The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter


A protestor hold a poster saying that well known japanese major league baseball stars, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, do not get voting rights in the US where they live and work so why should foreigners in japan be granted such rights.

Yet another right wing demo the other day in Shibuya. This time there were no political elites leading the call (or rather coat-tailing the popular rightest sentiment spreading through the population to sheepishly relaunch their previously extinct career)  to preserve Japan’s national identity against the influx and influence of foreigners. Indeed the group pictured above are called Gambare Japan and must be pretty new because I can find no information about them on the net.

Such groups springing-up is merely a symptom of nationalism’s growth and acceptance by ordinary people and is a world wide phenomena at the moment as citizens of every nation come to terms with what geographer, David Harvey called the insecurity caused by capitalist globalization.

The new cosmopolitanism of cities and even once homogenous rural areas does take some getting used to; the immigration patterns over the last fifty years have forever changed the way we view nationality and nation. But far from being a bad thing I think it is great: people these days are connected in ways that go beyond borders and even language; the power of the internet and international travel for work and pleasure has made friends and families (for example, me and mine) that can exist and thrive regardless of the geography or culture they occupy and even cultures themselves seem to be changing to accommodate this new rootlessness if the media are to be believed.

Don’t get me wrong, I think culture, especially national culture, is important and should be preserved which is why Simon Cowell should be shot for what he is doing. Yet cultures develop and change through time and that includes taking on influences from outside or adapting to where you find yourself. To limit these influences or label them as inferior is racist. But this is what is happening even though there are supposed to be checks and balances in place to stop the misinformation and hatred of racists gaining too much influence and leading to the abuse of populations by those who use use OUR national identity and OUR understandable patriotism to achieve some ideological end, that is usually not in the country’s or OUR best interests. Anthony Smith in 1991 observed that, “Nationalism provides perhaps the most compelling identity myth of the modern world.” Basically we are not who we think we are but our thoughts are shaped by what we think we are. The recent riots by the the English Defense League shows that ideas of Englishness, as something unique and separate from the England most citizens find themselves inhabiting is a strong one. That these English people have the idea that other citizens of the same country do not belong there and are attacking the English character is becoming more mainstream and accepted and have made a situation where direct action as a result of government (mostly classified as Scottish and thus anti-English by the right wing press) inaction seems the only option left open. And this is scary because one thing that I, as an Englishman who happens to live in Japan but is still very English, am most proud of is the way we just don’t get that worked up about such silly things. Or didn’t used to anyway.

There was a time, after large-scale immigration first started in the 1950s and after the British got used to people of different colour and cultures actually living in the same towns and villages as us, when we eventually integrated far, far better than almost any other country in Europe. Certainly better than the US. The new British people added to the cultural mix of Britain, I mean curry is the national dish after all, and I feel kids still grow up in the UK with far less fear and dislike of people’s differences instilled in them by prejudices learned from previous generations. But I worry that this tolerance is disappearing: there is a telling moment in a video of the Dudley riots when a EDL supporter says that he objects to the mosque because “We can’t go to India and build a Catholic Church can we?”

Well yes you can and this despite a long history of abuse by the Catholic church in its historical missions.  This is hardly a fair comparison either as India is overwhelmingly Hindu not Muslim. And never mind that, more importantly I wonder how many of the EDL supporters actually go to church anyway. This is just part of the manipulation of an imagined community of the “English” that is being created by the nationalists.

Now I’m not a big fan of religion, any religion, and would object to tax money being spent on any place of worship: mosque, church, synagog or temple. But let’s get this straight this mosque does not affect Englishness if you judge it as a battle of spirituality. The Muslims, unlike most Brits, at least pray to their god and if they want to do that they need a place to do it in. You can’t object to their god on the grounds that he is not your god and thus an attack on your culture when you basically don’t have a god or inhabit that part of English Culture anyway. Okay so we have Christian culture in the the UK (though it of course comes from the middle east) and council officials who want to ban the celebration of Christmas or Easter because it might offend other religions should be out of a job because that is just stupid. And anyone of another religion who takes offense at such things should be sent out of the country.

When in Rome and all that.

But so too should any British person who cannot accept that Britain is now a multicultural country with the good things that means for us. Christmas is fun so is Diwali and why not enjoy a bit more of carnival and of St George’s day, St Andrew’s day, St David’s day and St Patrick’s day for that matter. Nationalism can be positive, it creates pride in the good things that identity us as part of that or this nation and it helps keep that identity when it is being oppressed or being marginalized. That is probably what the EDL and the Japanese members of the Gambare Japan are claiming is the reason they have to act. But this is a form of Civic Nationalism which says all who subscribe to the mores and traditions of a country are welcome members of its community. You don’t have to agree but you must basically conform. The EDL says it is not anti-Muslim and only rejects some of the rights of Muslims who are Jihadists who hate the west and wish to impose their religion on people who do not want to live that way. This I get. The right wing in Japan say they do not want anti-Japanese North Koreans able to have voting rights and power in a country they continue to plot and plan the destruction and belittling of. Okay I get that too.

But what of the Muslims in the UK who are not militant, that would be most of them I’d assume (at this moment anyway, nothing creates a defensive hardening of your baser cultural ticks than perceived exclusion from your own home, – ask the idiots in the EDL)? What of the Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians and yes even English teachers and photographers from Britain that work, pay tax, get married, contribute quite generously me thinks to the reversing of Japan’s low birthrate and basically get on with being citizens of the country, don’t we deserve some rights? The Oxford English Dictionary describes a citizen as ” a person who is legally recognized as a member of a country.”  And citizenship is often understood to be membership of a political unit (a country) which allows full participation in the community and not being excluded from certain rights and privileges.

Well things are not too good on that front. I am not able to vote even though I pay tax, but I have written on that before and that is a difficult subject. But I am also excluded in a many ways from full integration into Japan on more ethnic grounds and that is not simply the colour of my skin or eyes; it is also in the language, culture, traditions, and religions.

This ethnic exclusion is another and often concurrent branch of nationalism to the civic sort. It holds up, as an ideal basis of acceptance, a sense of belonging or purity and at its most, ethnic cleansing extreme, can lead to the forcible construction of ethnically complete homeland. It not that bad here of course (yet) but the Japanese often say that foreigners will never get the nuances of living in Japan, even as we try to conform, and that the understanding of the culture or traditions is somehow ingrained in the DNA of being Japanese and because of that we can never be fully accepted and thus welcomed. But this in nonsense. Such national identities are learned from childhood. True the learning process is long and perhaps never ending but if my sons can learn it; hell if my wife, who is 100% Japanese, can learn it, so can I. This idea that certain understandings are beyond foreigners is a banal form of nationalism. We see the flags waving at Yasukuni and the stoicism of singing Kimigayo and we think we have seen it all. But that is overt; it is the mundane: the manipulation of what news is reported; the endless sporting pride and the subtleties of the language where nationalism can create the idea of uniqueness and superiority that is so common these days.

What is truly worrying here is that subtle racism has done its job and now the overt racists feel they are able to get on top of a van every week in Shibuya and spread hate and fear without censure. Most nationalist parties in Europe cannot be openly racist: there are laws against such things and to stand any chance of keeping a platform of debate political parties, of any hue, must play by those rules. Indeed many go out of their way to distinguish themselves from the bigots that may indeed share similar ideologies but do not have the expertise to disseminate that message into the populace effectively. In Japan the fear that once kept people from shouting down the nationalists plays a much more background role these days. It is still there but hardly needed; now the right wing is more cleverly using the dissatisfaction the people feel with the current government to concentrate people’s anger at certain pet subjects; namely foreign voter rights, immigration, US forces in Okinawa and most importantly the perceived erosion of cultural identity.

The groups I photographed here and with Shinzo Abe inhabit the homogenized fantasy of Japaneseness. They live in the, shuttered, closed past of Samurai dreams; they see the meek and weak of Japan’s disenfranchised youth and think that a twenty year old college student is suffering crushing apathy because of the invasion of Commodore Perry 150 years ago and not the mishandling of the economy by Japanese politicians and nationalists of the last 30 or more years. They even object to the self-determining wish many Japanese women have these days of not changing their name when they get married, or adding their husband’s name to their maiden name because it is not traditional; they want patriotism taught at school; they don’t think children should be taught English at Elementary school or that the troubling aspects of Japan’s history should be taught at all. And they have support; the crowds that claps and “banzai!”s along are not your usual rapid bigots or right-wingers; they are not impoverished victims of economic collapse looking for scapegoats. They are, give or take, mostly ordinary people that just don’t see the manipulation anymore. The racists are guiding a chastened electorate past the media-induced sense of having made a massive mistake in voting for Hatoyama. He’s not doing that badly for being just six months into the job if you ask me: it takes a while to repair 50 years of corruption and indifference, but the media are already penning his political obituaries; along with enough I told you sos to make sure the population will do what is “best” for them next time. This is where I’m worried because the ideological vacuum that remained on the political right after the LDP election defeat last year has been filled with a particularly nasty nationalism. It is in full fantasy mode, remembering of  past glories, pride in all that makes Japan not only unique but supposedly better than other countries and has a quick easy blame reflex directed at anyone who is not Japanese for any and all ills that have befallen or will probably befall this country in the future under their return to leadership. And ordinary Japanese people, told that they have made one foolish error already, when they thought for themselves and voted for change, are being routinely warned of future identity loss, future problems stemming from the unproven government and its slavish reliance of foreign influences to fix uniquely Japanese problems and are ready to agree to anything these people suggest .

It’s all just a little bit of history repeating…



2 responses

  1. A brilliant well thought out and informative piece as always. It’s scary looking at the state of things in the UK, seeing more and more young people becoming disillusioned with politics, politicians expense scandals, down right lies etc. Then the right wing racist parties spouting hate and people who are feeling hard done by have an outlet for their anger and more support goes to the far right. I know these guys are a minority, but how long until they become a significant minority (if they aren’t so already). At least, the mainstream media in the UK portrays them for what they are and the majority of the UK population see them for what they are, racist idiots.

    Here, it’s worrying to see the right wingers out in Shibuya spouting their hate without restrictions. I reckon 99% of the kids in Shibuya will walk by without taking note, I rarely meet any youngsters here interested in politics, but as fewer and fewer jobs are becoming available and futures are looking bleaker, how long until they do start taking note and how long until the youngster start seeing foreigners as the root of all evil in Japan. Already the Japanese media focus’s a lot of perceived crime by foreigners, with the Chinese and the Koreans in particular being singled out. I know plenty of foreign people who have lived here 10 years, are married to a Japanese and have kids, but they still can’t get permanent residence status, I’ve heard of some being turned away from local community sports events with their families as they “are gaijin” and on countless occasions in the past I have been kicked out of estate agents for commiting the sin of being a foreigner looking for a house to stay in. When I asked why they refused to rent to me I was fobbed off with lame excuses such as “it’s a problem because foreigners speak Japanese” and even when I pointed out we were having the conversation in Japanese I was then told sharply “foreigners can’t be trusted.” How much of this is due to an underlying racism and how much is it down to actual experiences people have had with foreigners I wonder?

    I do like to think we are becoming more welcome here, I’ve seen positive changes come along in the last few years, but just as I get comfortable something comes along to remind me we are still the outsiders. Now my wife has graduated Japanese language school and uni. here and has been told by umpteen companies they won’t give her a job as they don’t want to sponsor her visa. Being a tri-lingual architecture graduate doesn’t matter, she’s Korean so she’s going to end up being a Korean teacher or doing some part-time job in a department store. Being a double foreigner act in Japan could work well if you came here with your own established business, we don’t, we are working up from zero and the more I think about it, the more we’d be better elsewhere.

    WHat will the future hold for foreigners in foreign lands around the world?

    April 18, 2010 at 12:24 am

  2. Indeed Will, that is the troubling thing, most don’t care about it but it is the fact that it is a banal (subconscious almost) form of nationalism that makes it more worrisome. That in 2010 an estate agent can turn you away because you are a foreigner with fear of litigation is obscene. This is not a banana republic here, it is the world’s third largest economy which relies on foreign trade and supply and has massive, massive overseas markets. How can it remain so xenophobic? With that attitude and the way the economy and culture is going it is a small step to see the scapegoating of foreigners. I think it is already starting. The crime statistics you mention are the most telling example of propaganda. When the large number of foreigner committed crimes are adjusted to remove those “crimes” related to visa and immigration problems, the number of serious crimes committed by foreigners is well below that of native Japanese. But this doesn’t get reported and when a bigot stands on top of a van in Shibuya he has kudos, people listen and if he or she is only reinforcing the messages coming out of the press and TV why should anyone question it. Even if they could, information contrary to the line is hard to find in Japanese. Does any japanese person read Debito’s site? I doubt it.
    With time the message will get more extreme, like the story of the frog slowly boiled to death in water that started cold. At some point in the future if things are not corrected now, there will be a madness out there with actions being called for and carried out against non-Japanese. Some people I’m sure see this is paranoia and it may be but the sheer number of people spouting and supporting nationalist ideology here is scary. As you said in the UK the like of the EDL and BNP are freakish, extreme and unwelcome and the media (as it does with all political groups) is not afraid to point out their weaknesses and idiocies. Here no-one says to these people that they are talking nonsense.

    April 18, 2010 at 2:07 am

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