Protests over racial slurs are making Japan look at its assumptions

October 31, 1990|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Etsuko Murata, a 30-year-old assistant foreign exchange dealer, was explaining why she broke up with an American banker she had been dating.

"My friends assumed that the only reason a Japanese woman would date a white man was because she couldn't get sexual satisfaction with a Japanese," she said.

"If he'd been black," she added, "the same assumption would have been that much stronger."

Like millions of other Japanese whose daily conversations may casually touch on issues that are deeply sensitive, sometimes inflammatory, to people outside their society, Ms. Murata does not think of herself as a racist.

Nor does Seiroku Kajiyama see himself that way.

But Mr. Kajiyama had been justice minister for scarcely a week before he became the third senior Japanese official in five years to touch off a firestorm of international protests by casually drawing upon a racial stereotype about American blacks as a rhetorical device before a Japanese audience.

After inspecting a police crackdown on a red-light neighborhood in Tokyo's Shinjuku entertainment quarter, Mr. Kajiyama explained to Japanese reporters why the prostitutes, mostly non-Japanese Asians, had to be brought under control.

The influx of the prostitutes, he said at one point in his explanation, had come to resemble the condition of U.S. neighborhoods when "blacks move in and whites are forced out."

That was on Sept. 21.

Mr. Kajiyama has spent much of his time since then apologizing: to Ambassador Michael H. Armacost at the U.S. Embassy three days later, to the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus in a letter a week later and to the Japanese parliament in a televised appearance a month later.

"I feel like I'm sitting on thorns," he told the lower house of the Diet.

His remarks have provoked protests not only from black Americans but also from six African ambassadors here, from a women's group that ministers to Southeast Asian women, who are widely exploited here, from an association of black residents of Tokyo who picketed the Ministry of Justice, from most Japanese newspapers and several magazines and from the Japanese organizers of a reception committee for Nelson Mandela, the South African nationalist leader, who is visiting on a tour of Asia.

If Mr. Kajiyama's thorns were of his own making, many Japanese say they also have roots deep in commonplace assumptions about people who are not part of a society that organizes its manners, language and business relationships around relationships between in-groups and out-groups.

"The Japanese, as inhabitants of a supposedly homogeneous, monolingual island nation, have only a vague awareness of the importance of racial problems," wrote Marumi Fukatsu of the newspaper Asahi.

All of the three most controversial comments from Japanese officials in recent years were made in "in-group" situations where the speaker felt he was among friends, the writer noted.

In 1986, when then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone attributed low U.S. literacy rates to a "considerable number of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans," he was speaking to campaign workers for his governing Liberal Democratic Party.

In 1988, when Michio Watanabe, then head of the LDP's Policy Council, said that blacks file for bankruptcy easily because they "think they can get out of paying," he was speaking mainly to party workers.

Mr. Kajiyama was speaking during a regular meeting with reporters assigned to cover his ministry, a forum where, the writer suggested, "he talked as if relaxing in a circle of his friends."

At an official level, some Japanese have sought to resist the idea that racial stereotypes run deep in the popular psyche here.

Suggestions that many Japanese might agree with Mr. Kajiyama's statements themselves border on "racism," Taizo Watanabe, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, told foreign correspondents.

But most commentators feel that when it comes to sensing how outsiders feel, Japan the society is only beginning to catch up with Japan the dynamo of world marketing.

It was only four years ago that the government declared in an official paper that part of Japan's economic success was due to the purity of the country's racial stock.

Part of the catching up has entailed the adoption willy-nilly of symbols that have long been familiar elsewhere in the world, including some that the rest of the world has begun to drop as offensive.

Two years ago, beach blankets, sweat shirts and other products blossomed with the images of "Black Sambo," until protests by black residents put an end to them.

That flap had hardly passed when protesters were back on the streets to bring an end to racially offensive black mannequins that had suddenly taken over some store windows.

Less publicized but perhaps more revealing are the assumptions inherent in the ways blacks and other non-Japanese racial groups are depicted in the endless proliferation of comic books that dominate magazine stands in convenience stores here.

In those mass-circulation publications, monsters often have dark skin and African features or Caucasian faces and horns on their heads.

The same cartoon books dehumanize women, including Japanese women, by showing them as either eager or deserving victims of mutilation and degrading sex attacks.

"While none of us likes to think that we consciously harbor racist feelings, our actions can give the lie to the sentiments we profess," the Japan Times, the country's biggest English-language paper, wrote in an editorial on Mr. Kajiyama's blunder.

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