Packaging Prejudice for the Global Marketplace: 
Chauvinism Incited by Tokyo Governor Ishihara
Tessa MORRIS-SUZUKI, Professor, The Australian National University.
    Uploaded on 2 May 2001.

Tokyo's State of Emergency

On 9 April 2000 the governor of Tokyo, ISHIHARA Shintaro, made his now notorious speech at a Self-Defence Force gathering in which he stated: "If you look at Tokyo today you can see that very vicious crimes are repeatedly being committed by many sangokujin ['third country people'], foreigners, who enter the country illegally. The nature of crime in Tokyo is already different from in the past. In these circumstances, you can imagine that if there were a major natural disaster, there might be big, big riots. That's the current situation. There are severe limits on the power of the police to deal with that sort of thing. So you see I hope that in such times, in the pursuit of one of your major functions, it will be possible to request the mobilization of all you [Self Defence Force members], not just for disaster relief of citizens but also for maintaining public order."

The comments evoked instant criticism from a wide range of politicians and public commentators, and from many sections of the media (including the Asahi and Mainichi newspapers). The main focus of these criticisms was Ishihara's use of the word "sangokujin", a term which is generally understood as a discriminatory reference to resident Koreans and Taiwanese permanent residents in postwar Japan. Ishihara's response was not so much retraction as counter-attack. He accused certain media outlets of misleading the public by failing to quote his words accurately and in full (particularly for citing the word "sangokujin" without quoting the words "who have entered the country illegally").

Up to this point, it might have seemed possible to treat this as a one-off, if disturbing, comment by a politician known for his maverick views. Indeed, a number of commentators have interpreted in this light. For example, YAMAZAKI Masakazu (writing in the June 2000 edition of Ronza) states that he does not feel Ishihara's statement to be "a real threat". What he does see as deeply problematic is Ishihara's populist propensity to offer simplistic "comic book" policies as answers to complex economic and social problems. But Ishihara's remarks to the Self Defence Force, Yamazaki suggests, need not be taken too seriously since the shift of world opinion towards support for "multiculturalism and ethnic diversity", as well as the nature of the Japanese constitution, would make it impossible for Ishihara-style xenophobia to become a dominant theme in Japanese politics.

But Yamazaki's optimism on this point seems to me to be questionable, not simply because of the nature of Ishihara's comments themselves, but because of the context in which they were made and the response which they have since evoked. Less than a month after Ishihara's remarks, on Constitution Day, the Yomiuri newspaper published its latest set of suggestions for revisions of Japanese Constitution. By apparent coincidence, the most prominent feature of these proposed revisions was the redrafting of the legal sections of the Constitution to give the government, police and Self Defence Forces greater powers in times of civil emergency, and to allow the government, in times of emergency, to suspend certain human rights "where necessary to protect the lives, persons and property of nationals and within the limits of the law". (Yomiuri Shinbun 3 May 2000)

All of this comes, of course, in the midst of continuing economic crisis, at a time when the Japanese economy is buffeted by the gales of globalization and unemployment is at record heights. It also comes at a time when anxiety over social instability has come to be concentrated on a series of high profile violent crimes (hardly any of them, incidentally, carried out by immigrants, illegal or otherwise) which have become the focus of almost obsessive media attention.

Besides, the initial criticisms of Ishihara's comments have since awakened a backlash of support for Ishihara from a number of sources. 

A number of right wing commentators have stepped into the fray to defend Ishihara from the forces of "political correctness". These defences repeatedly recite one or other of two arguments (or sometimes both in successions): (1) the term "sangokujin" was introduced during the postwar occupation period as a technical terms to describe people from "third countries" other than Japan and the occupying powers, and is therefore not discriminatory; (2) it is true that the number of crimes committed by immigrants (and/or "illegal immigrants") is increasing.

The first argument is elaborated in detail by historian HATA Ikuhiko in an article in the journal Shokun. Hata defends Ishihara's statement by undertaking an obsessively minute analysis of the particular words which were or were not quoted by different newspapers, and by a historical investigation of the postwar origins of the term "sangokujin". The product of this analysis is the view that criticism of Ishihara is mere politically correct "word hunting" [kotobagari].

Since (like many of my younger Japanese friends) I had never heard the term "sangokujin" until Ishihara used it, I can say little about it except to observe that words acquire a historical burden of meaning which cannot be reduced to their original dictionary definition. In fact, even some of Ishihara's defenders acknowledge the word's discriminatory overtones. Writing in the journal Seiron, for example, SADAKATA Akira, a professor of Indian religions at Tokai University, begins with a lengthy discussion of the origins of the term "sangokujin", concluding (in contradiction to Hata) that "this term has become divorced from its origins and has certainly come to be used in an insulting way". (Seiron June 2000 p. 77) Sadakata then goes on to castigate some of Ishihara's critics for using other terms which he also considers discriminatory. 

Having demonstrated the purity of his terminology, however, Sadakata proceeds to demonstrate how it is perfectly possible to be offensive and discriminatory without using ever "politically incorrect" language. Despite Ishihara's unfortunate choice of words, Sadakata supports his overall message. Crime by illegal migrants, he says, is indeed increasing, and foreigners are indeed a threat to law and order. This is evidenced, Sadakata tells us, by the fact that he has watched a TV documentary about foreign drug dealers in Nagoya, and is also fairly certain that he has seen TV news broadcasts of two incidents, "one in America and one in Indonesia", which involved people rioting. On the basis of this research Professor Sadakata is confidently able to assert that "it is natural that Japanese should feel frightened of foreigners". (p. 88)