Monday, August 11, 2014

News from Japan suggests a country not so unlike any other "normal" country

The other day I happened upon a copy of the Japan Times, an English-language newspaper that is published in Japan in conjunction with the International New York Times. Now, I what I know about Japan is what I’ve read in newspapers, history books and encounters with Japanese nationals—“nice” when they are tourists asking for directions, but  otherwise standoffish as if you are something on the bottom of their shoes (Brits and Nordic types, are of course similar to them in this regard).  I gather that Japan is a society which is tradition-bound, prides itself on “pride” and the homogeneity of its population, and possesses a certain conceit about its ethnic superiority in the region, even in regard to the Chinese, of whom it regards as “little brothers.” Once someone reaches adult, any deviation from accepted norms brings shame and embarrassment—unless, of course, it is committed by a foreigner, and that is to be “expected” of “inferior” people.

Nevertheless, despite its pretensions Japan is a nation that has problems just like any other country. Take for instance the following stories that appeared in this particular addition of the Japan Times:
Yoshiki Sasai, who “supervised” a research paper on “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” cells, or STAM—which seems to concern “reprogramming” embryonic stem cells to trigger certain healthy responses, in this case using the cells of mice—committed suicide by hanging after many inconsistencies and inaccuracies were discovered in the published study. Sasai apparently suffered great mental anguish and shame over the episode, something apparently not shared by more recent generations of Japanese. This includes the author of the study—Haruko Obokata, a young, attractive up-and-coming female scientist—who is accused of “malpractice” and “misconduct” in falsifying data, but who denies the charges and in fact is “busy” attempting to “confirm” her research results. The original papers were published in the British journal Nature, but was later removed from the publication in a rare move that greatly embarrassed the Japanese scientific community.

Then there is a story about a 15-year-old girl who is charged with brutally murdering and dismembering a classmate in her apartment. According to the Times, the unnamed girl had been suffering psychiatric “issues” for some time. Her parents had reported that they had previously attempted to have her committed to a hospital psychiatric ward after she informed them that it was “fun” to kill cats, and had a notion of killing a human being; it is not clear if a potential victim would be her father, who she reportedly struck and injured with a baseball bat several months previously. Doctors did not take this very seriously, and in any case asserted that someone of her mental state would need an individual room and no such “requirement” was available in the area. The girl was seeing a psychiatrist, who informed the parents the day before the killing on July 26 that girl admitted to killing a cat, and that the police should be notified. 

What else? The Japanese have been very loath to confess to or apologize for human rights crimes committed during their imperial expansion period leading up to and during World War II. In 1993, the Japanese government made the unprecedented move of “apologizing” to Korean “comfort women”—basically women who were kidnapped and forced to serve as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers. Before it was implied that this was “voluntary” on their part, and that the military and government were not directly involved in the procuring. This changed after a man who claimed to have worked for the military confessed to conducting the kidnapping at the behest of the Japanese military, but now there are claims that he “falsified” his account, and that this was a “private” occupation. There are now calls to “retract” the apology, a rather hypocritical example of national self-denial.

Japan, as mentioned before, is a fanatically homogeneous society, and in many ways a very racist one. Although Korean and Filipino workers reside in the country to do some of the “dirty work”—very much like Mexican immigrants here—no matter how long they resided in Japan or if their children are born there, it is impossible for them to become Japanese citizens. Now there is a story about people of Japanese descent who resided in or were born in the Philippines who wish to have their true “ethnicity” recognized by the Japanese government and allowed to return as Japanese citizens. The case currently is in a Japanese court.

Much has been made about the low birthrates in Japan, mainly due to women who want to put off having children so that they can pursue their careers. It seems that a popular alternative is for Japanese women who procrastinate over the issue to have procedures in which they cryogenically freeze a quantity of their eggs for a possible “sure” pregnancy at a time of their choosing. Younger women are urged to do this because of the decline in “quality” and fertility of older eggs. Doctors, however, warn that successful pregnancies are less likely after the age of 34, and preserving their eggs for future use is not necessarily the safety net they believe it is.

Finally, Japan’s defense minister is seeking to increase defense and armament spending to counter threats by China and North Korea, with closer cooperation with the U.S. military. It is interesting to note that following its defeat in World War II, it was written into its new constitution that its military capabilities were to be severely restricted, much like the Versailles Treaty attempted (and ultimately failed) to restrict Germany’s capabilities after World War I. Japan has largely complied with the restrictions, instead focusing on its domestic priorities, although it has one of the largest debt burdens (far more so than the U.S.) per its GDP. Since Japan is such a good “friend” of ours, and China not so much, it would seem in the U.S.’ interest to allow Japan some lee-way in expanding its military capacity as a counterbalance to China.

In many ways, then, people in Japan are not so different than we are; on the other hand, the “differences” give one reason to pause about the nature of supposed national and racial  “superiority.”

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