Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column 3: “Activism vs Academia”



The Japan Times: Tuesday, May 6, 2008
“Beyond Activism vs. Academia”
Article three for the JUST BE CAUSE column

Back in January, I was a panelist at Waseda University’s Global Institute for Asian Regional Integration, invited to give an “activist’s perspective” to an academic crowd.

Academics are a tough audience. In a way, they’re the activist’s antithesis. Researchers must offer “dispassionate” analysis — looking at data without taking any sides or showing any “bias.” This means academics often view the fight for human rights fundamentally differently.

For example, when I talk about the nationwide spread of “Japanese Only” exclusionary signs, academics often become doubting Thomases. To them, a few signs up are not necessarily indicative of a trend. Their issue is a matter of degree — i.e. are there enough signs up to demonstrate, say, “statistical significance”? For the activist, however, it’s a matter of incidence. One “Japanese Only” sign is too many. Even one sign is enough to violate the Japanese Constitution and United Nations treaty.

So naturally, some academics have been rather skeptical when I claim racial discrimination here is growing in magnitude and scope. One even asserted at this forum that my online “naming and shaming” of discriminators ( www.debito.org/roguesgallery.html ) is counterproductive — that too much “attacking Japan” alienates potential allies. Again, I understand why never the twain. The academic observer, particularly in the social sciences, is bound by a “prime directive” — not to interfere with their object of study when collecting data; plus there is an incumbent resistance to making value judgments (think of “cultural imperialism” etc.; to an anthropologist, I’m probably the Antichrist). In sum, academics observe societal or global “standards.” Activists, however, try to create or adjust them.

So during the Q-and-A, I made the case that praxis makes perfect — that academics also need to be more “activist.” The following essay, taken almost verbatim from a recording, sprung from nowhere:

“Let’s do a meta-discussion here about the whole ‘global standards’ thing, because this is really the bedrock of our argument. Whenever we look at ‘globalization’ and ‘global standards’, who sets those? It’s not really clear.

“If we look at America (as an example of a world standard-setter), we might say, ‘Oh, well, they’re having a xenophobic wave. They’re actually instituting fingerprinting for other people, so other countries might start doing it too. Look at Britain, they’re bringing it in voluntarily for people that want to go through the border smoothly.’

“Yes, but just because a couple of other countries in the world do it does not mean; a) it’s happening everywhere so it’s indicative of a trend; or b) that it’s justifiable. We as activists don’t say, ‘This is OK because other people are doing it.’

“Our starting point is more, ‘What’s the better way for people to reach a good potential within the society they live in? What will help people live more successful, more fulfilling lives?’ as opposed to, ‘What’s the best way to observe, control or monitor?’

“I’m afraid the Japanese government still has the attitude of not ‘making things easier for non-Japanese to integrate and associate.’ It’s a matter of policing and control.

“Especially when you hand over issues of immigration over to police forces. They will always look at it from the point of view of, ‘How do we keep order? How do we make sure laws are being followed?’

“The problem is that the police’s rubric is not, ‘Foreigners are also being legal and following the laws too.’ They focus on the bad things. It’s almost constantly an attack. And as a person in the audience commented earlier tonight, he is the victim of that attack. Whenever he walks out of the supermarket, the police check on him, thinking: ‘He might be a lawbreaker.’

“And that’s what I was talking about at the very beginning of this presentation: Let’s talk about the good things that foreigners do too. Don’t just attack.

“We have to untie this attitude of making the enforcement of law based upon physical appearance. There are ways to untangle that, but you have to break out of the whole meta-argument of; a) any criticism of Japan is a bad thing; or b) global standards are encouraging this right now.

“As researchers, of course, we can only look at the trends . . . But our steps as activists is to say, ‘What is the better path to choose?’ and to give advice. And I think that is what our research should also be leaning towards: how to nudge things in a more positive direction.

“Because if we don’t, and we just sit back and look at trends as dispassionate academic observers, saying, ‘Things are getting bad, ah well,’ that’s really a half-measure. It doesn’t really help anyone.

“Even corporations are talking about corporate social responsibility. I think there’s a certain degree of ‘academic social responsibility’ we can engage in, when we are advising people in these difficult times of globalization, to try and find ways to help people lead better lives.”
Listen to the entire speech at www.debito.org/?p=1224. 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


7 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column 3: “Activism vs Academia”

  • In the same way as you described in your speech how your criticisms of what happens in Japan should not be seen as an attack on Japan, an academic can criticize your arguments without attacking your agenda. When, as you regularly show, the police fudge statistics on foreign crime to maintain support for their intrusive and oppressive methods, the best way to combat misinformation is with hard evidence.

    One “no foreigners” is, as you say, one too many and deserves to be confronted but it is a fair question to ask whether such signs are more prevalent than in the past. If they are actually decreasing then they can’t be used as evidence for growing xenophobia in Japan. That doesn’t mean you can’t use alternative arguments to make the same point. You have said before how you are only one individual and not in a position to carry out a survey sample to find out one way or the other and your main concern is to see such signs taken down. That’s understandable and laudable but you can’t then link these signs to growing xenophobia if you can’t back up such a claim. It remains just a guess and if we want to influence policy makers then we need the soundest possible arguments. If someone were to carry out a sample survey and find that “no foreigners” signs were negligible and on the decline then your argument would be discredited so why offer someone the chance to do that when there are more examples of discrimination which cannot be refuted? There is still a place to use the existence of such signs in the debate because they are a good illustration of the clash of perspectives in Japan. It is not just some pedantic, academic point to urge you to stick to making claims where you can be sure of your evidence.

  • Speaking of activism…looks like a Japanese guy was as fed up of the cops as are the non-Japanese. And the court backed him up!
    Link: http://www.japantoday.com/category/crime/view/niigata-court-orders-compensation-for-illegal-arrest-of-man

    “Niigata court orders compensation for illegal arrest of man”

    Friday 09th May, 04:49 AM JST NIIGATA:
    The Niigata District Court on Thursday ordered the Niigata prefectural government to pay 600,000 yen in compensation to a 46-year-old man after determining that police had arrested him without legitimate grounds. The plaintiff refused to sign a ticket for speeding in May 2006, despite a warning from police officers that he could be arrested, according to the ruling. His continual refusal led police to arrest him and detain him for 25 hours.
    In the civil trial, the man had sought around 2.4 million yen in compensation for wrongful arrest. While the local government argued that the arrest was legal as the man could have absconded or destroyed evidence, Judge Yoshio Shoji at the district court’s Takada branch ruled it was impossible for the plaintiff to destroy evidence and there was no possibility of his running away.

    (Could that light at the end of the tunnel be hope, and not the oncoming train?)

  • Jerry Billows says:

    It’s fair to say that your position suffers a bit from cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, you are arguing solely from the point of view of the activist. “One sign is too many”—that’s your mantra, and in fairness, it’s a defendable position to take as an individual solely working within a local community. On the other hand, you clearly take issue with the National Police Agency or the media when evidence is presented – however questionable – that supports the notion that foreign crime trends in Japan are rising or widespread.

    This stance, in my opinion, is where your argument really goes off the rails. You call for systematic scrutiny of the data. Big mistake.

    Anyone who is paying attention to your arguments (and takes them seriously) will start to wonder why scrutinizing the data are acceptable only when it comes to certain subjects, but not when it inconveniently comes to others. Your rebuttal seems to be “because I believe I’m doing what’s in the best interest of non-Japanese.” The problem with that kind of rebuttal is that it can be used by Japanese to argue the opposite side of the coin: “We believe in a crime free Japan and one incident of foreign crime is too many.”

    Now, the argument isn’t even about the data anymore. It’s about propaganda and noise on both sides. If you want serious people to scrutinize data in order to disprove objectively that foreign crime is neither rising nor a problem in Japan in order to suit your interests, you cannot argue at the same time that “racial discrimination in Japan is growing in magnitude and scope” without systematic evidence and expect to take the moral high ground. Bottom-line: logical and empirical consistency are your best friends in the end. Good luck in your endeavors.

  • Hi

    I am a publisher of THE EAST; the only English newspaper, which is mainly focused on the East Asian information (at the beginning of every month, more than 12,000 free copies are distributed throughout the London area, particularly, where East Asian Networks are established).

    I looked at your blog the other day and have been wondering if there would be any chance that we could publish some of your interesting articles on the paper.
    We think some of your blog articles should be very helpful to the Westners who are interested in Asian Culture.
    The East cannot afford to pay for your articles right now (as we are non-profitable organisation). However, if you wish, we can still offer you:
    1. Advertising space
    2. Link to THE EAST web site blog section

    We look forward to hearing from you shortly.

    Many thanks and kind regards,

    Hyung Wook Lee

    THE EAST, The East Asian Monthly Business Newspaper,
    Elephant Consulting Limited, 37 Charter Court, Linden Grove,
    New Malden, Surrey, KT3 3BN, UK
    Tel : + 44 (0) 7912 608 321 / Web site: http://www.theeast.org / E mail : publisher@theeast.org
    Registered in England & Wales, Company No. 6254454

    –Hello Mr Lee. I don’t mind if my articles are published elsewhere. Just ask me in advance what you’d like to publish and duly credit me (and any other author) as the source, and we can work something out. Please contact me off-blog at debito@debito.org. Thanks.

  • Personally I think the ‘Japanese Only’ shame list should be maintained until it is no longer needed.

    That day will come when it becomes unacceptable in society to put up such signs.

  • Dear Debito,

    I have had the opportunity to attend your “speeches” on several occassions throughout Japan. I find the entertaining, interesting and important. Frankly, I have admiration and respect for you activities. I wish for influence and success for you in the future, rather than being forever stained with the reputation of “the vitrolic, quasi-human rights activitist who became a naturalised Japanese but failed to be effective and influencial because of his in ability to articulate his passion in a logical, consistent and well thoughout manner.”

    This latest rant against academia does not sit well, mostly because it is, as with the majority of your “speeches” very biased, unreflective and sadly, not representative of your intellectual abilities or your rich personal experience.

    As an activist, an academic, lawyer or even if you were a business man you need to present impartial, unadulterated facts to substantiate your arguement. This isn’t magic, rather very simple and effective ways to build an arguement, or in your case, a strong, viable and well documented arguement for an anti-discrimination law in Japan.

    You consistently paint Japan as a Class A type violator of human rights and seem hostile to comparing her human right practices with other developed nations. Have you considered looking at your motherland’s long and very hypocritical human rights record? Read some Chompsky or look at Human Rights Watch to start. One case of a human rights violation does not mean that the same violation affects all people exactly the same way.

    I agree their are problems. That no doubt is clear but you seem completely incapable of argueing your case in a mannner that paints a more accurate picture of the human rights situation in Japan, the slow and steady improvements that are taking place and Japan’s continuing effort to be a leader in human rights.

    Academics, the so-called anti-thesis to the kind activist you portray yourself as ask you difficult questions in your presentations because your facts don’t support your conclusions. It isn’t being dispassionate or narrow minded, in fact most want to help you find a better and more effective way of voicing your opinions and strengthening the influence of your activities. You don’t seem willing or able to embrace this earnest effort by “speech” attendees.

    If you want to be more convincing in your arguements, I would first start by respecting your audience’s options, comments and feed back. You personally have suffered enormous amounts of discrimination but that does not mean your experiences are the norm. I think most people are quite flabbergasted when they are exposed to your experiences because they are so contridicatory to what other people of experienced.

    Second, get your facts straight, put things in context and relate the to global and regional trends. To illustrate, fingerprinting in Japan isn’t about controlling foreigners, it is a new security initiative that many countries are implementing or will soon.

    Third, and this is especially difficult for you, don’t make it personal. I have seen you attack and humilate people because they don’t agree with you. Case in point, in a conference on migration last year you forced a young Japanese women to say publically that you were Japanese when she obviously meant that you are legally a Japanese citizen however not ethnically Japanese.

    I implore you, for the sake of your reputation and your worthy cause to borrow a page from the anti-activist academics, build solid arguements and data, lots of data. By making a bullet proof arguement you can actually make a different instead of remaining and obscure, interesting story of the “activist that could have been.”

    Good luck/

    –Thank you very much for taking the trouble to attend my speeches and offer advice, Simon. Points taken. A few comments back:

    1) I do make the efforts to put things in context (as the essay you’re commenting on is trying to do); usually the biggest problem is one of space. Omission of the situation in other countries should not mean ignorance of what’s going on overseas, and I do read the sources you mention above. I do not intend to, nor do I feel I do, make Japan into a “Class A type violator of human rights”. I just point out what Japan needs to do vis-a-vis its own public promises, both under the Constitution and international treaty.

    2) I never say my experiences are the norm. I only say that they exist. As they exist for others too. That’s one reason why Debito.org exists as a forum.

    3) I do make an effort to get my facts straight. I always provide links to sources where available. If somebody points out where I’m wrong similarly with evidence to back it up, I capitulate. Have done so many times. I’m not perfect, and I do make mistakes. But I do think I have data to back up my assertions, as refereed journals keep publishing me.

    4) I feel I do respect the opinions of my audiences, particularly at my speeches, as the recordings of them at Debito.org will attest. I don’t recall the incident at any conference you refer to. If somebody says I’m not Japanese, especially in public, surely it is within my prerogative and mandate ask for a reason why. If the reason returned is not compelling to me, I’ll question it, and we can have a discussion. It’s not as if I can force anyone by any other means but logic and reasoned discussion to acknowledge that I’m Japanese, but if that’s what happened, then perhaps the person was persuaded, not humiliated. In any case, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what incident you’re referring to.

    Anyway, if I’m not being effective, I’ll reflect on how I can do better and get on with it. Thanks for taking the time to give me feedback. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

  • Debito, you bring up some very important questions in this post. I wanted to comment on two:

    1. Do academics have a responsibility to society beyond dispassionate analysis? A few months ago, I blogged about Chicago professor John Mearsheimer’s answer:


    John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago, capped the panel by reminding the audience that scholars have a responsibility to society—a responsibility to be actively engaged in the policy debate. How are we given the privilege of getting paid well to read the New York Times as part of our job description, he asked. We have a responsibility to the society around us, he answered…

    Tenure is critical for the role of scholars, Mearsheimer said. “Tenure makes us untouchable and special.” He said the only reason he was able to write with Stephen Walt an article about the Israeli lobby in Washington was that he and Walt had tenure and were therefore protected. “The debate inside the beltway is so sterile because it is too risky to challenge convention,” he said.

    Mearsheimer echoed the importance of the Critic’s role. “Scholars have well-honed analytical skills, and it is good to have smart critics going after the government. You want critics. I am not saying we speak truth to power. I am saying we need smart people who challenge conventions,” he said. He said he was suspicious of government service because “If you want to be National Security Advisor, you curb your tongue, and I don’t want you to curb your tongue.”

    Mearsheimer ended by identifying four recent trends in scholarship: First, the professionalization of the academy has led people to be more concerned with building their CVs than seeking truth. Second, there has been an increase of human capital in Washington, DC, and many of these smart people would rather do the advising than listen to people at universities. Third, the disappearance of the true American left wing had created an intellectual vacuum.

    Fourth, Mearsheimer said, younger scholars are more worried about their jobs than scholarship.

    2. Who creates standard in the global economy? Harvard graduate student David Grewal has written a fantastic book explaining that dominant networks have “network power,” which creates standards. This is from an FT review from Christopher Caldwell:

    As time passes, one of the most attractive things about a network will be simply that a large number of people have already chosen it. This is network power. Once a network reaches “critical mass”, Mr Grewal says, the incentives to join it can become irresistible. Certainly some standards are intrinsically better than others.

    “But as the network power of a standard grows,” Mr Grewal writes, “the intrinsic reasons why it should be adopted become less important relative to the extrinsic benefits of co-ordination that the standard can provide.” People defect from alternative networks. Eventually those alternatives disappear altogether. The choice of networks becomes a Hobson’s choice. You remain free to choose your network, but the distinction between choosing to join a network and being forced to join one is less evident.


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