The Raglan Road of Tokyo

On Gaien Higashi Dori

Life from the Raglan Road of Tokyo

Tuesday, October 21

Insularity and the Price of Blood Myths

On September 22, 2000, a big man named Shinichi Shinohara had a bad day. Shinohara, as some of you might remember, was representing Japan in the final of the over 100kg class in Judo that day at the Olympic Games in Sydney. Fighting the Frenchman Douillet, Shinohara made what looked like the perfect ippon. All of us sudden Judo experts thought so. The fervent Japanese crowd thought so. Shinohara and Douillet both thought so. One of the referees even gestured so. A deserved win, we thought. But somehow the decision was not given and Shinohara lost his gold. September 22, 2000 may well be the last time I felt anger for injustices committed against my adopted country.

Shinohara being robbed of the gold coincided with me leaving the safe confines of English teaching for the big bad world of the real Japan. For those first four years in Tokyo, I met the Japanese outside the rigid hierarchical structures of the Japanese company, in a place where they could let off steam to a person that was not really part of their society in a language they perceived as free from the constraints of their own. I met people from all walks of the society, people with wonderful ideas, great imaginations, superb senses of humor, and of course the inevitable idiot here and there. As I was to find out later, I was seeing the Japanese at their best.

When I moved into the more rigid world of the traditional Japanese office, my life in Japan took a nosedive. Gone was the inventive, intelligent social interaction of the English teaching days, and replacing it was silence, the feudal rituals of speaking when spoken to, guarded colleagues who later in the day may well have became other people's intelligent and inventive students, and complete denial of the self for the good of the company. I began to learn that the people who attend English conversation schools are representative of about 10% of the Japanese, the 10% who more often than not have an interest in being international. I was about to begin my real stay in Japan, where I interacted with that 10% as well as the other 90%.

Most Japanese do not know how to behave around foreigners, have minimal or no dealings at all with foreigners, and very little desire for that to change. This is because of the particular point we are now at in history. Japan's door has been closed until very very recently, and it is only barely open now. The war, also, has not gone away at all. Living here can make you feel isolated, excluded, giving you a sense of hatred for the insular hosts. Learning the language will not bring you any closer to feeling accepted. All group social interaction here is based on difference being excluded. On some days it can really get you down. Examples abound, but here are two of the more sinister:

(1) Between May and June 2003, a 9-year old boy was being systematically beaten and abused by his 46-year old teacher in Fukoka Prefecture, Japan. The reason: the boy's great grandfather was American. The teacher repeatedly told the boy to commit suicide, saying things like, "Your blood is filthy, jump from your condominium and die," and "Haven't you died yet? Make sure you do today." The teacher has since been suspended.

(2) On May 8, 2001, this article appeared in the Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan's national newspapers. The article is an incitement to racial hatred by Shintaro Ishihara, where he talks about the criminal DNA of foreigners infecting the purity of the Japanese. On April 13, 2003, Ishihara was reelected as Governor of Tokyo with an overwhelming majority, gaining over 70% of the vote.

In a cruel irony for those proposing the superiority of Japanese blood, Japan's population is forecast to start decreasing in 2006. Already, Japan has one of the most graying societies in the world. In 2050, the population is forecast to be 100 million, with 1.4 working people supporting one elderly person. By 3300, one estimate has it that the population of Japan will be 2 if current factors remain unchanged. The pension system, on life-support already, will be in chaos. You need working people to pay tax to support the elderly.

This means Japan has a huge problem. One obvious solution is to take in immigrants. Accepting immigrants would mean their taxes would help fund the countries' elderly population, at a time when Japan will be the most graying industrial nation in the world.

Official national government policy, however, is no different from Ishihara's dangerous ranting, or even that teacher's twisted blood bigotry. Official government policy is for Japan to remain as closed as possible. For the government, accepting immigrants would cause untold social problems. The official national line is a bit more subtle than Ishihara, though. They say "would cause untold social problems both for us and them."
The official government solution to this problem is to get more women into the workforce, and also to get older people to work for longer. The elderly, they say, can support themselves by continuing to work, by shifting from being pensioners to people who support the pension system. For them, that is better than getting in the criminal gaijin. Notions of blood purity and ignorance of other peoples inform these decisions. These decisions in turn influence the way Japanese people remain ignorant of other cultures, which in turn influence the way they fail to become true citizens of the world. Again, in another cruel irony, ignoring the world will work to put more burden on the people of Japan.

Until this is sorted out, Japan is fighting a losing battle in the global economy. Japan needs to use its media to honestly educate the 90% who are at this time comprehensively ignorant of foreigners that difference should not automatically mean inferiority/superiority, instead of reinforcing the same old stereotypes. The government, too, needs to get beyond its xenophobic superiority/inferiority complex, as witnessed by its policy to deal with societal aging, and move toward more open policies, particularly in education. But the real duty lies with the 10%, the international Japanese who can see from the perspective of more than one culture. They are the ones who can counter the Ishihara populist brigade and expedite the process of making a Japan that is aware of more than just itself. Maybe then someday I could cheer wholeheartedly for the likes of Shinohara again. I want to, you know.

posted by setsunai 5:23 PM Comments
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Gaien Higashi Dori means Outer Gardens (of the Meiji Shrine) Ave. East. It is one of the beautiful big leafy avenues that winds through the center of Tokyo.

Raglan Road is a poem and song about love and loss by one of the finest Irish poets of the twentieth century, Patrick Kavanagh.