Debito’s SNA Visible Minorities column 8: “No Free Pass for Japan’s Shirking Responsibility”, Mar 16, 2020 (full text archived)


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Hi Blog. I know everyone’s talking about the Coronavirus (and I do here too, for a bit). But my latest column backs the lens up to see this all in a larger context of Japan’s perpetual bad habits, and how they get a “free pass” even when those habits have adverse effects on the rest of the world. Especially when Japan is being held up as a model by many as a system that helps the powerful evade responsibility and transfer blame. Have a read.

One more note: Nowhere else in Japan but an independent news press like the Shingetsu News Agency would publish an article like this. This article will be behind a paywall in a few days, so please chip in $5 a month (I pay more) at the venue for access.  Debito Arudou, Ph.D.


Visible Minorities: No Free Pass for Shirking Responsibility

SNA (Tokyo) — There’s an oft-used expression in Japanese: sekinin tenka. Best translated as “passing the buck,” it’s a reflex of dodging blame for one’s own actions by transferring responsibility to others. For too long, Japan has done so on the world stage with impunity—even when it affects the world adversely.

Let’s start with, since it’s timely, the 3.11 Fukushima nuclear meltdown that took place nine years ago this month. While the earthquake and tsunami are not Japan’s fault, situating a nuclear power plant so perilously close to the coastline is; as is the perpetually-botched response of containment and leakage (even the willful dumping) of irradiated water into the Pacific Ocean.

Contrast that with the attention and criticism (and even a TV series) Russia got for Chernobyl, where the situation has finally been contained in a sarcophagus. In Japan, officials instead blamed world standards of safe radiation levels for being alarmist (adjusting them upwards for domestic political purposes) and declared Fukushima produce safe for consumption.

Even more timely is how sekinin tenka influenced Japan’s COVID-19 response.  I mentioned last column the cruise ship Diamond Princess, still docked at Yokohama harbor, where thousands of passengers are quarantined in what became a fast-breeder petri dish for Coronavirus.  Official dithering and silo-ing resulted in unsafe containment conditions (and the silencing of a medical-specialist whistleblower), exacerbating an international incident.  It got so out of control that respective governments had to swoop in and extract their citizens.  So far, seven passengers have died from these bureaucratic games.

But still responsibility has been evaded.  To this day, the Japan is the only country to exclude cruise ship passengers (many if not mostly Japanese citizens) from its national patient tallies.  It’s been inspiration to some:  Trump tried to get away with the same thing when another cruise ship recently docked in Oakland, California, when he decried, “I like the numbers being where they are.  I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”

In Japan, sekinin tenka is normalized enough to be a reflex, and it has a long history.

Consider Japan’s attitude towards its colonialism.  Despite two generations occupying and exploiting other Asian countries, it eschews any special ties that other colonists, such as Great Britain and the Commonwealth, have.  In fact, Japan so disavows any responsibility for its past that it classifies former Japanese citizens of empire (the Zainichi, whose ancestors worked, fought, and died for Japan) as “foreigners” even though their descendants have been born in raised in Japan for generations.

This is legitimized by Japan’s academia and intelligentsia.  Japan is the only modern former imperial power that has essentially evaded the self-reflections of postcolonialism, never truly coming to terms with its role as occupier and aggressor in two world wars.  Instead you get Japan’s narrative of self-exoneration and victimhood—so strong that some quarters even blame America for allegedly forcing Japan to attack Pearl Harbor.  This unchecked historical revisionism and denialism perpetually angers Japan’s neighbors and remains a destabilizing narrative in the region.

Finally, sekinin tenka approaches the absurd when you look at Japan’s race relations.  To this day, educators and opinion leaders (including even many overseas academics) see Japan’s racism as something exogenous, adopted from “Western concepts of race”.  Their argument runs that Japan was just mimicking other Western Imperialists, meaning the onus is somehow on Westerners for inspiring Japan.  Even today, Japan’s clearest examples of racism are excused with the logic that Japan’s discrimination can’t be “racial in the Western sense” because Japan apparently has no other races. 

But this is no accident.  Japan’s education system still teaches the concept of racial discrimination as something that only happens elsewhere, such as in the American South under Jim Crow or South Africa under Apartheid.  Result:  A society that won’t see and can’t address its own racism, and furthermore gets defensive when pointed out.

However, some might say, so what?  Who cares what Japan does as China becomes Asia’s leader?  But that overlooks how Japan’s bad habits continue to affect the world. 

How about Japan’s head start on global warming, after decades of unsustainable deforestation of other parts of Asia (such as Indonesia and The Philippines) for the sake of the continued practice of cosmetic overwrapping of products and disposable chopsticks?

How about Japan’s overmedication practices that spawned antibiotic-resistant superbugs that plague hospitals worldwide? 

How about Japan’s sponsorship of overseas university Japan Studies departments (now mimicked by China’s Confucius Institutes) as a means to blunt critical analysis of Japan?

How about Japan’s creation of unfettered anonymous internet forums (such as 2-channel) that have inspired online troll factories and bullying worldwide, to the point where they now polarize societies and influence elections?

And most importantly, how about Japan being used as a template for creating viable “ethnostates” worldwide, inspiring radical conservatives and xenophobes (most famously Steve Bannon and Trump)?  Japan has demonstrated how to keep a country racially “pure” by curbing immigration and blaming foreigners for multiple social ills (while happily importing foreigners as cheap disposable labor with few civil or political rights).

In fact, what’s been happening in the United States for the past three years has been happening in Japan for decades.  Japan’s ruling-elite kakistocracy has led the current “populism” wave undermining liberal democracies worldwide.

Ironic is that whenever China or Russia do the things that Japan does, they are quickly vilified as untrustworthy and antithetical to the values of liberal societies.  And rightly so.

But even a generation after the end of the Cold War, Japan is still getting a “free pass” under the legacy of anticommunism, what with Japan being the unshakable Asian ally of the “free world”.  Even President Obama’s “Pivot to East Asia” strategy chose to overlook Shinzo Abe’s revisionism and willful remilitarization of Japan.

Again, some might say, it really doesn’t matter.  Karma’s a bitch.  Senescent Japan will get theirs as students worldwide study China instead, and Japanese Studies fades into the sweetmeat pursuits of observing a soft-power superpower.

That would be a mistake.  Japan’s free pass on its bad habits is still hurting the world.

It is incumbent on people who still know a lot about Japan, such as our generation of scholars from the 1980s-1990s who studied Japan as an economic powerhouse (not an anime factory), to keep pointing out the bad habits.  How Japan is poisoning not only the oceans but also international relations in Asia.  How it is offering succor to xenophobes and megaphoning their intolerance.  And how it is fostering political systems where unaccountability is normal and shifting responsibility to others is a viable practice.

Allowing Japan to show the world how things are done will in fact help undermine liberal societies and democracies.  Let’s keep an eye on that.  Call out the sekinin tenka.



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4 comments on “Debito’s SNA Visible Minorities column 8: “No Free Pass for Japan’s Shirking Responsibility”, Mar 16, 2020 (full text archived)

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    This was a really good read Dr. Debito.
    When faced with a ‘tough decision’, institutionally Japan prefers to procrastinate and waste time, allowing themselves to be ‘overcome by events’, rendering the original decision (or lack thereof) as irrelevant in the light of the newer, worse situation which requires (wait for it)…more procrastination. They all look very busy whilst procrastinating though (and everyone assumes, since the Japanese are so (warning! ‘Japan myth’) ‘efficient’ that much is being done and done ‘properly’).
    I was struck by your mention of the Fukushima triple melt-down.
    I recall how NHK constantly reassured that there was not meltdown’ whilst at precisely the same moment, BBC World News was talking about the triple melt-down as a fact.
    I can’t help also wonder if in the same way that the national SPIDI atmospheric radiation system was showing where the Fukushima radiation was spreading in real-time, and the Japanese government withheld that information to ‘prevent confusion’, putting the health of residents at risk, the Japanese government is now aware that it has a serious Covid-19 outbreak but is seeking to ignore it because it would cause ‘confusion’ and upset the business-as-normal ‘dreamy day’ (and of course, lead the public to question the government’s handling of Diamond Princess)?
    I guess we’ll see in a couple of weeks.
    Only today, the governor of Tokyo is asking people not to gather ‘or else’ and threatening a lockdown;

    Maybe now that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are off, the five doesn’t have to be embarrassed by having an outbreak- it looks like Japan may go from ‘isolated cases’, skip widespread testing and self-isolation, and proceed directly to the ‘lockdown’ stage.

    I wonder how many elderly and vulnerable will die at home alone after being refused testing or unable to go through all the hoop-jumping to get testing?

  • Two points. First, the issue of locating the Fukushima reactors is not that they were close to the coast, but that the 30m high cliff the reactors were originally planned for was cut down to 5m at the command of the GE contractors building it. Landlocked US engineers who had never experienced a tsunami overrode Japanese engineers to save on the costs of pumping water. In addition, there was zero historical record of a tsunami reaching higher than 5m so even the Japanese engineers can be forgiven somewhat for not having been more firm in their objections.

    Second, dumping the radioactive tritium last year is a non starter. The official disposal technique for tritium at labs is to pour it down a regular sink. Drinking tritium will have no effect on the body. Ergo, the trope, “Japan is endangering everyone by disposing nuclear waste into the sea,” is just plain bs.

    If the Fukushima disaster is going to be laid at Japan’s feet then I would say the problem is the engineers’ and disaster simulation managers’ lack of imagination—that a tsunami would never be higher than 5m. And even then, everything would have been fine if the emergency generators would have been located somewhere other than the basements. Or, at the very least, protected from flooding.

    I would also blame the regulatory system for allowing the reactors to remain on line long after their initial best by date.

    As for the claim that the media hid facts. Yes, that’s true. However, in the book, “On the Brink, the Inside Story of Fukushima,” the scientific advisors closest to the PM claim to have been well aware very early of the meltdowns. They understood because of what requests were coming from the reactor staff through the one of two working telephones at the PMs office, if and when anyone was able to get through.

    You can imagine the pandemonium in those first few days. If the govt decided to downplay events at the time, one can understand their reluctance to panic the population until they had a handle on the situation. If things had gone south, there was no way to evacuate 20+ million people anyway.

    There are issues where Japan seriously falls short, but their handling of Fukushima after the event is not one of them. The author is just disingenuously Japan bashing with zero relevance to the issues at hand. And if he wants to drag up Fukushima, he should have at least done the research instead of regurgitating the hysteria-laden talking points unexamined. Just my ¥2.

    —- Source on the GE contractors? And do you have a picture of the gun they put to the poor Japanese government’s head to force them to abide by the 5m guideline? Nothing like a bit of foreigner bashing to continue to let the GOJ off the hook.

    As for the author’s research on Fukushima, start here and here. We’ll just have to agree to disagree about the GOJ’s handling of Fukushima falling short.


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