By DEBITO ARUDOU
Column 31 for the Japan Times Community Page
The Japan Times: Tuesday, June 27, 2006
In July 2005, Doudou Diene, a special representative of the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights, came to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese government
He visited Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hokkaido to see if Japan, an
aspirant for a U.N. Security Council seat, was keeping its treaty
promises regarding racial discrimination.
His trip caused quite a reaction. Although the regular domestic press
largely ignored his reports, they inspired a vivid debate in the new
media. This column will chart the arc of the issues, and demonstrate a
potential sea change in how the U.N. holds countries accountable for
But first, some quick background: In 1996, Japan effected the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
promising to take all measures, including legislation, to stop
discrimination on the basis of "race, color, descent, or national or
ethnic origin." A decade later, Japan still has no law outlawing racial
discrimination and has also refused attempts to pass one.
So Diene came to see things for himself, talking to individuals,
spokespeople, and government officials. Afterward, he reported that
discrimination in Japan is "deep and profound," and Japanese society is
"spiritually and intellectually closed." His recommendations (see side
bar at bottom) included establishing laws and enforcement mechanisms to
protect human rights.
This isn't something that much of Japan's polity wants to hear.
For example, alarmism about establishing human rights commissions
caused Tottori Prefecture to repeal Japan's first antiracial
discrimination law (Community Page: May 2, 2006
The same goes for a national Human Rights Protection Bill ("jinken yogo hoan") in the Diet. In April, an entire book was published to scuttle it
, interpreting U.N. standards as "the totalitarianism of developed countries."
Said book even provided manga for the masses
-- depicting foreigners picking fights in bars, lying down on the job,
and laying waste to apartments, then unjustly calling the human rights
commission to "rat" on any boss, barkeep, or landlord who objected.
Mentioning the Diene report in passing (comparing it to "book of lies"
"The Rape of Nanking"), the book demanded the Foreign Ministry show
some backbone for a change, stop the U.N. "insulting our country," and
"protect our sovereignty and independence."
Many Internet groups and pages heralded the report as an appropriate
allocation of attention to a long-neglected problem. Human rights
groups, with a few reservations, were energized -- finally getting the
ear of the U.N.
But critics created objections: questioning Diene's depth of knowledge
after only a week in Japan; comparing Japan's mild discrimination to
historical examples of apartheid overseas; decrying the apparent "ploy
to embarrass the Japanese government in the eyes of the world"; and
alleging partiality -- with Diene "following the bidding of activists"
(including this writer). One claimed "there are no national minorities
Japan's Foreign Ministry responded thus: "There may be few countries,
if any . . . where some form of racial discrimination and xenophobia
does not exist . . . (Japan) reiterates
its firm commitment to fight earnestly and effectively against every
kind of racial discrimination that may exist in our country and to
As evidence of earnestness, the ministry cited "public education and
promoting awareness programs," youth exchanges and foreign
scholarships, "foreign youths to assist teaching" at schools, and
foreign exchanges (aiming to catch Japanese while young, not convince
die-cast Japanese adults). It also pointed at the (now moribund) Human
Rights Protection Bill and hoped it would someday pass.
The debate could have faded there, but Diene returned to Japan in mid-May of this year
, visiting Okinawa, Osaka, and Tokyo.
Why the homecoming? Diene, in Osaka, said: "Discrimination is not
something you deal with only once. You must follow up on it all the
time, because it mutates. And the current mutation is antiterrorism.
"While racial discrimination used to be the province of extremist
far-right parties, it is now becoming a regular part of democratic
systems, being blended in . . . with the fight against terrorism."
As if on cue, Japan passed its new Immigration Law on May 17
, reinstating the fingerprinting of foreign residents.
Said Diene: "This illustrates something I have been reporting on for
four years. Since Sept. 11, there has been a process of criminalization
of foreigners all over the world. In an ideological atmosphere where
there is a strong growth of nationalism and xenophobia, this clearly
leads to discrimination of foreigners."
He reiterated in Tokyo that "Japan has no official, no national,
legislation against discrimination, and this is against the
international instruments (requiring this from) member states."
Responding to criticisms, Diene acknowledged his report's limitations:
"I have not been able to meet everybody I would have liked to." His
standard requests, to meet the highest officials wherever he visits,
had not yet opened doors to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi or Tokyo
Regarding the alleged lack of objectivity, he said: "I am receiving no
U.N. salary for my work here, so my views are independent of any
government or interest group. I am also not only surveying Japan," he
added, citing trips to over a dozen other countries.
"I am surveying countries based upon the promises they made themselves
under the international instruments they have signed," as is his
mandate as special rapporteur.
He concluded that to alleviate conflicts between peoples, one thing
regions need is a general account of history. Citing UNESCO's
assistance in convoking the best historians in Central Asia, Africa,
and Central America, he noted the importance of drafting a version all
countries in East Asia can accept.
A critic soon piped up: "Isn't rewriting history what dictators do?"
In the interests of full disclosure, this writer states for the record
he has met and attended several of Diene's presentations, contributed copious data
, and written at length on his statements. I am a firm supporter of both Diene's report and recommendations.
This should not, however, divert our attention from what's going on
here. The U.N. is now holding countries more accountable for their
treaty promises. The U.N. recently reformed its Human Rights Council
long considered the hideout for the worst human-rights offenders.
Member states will apparently be judged on their own human rights
Japan is one of 47 member states elected in May to the Council. Diene
said his reports should help its government focus on the issues.
And through his practice of meeting in person, listening to individuals
and groups who feel they are victims of discrimination, we may well see
a grassroots strengthening of Japan's civil society.
In January 2006, Diene formally issued a 23-page report of his findings to the U.N. (available at http://www.debito.org/UNdienereport012406.html
He wrote that racial discrimination and xenophobia in Japan affect 1.) national minorities
(the Burakumin, the Ainu Hokkaido aborigines and Okinawans); 2.) descendants of former Japanese colonies
(the Korean and Chinese Zainichi generational foreigners); and 3.) foreigners and migrants
Diene pointed out a.) social and economic discrimination
where "minorities live in a situation of marginalization in their
access to education, employment, health, housing, etc.;" b.) political discrimination
, where "national minorities are invisible in State institutions;" and finally c.) cultural and historical discrimination
reflected in the "poor recognition and transmission of the history of
those communities and in the perpetuation of the existing
discriminatory image of those groups."
He stated that "it can hardly be argued that Japan is respecting its
international obligations," and that "racial discrimination is
practiced undisturbed in Japan." He recommended a.) government recognition of the problem and political will to combat it
; b.) a national antidiscrimination law
; and c.) a commission for equality and human rights
The Special Rapporteur welcomes information from people with knowledge on the ground.
E-mail Doudou Diene at email@example.com
Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Japan Times: Tuesday, June 27, 2006