Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column Dec 3 2008 on Obama election and Bush II presidency (Director’s Cut)


Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan

Hi Blog.  I had 700 words on some stray thoughts regarding Obama’s election published in the Japan Times yesterday.  I cut 200 words of what I considered to be a stray but original-sounding point, regarding popular culture’s legitimization of an African-American in the presidency, but in retrospect the published version is more consistent without it.  I’ll reprint it all below as a “Director’s Cut”; that’s what blogs are for, right?  Have a read.  Debito back in Sapporo

By Arudou Debito
Column 10 for the JUST BE CAUSE Japan Times Zeit Gist page.

December 2, 2008. DRAFT SEVENTEEN

Published version at http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20081202ad.html

Regarding Obama’s election as American president, I welcome the groundswell of hope about “change”. It’s about time. The past eight years have been, well, awkward for Americans overseas.

The Bush II Administration undermined America’s image abroad. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, surveying worldwide attitudes towards the U.S. this decade, reported in 2007 that “Anti-Americanism… is worldwide. This is not just a rift with our European allies or hatred of America in the Middle East. It is a global slide.”

There’s plenty to be ashamed of: Election oddities culminating in the 2000 Supreme Court d’etat. Opting out of the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court. The Orwellian Department of Homeland Security. “Preemptive war” as a superpower prerogative. Circumventing the United Nations with a “coalition of the willing”. Lack of policy oversight in a one-party Congress. A vice president with a bunker mentality and extreme notions of executive privilege. Wars in two countries grounded on lies about weapons of mass destruction. Unwarranted wiretapping. Guantanamo. Abu Ghraib. Signing Statements. Renditioning. Torture memos and waterboarding. Forthcoming presidential pardons for connected felons. Need I go on? Even Bush’s own party made “change” a platform plank.

America’s actions affect Japan profoundly because of the closeness of our relationship. America gave us MacArthur, a constitution, a democracy, a postwar era without forced restitutions, a market for our reconstruction, and a collective security agreement. We gave America a Pacific bulwark against communism and a market for their military. We are in a tango with America taking the lead.

It wasn’t seen as a bad thing. When I first got here twenty years ago, many Japanese saw America as “the society with freedoms and opportunities we lack here”, “the country we’d most like to emulate”. We had the “Ron-Yasu” relationship. Compulsory education in American English. More people watching Hollywood than domestic movies. “Top Gun” on TV more than once a year… you get the idea. The word most associated with America was “akogare”, akin to adoration. America was a template.

Nowadays it’s more complicated. Although security and business relationships are largely intact, we are looking more towards a future with China (as is everyone), while “big brother” America seems more of a bully. America demands we refuel ships for free in the Indian Ocean, and we do something about Article 9 interfering with Japan’s contribution to the “war on terror”. Tangoing with America even raises fears about terrorist blowback.

In terms of human rights, the American Template cuts the wrong way. For example, last year Japan reinstated fingerprinting for most Non-Japanese based upon the US-VISIT program. We even bought American fingerprint machines. Officialdom’s most common excuse for depriving NJ residents of rights? Anti-terrorism. So we assist in America’s wars, then use them to treat foreigners like potential criminals. Hora, America’s doing it, so can we.

America is hardly something activists can point to as a paragon of human rights. Pass a law against discrimination by race or nationality? Hey, America now denies habeas corpus to its foreigners. Respect criminal procedure and due process of law? Phooey, America abuses people in their extralegal prisons too. Refer to U.S. State Department reports on Japan’s human rights record? That’s rich coming from a country whose soldiers aren’t accountable in international criminal court; the State Department doesn’t even survey America’s own human rights record.

People talk about America less in terms of justice, more in terms of “superpower realpolitik”, especially after it dropped North Korea from the terrorism watch list. Then we hark back to the Bubble-Era heyday, when Japan’s future was bright, rich, and flying in formation with the U.S. Sadly, that was then, this is now. For the past eight years.

Fortunately, with Obama’s election, American politics became a renewable resource, a fount of “change”. Obama is even inspiring opposition parties here to call for “change” in Japan’s government.

Well, maybe. And maybe America can become a template for good deeds again. That is, if Bush hasn’t made America unredeemable, and if America can learn to say “no” to its own excessive powers.

Obama has a hard act to follow, but if he succeeds, human rights activists in Japan will also enjoy the turn of the tide.

Arudou Debito is co-author of Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan.

THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR, from draft six:

Unfortunately, this degree of “change” is not in Japan’s zeitgeist yet, much less in its popular culture. In America, people got used to a major shift of gears even before Obama appeared as an alternative. Here comes a really stray thought:

If Reagan-Era America’s iconic image was the movie “Rambo”, then the Bush II Era’s iconic image has been the TV show “24”, with a tabehoudai of ticking time bombs and tortured extremists.

However, like Rambo (which during Iran-Contra became a symbol for excessive militancy) there were seeds for change sowed within “24” too.

I’m talking about President Palmer. America’s first African-American president, portrayed as a rock amidst the chaos, and later succeeded by his brother, also African-American. Both were accepted with no suspension of disbelief or sense of irony.

America is a country, remember, where forty years ago a black woman and white man couldn’t kiss on “Star Trek”, nor vice versa in the movie “Pelican Brief” just fifteen years ago. In 2008, however, America has been softened up enough by popular culture to elect a black man president.


14 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column Dec 3 2008 on Obama election and Bush II presidency (Director’s Cut)

  • Gotta disagree with you big-time on this one, Debito.

    (1) America need not be ashamed of what you call a “Supreme Court d’etat”. In an impossibly close and intractably disputed election, matters were resolved through the judicial system, not through riots, violence, and use of the military. This is a fact of which Americans can be proud. Moreover, subsequent analysis of the disputed ballots by several American newspapers determined that, had a Florida recount been conducted on Gore’s terms, Bush still would have won.

    (2) America’s “opting out” of the Kyoto Protocol was a good thing, about which I as an American am proud. (By the way, the US Senate first refused to ratify Kyoto in 1997, when a guy named Bill Clinton was president.) First, the Kyoto Protocol is entirely ineffectual as a means of doing anything about expected global warming. The Protocol’s targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions would not stop global warming, even assuming the current crop of climate projections are correct. Second, and more tellingly, the big countries that jumped on board the Kyoto Protocol (including Japan) are all missing their targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions anyway. All American participation would have done would be to give other countries a legalistic club with which to beat American industry and the American economy down. I’m glad American businesses don’t have to worry about meeting meaningless Kyoto targets while they struggle through the current recession.

    (3) So too with the ICC, which would be fatally compromised by the political biases of the various participating nations. I am not in a hurry to see American politicians and military officers judged by the likes of Chinese, African, or European bureaucrats. Apart from the ludicrous charade of, say, Chinese officials (they of the mass beat-downs, torture, and repression of villagers, Tibetans, Uighurs, and everyday citizens who dare to voice their own opinions) presuming to lecture Americans on the appropriate use of force, we are left with the fundamental fact that foreign nations, let alone a cobbled-together international “court” of dubious provenance, have no jurisdiction over America’s sovereign national conduct. None. “International law” is a fiction popular among weak countries because it makes them feel strong. America was correct to avoid indulging other nations in this fantasy.

    …and that’s when I stopped reading, having judged your starting assumptions too ludicrous to make anything based upon them worthwhile.

    — Understood, thanks for making coherent arguments back. Please do finish reading the essay if and when.

  • I realize that trying to take partisanship out of an article about your own personal political opinions is hard.

    I don’t know whether to thank you or criticize you for tipping your hand so early, even though most of us know which way you lean politically already. But again, you have a tendency to alienate a chunk of your audience in your opening paragraph or two, so we ignore the rest.

    If preaching to the choir is your goal, I suppose that’s fine. If you want to change minds, or just get people to merely agree to disagree with you while respecting your opinion, this ain’t the way to do it.

    It really seems like you’re struggling to come up with material. You shouldn’t have to struggle, I think everyone would appreciate more thorough analysis of the many cases of discrimination in Japan you have found and may still be underway, rather than meandering political rant of the week.

    When you get back to writing about such things, you’ll have more fans, but probably fewer letters to the editor.

    Serious question, given your recent writing and the recent pile of Zeit Geist BS about the onsen case, are the Japan Times editors just encouraging the writers to be more controversial and/or polarizing to boost interest and/or sales, or is it just a coincidence? Any pressure to “pep up” the stories?

    — No pressure whatsoever, ever, thanks for asking. I wrote that as I wanted, and the JT had no idea what I was even writing about until I sent them my first drafts about a week before.

    As for thorough analysis, I only have 700 words. It’s tough to develop an idea in that much space (1150 is about the bare minimum for exposes), so we’ll save those for Zeit Gists (which gives between 1200 and 1450 words). I have a few ideas for those next year.

    As for tipping my hand, I have written on political issues before, just see my writings at the beginning of this decade (starting at #73) for Japantoday.com before my wages got Devlined, and have come out clearly on what would be denoted on the political spectrum as “left”.

    Conclusion: I am not writing because I (or the JT) want letters to the editor. I am writing because I want people to think, and there is an element of provocateur to the JBC columns because I am writing in the voice of an activist. Activists are necessarily polarizing people, because they are advocating change. And whenever you do that, you create winners and losers and entrenched interests and aggravated people who write letters to the editor.

    Give me some time for me to develop my craft in a small space, and I may someday accomplish my goals without alienating people. But that takes superhuman writing, and I’m only human.

  • In all due respect, the commentator Justin seems not to have a clue about Kyoto or its importance at the time that Bush reversed his stated intention to sign it and, upon assuming power, backed away under false claims of its purported harm to Bush’s avowed “base”: well-placed big business representatives, especially those from the fossil fuel giants. It might be accurate to say that, in light of present-day data on the transformation of the climate, including the only recently understood swift melting of the Siberian permafrost, Kyoto’s goals are far too moderate to be effective in preventing warming in the present century of the sort that could easily herald the end of large swaths of humanity. Sound alarmist? Well, it surely does only if you haven’t been reading the scientific overviews of the latest data. And only if, instead, you have been spending your time trying to defend your ideological heroes in Washington, D.C.

    Not having the space here to reexamine the Kyoto Protocol, I invite anyone interested in the destiny of the planet to consult the articles of George Monbiot, the British Guardian journalist who, over the years, has become one of the most eloquent commentators on recent science relating to global warming. His book Heat is one of the most informative and readable on the subject.

    And, for perspective, while Jason argues for American exceptionalism in all matters even as such a principle has been increasingly exposed as not only outmoded but as the very source of many problems facing mankind today (among which Debito is correct to cite a withering away of human rights and to which I would add a ubiquitous license to “state terrorism” of the sort Bush practices), it is sobering but necessary to recall, along with Monbiot, that even the “trajectory (for global carbon emissions reduction that) both Barack Obama and Gordon Brown have proposed – an 80% cut by 2050….is likely to commit the world to at least four or five degrees of warming, which means the likely collapse of human civilization.” For the full article I just quoted from, see Monbiot’s November 25th piece, “One Shot Left.

    Similarly, Justin’s take on the Florida recount is not a “coherent argument.” It’s pissing in the wind… that is, unless he intends to provide actual sources to the presumed authorities on “disputed ballots” (as if the whole election dispute in Florida simply boiled down to “disputed ballots”!). No, those are not “coherent arguments.” Those are the words of an indoctrinated American whose ideology is that of the neocons who have provoked disaster in the economies of the world over the past thirty years.

  • It’s Justin, not Jason. It’s okay, though, you’re not much better at keeping your other facts straight, either. I’m not arguing for anything like American “exceptionalism”. The real exceptionalism comes when a bunch of tiny nations team up and try to pressure America into submitting to various lopsided treaties or organizations that would hurt America much, much more than any other nation. Thanks but no thanks, we’re not interested in playing that sort of game.

    On the Florida recount, I merely stated the facts. Here is an article from the fervently anti-Bush New York Times:

    November 12, 2001
    Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote

    A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward.

    Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore. A close examination of the ballots found that Mr. Bush would have retained a slender margin over Mr. Gore if the Florida court’s order to recount more than 43,000 ballots had not been reversed by the United States Supreme Court…

  • “It might be accurate to say that, in light of present-day data on the transformation of the climate, including the only recently understood swift melting of the Siberian permafrost, Kyoto’s goals are far too moderate to be effective in preventing warming in the present century of the sort that could easily herald the end of large swaths of humanity.”

    So, Phil, ignoring your use of the weasel words “could easily” that allow you to avoid actually making a definitive statement about the impact of global warming, you are saying the following:

    (1) The Kyoto goals would have been ineffective even if perfectly met, but

    (2) America was foolish for not adopting them anyway.

    America should have voluntarily sabotaged its economy for no benefit in return? I see. I couldn’t have exposed your agenda any better myself if I tried.

  • Justin: Sorry for mistyping your name. And it was good of you to link the “fervently anti-Bush” NYTimes article, which I now recall having read at the time. However, I have no idea what “facts” in my comments you presume are not “straight” other than the spelling of your name. Care to explain your charge?

    Incidentally, have you noticed that, today, a massive majority of Americans can reasonably be described as “fervently anti-Bush”? It hardly damns the Times to imply that its coverage of this ruinous leader has not been flattering (and if it were flattering, it could only be so for ideological reasons, since it would have to fly in the face of not only public opinion but the public record).

    Furthermore, as I said above, the suspicious nature of the entire election in Florida can hardly be reduced to one of an “examination of ballots” as you have assumed once again. It had, more importantly, to do with the illegal removal of voters from voting rolls, the best reporting of which was done by Greg Palast (http://www.gregpalast.com/floridas-flawed-voter-cleansing-program-saloncoms-politics-story-of-the-year/).

    That’s a scary tale you spin about “a bunch of nations teaming up” against America. Care to substantiate where and when the “teaming up” occurred and, at the same time, that the massive opposition (in terms of numbers of nations) to the US on any given policy issue occurred not with justifiable reasons but rather simply to “team up” against America?

    Of course you are arguing for American exceptionalism. What understanding of the notion makes you think that you are not?

  • Justin: [some invective snipped]

    You can continue to rail against the KP as “voluntary sabotage” that was thrust at the US by countries “teaming up” against it, but where is the evidence for all your noise? Bush was a liar and fool not to sign the KP, yes. And, yes, it’s true that, while not perfect, the KP was nonetheless necessary and it is true that it would have helped in not worsening matters, as Bush’s failed leadership surely has done and continues to do (explanation here ).

    I don’t see why my stating so exposes an “agenda.” Care to explain? It was and remains the viewpoint of the vast majority of international observers and it remains in line with the massive scientific evidence both from that period and from the current period. So, perhaps you see an “agenda” in science, but do you care to explain what that would be?

    Global warming is a not an easy subject to wrangle over, but have you actually tried to inform yourself about it? Or has all your effort in the issue so far been to argue on behalf of the coal and gas industries in the US? I doubt you have read any of the science and recommend that you do so. Here’s a good place to start, a compendium of policy measures relating to global warming that are widely regarded as authoritative. (As it is sponsored by the UN, you will have to suck down your venomous feelings for international cooperation if you are to get any advantage from it.)

    Now, back to the issue that was raised at the outset. Debito, in his original piece, made the point that the Obama presidency represents needed “change” and he maintained the scare quotes throughout so as to distinguish himself from a position of uncritical support for the president-elect. He based his view on perceptions of US policies and politics abroad and gave special attention to known and likely perceptions of the Bush administration in Japan. But you, Justin, felt compelled to “disagree big-time” with Debito’s piece. Why? Because it did not fit your support for Bush policies. But in your ideological fervor to explain your support for those policies, you seemed to have forgotten that nothing you say in any way rebutted Debito’s line of argument, because Debito was speaking of widely held perceptions of those policies, and not of the neocon rendition of them. It doesn’t matter if you, Justin, were against the KP or if you think the ICC was all about “political biases” rather than about international law. And, in the end, it doesn’t matter what the NYTimes reported about a likely outcome of ballots recounted in Florida. That is true not only because recounted ballots was not the main issue in Florida, but because that report did nothing to change the perception of the Bush administration as being both illegitimately picked and unjustly uncooperative in international matters relating to questions of the war and the environment.

    That was Debito’s point. It remains perfectly valid. So what if Justin or Dick Cheney or John Bolton do not share these perceptions of the Bush administration? You “gotta disagree big-time” over Debito’s articulating widely held perceptions and you have every right to have your own view, but you cannot create your own world in which the majority of people in Japan or elsewhere support Bush’s and Cheney’s and Bolton’s unpopular actions, because they don’t.

  • “they of the mass beat-downs, torture, and repression of villagers, Tibetans, Uighurs, and everyday citizens who dare to voice their own opinions”

    When have you ever even set foot in China? I can’t believe the crap people are willing to swallow about China. The reality is so far removed from the horror stories in the news. Whatever, though…it’s all a dialectic, albeit a false one.

    “The past eight years have been, well, awkward for Americans overseas”

    That’s the understatement of the year.

  • “When have you ever even set foot in China?”

    I’ve been to China several times and my in-laws live there [snip]. While I was in Beijing most recently, during the Beijing Olympics, several foreigners were thrown in jail for daring to unfurl a “Free Tibet” sign in public. Since they were foreigners, and since China was under an international microscope during the Olympics, they were let go after only about a week of forcible detention and mild torture. Chinese people themselves are generally not so lucky.

    [snip] China stomps all over its own people’s rights, property, and bodies whenever it feels like it [snip]
    [make your points with less invective, please]

  • “China stomps all over its own people’s rights, property, and bodies whenever it feels like it”

    Funny, I’ve never seen that…and not only do my in-laws live in China, so do I. I’m still waiting for the horror stories to match up with my everyday reality, but I wont hold my breath.

    “several foreigners were thrown in jail for daring to unfurl a ‘Free Tibet’ sign in public”

    You mean the came to China specifically for the purpose of breaking Chinese law? Then they deserved to be jailed. They were also guilty of visa fraud since I’m willing to bet they didn’t write “subvert the unity of the Chinese nation” on their visa applications. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. This is China…what did they think was going to happen?

    But anyway, apologies to Debito-san. I’m just a bit passionate about this issue.

    — Yes, and thanks for sticking to the points. However, I can see a lot of blowback with the way you’re defending the PRC govt. above (as in lots of “This is Japan, so suck it up” kinds of responses too), so I suggest you refrain from it. Suggest we have one more response from Justin on this then call this strand of the issue quits. It’s getting too far away from the original issue on this post.

  • Sorry, Debito, I didn’t see your request for a response from me until today. How about this article from today’s NY Times:

    December 9, 2008
    Whistle-Blowers in Chinese City Sent to Mental Hospital

    BEIJING — Local officials in Shandong Province have apparently found a cost-effective way to deal with gadflies, whistle-blowers and all manner of muckraking citizens who dare to challenge the authorities: dispatch them to the local psychiatric hospital.

    Sounds great. Also, my wife’s mother’s family had their personal property burned and their house seized by government thugs during the Cultural Revolution. Her grandfather was sent to be “re-educated” through labor, and his brother fled; nobody knows what happened to him. This is the same party that is ruling China today, regardless of how it may seem to have changed on the surface. So I am not inclined to be lectured on how wonderful the Chinese government is by people with no understanding of the issue.

  • Sorry, Debito-san. I can’t let that slight at the end go by there without being answered.

    “people with no understanding of the issue”

    You’re not the only one married to a Chinese person. My wife’s grandfather was beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution, their home ransacked, as well, and her parents sent for re-education during the late 70’s. So what? That has nothing to do with the fact that the REAL China is nothing like most people perceive it to be. So you visit China often, but have you ever spent longer than a few months here?

    “This is the same party that is ruling China today”

    Hardly. Is Wen Jiabao anything like Mao? Is Hu Jintao anything like Yao Wenyuan? The Chinese government of today was practically created by Deng Xiaoping, who suffered far more during the Cultural Revolution than anyone else. The Chinese government has done as much as possible in the past 30 decades to distance itself from the horrible reality of the Cultural Revolution. I’m not defending the Party, just defending the truth…something I think most readers of this webpage understand.

    That’s all from me.


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