Saturday, April 16, 2011


by Philip J Cunningham

(Fukushima Daiichi, courtesy Dissident Voice)

A wrenching dilemma has emerged in the midst of the nuclear radiation crisis afflicting Japan. A quasi-nationalistic “love it or leave it” attitude has gained currency, putting pressure on individuals to remain in place and face potential dangers for the sake of group solidarity.

Times of tragedy bring out the best and the worst in people, and if there’s any consolation in the harrowing days and nights since March 11, 2011 when a violent quake and giant wave rocked the Tohoku region to its core, it is in the stoicism and quiet heroism of ordinary Japanese who displayed a high degree of courage, order and decorum in the face of unmitigated disaster. Numerous journalists, volunteers and aid workers of diverse nationalities have gone beyond the call of duty to extend help to the hardest hit zones.

But there are hints of darker countercurrents seething just below the surface as well. Mercifully there is nothing on the scale of the race rioting and indiscriminate killing of ethnic Koreans that followed in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, but there have been incendiary accusations --faint echoes of the same irrational desire, need, even, to pin blame anywhere it sticks—as a coping mechanism during times of stress.

The tendency to categorize, stereotype and "nail" people with indelible stigmas exists everywhere, but in relatively homogenous Japan the tyranny of small differences is codified and enforced to a high degree.

On the one hand, those who evacuated Tokyo or temporarily moved their families to Western Japan or flew overseas are being subject to ridicule as quitters, losers and, in some essential way, non-Japanese.

On the other hand, staying in place involves risks that go beyond the physical exposure to radiation, aftershocks and tsunami to the social realm of peer pressure, identity maintenance and loyalty issues. Evacuations, some forced, others voluntary, have created a new stigma, a class of people shuttled about, irradiated by no fault of their own, who are being shunned from clinics and even refugee camps for fear of “polluting” others.

Whether it’s the unenviable fate of contract and temp workers hired to quell the broken nuclear furnace or the hapless Fukushima farmers forced to destroy the milk from their dairy farms and the food from their lovingly tended vegetable patches and rice fields, or fisherman fishing in an irradiated sea, the fight/flight dilemma borders on unbearable. Already despair-driven suicides and stubborn refusals to evacuate are being reported.

In contrast to the destructive fury of a tsunami that erased entire towns from the map coupled with an ongoing radiation nightmare that is turning fertile farmland and ancestral homes into a dead zone, scattered reports of prejudice are back-page news.

But it doesn’t take long for petty arguments to ensue. Around a week after the quake, the neologism “fly-jin” took wing, batted up by foreign bloggers and bandied about by glib reporters seeking to hype up the meme of foreigners leaving Japan. Even the delayed re-opening of Disneyland has been blamed on foreign talent skipping town. Snow White has gone missing.

(photo by Parkeology)

The fleeing gaijin meme has entered a nationalistic Japanese discourse simmering from frustration, fear, and resentment. Facing vacant embassies, undermanned offices and a floundering economy, politicians tiptoe their way across the smooth paving stones of time-worn prejudices, saying that “only Japanese” can save Japan.

Japanese are socially primed from young age to see gaijin not just as the ultimate other, but as the ultimate guest, especially if the foreigner is European in appearance. So much so that if gaijin didn't exist, Japanese would have to invent them, not so much to describe the physical reality of hairy barbarians as to create a foil by which to focus and firm up an inchoate indigenous identity.

Which is why gaijin who speak Japanese fluently and settle in Japan defy not just expectations but mental categorization.

"So, when are you leaving?" was the habitual greeting a Japanese-speaking American friend of mine heard while teaching English in small town in rural Iwate. He left two years later after completing his contract, fulfilling the apparent expectation that he would leave --because gaijin always leave-- but he has since settled in another part of Japan.

As such, non-Japanese are routinely stigmatized and marginalized in ways both pleasant and unsettling, typically a mix of the overwrought politeness, pomp and ceremony reserved for high-class guests, and the simmering resentment and condescension reserved for low-class guests who don’t know their place.

Many disparate, and frequently stupid things are said about gaijin, an impossibly broad category that theoretically includes the population of the planet minus those eligible to hold a Japanese passport, but one workable definition is that gaijin are people who leave.

The fuss about fly-jin was mostly a case of self-inflicted parody, if not prejudice, on the part of a handful of foreigners who were not content just to stay in place but chose to show their “devotion” by ridiculing the tens of thousands who left, even temporarily.

At first glance, it’s a comical situation in which foreigners ridicule fellow foreigners for not being loyal enough to Japan. But to be more righteous and loud-mouthed than the Japanese about what constitutes acceptable behavior in Japan represents a kind of colonized consciousness in which local norms and prejudices have been imbibed in a futile struggle to prove one’s “non-foreignness.”

This creates an awkward situation for those who choose to return, stigmatized as “fly-jin” for having bolted at the first Becquerel. Even that is a mere sideshow; the real unspoken victims of the open season on gaijin are the Japanese people themselves.

As the Fukushima nuclear facility continues to spew radiation, to “fight” for Japan is being construed to mean staying put with a stoic disregard for danger. Those who elect to leave are seen as threats to the social order. Any disruption or departure gives rise to doubts, and can be seen as a brake on the rolling wheels of the economy, as the trumped-up Disneyland case presumably illustrates.

This inherent social tension, only gradually being given voice to, mirrors a classic divide-and-conquer strategy in which one group of people is pitted against another in order to distract from the actual agents of culpability.

Fly or fry? It’s a false dichotomy, but those most vulnerable to the taming-through-teasing are the people of Tokyo and surrounding prefectures. The emotionally volatile “Don’t leave if you want to be a real Japanese” is showing traction and muddying the discourse at a time when some people in certain parts of Japan are facing scientifically-documented risks that need to be evaluated in a cool and rational way.

If it turns out radiation leakage is worse than what Tepco and the Kan government has been belatedly willing to admit, who's the villain here? The fly-jin?

Most of the “fly-jin” have already flown the coop and moved on to safer climes where ambient radiation and the emerging prejudices of post-quake Japan are unlikely to touch them. The real danger is for those who remain in place, especially Japanese. The mockery of a marginal class of people who have evacuated for safety –gaijin double-stigmatized by their flight-- makes it harder to respond to sensible calls for evacuation should the crisis take a turn for the worse.

What's come into play so far in social terms is not so much virulent nationalism as the regrettable human tendency to vent anger on the nearest easy target and thus discriminate against certain circumscribed "others" rather than address the problem at its source.

The internet-trending fly-jin fuss and kerfuffle is a frivolous distraction, obscuring the gross negligence of the deep-pocketed Tepco and its well-remunerated cronies and enablers in Japanese media, advertising firms and the government.

Already Fukushima-jin are reeling from prejudice, so much so that refugees who hail from hometowns close to the battered nuclear plant are being discriminated against even in refugee shelters. Worse yet, the heart-breaking reports of Fukushima kids turned away from medical clinics for fear they might be radioactive. This instant stigmatization touches on a raw nerve in Japanese culture, reminiscent of the sad fate of "Hiroshima maidens" and other radiated hibakusha whose victimhood attracted social pity from a distance, but avoidance up close at a personal level.

Will there be, in the decades to come, long after the fly-jin are forgotten, a generation of Fukushima maidens unable to marry because of the stigma of birth in a radiation-tainted hometown?