Reflection on Japan: Growing Stigma Against Victims of Fukushima


By PHILIP J. CUNNINGHAM, New America Media

A wrenching dilemma has emerged in the midst of the nuclear radiation crisis afflicting Japan. A quasi-nationalistic “love it or leave it” attitude has gained currency, putting pressure on individuals to remain in place and face potential dangers for the sake of group solidarity.

Times of tragedy bring out the best and the worst in people. If there’s any consolation in the harrowing days and nights since the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, it is in the stoicism and quiet heroism of ordinary Japanese, who have displayed an admirable courage, order and decorum in the face of unmitigated disaster.

But there are hints of darker countercurrents seething below the surface as well. Mercifully, there is nothing on the scale of the race riots and indiscriminate killing of ethnic Koreans that followed in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. But there have been incendiary accusations, faint echoes of the same irrational desire — need, even — to pin blame anywhere it sticks, as a coping mechanism during times of stress.

The tendency to categorize, stereotype and “nail” people with indelible stigmas exists everywhere, but in relatively homogeneous Japan, the tyranny of small differences is codified and enforced to a high degree.

On the one hand, those who temporarily moved their families to Western Japan or fled overseas are being ridiculed as quitters, losers and, in some essential way, non-Japanese.

On the other hand, staying in place involves risks that go beyond the physical exposure to radiation, aftershocks and tsunami — to the social realm of peer pressure, identity maintenance and group loyalty. Evacuations, some forced, others voluntary, have created a new stigma — a class of people shuttled about, irradiated through no fault of their own — who are being shunned from clinics and even refugee camps for fear of “polluting” others.

This fight/flight dilemma — the unenviable choice facing the contract and temporary workers hired to quell the broken nuclear furnace; the hapless Fukushima farmers forced to destroy the milk from their dairy farms and the food from their lovingly tended vegetable patches and rice fields; the fishermen toiling in an irradiated sea — borders on unbearable. Already, stubborn refusals to evacuate, as well as suicides, are being reported.

The Meme of the “Fleeing Gaijin”

Compared with the destructive fury of a tsunami that erased entire towns from the map, and the ongoing radiation nightmare that is turning fertile farmland and ancestral homes into a dead zone, scattered reports of prejudice seem petty and are being treated as back-page news.

Yet these undercurrents are disturbing and real. A week after the quake, the politically incorrect term “gaijin” (“aliens” or “outsiders”) became common, batted up by bloggers and bandied about by glib reporters seeking to hype up the meme of foreigners leaving Japan. Many stupid things are said about gaijin, an impossibly broad category that theoretically includes the population of the planet minus those eligible to hold a Japanese passport, but one workable definition is that gaijin are “people who leave.”

Even the delayed re-opening of Disneyland has been blamed on foreign talent skipping town. Where are Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

Of course, numerous journalists, volunteers and aid workers from around the world have gone beyond the call of duty to extend help to the hardest-hit zones around the Tohoku region. But the “fleeing gaijin” meme dovetails nicely with the discourse of a Japanese nationalism fueled by frustration, fear, and resentment. Facing vacant embassies, understaffed offices and a floundering economy, politicians tiptoe their way across the smooth paving stones of time-worn prejudices, saying that “only Japanese” can save Japan.

Japanese are socially primed from a young age to see gaijin not just as the ultimate other, but as the ultimate guest, especially if the foreigner is European in appearance. If gaijin didn’t exist, Japanese would have to invent them, not so much as to describe the physical reality of hairy barbarians as to create a foil by which to focus and firm up an inchoate identity.

This is why gaijin who speak Japanese fluently and settle in Japan defy not just expectations but mental categorization. “So, when are you leaving?” was the habitual greeting an American friend of mine heard while teaching English in a small town in rural Iwate. He left two years later after completing his contract, fulfilling the apparent expectation that he would leave — because gaijin always leave — but he has since settled in another part of Japan.

Non-Japanese are routinely singled out and marginalized in ways both pleasant and unsettling — typically a mix of the overwrought politeness, pomp and ceremony reserved for high-class guests, and the simmering resentment and condescension reserved for low-class guests who don’t know their place.

The New Japanese Gaijin

However, the real unspoken victims of the open season on gaijin are the Japanese people themselves.

As the Fukushima nuclear facility continues to spew radiation, to “fight” for Japan is being construed as staying put with a stoic disregard for danger. Those who elect to leave are seen as threats to the social order. Any disruption or departure gives rise to doubts, and can be seen as a brake on the rolling wheels of the economy, as the trumped-up Disneyland case presumably illustrates.

This inherent social tension, only gradually being voiced, mirrors a classic divide-and-conquer strategy in which one group of people is pitted against another in order to distract from the actual agents of culpability.

Fly or fry? It’s a false dichotomy, but those most vulnerable to the taming-through-teasing are the people of Tokyo and surrounding prefectures. The emotionally volatile “Don’t leave if you want to be a real Japanese” is gaining traction and muddying the discourse at a time when some people in certain parts of Japan are facing scientifically documented risks that need to be evaluated in a cool and rational way.

If it turns out that radiation leakage is worse than what TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) and the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan have been willing to admit, who’s the villain here?

Most of the gaijin have already flown the coop and moved on to safer climes where ambient radiation and the emerging prejudices of post-quake Japan are unlikely to touch them. The real danger is for those who remain in place, especially the Japanese. The mockery of a marginal class of people who have evacuated for safety — gaijin double-stigmatized by their flight — makes it harder to respond to sensible calls for evacuation should the crisis take a turn for the worse.

The fuss over gaijin is a distraction, obscuring the gross negligence of the deep-pocketed TEPCO and its well-remunerated cronies and enablers in the Japanese media, advertising firms, and the government.

Already Fukushima-jin are reeling from prejudice, and refugees who hail from areas close to the battered nuclear plant are being discriminated against even in shelters. Worse yet are the heartbreaking reports of Fukushima kids turned away from medical clinics for fear they might be radioactive. This instant stigmatization touches on a raw nerve in Japanese culture, reminiscent of the sad fate of “Hiroshima maidens” and other radiated hibakusha, whose victimhood attracted social pity from a distance but avoidance up close.

Decades from now, long after the gaijin are forgotten, will there be a generation of Fukushima maidens unable to marry because of the stigma of birth in a radiation-tainted hometown? Only time will tell.



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  3. I have always been bewildered and amazed at the level of inhumanity and humanity that tragedy reveals in humankind. Thank you for your soul-grabbing article and inspired prose. This is simply one of the best written articles on any topic I have read in years.

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  5. Miguel Quintana on

    Right on the money Mr. Cunningham.

    I would add one thing, though: some of the “gaijin” who stayed are doing the same to their colleagues who left temporarily. They greet them back with an “oh, you’re back…” and a little smirk on their face. If you weren’t in Tokyo at the time, people assume you fled and put you in the yellow category.

    One element the national/international press failed to grasp is that a great number of Japanese (maybe even outnumbering foreigners?) also left Tokyo, some temporarily, some for good.

    The way I see it is, it all comes down to having – or not having – options. Obviously most foreigners don’t “have” to put up with the nuclear threat. And those Japanese whose hometown – or that of their spouse – is away from Fukushima have the option of relocating.

    The A-bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki got it right from the start. Less than a week after the accident, they were warning against the same discrimination they faced for decades, a subject that is completely taboo and remains mostly unreported in Japan. The factors (lack of objective information on the effects of radioactivity, for example) are the same, and they breed the same results.

    Which leads to one potential solution: ask the a-bomb survivors what they think can be done to avert discrimination – which implies exposing at last what happened to them not so long ago. That is, in my opinion, what the Japanese media need to start working on right now.

    After all, the “gaijins” can always fly away, but the Japanese from Fukushima don’t have that option.

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