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
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.