Tangent: 1940 Herblock cartoon on inaction towards Hitler


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 Japansourstrawberriesavatar
Hi Blog.  Little tangent on a Saturday.  My travel reading was HERBLOCK:  A CARTOONIST’S LIFE, by Herbert Block.  He’s that cartoonist who caricatured presidential administrations from Hoover to Clinton.  I loved his work for its prescience and insight.

My favorite cartoon out of the 200 in the book was one about Hitler in 1940.  Have a gander:


The reason I love this so much is because it demonstrates that inaction towards the inevitable, justified by self-convincing sophistries, is timeless.  We learned this history in retrospect, where Americans apparently took up arms promptly against a clearly evil foe, came to Europe’s aid, vanquished the Axis Powers and saved the world.  Not so.  As this cartoon illustrates brilliantly, it took nearly a decade of dithering (practically until 1945 before people even believed Nazi Germany had extermination camps!) before people finally did what they had to do.  Meanwhile, they came up with all sorts of intelligent-sounding arguments to justify doing nothing.

How does this relate to Debito.org?  Because we get the same sort of arguments for doing nothing, say, against the evil of clear and present racial discrimination in Japan.  We say it’s some kind of misunderstanding, language, or cultural barrier.  Or that foreigners brought it upon themselves.  Or that Japan’s unique culture or long history of being a closed island society makes it special or blind to the issue.  Or that once the older generation dies out or people travel more or get used to foreigners things will change.  Or that fundamental attitudes won’t change even if we make a racial discrimination law illegal.  Or that Japan actually is a fundamentally thoroughbred pure society and should be kept pristine.  Or that people are imposing outsider values on the poor put-upon Japanese people.  Or that international treaty is not binding enough to justify a law when we have an adequate judiciary…  

There, that’s eight intelligent-sounding pseudo-scientific arguments, just like in the cartoon above.

But they’re all bullshit.  There is no getting around the fact we need a law against racial discrimination.  Now.

But people, as history shows, will even make arguments for doing nothing against Hitler.

They are on the wrong side of history.

Arudou Debito in Sapporo

17 comments on “Tangent: 1940 Herblock cartoon on inaction towards Hitler

  • Laws do not change or shape mentality. (That and the reality is that laws here are little more than tatemae unless you have the time, money, and influence to enforce them.) Discrimination is a social issue, and one that I do not think will really improve until a significant (15-20%) portion of the population is NJ along with several generations to get accustomed to it.

    — Argument #9 in the series…

  • Arudou-san, I’m with you on the idea that racism in Japan needs to be addressed rather than excused, but I’m not comfortable with a Hitler analogy. Nobody’s forcing me to wear a yellow star or live in a ghetto, let alone marching me onto a train to Dachau. I just get some funny looks from strangers and I am occasionally frustrated by the lack of understanding from my coworkers. Treating foreigners as outsiders and systematic discrimination en route to genocide are, to paraphrase Jules Winfield from Pulp Fiction, “not in the same ballpark. It ain’t in the same league. Hell, it ain’t even the same sport.”

    — Sorry, but you’ve missed the point.

    We’re talking about a phenomenon. It doesn’t matter if it’s Hitler, or if it’s anything else, but it’s a topic where in historical retrospective we say, “What were we thinking? Why did we even hesitate to do the right thing?” And all the sophistry is conveniently forgotten when history is written and taught.

    There are of course some other Herblock cartoons that portray presidential do-nothingness over civil rights in the US, such as this one from the Eisenhower Era:


    But I didn’t think it was as good as the 1940 cartoon. That one was more surprising to me in historical retrospective, yes. But Hitler is a tangent from the main point, of how some people no matter what will not do the right thing, even argue against it, even when it’s so clear.

  • Mark Hunter says:

    Precisely. And I would add that gender discrimination is even more rampant than anything racial in this world. The last, great, worldwide, ‘acceptable’ discrimination is toward females. Men AND women won’t be truly free until women are free. This applies to Japan especially as men are really considered tools of the elite, and, as a result, women suffer, too. Thanks for all the good work Debito. This site and your work is really something very special and gives me hope every time I click on it. I will try to spread the message in my work, where it is possible. Cheers.

  • Well, it took longer than I expected, but it looks like I finally win that bet with a friend about Godwin’s law applying to debito.org.

    — Sorry, you’ve missed the point too. And I keep winning a fictitious bet with myself that you’ll keep on missing them.

  • Tod

    I have to say that I think you’re wrong. Laws DO change the public sentiment. They ARE a means for effecting social change. Not always, of course, but there are many examples in history of cases where laws have been brought in to effect a change in attitude among citizens. Slavery in the US is a good example, as are fundamental equality laws. Sometimes it takes strong leadership to impose a direction on a society for the greater good. As it stands now, the average J-citizen doesn’t really have any reason to think about the daily concerns of non-Japanese, and why would they? That won’t change unless the law changes.

  • Dear Debito,
    It may sound like argument #10, but I am confident that people who, despite tired, rather than sit close to a foreigner on the train move to another place and stand up, don’t fit into this world and eventually will die out. It is an evolutionary matter.
    With such a lack of flessibility a society who aims to be a primary player in the world of tomorrow won’t go any further.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Mark Hunter — “Toward females”? Surely you meant “in favor of”? If there’s a gender-based form of discrimination that’s “acceptable” to most of the world, it’s toward men, who make up over 90% of on-the-job deaths, over 90% of work-related suicide (karoushi), commit suicide in general more than twice as often as women, and live seven years less than women do. And society barely pays attention to any of this.

    Fortunately there are a few activists, such as Hiroshi Kawahito and Tetsuro Kato, who work on these problems, but they’re dwarfed by the innumerable government committees looking to eliminate any trace of discrimination against women. The fact that you don’t see the discrimination makes it that much more clear that it’s not going to be solved.

  • TJJ – actually, Tod does have a point, in a way. There are already some laws in Japan banning discrimination. But they are civil laws (as they should be), which means the offended party has to bring a suit against the other party. This is different from the civil rights laws in the US where if someone’s civil rights were violated they could file a complaint and the state would take on the case. Public prosecutors in Japan seem very reluctant to take on civil cases.

    Also, punishments under Japanese law often seem to be there as almost an afterthought. Penalties, especially for civil infractions, are exceedingly light. I have heard the attitude described (by Japanese) as “Japan is a society of laws. If we have a law, people will abide by it.” To which my response is “Then you must never have murders or robberies in Japan”. The laws keep honest people honest, but that’s about it. Fortunately, most people are basically honest.

    Creating a law banning all forms of discrimination, period, would only be as good as the enforcement effort. Ask Debito what happens when you win a civil case and the other guy ignores the verdict. Enforcement and penalties are the parts of the system that really require fixing immediately. Until that end is dealt with, creating new laws would be largely pissing in the wind.

    — Hi Lance. Thanks for argument #11. But you’re still putting lipstick on a pig. And coming back as an alter ego through an anonymized site. Bye.

  • @Mark in Yayoi- and you can’t see how that is related to discrimination against women? It’s not “discrimination” against men at all, it’s society’s expectations that men go to work and earn the money while women sit at home pumping out babies, and other backwards notions. Equal opportunities for women would mean the weight of the world won’t be on one persons- in the case of Japan, the salarymans- shoulders. Just like Mark Hunter said, “Men AND women won’t be truly free until women are free”, until men and women are able to take proper equal responsibility, neither can be equal and have a fair role in society.

    Debito, that’s an excellent cartoon, thanks for sharing it. It’s amazing how little we seem to be willing to learn from history…

  • I understood your comparison to hitler debito. but like another person commented we wont have equal treatment in japan until the idiots at immigration decide to allow more immigrants into this country. And I believe that the GOJ doesnt want a anti-disrimination law because they are scared of having one because they feel that it will open up a padoras box of issues for society to handle. and as we already know the GOJ will not change.

  • Mark Hunter says:

    Mark in Yayoi…..you’re joking right? Dangers to male workers and health issues (which you are correct in identifying)are not because of women. Also, the massive emotional and physical violence inflicted on women daily around the world is the issue that barely makes the news. Even in Japan, a so-called advanced nation, police will only very hesitatingly enter a home to intervene, while the daily expectations and emotional stresses on women because of their gender are not even on the radar in the minds of the vast majority of people. The thinking is something like…well, they’re women, that’s what they’re supposed to do, that’s the way it is. No one is saying men don’t suffer in some ways. They do. But to compare that to the overwhelming discrimination faced by women is rather cold, in my opinion. Debito has his plate full with racial issues so he may have chosen not to tackle gender issues head on (correct me if I’m wrong), but I just thought it would be good to not let gender issues be separated from racial issues, because the mind-sets that allow both to continue are the same…. Well, they’re just women after all. You get the picture. I hope.

    — Yes, but this is starting to get a bit far away from the original point of this post. Let’s try to bring it back a bit?

  • Again good work Debito-san. From my own experience people will do what they want for as long as they want just to please themselves and even have the nerve to blaspheme logic by using it to defend their selfishness. If I sound offensive my apologies but my point is it takes the bravest of men to fight uphill battles.

  • Just short what others do, though not perfect yet, but at least EU moved forward


    EU anti-discrimination bill gets the green light
    02.04.2009 @ 14:50 CET

    EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – The European Parliament on Thursday (2 April) passed a bill banning discrimination against people on the basis of age, disability, sexual orientation, belief or religion in the areas of education, social security, health care and goods and services.

    The draft law was passed on Thursday (2 April) by 363 votes in favour and 226 against after the left wing and liberal MEPs clubbed together to back the legislation. Many centre-right MEPs were against the proposal saying it would lead to too much red tape.

    The bill bans discrimination on the basis of age, disability, sexual orientation, belief or religion (Photo: European Commission)

    “Despite the obvious benefits of greater equality in all areas of society, it has taken months of hard work to win support for the new legislation in the European Parliament,” said the author of the report, Dutch green MEP Kathalijne Buitenweg.

    Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ´t Veld said: “Today the European Parliament will emphasize that it does not matter if you are black or white, gay or heterosexual, religious, disabled, young or old. Europe will protect your freedom and will make sure that you will get all the possibilities you deserve to make something of your life.”

    Expressing doubts about the legislation in the run-up to the vote, German conservative MEP Manfred Weber said the parliament’s centre-right faction fears “the additional red-tape which would be generated by this new directive.

    Many of its regulations are not favourable to all parties involved, including disabled people,” he added.

    The bill covers areas such as banking, transport and health but transactions between private individuals that are not commercial or professional are excluded.

    The European Union has since 2000 prohibited these forms of discrimination at work, but legal protection in the realms of public services, buying products or making use of commercial services was not covered.

    The bill is expected to come before member states in the second half of this year, with the forthcoming Swedish EU presidency recently saying it plans to prioritise the issue.

    It needs the approval of all 27 governments if it is to come into force in the EU.

  • Debito makes a great point.

    The practice here is to make successive, seemingly intelligent arguments for (usually) not doing something. When one argument gets worn out, the next one is put into force.

    This is very Japanese. I don’t want to sound to “iyami”, but think of the many things where Japan sets it up to wear people down. (And I am not just refering to how the POW’s where slowly led to death by disease and starvation.)

    This is just something for a culture that doesn’t like the direct approach if it can use indirect approaches. (It likes the direct approach if the thing can be done in secret, but otherwise chooses the indirect approach.)

    Rather than say “we just don’t want you people here unless it’s a really exploitative situation”, they will just re-use the same nine or ten excuses.

    Here is an example, if America had the same attitude:

    1) Well, they say they have a missle but we don’t really know if it isn’t just a shell.

    2) Well, they have a missle but it is just sitting there.

    3) Well, we are not sure that the missle even works.

    4) Well, it MAY work but it doesn’t look like it could carry weight and be delivered to Japan.

    5) Well, they did fire it but it didn’t have a payload.

    6) Well, they may have enough nukes for five or six bombs, but we don’t know if they can make an ICBM.

    7) Well, the missle made it to the Pacific Ocean but we don’t know if it would make it with a payload.

    8) Well, it looks like they have enough refined plutonium but they haven’t successfully launched a missle with a warhead.

    9) Well, it looks like they could launch a warhead.

    10) Well, the issue was really between North Korea and Japan and its awful ancient history in the first place.

    11) We didn’t expect that the defense treaty would cover places like Hachinohe or Akita.

    A pattern like that.

  • Debito,

    You merely dismissed a number of arguments, regardless of their merit, by saying that they are “pseudo-scientific” and “bullshit”. That is an easy way to silence any opposition as it leaves no room for discussion.

    However, you then assert that “we need a law against racial discrimination. Now.” Rather than claiming bullshit, let me ask: Why? What realistic benefits would come out of it? What would change? Who would enforce it? Your argument would be stronger if you could give a realistic concrete example of a problem and then how it would be solved by such a law.

    — I’ve done that umpteen times over the years. Have a look through Debito.org, please. Thanks.

  • Alex…

    Tsk tsk, it’s not kind to laugh at the ignorant (no matter how wilful that ignorance might be), even though I have to admit it’s all too tempting to do so on this occasion ^_^

    (Please excuse a little frivolity on my part here)

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