Hala Lettieri on a None-Too-Triumphal Homecoming

It’s easy to picture the joyous and tearful reception that Nahoko Takato might have been given had she been an American citizen returning to the States after being held hostage in Iraq. The public, having been saturated with video clips of Ms. Takato held at knifepoint and sound bites of the family’s impassioned pleas for her release, would have greeted the 34-year-old, who had been working with several Japanese NGOs to bring aid to children in Iraq, with messages of love and support. Ms. Takato and her fellow Japanese captives, freelance photographer Soichiro Koriyama and writer Noriaki Imai, would barely have time to be enfolded in the welcome of a nation before being asked to tell their stories, with which we would become, momentarily at least, intimately familiar.

But Japan heard little from their returned hostages. Instead they heard family members’ apologizing for the trouble they and their kidnapped kin had caused the nation. Having pleaded with the government to accede to the captors’ demands to withdraw the 550 members of the Self Defense Forces currently stationed in Iraq, the families received a deluge of hate mail from the public and strong denunciations from the government, which stressed the issue of the hostages’ “personal responsibility” for their capture. (The government, as had ours, had issued numerous warnings against travel to Iraq.)

Defending the decision to bill the families of the hostages for their airfare to Japan and other expenses associated with their release, Takeaki Kashimura, a Liberal Democratic in the House of Councilors, explained that “I have heard some of them expressed opposition to Japan’s deployment of the SDF troops in Iraq. I cannot help feeling discomfort in or strongly against spending taxpayer money on such antigovernment, anti-Japan elements.” The Japanese government rejected a check for $2,000 offered by an anonymous American to help pay the hostages’ airfare and expenses, sent with a letter strongly protesting the Japanese government’s treatment of the former hostages.

Other nations’ media have for the most part responded harshly to Japan’s treatment of its returned citizens.  Both the New York Times and Le Monde ran editorials denouncing the Japanese government’s position and expressing admiration for the humanitarian efforts of the freed hostages. The Italian government, which is facing its own hostage crisis in Iraq, has made a point of ensuring that the families of the three Italian citizens presently being held in Iraq receive counseling and other support. The Italian hostages were working for outside American security firms; a fourth, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, was murdered in April, the day after the three Japanese citizens were released.  Over a thousand Italians, led by the families of the hostages, recently held a peace protest in Rome after the captors threatened to kill the hostages unless a “huge demonstration” took place; in Japan, Ms. Takato’s family received a postcard reading “You asked for it” while they anxiously awaited news of her release. Public reaction to the families’ statements that the SDF troops should be removed was so strong that the local police posted guards at the homes of all three hostages, to prevent a possible violent incident.

The Japanese government flatly refused to recall their SDF troops, the first deployment of Japanese military forces overseas since the end of WWII, or otherwise negotiate with the hostage-takers. (The Italians and Americans have also refused to negotiate on behalf of their kidnapped citizens, though Italians representing NGOs have tried to negotiate, with the government’s tacit approval.)

The three hostages were finally allowed to return home after the Islamic Clerics Committee, a Sunni Muslim organization formed after the war, pleaded for their release. The organization gained great popularity in Iraq by virtue of the relief convoys they’ve provided for Iraqis in Fallujah (which is where the hostages were captured) and for helping to negotiate the ceasefire there. Though denouncing the occupation, the Committee has called for the release of all civilian hostages and remarked specifically on the Japanese hostages’ lack of U.S. ties and their antiwar politics.

Photographs of the newly released captives embracing one of the clerics who’d helped negotiate their release were treated with vituperative contempt back on the island. Their desire to continue working in Iraq was silenced by widespread disapprobation by Japanese who saw such sentiments as inconsiderate and ungrateful. As one Japanese official put it, “if they really hate Japan, I want them to defect to Iraq.”


And the cold shoulder turned toward the hostages is hardly an aberration.

In March of 1995, members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system during morning rush hour. There were twelve casualties, and the estimated number of victims affected by the sarin has been numbered as high as five thousand. It’s a scene chillingly easy for Americans to imagine post-9/11: a Monday morning, fine weather, a bustling urban center, and then the sudden shock and continuing confusion as a nation glued to the television tried to make sense of unfolding events.

Haruki Murakami, in his book “Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche”, recalls the dearth of information on the victims and their experiences that day.  “What did they see?” Murakami asks, “What did they feel?  What did they hear?” These were questions that Japanese society was unwilling to hear answered. In his preface, he recalls reading a letter in a women’s magazine written by the wife of a sarin survivor. Her husband had recently resigned from his job, “unable to bear the icy atmosphere” in his office. Her husband was a reminder of just that trauma society wanted to forget: “Whatever the reason,” Murakami writes, “his colleagues singled out this young salaryman — ?Hey, there’s the guy from that weird attack’—it couldn’t have made any sense to him. He was probably quite unaware of their ?them-and-us’ attitude… He would have considered himself a dyed-in-the-wool Japanese like everyone else.”

Compare this to the role taken on by the widows and families of victims of the second World Trade Center attack, who took a central role in the formation of the 9/11 Commission and in determining what will — and will not —be built in the footprints and the rest of downtown. Or consider escaped captive Thomas Hamill, who had to specifically request that officials in his hometown cancel the welcome parades that had been planned in order to allow him a quiet reunion with his wife and family. Victims here are treated more like rock stars than lepers, even, as with the widows, being awarded great political powers in compensation for their private losses.

In Japan, by contrast, most victims remain silent. Murakami calls this stigmatization of the victim a “double violence”. Even the indisputably innocent, such as the sarin victims (many of whom, nine years later, still suffer serious physical and mental effects from attack), have not had their experience assimilated into the popular consciousness, let alone the national psyche.

But there’s more going on here than a “blame the victim” attitude perpetrated by a culture intolerant of individualism. The insistence of both the government and the media that Ms. Tahoko, Mr. Koriyama and Mr. Imai bear at least some of the fault for their ordeal is also a call for personal responsibility of a sort no longer in vogue in the States, where victimhood confers immediate sympathy, an assumption of innocence, and an air of heroism (albeit of a passive sort). Discussions of culpability are avoided, as if it minimizes the suffering of the victims to show how their actions, however nobly motivated, led to their ordeal. One wonders whether such sanctification of the victim is necessary to place in relief the evils of terrorism.


What becomes relevant in discussions of “imported democracy” is that Japan’s Western Democratic ideals were from the beginning imposed wholesale rather than assimilated over time. Macarthur’s sweeping changes to the post-war Japanese Constitution established a representative democracy and such ideas as political parties and women’s suffrage. But a constitution cannot instantly reset a society’s values. (Japan’s post-war constitution also prohibited the use of force overseas; the SDF troops currently in Iraq are the first overseas deployment since WWII and are allowed there by special law as noncombatant forces dispatched for humanitarian reasons, to aid in the country’s reconstruction.)

In some cases it is uniquely Japanese rather than democratic values that have allowed Japan to respond as decisively as it has to the threat of terror. The 1995 subway attacks were Japan’s 9/11, rocking a nation that had grown complacent in the idea of its own security. Since then, Japan has introduced sweeping and unprecedented security measures (including, in 2000, a mandatory 11-digit identity code for all citizens and wide-ranging wiretapping and surveillance laws), most of which have not met with anywhere near the level of public resistance that greeted similar initiatives here. Even so, and especially in the wake of the recent hostage crisis, some Japanese politicians feel that still more is necessary. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, questioned in the Shukan Post about his response to a terrorist attack, stated: “One serious problem is that under current laws we have to deal with issues of human rights and privacy, which will prevent us from taking necessary measures. If terrorists attack Tokyo.” Governor Ishihara assured the public, “I will do whatever I can, bypassing current laws and regulations.’

In such a climate, it is easy to see how and why the sudden refusal of individual citizens to support the government’s aims regarding Iraq could be seen as both threatening and anti-social. Japanese “democracy” has never been based on a culture of dissent; there is a deeply-felt need for and expectation of the compliance of citizens in the decisions of state. The government, like a parental figure, reserves the right to chastise its citizens for their “rebellion”, “disobedience” and “lack of common sense” while still fulfilling its responsibilities toward them. And like a loving parent, the government has repeatedly stressed that it will continue to work to secure its citizens’ release in other such situations; no one has suggested that in this or similar instances hostages should be abandoned to their fate, no matter how irresponsible their actions.


Writing on the possible social causes of the 1995 subway attacks, Murakami also condemns Japan’s rigid codes of conduct, not only for the “double violence” of societal shame perpetrated on the victims of the attack but for fostering an atmosphere which allowed the attacks to happen in the first place. Remarking how it was some of Japan’s young, highly educated scientific elite who were responsible for the attacks, Murakami draws parallels to pre-Word War II Manchuria, pointing to the fact that in 1932 it was often the “best and brightest” of young Japanese society who chose to emigrate to what many regarded as a new frontier. Murakami writes, “For the most part they were young, extremely talented, and well educated, their heads full of newly minted, ambitious visions. As long as they stayed in the Japanese state, with its coercive structure, they believed it was impossible to find an outlet for all their energy.”

Currently Ms. Takato remains in seclusion at her family home in Hokkaido. In a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, Michael Zielenziger, former Tokyo Bureau Chief for Knight Ridder newspapers and a visiting scholar in East Asian affairs at UC Berkeley, compares the self-exile of the returned hostages with the growing number of young Japanese who have chosen to hide in their homes rather than face the pressures of national conformity, a trend known in Japan as hikikomori. Zielenziger defines hikikomori as a “social disorder” and lays the blame on Japan’s “unyielding culture.”

Ms. Takato, Mr. Koriyama, and Mr. Imai are still in a sense hostages, returned to a country that wants nothing to do with them, and refused any outlet for their opposition to the war in Iraq. It’s an ominous sign for our present democracy-building enterprise than nearly 60 years after such a system was forcibly introduced to Japan, a nation many have cited as a best-case scenario for exporting democracy, the Japanese still seem reluctant to embrace the principle of dissent.

Now it seems Italy is reacting in the same way to their safely returned Simora sisters. The only difference being that their families are not the targets of public outrage probably since they did not attack the Italian government for having sent their troops to Iraq but the sisters did upon their return. And how curious that the former Japanese hostage Naoko Takato just happened to be with the Simora family when the sisters were released.

The hostage bashing in Japan had nothing to do with the Japanese mentality that you define in the latter part of your entry. The Japanese public openly expressed their fury at the families because they were clearly siding with the abductors, reiterating the terrorist's demands, and shouting at the government to give into them. They seemed more like anti-government activists trying to overturn the government's decision of sending troops to Iraq because they didn't like it. Decisions are not made like that in a democratic country, at least not in Japan. In short, the families (except for Mr. Koriyama's mother) acted like terrorists - give into our demand, or your party will be toppled by a dead hostage situation. Calling their actions an expression of dissent is like calling a tiger's roar a house cat's purr. The behavior of the families was so odd that it even lead to rumors of faked hostage scenarios on the Internet. This impression was strengthened when the hostages came back apparently well-kept and healthy. They may also have started attacking the government, too, if they hadn't been informed of the situation awaiting them in Japan by their families.

Funny how the comments of some government officials in Italy are the exact echoes of those given by the Japanese officials at the time. Back then, the Western media seemed so critical of the Japanese reaction. Are they now blaming the Italian reaction to some "unacceptable nature" of the Italian society that alienate victims or do not embrace the principle of dissent? If not, I would regard it as a typical example of unconscious racial prejudice.

Although I regard the Western media as the most developed and reliable in the world, I am sometimes surprised by its superficial understanding of Japanese society, so much that it makes me wonder if I can trust their information on non-Western societies. It seems that although Westerners say that they value diversity, it only applies when they find it acceptable or comprehensible according to their own standards. The Japanese frame of mind is neither inferior nor superior compared to those of the Westerners, just different.

The root of the problems the Japanese people are presently faced with lies in the imposed constitution that is totally alien from our history or tradition. When ITO Hirobumi went to Europe in the 1880s to obtain advice on creating the Meiji Constitution, Hermann Roesler told him that a simple copy of the Prussian Constitution would not do, because a constitution for Japan must have its foundation in the history and tradition of Japan. What the GHQ should have done after the war is to have experts examine the Meiji Constitutions for its shortcomings and demand the Japanese to amend them, rather than impose an artificial constitution drafted hastily in a single week by people who were neither specialists on Japan nor on constitutions. Sixty years after the present constitution was forced upon her, my country is finally realizing that maybe this constitution is not right for us. I sincerely hope that my country will be able to produce a constitution that will define a true democracy tailored for our society, and be free ofthe prete-a-porte democracy we are now stuck with. As for Japan being a model for exporting democracy - well, I guess you are not familiar with either the period of Taisho democracy or the fact that political parties existed in Japan as early as 1890. Japan was already a democratic country, however incomplete it may seem by today's standards.
10.12.2004 | R2D2
Interesting article, and interesting response.

It provokes me to ask, Where on the planet, and in what culture, is a truly uncomfortable truth welcomed? If I say that I support our troops in Iraq, becuase I wish to see them immediately returned, so that not another may die, and not another may take and innocent life... I am suggesting that it is has all been in vein. That possibility is too ugly to digest. That it may be the only truth, is too ulgy as in the same moment that they are dying in and killing. So, the president "must" be right....becuase the alternative is too sad to allow.

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