Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Oh, those Russians...

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this frankly bizarre article by Gregory Clark in that ever-reliable quality newspaper The Japan Times recently.

By all means read the whole article and get the full context, but I'll only be quoting parts of it as I go along here.
Antiforeigner discrimination is a right for Japanese people
Yikes! What a headline! Well, to be fair here, my humble journalistic efforts occasionally grace the hallowed pages of the JT and I know that writers are rarely responsible for their headlines. Also, given that the paper has a reputation among some for being a bit of a moaning shop for foreigners, there's surely no harm in bringing a bit of thoughtful, well-written balance. Hats off to the editorial team then. So let's get started:
"Japan girai" — dislike of Japan — is an allergy that seems to afflict many Westerners here.
OK so far. No one likes a Moaning Michael, for sure.
Normally these people do little harm. In their gaijin ghettoes they complain about everything from landlords reluctant to rent to foreigners (ignoring justified landlord fear of the damage foreigners can cause) to use of the word "gaijin" (forgetting the way some English speakers use the shorter and sometimes discriminatory word "foreigner" rather than "foreign national.").
Surely getting turned down for an apartment on account of being foreign can be quite a serious problem though. In what way are these "justified landlord fears" and in what way do these fears balance out a human being's right to a roof over their head? As for the use of gaijin versus gaikokujin, well, the issue is surely more the intention behind the decision to use one word rather than another. Where the intent is to insult or belittle, it is natural to take offence. Where there is clearly no such intent, in the words of Wil Wheaton, don't be a dick.
A favorite complaint is that Japanese universities discriminate against foreigners. How many Western universities would employ, even as simple language teachers, foreigners who could not speak, write and read the national language?
There's a clear difference between universities "discriminating against foreigners" and "foreigners who could not speak, write and read the national language". Is Mr. Clark saying that Japanese-speaking foreigners aren't discriminated against by Japanese universities? It would help to know. But then perhaps what he is getting at is something a bit different. The complaint about universities is a pet project of everyone's favourite serial litigant-cum-freedom fighter Debito Arudou. Could it be that "many Westerners" and "these people" really refers to just one person?
Recently they have revived the story of how they bravely abolished antiforeigner discrimination from bathhouses in the port town of Otaru in Hokkaido.
Ahh, the Otaru onsen lawsuit, and a familiar face reappears. The plot thinnens. There's not much I could add to this sad case of an innocent onsen owner hounded out of his business by drunken Russian sailors and his terrible revenge on foreignerkind other than that it seems like something that could have been resolved with much less trouble if everyone involved had been a bit more civilised, although I did like this quote:
as proof I harbor no anti-Russian feeling let me add that I speak Russian and enjoyed talking to these earthy, rough-hewn people in their own language
I'm sure Mr. Clark has nary a Russophobic bone in his body, and he's written some fine articles about Russia, but this line still carries that dubious whiff of "Yeah, but, you know, some of my best friends are gay" about it. Perhaps he just thought we should know that he can speak a lot of languages.
The antidiscrimination activists say bathhouse managers can solve all problems by barring drunken sailors.
Sounds reasonable...
But how do you apply a drunk test? And how do you throw out a drunk who has his foot in the door? Besides, drunken behavior is not the only bathhouse problem with these Otaru sailors. I can understand well why regular Japanese customers seeking the quiet Japanese-style camaraderie of the traditional Japanese bathhouse would want to flee an invasion of noisy, bathhouse-ignorant foreigners. And since it is not possible to bar only Russians, barring all foreigners is the only answer.
Perhaps some kind of sign is in order, maybe reading something like, "Quiet, please". Mr. Clark could assist with the Russian if they asked. He certainly sounds like he wants to help. Mind you, those "earthy, rough-hewn" Russian sailors that he so enjoyed talking to really do sound frightfully scary.
The antidiscrimination people point to Japan's acceptance of a U.N. edict banning discrimination on the basis of race. But that edict is broken every time any U.S. organization obeys the affirmative action law demanding preference for blacks and other minorities.
This is quite simply an appalling argument. Drawing parallels between legislation designed to combat discrimination and behaviour that actively discriminates against people because of their skin colour is the rhetoric of the extreme right and an educated, seemingly liberal, man like Gregory Clark should be better than that.
Without it, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama would probably not be where he is today.
Malaysia has also ignored it, with its Bumiputra policy of favoring Malays over Chinese and other minorities. There are dozens more examples of societies deciding to favor one group of people over others in order to preserve solidarity or prevent injustices. A large chain of barbershops in Japan has signs saying service is denied to those who do not speak Japanese.
This paragraph is evasion, bordering on a particularly petty form of whataboutery. Malaysia's policy sounds pretty racist from what Mr. Clark writes here, but then I don't know anything else about it and I thought we were talking about an onsen. Or were we talking about moaning foreigners? Again, with the barbershop point Mr. Clark confuses discriminating due to a language barrier that clearly hinders the ability of the establishment to do its job and discriminating due to nationality or skin colour.
Non-Japanese speakers probably cause much less harm to a business than delinquent Russians. But we do not see our activists in action there
That is because they aren't the same thing.
The activists say there should be action to educate Russian sailors in bathhouse behavior. But do we see any of the activists in the friendship societies where worthy Japanese citizens try to ease problems for foreigners living here? Not as far as I know.
Greater cultural understanding for those lovely Russian sailors sounds like a great idea. Who knows, beneath the chrysalids of those earthy, rough-hewn exteriors there may be dozens of Lafcadio Hearns or even, in rare, lucky cases, Gregory Clarks just waiting to unfold their wings into the sunlight. Those friendship societies sound great too. Why are these two ideas presented in opposition here?
Presumably close contact with these citizens would also upset their Japan-girai feelings.
That's quite a big presumption to make, Mr. Freud.
Japan has long had a real problem of clever Chinese and Korean criminals taking advantage of Japan' s lack of theft awareness to pick the locks and pockets of unsuspecting citizens. But when the authorities try to raise this problem, they too are accused of antiforeigner discrimination. Even companies advertising pick-proof locks are labeled as discriminators if they mention the Chinese lock-picking problem.
In this case, though, why is it necessary to make a point out of these clever criminals being Chinese and Korean? Surely just warning people to look after their stuff is enough and doesn't have the side-effect of making the ninety-nine-point-whatever percent of non-criminal Chinese and Korean immigrants (many of whom are second and third generation) feel that they are all being treated as potential criminals.
Let me add that I also have no anti-China feeling; I speak Chinese too.
Tee hee. And George Wallace had lots of black friends, and simply loved jazz. It's strange why people still use this argument, but then it's not so strange that people become defensive when they're attacking others.
It is time we admitted that at times the Japanese have the right to discriminate against some foreigners.
By "some foreigners", it's tempting to suggest that Mr. Clark means rough-hewn Russian sailors and clever Chinese and Korean criminals, rather than Oxford-educated vice-presidents of Akita International University, but no, let us not carelessly throw around accusations of hypocrisy; he states that while he dislikes being fingerprinted at the airport, he accepts that it's needed so presumably he is willing to accept other forms of discrimination on behalf of those other, bad foreigners (some of whom can't even speak Japanese, dontchaknow).
If they do not, and Japan ends up like our padlocked, mutually suspicious Western societies, we will all be the losers.
Firstly, where did that come from, all at once in the final sentence? Secondly, how did he get from the problems of foreigners complaining about being called "gaijin" at the start of this article to Japan's metamorphosis into this hellish dystopia at the end? Thirdly, wasn't he advocating locks of some kind to protect innocent Japanese from clever Chinese and Korean criminals just a couple of paragraphs ago? This single point, tossed off at the end of the article is an interesting and serious issue that Japan is likely to face as its cities become increasingly multicultural, and if one tracks back to early last month, there is a rather better article by Paul De Vries that deals less hysterically with both this idea and the extremely important issue of the Russian onsen controversy, but Clark doesn't explore it.

As Marc Jones writes in the comments section of his blog here, "I think maybe Mr. Clark is out of touch with how those foreigners with lower-status jobs than heads of universities are discriminated against, including Chinese and Koreans but also immigrant residents and workers from other Asian countries."

Gregory Clark isn't an idiot. Judging from some of his other articles he has a wide range of experience on all manner of issues and doesn't habitually write from a perspective of transferred nationalism. Neither does he seem like the sort of person who writes simply to shock. Somewhere amid all this nonsense and flawed rhetoric, I feel Mr. Clark has a point to make, but I'm also pretty sure that point is just "Debito Arudou is a wanker". It's just a shame that he had to catch a glancing blow off of pretty much every other foreigner in Japan with his wild swipe.