Published as "Dusting off the A-Word" in the Japan Times March 4, 2008
Draft Twelve "Director's Cut", as submitted to the editor, with links to sources.


Let's start my first regular column by explaining the title, starting with the word "cause". 

As you know, causes are what activists take up as a matter of course.  But in Japan, just doing that is a challenge--given the general aversion towards activism here.

I've been called an "akutibisuto" for many years.  At first, I was leery of the label because of its negative ring in Japanese.  Even its vernacular equivalents--"katsudouka", "undouka", even "puro shimin" ("professional citizen," a negative term like "do-gooder")--make "activist" sound like "extremist" (kageki ha).

No wonder.  Civil society--meaning non-governmental/non-profit organizations, networks, and voluntary associations promoting "a common good"--is curiously underdeveloped in Japan.

Sure, volunteer groups have long existed in Japan, but the "father-knows-best" paternalism still found in our bureaucracy precluded much grassroots philanthropy.  NGOs and NPOs weren't even allowed official registration until a decade ago.

To most people, "acting in the public interest" wasn't our job--it was the government's.  And our government, believe it or not, was once seen as practically infallible.  From the 1950's to the late 1980's, the "best and brightest" were mandarins creating good industrial policy.  Most people cashed in on the high-growth economy instead of helping those less fortunate in society--such as the homeless, the handicapped, and the discriminated against.

Even after the bubble burst and faith in the government dimmed, many still had difficulty believing that certain problems, such as racial discrimination towards the growing number of non-Japanese residents, even existed in Japan.  After all, standardized education said that racial discrimination was an overseas phenomenon; the paragons were the American South under segregation and South Africa under apartheid. 

The Ana Bortz and Otaru Onsens lawsuits, where our judiciary openly acknowledged that "Japanese Only" establishments were discriminating by race, removed a lot of plausible deniability.  But even today, Japan officially claims to the United Nations that there are no real ethnic minorities in Japan, therefore no racial discrimination.  Frictions and "gaijin allergies" are mainly due to misunderstandings by Johnny Foreigner, unable to grasp our unique culture.

Mandarin say, public do:  In any public discussion on why exclusionary signs stay up on shop fronts, justifications turn to "culture" too automatically.  Which means an activist has an uphill slog convincing people why they should care.

But I believe the biggest reason why activism in general is so frowned upon in Japan is because it has no history of resounding success. 

In the West, the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s is held up as the epitome of a "successful" demonstration of "people power."  Speeches, public demos, and conscientious objectionism helped topple administrations (Lyndon Johnson and Charles de Gaulle, for example) and change political landscapes.  People engaging in peaceful protest (for a cause now vindicated in popular culture) is part of the historical narrative.  Activism isn't even all that scary:  the sky won't fall because people picket.  It's even seen as a benign phase students go through.

Contrast that with Postwar Japan's biggest street protests, against the revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty in the late 1950's-early 1960's.  There were student riots, huge rifts in society, even violence and deaths. 

However, those struggles didn't amount to much.  We are still under the Security Treaty.  The perpetually-empowered big cheeses in the LDP have never been toppled by street demonstrations (yes, media exposés of political graft, such as Lockheed and Recruit, have done some in; but that's not the same). 

Instead, left-wing extremists cleaved into camps (most famously the Red Army), turned on themselves in murderous purges, and set off bombs and riots that maimed authority figures and bystanders alike.  In doing so, they destroyed any possible image of civil disobedience.[1]

So with no clear example of activism "working" in Japan, it's difficult to argue that causes are worth the time and energy.  Instead of being heroic, they're associated with rioting extremists. 

When I eventually took on the mantle of activist (my cause:  establishing a law against racial discrimination in Japan), I found I must constantly dispel the image that I am doing anything extreme.  I'm just doing what other fellow Japanese (however few), working within the law and the Constitution, do. 

That means lobbying politicians, notifying ministries, "naming and shaming" discriminating businesses, and crafting essays and websites as a permanent record for future researchers.  Even if it means my swimming against the current, perpetually gainsaid by naysayers because they're apathetic, cynical, culturally relativistic, or debate dilettantes.

This monthly JUST BE CAUSE column will be part of that essaywriting effort, discussing things that matter to the ever-growing Non-Japanese communities in Japan.

I hope to spark debate about what should by now seem obvious in any developed society:  That everyone regardless of nationality, national origin, or any immutable social status affixed at birth, should get a fair chance at reaching their potential in society. 

That's not obvious in Japan, because too few people actively push for it.

I'll write because it's a just cause.  Or even just because. 

Arudou Debito's co-authored new book, HANDBOOK FOR NEWCOMERS, MIGRANTS, AND IMMIGRANTS (Akashi Shoten Inc.), is on sale from March 15.  http://www.debito.org/index.php/?page_id=582

850 words
[1] Source:  SHOCKING CRIMES OF POSTWAR JAPAN by Mark Schreiber, see pp. 198-217.

Back to the Cover Page

"The Community" Page

Go to the "Residents Page"

Go to the "Activists Page"

Copyright 2008, Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan