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Hi Blog. Here’s my Shingetsu News Agency monthly “Visible Minorities” column 10, talking about how some minorities in Japan sell out to authority as soon as they are granted any privilege. I mention former Diet Member Tsurunen Marutei, Japan scholar Donald Keene, and Kyoto Seika University President Oussouby Sacko, and how they are now ironically perpetuating problems they once faced. Full text now archived below. Debito Arudou, Ph.D.
(And if you haven’t subscribed for Japan’s last bastion of independent journalism in English at SNA, I strongly suggest you do. Fund Progressive Media that enables exposes like these.)
Visible Minorities: The Guestists and the Collaborators
SNA (Tokyo) — In a recent SNA Speakeasy on “Foreign Residents in the Coronavirus Era,” I argued that Non-Japanese (NJ) must band together and be vocal about claiming what’s due them as taxpayers. We shouldn’t wait for the government to deign to divvy out what it thinks foreigners want, as if it’s the omotenashi (hospitality) Japan offers any guest. Instead, NJ residents should be telling the government what they want, on their terms; trying to influence policy agendas that affect them by, for example, participating in local government forums and policy deliberation councils (shingikai).
People have been advocating this for years. Why isn’t it happening as often as it should? Because NJ (especially those in the English-language communities) collectively suffer from something I call “guestism”: falling for the fiction that they are merely “guests” in Japan subject to the whims of the Japanese “hosts.” Their mantra is “It’s their country, not mine. Who am I to tell them what to do?”
Still, eventually some NJ live here long enough, develop deep connections and language abilities, and even become Japanese citizens. Some transform into community leaders, prominent business owners and spokespeople, media mavens, and elected officials. They are definitely no longer “guests.”
But once they earn due respect and authority, another problem comes up: Many squander their position by becoming “collaborators.”
Instead of using their power for good, such as showing other NJ how to follow in their footsteps and to assimilate and enfranchise themselves, collaborators pull the ladder up behind them. They actively consort with the powers-that-be to preserve their privilege and to undermine other NJ Residents.
For example, consider Marutei Tsurunen, a Finland-born naturalized Japanese who in 2001 became the first caucasian elected to Japan’s national Diet. Despite more than a decade as a policymaker, Tsurunen strictly toed the party line regardless of how it affected NJ residents, and disavowed any NJ causes, in favor of “environmental issues.”
Even when fellow politicians made overtly racist statements about foreigners in Japan, Tsurunen refused to offer any counter-narrative. He even avoided Diet meetings with the United Nations on NJ discrimination and human rights. The last straw was when he voided his own citizenship status, calling himself a “foreigner” in a 2010 Japan Times interview, and advised NJ to accept their fate as permanent outsiders. Ultimately, after this self-gaijinizer figuratively promised to “change the color of his eyes” if he got reelected, Tsurunen lost his seat in 2013.
Or consider the late scholar of Japanese literature Donald Keene. Congratulating himself on becoming a Japanese citizen, he announced that he was staying in Japan “in solidarity” with the Japanese people during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (contrasting himself with the mythical fleeing foreign “flyjin”). He even sniped in a press conference, “As a Japanese, I swear not to commit any crimes” (pandering to the fictitious foreigner crime wave).
Despite public promises to help out with the Fukushima disaster, he instead took a leisurely ocean cruise, legally adopted his common-law husband as his son (which is how Japan’s LGBT communities establish inheritance ties), and eventually built his celebrated Donald Keene Center in a different prefecture. Yet to the very end he publicly portrayed himself as morally superior to the foreign riff-raff.
Even today, collaborators pop up in the oddest places, as seen in the following case study of successful NJ activism.
Last month, a French resident of Kyoto reported to Debito.org about a comic book issued to grade-schoolers by Kyoto city. A primer on street safety, the manga portrayed the tribulations of local kids and their granny trying to navigate mannerly through the mean streets of Kyoto. NJ made an appearance—not as residents, but as physically-distinguishable Western and Asian “tourists” disturbing the peace by loitering, littering, and speaking loudly and incomprehensibly. And, for good measure, the frightened children are depicted as scared by the prospect of having to communicate to all “foreigners” in English.
The Kyoto resident and friends contacted the Kyoto city government, objected to the negative stereotyping and propaganda being officially distributed to their kids, and successfully got the comic withdrawn. Score one for the non-guestists.
Then we looked at who created the manga; it was the Kyoto International Manga Museum and Kyoto Seika University. Both organizations, if truly “international,” should have known better. Kyoto Seika University in particular has in its statement of principles a “respect for humanity… and dignity… recognizing diverse points of view… and promoting diversity… where no individual member will be denied opportunity, be excluded, or experience discrimination.”
That statement is undersigned by Dr. Oussouby Sacko, a Mali-born Japanese citizen who became Kyoto Seika University’s president in 2018 with great fanfare. He was even featured in the New York Times in one of their “Japan is changing” articles.
So how does producing a comic book that alienates “foreigners” square with Kyoto Seika University’s mission? We’re not sure, because Sacko has not responded to inquiries.
However, we do know that Sacko has an odd view of how racism works. In his NYT feature, he claimed that he has never experienced racism in Japan—just of being “treated differently simply because he does not look Japanese.” To him, differential treatment by physical appearance doesn’t qualify as racism because “it’s not because you’re black.” Complementing his Kyoto University degrees in engineering and architecture, Sacko should undergo some social science training in modern studies of racialization processes.
Furthermore, Sacko conducts flawed social science research. In a 2019 plenary session at the Japan Association for Language Teaching, he gave high-profile talks on educational leadership and the “necessity of collaboration between Japanese and foreign teachers to cope with the needs of more open and global education… for teaching, learning, and leading within the Japanese context.”
Yet, as attendees noted, much of his expert advice on the Japanese context was oblivious to “Japanese” managerial processes, including his vague goal-setting processes that threw his administration into turmoil. Moreover, he couldn’t recognize his own privilege as he offered a charming vignette about holding weekly parties in the lobby of his apartment complex, despite the subtle Kyotoesque protests from his neighbors.
After watching a few of Sacko’s television appearances, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on. Instead of creating alternative narratives that push the envelope for fellow residents of diversity, he serves up personal charm, charisma, and clownery. He seems just fine with being a token gaijin, capitalizing on his respected position in Japanese society, while saying nothing about his university creating a racist manga for grade schoolers. At Kyoto Seika University, it seems he’s just a mascot.
These are some of the minorities granted positions of power in Japan—in it for themselves, oblivious to the problems they perpetuate for others. It seems the more visible these minorities become, the more likely they will forget what they went through to get where they are. Again, they pull the ladder up behind them.
No wonder Japan’s “visible minorities” have so much trouble making inroads against discrimination in Japan. They often become their own worst enemies.
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