Thursday, April 19, 2007

(ceremony commemorating the first day for new hires at Toyota Motor Company, Aichi Prefecture, Japan)

I don't know why I insist on boxing Japan when I'll be visiting so soon, but sometimes I read things that I already know and it not only makes me spark but also makes me very afraid to even visit. And maybe you don't know about this, hey? So here you go.

Y'all know I love love love visiting Japan, and that I've met some of the most lovely people there, but this is one of the reasons I don't live there.

The special cruelties of death row in Japan have been widely criticized: inmates are deprived of contact with the outside world in a policy designed "to avoid disturbing their peace of mind," say ministry officials; they are kept in solitary confinement and forced to wait an average of more than seven years, and sometimes for decades, in toilet-sized cells while the legal system grinds on.

Decisions about who is to be executed and when often seem arbitrary, but when the order eventually comes, implementation is swift: The condemned have literally minutes to get their affairs in order before facing the noose. There is no time to say goodbye to families. Because the execution orders can come at any time, the inmates, in effect, live each day believing it to be their last.

This is inhumane and cruel. And the way prisoners are treated in Japan is a direct result of how Japan treats anyone deemed "unfit" because of stepping outside of society's rules. As a regular foreign visitor to Japan, I have to be very aware of the way police routinely target "outsiders" for inspection -- stopping you for your identity papers, hauling you into the police station and searching your bag without cause, holding you for twenty-four hours w/o charging you with a crime or allowing you to make a phone call.

One big criticism I have of Japan is how the government sanctions, sometimes officially, the stripping of rights from, and shunning of (effectively dehumanizing) anyone not "normal" -- in this case, death row prisoners, but also the handicapped, and foreigners -- and how easily the Japanese public are then protected from the unpleasantries of knowing what the real effect of this is on their society. Shunning isn't even a strong enough word. It's really like that Twilight Zone episode where the odd one out just doesn't exist, lest acknowledgment brands one with the mark of Cain too.

This sanctioned "turning of a blind eye" to, and the distrust of, anyone out of the ordinary precludes many folks from ever questioning anything, be it the ignorance of evidence that could keep someone from being sentenced to death to why people are collapsing around you and your own throat is burning (Haruki Murakami's Underground, about the Tokyo sarin attacks, chronicles this extensively) to why am I so unhappy toiling away in an office 14 hours a day? This article references a very common and scary quote, to wit: that social homogeneity is what current Prime Minister Abe refers to as "beautiful Japan."

I know railroading differences is a human trait, but in Japan it is done like a religion, or science. And this is the first and most important step in eradicating empathy. Nowhere else on this planet can someone be beaten to death on a rush hour train without a shred of intervention and the police must beg for witnesses to come forward (a story related by a friend in 2004). This is not Wa.

I guess the conundrum is this: where, anywhere, is the balance between individual ideas and that harmony that recognizes we are bound together in our desires as human beings?

Japanese democracy is only 60 years old. The concept of human rights is not ingrained in our history -- Sakae Menda

And is it just that simple?


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