Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 2, “Public Forums, Spinning Wheels”


Hi Blog. Here’s the text of my second new JUST BE CAUSE Japan Times Column, out at the beginning of every month. Enjoy. Debito

Public forums, spinning wheels
Column Two for the Japan Times, Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A friend sent me a Yomiuri article (Feb. 10) about a neighborhood forum in Kanazawa. Its title: “Citizens consider how to live together with foreigners.”

I’m pleased this event was deemed worth a write-up. After all, I’ve witnessed plenty of forums over the years that have been ignored.

But it wasn’t really what I’d call “news.” I couldn’t help feeling that attendees were just “reinventing the wheel” rather than developing a vehicle that would actually get us anywhere.

The Kanazawa forum was reportedly warm and fuzzy: Seventy people discussed how to make the area a nicer place, with Japanese and non-Japanese participating in good ol’ “machi zukuri” (town-building). “International communication starts with us, inside us” sorta thang.

It had the bromides about how people find it difficult dealing with different languages and cultures, giving birth to all sorts of dreadful misunderstandings. The conclusion: It’s best to get together and talk more often.

Kum ba yah. I’ve been through these gabfests before, and it’s made me a tad curmudgeonly. It’s like karaoke where the only song available is “Yesterday”; a conversation that never gets beyond talk of food and chopstick use; a class full of “permanent beginners.” In other words, a constantly repeating cycle without progress.

I was a panelist at another one of these get-togethers recently in Saitama. Organized by some very earnest and eager people, it was bursting with panelists to the point where we had too many cooks, stewing over how nice ‘n’ peaceful yet standoffish Japanese society can be.

It was a cookie-cutter of Kanazawa, except for the presence of a snooty young local Diet member who mouthed platitudes about how tough things must be for everyone, including the Japanese who have to clean up after foreigners.

At that point I began woolgathering — recalling all the warm-fuzzy forums I’d seen turn into woolly-headed worry sessions — and arrived at a sad conclusion: They are wasted opportunities.

For even if these events are put on by people genuinely concerned about the welfare of non-Japanese residents (not by the local-government “internationalization Old Boys,” justifying budgets for parties and overseas trips), if one is not careful the agenda will go on autopilot, bogged down in banalities.

For example, the discussion invariably focuses on the cultural differences rather than similarities: the conflicts that arise when foreigners enter the picture (after all, people love drama). A perennial hot topic is the consequences of juxtaposing gaijin with burnable garbage sorting (they go together like steak and eggs). And gee whiz, Japanese language is “muzukashii” and people can’t speak goodly. The hopeful undercurrent is that communication will ultimately fix all.

Communicating will indeed fix most. But not all. I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s “matsuri” (as these forums are indubitably good things) but someday they must get beyond the “permanent beginner” and “cultural ambassador” stage, because there are situations where mere talk will not work.

Bona fide racists and paranoid shopkeepers exist out there, as they do in any society. They will not accept people under any terms who, in their eyes, look or will potentially act “different.” Sometimes just appealing to a xenophobe’s better nature simply will not work.

This is why we need laws against racial discrimination — yes, actual laws with enforceable punishments — to deal with the stoneheads who won’t see sense and accept that people should be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin or national origin. Until more people realize this, the ill treatment of non-Japanese residents discussed in these forums will continue unabated.

Thus these forums miss the point when they pass the problem off as mere cultural misunderstanding. Culture is not the core issue here: One can learn culture, but one cannot change race.

The point should be that Japanese society must stop the common practice of using race and physical appearance as a paradigm for pigeonholing people. And until we reach a common understanding (and an enforceable law) on that issue, talking shops like these will just keep spinning their wheels.

Are you going to one of these forums? Then bring this issue up from the floor: How local governments should protect local rights by passing local ordinances (“jourei”). Kawasaki City has passed one against exclusionary landlords, and so can anyone else. But it’s not going to happen until more people call for it.

Don’t just jaw — we need a law. And I said so on the panel in Saitama. I dare readers to copycat if you ever get the chance. Double dare ya.

Debito Arudou’s coauthored book “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants” (Akashi Shoten Inc.) is now on sale (see www.debito.org). Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments to: community@japantimes.co.jp

6 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 2, “Public Forums, Spinning Wheels”


    Dear Japan Times Editor,

    I write to thank you for printing Mr. Arudou’s recent article on public forums that are organized to discuss improving international relations. His point about the necessity of laws that protect individuals in Japan against racial discrimination is a good one, and he makes it both convincingly and with humor.

    Of course, laws alone will never suffice to assure a just world, but they remain an important means for protecting the rights of those who may be mistreated.

    Best regards,

    Dr. Philip M. Adamek
    Department of Literature
    Kagoshima Prefectural College
    Kagoshima JAPAN

  • Philip, laws don’t change people’s hearts, but they do restrain the heartless, which is the point of them.

  • While I have yet to be formally refused service/discriminated against in Japan, it is something that I worry about in the long-term. Sure, I’ve got an apartment right now, but what happens when my wife and I start looking for a home? Will we encounter resistance because of my race? That simply would not be an issue if we lived in the United States, thanks to the laws which are already in place. Are there racists in the US? Hells yeah. Can a realtor turn away someone because they don’t like foreigners? Not if they want to keep their job.

  • Philip Adamek says:

    Kimpatsu, It is not clear to me what the intention of your comment was. For all I can tell, you have only paraphrased my own comments. Be that as it may, laws can restrain the heartless only if they are enforced. And even then the “heartless” pull off many a misdeed.

  • Yes of course we need laws against discrimination, what society doesn’t?
    Remember if you will how bad it was in American before the Equal Rights and various other movements that happened.
    Now I don’t think Japan is as bad as America was in the 1960s, but what Japan needs is equal rights for all people regardless of race or religion, a society free from discrimination.
    Now, my question is, would it take anything less than a revolution for this to happen in Japan?
    How long do you think it would take?

  • Communicating will indeed fix most. But not all. I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s “matsuri” (as these forums are indubitably good things) but someday they must get beyond the “permanent beginner” and “cultural ambassador” stage, because there are situations where mere talk will not work.

    This is a good point, and even transcends the specific issue you are addressing here.

    Liberal democracy is a pretty vague and overused term, but presumably we have and need it for the very reason that we don’t always agree — even when we are successfully communicating. If communication solved everything we wouldn’t need politics.


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