Bashers at wits' end

Satirists practise democracy-by-proxy

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 149(31), 2 August 1990, pages 25-26

As the US and the Republic of South Korea sink their moral teeth into the soft underbelly of Japan's political dragon, some of the intellectuals who animate this dragon are squirming to defend its racial heart. But Japan's rank and file are chasing the dragon with democratic humour that welcomes the incisive pressure.

First the US demanded that Japan improve the lives of its people by spending more on public works. Then South Korea urged Japan to have its emperor apologise for his country's colonial abuses that no one under 50 can remember; and to treat its Korean residents, most of them legacies of this past, as de facto Japanese citizens.

Many of Japan's consumers and minorities appreciate this outside advocacy, for they know that the country's political system would not be of, by, or for them without it. Critics of the diplomatic biting are taking the intrusions with less humour, though, while the neo-nationalists in their ranks are displaying the teeth marks as evidence of how "the Japanese race" continues to be a victim of foreign interference.

Japan's consumers, after four decades of Hollywood movies touting the American hero, are well prepared to grin at cartoons that applaud Americans who meddle in their affairs on their behalf. No comic strip champions the cause of Japan's consumers as much as the underdog savvy of Fujisan Taro, a caricature of a middle-class office worker, created by Sato Sanpei and featured every morning in the Asahi Shimbun.

One strip shows safe cars being exported to the US and unsafe cars being sold in Japan. Masses of people march on Japan's auto manufacturers and the Ministry of Transportation with banners reading "Eliminate racial discrimination" and "Protect the yellow race!"

Another strip begins with consumers protesting in front of Japan's national parliament in Tokyo. Getting no response, they fly to Washington, storm the US Government with placards, and appeal to its "Outside Pressure Against Japan Section."

In another takeoff on democracy-by-proxy, Fujisan Taro thanks US trade representatives for their opinions on the "land problem" that has tripled prices in five years and dashed the "my home" dreams of all but the rich. "There's a dragon in Japan that we can't do anything about," he explains on bended knee, then begs: "Please completely subdue it."

The beast is stomping through Tokyo's suburbs. Its head, the Japanese Government, is a fire-breathing parliament building. Its shoulders are Japanese corporations and its hips are Japanese banks. Its reptilian feet are crushing neighbourhoods while its tail is whipping houses into the air. Driven from their homes with unaffordable rents and unpayable inheritance taxes, the residents are fleeing ahead of the monster's advance like the panicked crowds in a Godzilla movie.

In yet another strip, Fujisan Taro assures his wife that America's bugle-blowing "economic cavalry" will rescue her pocket book--so that hotels, French food, taxis, and even sushi will be cheaper.

Sushi would be cheaper if Japan imported rice. In a rice debate telecast this June, Inoue Hisashi, one of Japan's most popular writers, took the conservative side. The US' demands are rude violations of Japan's sovereignty, he said; Japan should exercise its right not to import any rice, since rice imports would destroy Japanese culture.

Have more faith in the consumer, countered fellow writer Sakaiya Taichi , a former Ministry of International Trade and Industry official. The freedom to choose one's own food in an open market is more precious and vital than legislated culture, he said; besides, importing some rice would stimulate Japan's agriculture and accommodate an interdependent world economy while a "cultural defence" would isolate Japan.

Despite such sharp divisions of opinion, the televised rice debate was peaceful compared to an all night round-table discussion this May on the topic of Japan-Korea relations and Koreans in Japan. One issue was whether Emperor Akihito should have apologised to South Korean President Roh Tae Woo for Japan's treatment of Korea as a colony from 1910-45. Another was whether Japan should meet South Korea's demand that it cease fingerprinting Japan's 700,000 Korean residents; stop requiring them to carry alien registration cards; allow them to vote in local elections; and drop the nationality requirements that bar them from most government jobs.

Most of the pro-apology and pro-minority participants, including several resident Koreans, sat facing most of those who opposed apology and equal treatment. Although tempers never got out of hand, there were times when a dozen people fell to talking at once. But the tension was often relieved by laughter.

"We've got to talk logically," said Masuzoe Yoichi, a commentator with a have-pen-will-defend-the state reputation.

"Logically? Wow, here we go!" someone heckled. Masuzoe smiled, then fired a volley of syllogisms to this effect: "Japan is an island country, so it can easily defend its shores. This results in good public security, better than in America or Europe, where one country runs into another. Japan is very safe, it has little crime. Now a lot of foreigners are coming to Japan to work. Some of them are using forged passports. How can the police and the government maintain public security if they can't identify these foreigners? Hence the need to fingerprint even resident foreigners, like Koreans."

"But foreigners aren't required to register unless they reside in Japan for 90 days," said Kim Kyongduk, Japan's first Japan-born Korean attorney.

"So most of the foreigners you worry about aren't fingerprinted," added Tanaka Hiroshi, an Aichi Prefectural University scholar and human-rights activist.

"I thought there was something illogical about all that," someone jeered.

"If fingerprinting foreigners but not citizens is so useful, why don't other countries imitate Japan?" the moderator asked.

"It's impractical for countries that share land borders," Masuzoe shot back.

"The United Kingdom is an island country, but it doesn't require fingerprints of foreigners?" Tanaka said, inflecting his statement.

"No, it doesn't," Masuzoe replied, taking the bait.

"That's not very logical," Tanaka said, and then broadly smiled as almost everyone laughed, except Masuzoe, who had spent his last bullet. But exceptionalist logic has a way of regenerating itself, and Masuzoe soon resumed his government's flight against reason.

Japan is alive with such debate, in which spontaneous controversy between individuals and groups is fuelled by outside pressure--scrutiny and judgment, criticism, bashing--call it what you will. Conditions of life for consumers and minorities might improve without alien dentures.

Take, for example, South Korea's biting spoofs of Emperor Akihito's "regrettable" apology. Cartoons in Japan rarely feature the country's social minorities, especially the imperial family, whose members are all but foreigners in terms of how their lives are controlled by the state. So some magazines in Japan have reprinted South Korean cartoons in order to show Japanese readers the absurdity of their collective (government's) failure to look history in the face and express genuine remorse about their ancestor's intentional and consequential misdeeds.

The Asahi Shimbun weekly magazine Aera reproduced a comic strip from the Seoul Sinmun newspaper, which poked fun at the resemblance between Akihito's government-sponsored lament and the lyrics of a Korean song. The strip's heroine hears the lyrics "My heart hurts" drifting through the air, from Mt Fuji. "Who's singing that old popular song?" she asks. "President Roh is visiting Japan," a man explains, "and the Emperor is rehearsing his apology song."

A Choson Ilbo comic in the Japanese weekly Sandee Mainichi shows Emperor Hirohito telling then president Chun Doo Hwan when Chun visited Japan in 1984: "[I think] of the unfortunate past with remorse." In May this year, Emperor Akihito tells Roh: "I have] thoughts about the unfortunate past that [make my] chest hurt." Then the comic strip's hero asks Akihito: "When [are we going to hear] the words, [I'm] sorry about the past?" And Akihito replies: "When my son becomes Emperor."

The odds are high that future South Korean governments will pry Japan for more apologies. Japan's business practices and trade policies are no more likely to change as a result of unilateral reform without continual urging on the part of countries like the US. Here, too, Japan has the choice to bend with the wind, or to stiffen its stance and exert a little pressure of its own. Ishihara Shintaro, the writer-turned-politician, may be a racialist, but he is correct to argue that, if the US can dictate Japan's public work's budget, then Japan has the right to insist that America spend an equivalent amount to improve its basic education.

Diplomacy based on negotiable demands can result in a better world if it is accepted as a moral equivalent of war. Outside pressure ought to work, so long as it can work both ways, and so long as the global citizens that it would affect are able to make democratic light of their difficult political relationships. One worries only when humourless critics who have racialist chips on their shoulders take offense at barbed caricatures, like those that have appeared in recent issues of National Lampoon, a bimonthly American parody magazine that trades in stereotypic humor. National Lampoon's February issue carried a cover story called "Takeover!" and its cover featured "Mr Futomaki, President, Chairman of the Board and CEO, The United States of America."

Sapio, a semimonthly Japanese business magazine, dubbed the National Lampoon "the Japan-hating special," truthfully called it "a kind of intellectual play," and reasonably claimed that "it is precisely in such parody that the spirit of the times is well expressed." Then the article took offense at the contents of the special feature, and concluded with this assessment by non-fiction writer and scholar Ushijima Hidehiko.

"The image of the average Japanese at the ordinary American thinks of, is that of a warlike race. An image of samurai who would gladly die if for their lord. hi short, from [the standpoint of] these [Americans and their] individualism, Japanese don't have words of their own, and lack individuality. So [Americans] don't know what [Japanese] are thinking, and thus the Japs are not to go unmatched . . . . The real reason for the hatred of Japanese is in this. It is not economic imbalances. The "Takeover!" nicely speaks for the entangled feelings of such Americans toward Japan."

Why such paranoid reactions to American "Japanese takeover" jokes, however crude or ridiculous? Perhaps because they hinge on lies that reveal disturbing truths about the butt as well as the basher.