In 2010-2011 a good friend of mine visited Japan and taught Australian Studies at Todai (Tokyo University). I was overjoyed because it had been some time since I had last seen him and also because in addition to being highly astute he is a great conversationalist. Finally, someone with whom I could share my own experiences of living in Japan (coming up on close to ten years altogether). What was so refreshing about the limited conversations we had was his total lack of bitterness prevalent among gaijin. As I have written elsewhere there is a general persistent malaise infecting Anglosphere gaijin in Japan, a malaise that might correctly be diagnosed as a failure to recognise the limits of their cultural universality and the resultant bitterness that manifests as they are trapped within a hyper-speed game of conceptual Pong in which they are always on the losing team.
An admission: I have had moments of bitterness. While I take full responsibility for them, I am also able to locate, on reflection their origins: the miasma of self-perpetuating “opinion” offered up as knowledge across what seems to be the entire English-language internet relating to Japan. In other words, going online for help resulted in self-fulfilling, paranoid and unreconstructed retreads of other people’s stories. What is worse, is that a number of supposedly authoritative online voices from high profile activists such as Arudo Debito seem to relish in and gleefully spread cynical screeds against issues that with a little more thought and a tad more contextual awareness would not be as difficult or terrible as they make out.
Debito is an odd bird. On emigrating to Japan he eventually attained naturalised Japanese citizenship, quite a rare feat for a Westerner. Indeed, his precedent, along with his civic-rights-oriented activist bent caused him to rise to some degree of fame. His fifteen minutes came when he won a lawsuit against a Hokkaido hot springs owner who had denied him and one of his daughters entry on grounds of race. But it seems that Debito’s hunger for fame or at least admiration as a vanguard activist eclipsed his capacity for considered reflection and contextual awareness. A casual read of his blog reveals a number of interesting and high profile stories to do with illegal discrimination and everyday life in Japan. The blog also seems regularly frequented by a number of people with similar interests. However, with sustained, continuous engagement it begins to be possible to locate an underlying bitterness and personal dissatisfaction that quite clearly colours his writings. What had started out as spotlighting and acting on injustice has turned into smug, chauvinistic critique.
In his latest Japan Times column “These are a few of my favourite things in Japan” in the semi-regular opinion series “Just Be Cause,” Debito employs a spot of silver tonguing in an attempt to both “be positive” and offer salient critique. Indeed, the former idea is a rather antiquated internet discussion rhetorical device frequently employed by those inclined to plead “but you never say anything good” or “If it’s so bad, just go home”. As for the latter, observation has always been Debito’s strong suit, critique, less so. Both combined make for a dire reading experience in which each compliment appears poisoned by an invisible yet omnipresent sarcastic smirk. One further issue is his flippant disregard of Japanese satire and the role of irony/sarcasm in Japanese society.
While correct in asserting a lack of emphasis on sarcasm as a legitimate means of communicating humour or social analysis, he fails to tell us just why it matters. After all, he points out how Anglosphere cultures have a rich tradition of sarcasm and stinging social critique, but fails to let us know that a lot of this critique has its origins in class politics as a way of shoring up class hierarchies and dismissing lower class cultural practice. In fact I would be more interested in his take on social critique from a Japanese perspective in relation to Anglosphere critique and ironic modes of humour. But then again, whenever Debito writes, it is always from the location of a particular kind of gaijin crystallised in time and place, a kind of outsider who knows more than his green-behind-the-ears fan base but seems incapable of getting inside a local, cultural perspective. While clearly proficient in Japanese to a certain level, Debito appears to be culturally illiterate when it comes to examining similar phenomena from different cultural perspectives.
Obviously, his latest column is supposed to be an exercise in humour and appeal to the gaijin readership of the Japan Times. In such a genre, he hardly has the time or space to address in detail any of the critiques I have raised here. It would be nice, however, to see writing from such a prominent gaijin who attained permanent residency in 1996 and citizenship in 2000. That is a long time to hold onto such limited outsider concepts at the expense of digging deep into the local mind beyond adversarial escapades in so-called activism. Why not start writing in Japanese? Why not start engaging with actual local community beyond the gaijin Anglosphere, in their own language. So in regards to the shots fired at Japan from an American distance away, I say, “Stop it, Debito, just stop it!” If you want to have any relevance at all in terms of Japan’s multicultural future, you may need to redraft your terms of war. In fact, leave the war behind and make peace. Dude.