unexpected reactions, until you stop and think

Via Crooked Timber, this story of the treatment of the Japanese hostages from Iraq on their return home is uncomfortable and for me a little bewildering. I visited Japan last month, expecting to encounter a rigid, stratified social structure, but finding people accessible, friendly, and warm. I made a number of friends, found myself discussing partners and home life with a senior Professor, was taken to visit a friends’ well-to-do mother in law and was treated far more inclusively than I expected. The social mores were certainly distinct from the west, and etiquette (including a fair amount of deference) was fairly pronounced, but the structure seemed to be as much focused on communal endeavour over individualism, as it was on hierarchy.

Thinking on it it’s not so surprising that the public reaction was so disapproving. The criticisms are telling:

“Yasuo Fukuda, the Japanese government’s spokesman offered this about the captives’ ordeal: “They may have gone on their own but they must consider how many people they caused trouble to because of their action.”

Effectively, they have done wrong because they embarked on a project which is not Japanese: they have pursued individualistic goals (admittedly these goals are concerned with helping others, but being active in Iraq would likely appear random and capricious to the public at home) which have now caused problems for Japan, as well as shaming it. My impression is that in Japan concepts of shame and honour are not purely elements of bradaggio and cred (though I’m sure that for many, from salaryman to yakuza footsoldier, this so; the world turns on its similarities as well as differences) but are deeply involved with the notion of community. If so, this would explain some of the level of vitriol – regardless of the public’s position on Iraq, regardless of opinions of whether their actions within Iraq were positive or negative. It’s not Rachel Corrie-style ‘traitor’ hatred, or anger that their presence or capture endorsed the war. Simply, it is that very visibly, these people endangered themselves and compromised Japan for distinctively non-Japanese, self-centred goals, and this is shaming.

Weird. I totally disagree with this, but understanding it prevents me feeling angry. I’m just sorry for the former hostages: what a thing to come back to.

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