned not to trust or take for granted the claims made by the media. Critical thinking at its most basic is the only thing that is required. Why does this T.V show endorse this particular brand? Or why does this T.V presenter express this particular view? Are people here capable of looking further in to the reasons why they are spoon fed a particular opinion, or why they are told which pop band’s CD to buy. I think probably less so than in western society. They don’t seem to go beyond the message. I suppose this is why T.V advertising here seems even more transparant than in the UK for example. Although to be fair, there are a lot of people in the UK who take part in exactly the same decision making process as here- i.e. saw it on T.V, presenter/ celebrity/ newspaper endorsed it, so buy it. And yea, I think that it’s worrying when people suspend their critical faculties in the realm of politics and society issues too. As an extra thought I think that this brainwashing often seems to come under the guise of simply delivering the information. Unfortunately the opinion which the public are being fed may very well not have existed before the media decided to spread it around. Chicken and the egg.

  • Excellent and thought-provoking article. I think you can also draw ties to the 資格-obsessed nature of Japanese culture, and measuring everything about a person through tests and examinations to make their skills “official.”

  • Baudrillard says:

    Here’s one for Debito, after Mike S, others comments:

    The Pressure’s on the screen
    To sell you things that you don’t need
    It’s too much information for me

    It’s pumpin down the cable
    Like never seen before
    A COLA (condom) manufacturer is sponsoring the war


  • Debito,

    Excellent article indeed. I think the JT did “get” it, but the whole argument brings home some truths which are too hard too bear – and in Japan this is simply not allowed. Even the JT was not willing to take the (predictable) flak.

    This issue about sanctioned reality in Japan reminds of a text (from a short story, actually) by Angela Carter which I take the liberty of reproducing here. It was written back in the early 1970s – and in a humorous register – but is now truer than ever, I feel:

    How far does a pretence of feeling, maintained with absolute conviction, become authentic?

    This country has elevated hypocrisy to the level of the highest style. To look at a samurai, you would not know him for a murderer, or a geisha for a whore. The magnificence of such objects hardly pertains to the human. They live only in a world of icons and there they participate in rituals which transmute life itself to a series of grand gestures, as moving as they are absurd. It was as if they all thought, if we believe in something hard enough, it will come true and, lo and behold! they had done and it did.

    Our street was in essence a slum but, in appearance, it was a little enclave of harmonious quiet and, mirabile dictu, it was the appearance which was the reality, because they all behaved so well, kept everything so clean and lived with such rigorous civility.

    What terrible discipline it takes to live harmoniously. They had crushed all their vigour in order to live harmoniously and now they had the wistful beauty of flowers pressed dry in an enormous book.

    —Angela Carter, “A Souvenir of Japan” in Fireworks (1974).

  • Rick Rosseau says:


    your article is excellent because it is a rare analysis of the Japanese psyche on a fundamental level. You managed to put into eloquent words what many Western foreigners observe in this country, but are unable to speak about for the fear of being labeled “embittered” or even “racist”.
    That The Japan Times wasn’t willing to publish this article is baffling, as I thought of them as being open to (from the Japanese point of view) controversial commentary. It seems like you hit the mark with your article, i.e. a point of the Japanese self-image that they realise is very negative, and therefore has to be swept under the rug.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    A very perceptive piece, Debito. Some very good, perceptive replies too.

    I particularly like references to the narrative becoming the truth.
    “やっぱり日本人はお米” – convincing people to eat rice out of a sense of cultural resposibility (convenient for the govt monopoly on rice sales) etc, but even more when this “truth” -often repeated like a mantra – flies in the face of the facts.

    “Japan is a small country” – implying in a weak position. Most Japanese are ignorant of the fact that Japan is consideribly larger than the U.K., France, Germany, Korea, and over 100 other nations.

    “Japan is a peaceful nation” – One of the world’s biggest military spenders. And extremely forgetful of history 1895~ Aug 5, 1945. (Assassinations of PMs, anyone? Research into nuclear weapons that had reached the testing stage in August of ’45?)

    “Japan as victim” – Thinking of this as my 9 year old daughter reads a war story from a text book (the bit of history Team Japan didn’t forget), not to mention the annual sad stories of “innocent settlers” being driven out of Manchuria (settlers… doesn’t that mean colonisation?)

    “There are no racists in Japan” – the media doesn’t give these freaks any coverage… which removes some of their voice, but also provides an easy denial route.

    “We must protect ourselves from foreigners” – I’m sure the 6000 or so Koreans and Chinese who were linched and killed following the Kanto Earthquake would have an opinion about this. Because Japan is a victim, it only stands to reason that criminals must be foreign…

    And that’s BEFORE othering sets in.

  • Eric C Says:
    October 11th, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    My point is this…..

    Nope, fair enough. Somehow I missed that article by Tabuchi. Thanks

    As for the rest of your points in your post to Pondscum, I totally agree. Pondscum’s point of view is a bit like someone saying that there was no Black President of South Africa before 1994 because Black South Africans were not interested in politics.

  • “One exception, of course, is an opinion about Japanese behavior or culture. Ever notice how answers like, “because we’re an island nation” or “we have a long history of being a closed society” are immediate and standardized? Because they are the “consensus responses” – commonly-held, thus legitimate. This is one reason why Japanese society is so susceptible to talking in stereotypes.”

    I totally get it, actually got it many years ago. Ive often wondered about why every Japanese I meet always gives the same canned answer, and thought it had something to do with consensus or brainwashing. What you wrote above confirms what I got many times over here. Outstanding article, its what keeps me coming back to your site. I think your starting to get material for a deeper subject, Debito, and could start penning a new book about the true weirdness of Japan. Careful though, you might have to go into exile somewhere like the guy who wrote the satanic verses did.

  • Debito

    Thanks. Who is the apologist-in-chief you’re referring to?

    You really cheapen your site by posting this person’s comments. This is a good thread with many insightful comments and while I was oriiginally doubtful about your opinion expressed in your original version of the article published in The Japan Times, others on this thread have convinced me otherwise.

    However Fightback is like some Stalinist construct of ‘only constructive criticism is allowed’ and the Fight back is either continously high on drugs or one of those creepy white men from that creepy white men’s website who who used to stalk you, who is trolling your site.

    This ‘apologist this’ and ‘apologist that’ is rather wearing after a time.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Debito,

    Maybe you should salvage this topic. Leave out the Senkaku thing, and rewrite it as a list of ways in which diversity of thought and other social identities amongst ‘the Japanese’ are crushed into conformity, by who, and for what purpose. Then relate it back to how as victims of that process, it therefore seems completely natural for Japanese to do the same thing to NJ; we are forced to conform to the stereotypes of eigo teacher clown, overseas executive who is clueless of Japanese culture, US military, or ‘dangerous criminal element’ (to name just a few). The bullied becoming bullies because vertical hierarchies are the only way Japan’s post-confucian society can put everything in it’s ‘proper place’. Note that this world view assumes that your ‘superiors’ have the right to tell you what that identity is. They most likely can’t understand why we wouldn’t want to accept that. Defining your own place in society is a concept alien to this post-confucianism.

  • @ Dk #22, wow Angela Carter beat me to it, as early as 1974. Then if the illusions and myths Japanese believe in and repeat as mantra are as deep rooted as she says, then I see little hope in the average person here being able to see beyond their hall of mirrors.

    The most dangerous illusions are 1. China will back down because 2. Japan has “technological superiority” and 3. The USA will unconditionally back Japan.

    It only takes a couple of hotheads on either side to turn this into a real shooting war.

    But is it just me or has Fukushima/radiation already been somewhat relegated to “last year”s news” and therefore proportionately less of a threat? That is certainly how it feels.

    “it cant be a threat, its not on the news anymore”

  • Sorry, I should have been more specific, but the apologist-in-chief was a reference to that guy who goes by the Internet handle of Ken Y-N, the one who runs the obsessive stalker sites. 

    It seems like he had to swallow his pride and admit your article was superb, even though he tried to play it down a bit for his followers I think. 

    His lapdog minions apparently didn’t like that so there may be some seeds of dissension sowed there!

    Brings it back to the fore that if you continue going from strength to strength (and don’t bow to editorial pressures), then the apologists won’t have a leg to stand on. Especially if we as NJ stand behind you undivided. 

    With the apologist crowd gone the real focus will be on making headway against the oppression that all of us have felt here in Japan, and our struggles won’t be belittled from within. 

    Supporting this site means supporting rights for all NJ, even the apologists, and I think, nay I hope, that they are starting to realize this. 

  • Baudrillard says:

    I think your article was by necessity roundabout, in that you could not really come out and say that Japanese society’s problems with the lack of a free media, police abuses etc partly stem from its post-fascist legacy.

    This is an inconvenient truth all too often swept under the carpet when discussing pro western democracies that until very recently where anything but, and is practically true of any American ally in the pacific you care to name. South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and to a lesser extent The Philippines are all post-fascist or have recently thrown off one party rule. So any authoritarian behavior you encounter may often stem from this legacy; people do not change so quickly, and often hand down their prejudices generation to generation.

    It really is that simple, but no one comes out and says it. Is it that taboo? Or just a fact ignored because Japan was re-branded as a postwar democracy?

    Labels can be applied to things, but without real grassroots reforms nothing has really changed.

  • Debito, you’ve outdone yourself! Clear, concise and, most importantly, independently verifiable as valid. Top notch, excellent and all of the other superlatives I can’t think of right now!

  • How could JT reject this article?? I really can’t understand what they were thinking.It’s simply a brilliant piece of work.

  • @Fight Back:

    when it comes to the apologist and haters, they really arent worth the time and effort to visit. I thought that site had long been done away with, I stopped reading it so long ago. There was nothing over there worth reading, it was just following Debito with weird apologist explanations for everything. It left me feeling worse off so I stopped looking at their site. There was no substance or anything I could relate to when it comes to my struggles in Japan. A really sad bunch, guess thats what happens when just accept things as they are.

  • I get it, and I wish you would try to rewrite what you are saying in a way that will pass the censors at the JT. I taught English at the college level for ten years before the Fukushima disaster, and in that time I transitioned from doe-eyed novice, to teaching zealously, to unhappy acceptance that colleges in Japan are no different than English conversation schools. My job was to show up every day, use the required textbooks, keep the students entertained with no serious academic study but many games, absolutely to keep student complaints to zero or forfeit my contract renewal, and to pass every student who met attendance requirements even if they displayed no increase in English fluency or even decreased in fluency over the course of the year. Moreover, there were ways around attendance. Students with poor attendance got administrators to put pressure on me to find ways to pass them through an extra assignment. Both administrators and students strongly resisted any attempt to bring in critical thinking skills into the classroom. The teaching material had to be “Do you like ice cream?” It could not include discussions of “WWII comfort women” etc. Year by year, I became more depressed as I felt what passed as legitimate education kept becoming narrower and narrower as more and more colleges micromanaged classroom education or switched over to teaching for standardized tests such as the TOEIC. Then came Fukushima. All my employers called/emailed to see if I were still alive and if I could still teach. All my employers made contingency plans for rolling blackouts. But none of them implemented a radiation policy. There would be no monitoring of radiation levels on campus. There would be no monitoring of radiation levels in foods in the cafeteria. There would be no policies in place for students or faculty who decided to relocate because of radiation because radiation did not exist. As a father of a one-year-old child who plays in dirt (and you know how often that dirt ends up in a one-year-old’s mouth) I decided I had to relocate my family for his safety because what became the legitimate truth in Japan is that there is no radiation. None of my employers would pay for a longer commuter because they claimed I relocated for personal reasons. I lost my jobs, but before I did, I did manage to get past the censors an article on how reality has disappeared in Japan by giving the article an obscure Ivory Tower title “Be Concise and Be Sensitive, Casandra: Case Studies in Censorship in Civil Society.” You see, my Japanese employers were saying to me that my concern for my son’s health was being insensitive to Japanese. We must all “Do For Japan.” So it is not just the Senkakus, Fukushima, English education, as a very bitter unemployed permanent resident of Japan, I really do wonder if there is any reality left. And even more troubling, as a middle-aged educator who cannot hide his commitment to liberal education (democracy and critical thinking) I wonder if I will ever be employed again in what I call the post-Fukushima, post-reality Japan.

  • Norcal_Steve says:

    imho the published article is way, way, way stronger. Because it’s focused from the start on specifics. It’s based on a strong grasp of specific facts rather than generalizations. That makes it hard hitting directly at the object, rather than all this beating around the bush.

    wrt this article, it’s profound and I very much ‘get it’ when looking at Japan from an intellectual viewpoint. You are insightful and I agree. On the other hand, and I think we’re looking at the heart and soul of Japan, I think you are leaving out the emotional truth. To me, Japan is a uniquely charming place because it is such a warm society where the overwhelming social emotion is solidarity. It’s sort of a contradictory, mysterious, real living thing in that you have to give away a lot to get there, but you also getting a hell of a lot in return. A society where people aren’t always in general putting themselves first (at least not nakedly). Where team spirit is the default in a group rather than the exception. I could go on and on but I’m really talking about a feeling in my bones when I’m here in Japan that it’s generally much less ‘every man for himself’ but rather a society which shares deeply felt beliefs about community and common good. I’ve felt this strongly in both smaller work groups as well as generally manifest in society at large. I’m know I’m overgeneralizing too, but it’s harder to submit emotional atmospherics to intellectual analysis, while it’s also quite true that just as even in a culture of high solidarity there are always situations of naked and vicious conflict and there is always a certain amount of competition even in more cooperative than average organizations.
    There are prices to be paid for solidarity such as those of intellectual conformity which you point out. There is also the price to be paid by people being put through a massively coercive socialization process to get them to put the group first and themselves second – there is a tremendous loss of individuality and healthy risk taking.

    All that being said, I think too much focus on intellectually analyzing the intellectual drawbacks risks ignoring the emotional benefits this culture achieves.

    Aand btw have you noticed how more than ever celebrity obsessed the US is these days? “Paris Hilton, what do you think about the invasion of Iraq?” or “Mr. Multimillionaire TV ‘news journalist/analyst’ personality, how much austerity do we need? How deeply must we cut social security benefits?”. Consensus viewpoint in the US is set and discussed largely by a small very well paid subculture of wealthy Washington insiders and the people with the power to make all the laws live within that bubble. That system seems equally screwed up and absurd. And in both societies the interests of the massive corporate and personal wealth are usually being served fairly exclusively by the state.

    Anyway, I have used some massive generalizations to criticize you for being too general 🙂 but my point is that imho you can be convincingly hard hitting vs a wide audience like all English JT readers the more you build up a solid edifice of fact rather than starting from the general. This is where I think people might be capable of being educated in more important ways on the more concrete screwed up stuff, and you can let them reason from the stuff that is screwed up, to the general truths and general reasons why, on their own. Or maybe lead them to general conclusions, but build from the ground up, from specific to general. IMO that leads to far more forceful and interesting articles.

  • Norcal_Steve says:

    BTW, on a personal note (and I’d be happy to take this discussion out of the blog space to email or even phone if you have any interest. I suspect I might get trashed on your blog comment page but it’s you I’m quite presumptuously addressing), Arudou san, from my perspective you have successfully created yourself as what I consider to be a populist. I’m not sure you’d like that term or not, and I’m not sure you’d like it if I said that is how you have sold your brand (not in any pejorative sense, but in the sense that anybody who pursues any career, especially an independent one, has to sell themselves, to create a salient public persona). But I see just recently that you also are indeed a crackerjack researcher. Move in that direction! I mostly have not read your JT columns, at least not steadily, except since early this year, and I’m shooting from the hip in any case, but keep writing like the last 2 columns and you are a great, very serious journalist/researcher. You are a smart and serious guy – you have a public platform too. Use it! Use it as an empiricist deep researcher and not as a populist. You have the brand, you don’t need to cater to random gaijins. Don’t rail at the little stuff, the socio-psychological, the ‘identity politics’ side. Like all the advanced capitalist, criminal finance cartel owned systems, Japan is rotten to the core in so many ways. Research more deeply and write as a political scientist (regardless of what your meshi says)! I don’t really know but I’m taking a WAG that you can find your way into meaningful career position(s) in that direction. It seems so much more substantial, interesting, ‘serious’, and I would love to see you become eg. the next Karl Wolfram. BTW I hope you have also been reading stuff like Bailout Nation, Naked Capitalism (NC is a fantastic blog btw), Matt Taibi’s long pieces in RS and his book griftopia (mostly good at nailing Greenspan to the wall which Bailout nation also does well). Anyway, that’s my .02 worth of career advice :), just in case it reverberates with you at all.

    — Thanks Steve. Keep reading my JT columns and also Zeit Gist articles on the JT for the past ten years — I meticulously researched those too.

  • “To me, Japan is a uniquely charming place because it is such a warm society where the overwhelming social emotion is solidarity. It’s sort of a contradictory, mysterious, real living thing in that you have to give away a lot to get there, but you also getting a hell of a lot in return. A society where people aren’t always in general putting themselves first (at least not nakedly). Where team spirit is the default in a group rather than the exception.”

    Norcal #36

    OMG, the Japanese sense of solidarity is very peculiar indeed. It functions exclusively inside tiny “Japanese-only” groups or tribes, and the Japanese seem unable to see anything else outside or beyond this “uchi-soto” framework. It is particularism in its extreme degree. Take solidarity in terms of human rights, e.g.: it is exceedingly difficult to get Japanese fight for the human rights of non-Japanese — or for human rights tout court outside Japan, in distant countries (and to the Japanese, all other countries are “distant”…). Also, take solidarity in relation to the environment: nature located in faraway places, or outside the strict rules of seeing and behaving imposed by “hanami” or “tsukimi” social rites, hardly seems to exist for most Japanese. Only when nature is brought into the realm of the familiar and the predictable — and when there are immediate personal gains at stake — do most Japanese seem to become interested in protecting nature. Let’s admit that this view of “solidarity” leaves a lot to be desired…

    “It’s sort of a contradictory, mysterious, real living thing in that you have to give away a lot to get there. . . . I’m really talking about a feeling in my bones when I’m here in Japan”…

    Peter Dale once called this way of looking at things in Japan, buttressed by the discourses of foreign “exotes”, as “an epistemology of the blood”: the false myth that “the Japanese Spirit” is a kind of mystery inaccessible to reason and to those who cannot feel Japan “in the bones”. Beware, as this mentality hinders any critical discourse about the country, and has been the key argument used, up to today, to devalue and ditch any non-Japanese attempts to understand social realities in Japan and to solve the many problems therein.

  • Norcal_Steve says:

    OK, I’m admittedly fairly ignorant. I did peek around your site a few years ago and read your stuff about discrimination in Japanese academic contracts, also checked out your personal story and the links to JT and other articles by/on other fathers of kidnapped ‘half’ kids etc. I’m sure I’ve read some other columns of yours too but I was back in Norcal for about 20 years and not paying much attention to Japan except quite sporadically around visits to the in-laws in Nara. So I can’t say I remember any of your columns other than from feb-march this year.

    I actually am rather curious as to whether or not you would agree that your last two columns have been qualitatively different from earlier this year, for example. I’m not trying to put you on the spot, just to say that to me, you sort of got electrified in a very good way. Almost like you had ditched into a capsule hotel box and torn off your street clothes and emerged as a different identity a la superman. Just my gut reaction, but that’s I’d be interested in knowing whether or not you feel that way yourself at all (perhaps not, or if so in a much more subtle way. Correct me if I’m wrong but my impression is that you recently joint E-W in some capacity and may have moved to Hi. If so you are undergoing major life changes in general) or do you even get where I’m coming from?

  • Norcal_Steve says:

    @DK, the thing is, it’s hard to evaluate any society in absolute terms. Let’s just take support for international human rights. What society in the world has a great record on human rights? The US who invaded Iraq just because the neocons wanted to and who are murdering civilians at random around the world using drones? China is now getting world wide reach – do you think the societies they are interfacing with in Africa are getting any nice benefits other than the kleptocrats who are selling off the resources to the Chinese?

    Everybody state around the world interacts almost exclusively for the benefits of their own state (in the minds of the elites, the military and the biggest financial interests) and any lip service paid to human rights is just that. I imagine that pressure on Burma helped to transform the situation there which is great, and maybe there was some altruism, but there is only altruism where a country’s financial interests are not much involved at all, otherwise those and the military’s interests will trump all else.

    Anyway, don’t kid yourself. I have been in (8.5 years total) and out of Japan over the 35 years and lived in India and Iran also as well as the US. I’m critical of everybody everywhere and it’s all relative. I’m living for myself and to enjoy my own life first and foremost. I’m a student of everything and not trying to change anybody except to in case anybody asks and only if they ask, encourage anybody anywhere to meditate.

    The biggest social problem everywhere as I see it is that a small group of people are largely above the law and accumulate most of the wealth and not too much trickles down to everybody else. To me how even the distribution of wealth is, is the biggest and most important score card for justice and quality of life even tho there are also other important things and even in the best places some people always get screwed/killed/jailed unjustly. anyway, don’t lecture me and I won’t lecture you. Or lecture me if you want, but you don’t know better than I do, I don’t care and I’m not going to pay too much attention. I came here just for a small reach out to Arudou, not to argue about what’s wrong or right with Japan or defend my right to live here and enjoy it if I so desire. I don’t like arguing on the internet because without background you don’t have any idea who you are arguing with and in any case it’s all pretty meaningless and my ego gets engaged way too easily and foolishly, so I try to avoid it as a waste of time and energy. Nothing personal about your or your reply to me, DK.

    — Let’s draw this two-way conversation to a close.


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