Japanese Justice

From the Japanese: A Journalist’s Encounters

By Linda Ghan

A review of From The Japanese: A Journalist's Encounters by Catherine Bergman

Published on April 1, 2003

From The Japanese: A Journalist’s Encounters
Catherine Bergman

McClelland & Stewart
$24.99
paper
265pp
0-7710-1207-1

Catherine Bergman spent five years in Japan in the early nineties as wife of the Canadian ambassador. With a background of twenty years as a national correspondent for Radio-Canada’s Téléjournal, she continued her journalism with a monthly column for The Globe and Mail.

From the Japanese is a collection of 23 short pieces ranging in subject from sexual harassment (the term didn’t come into existence in Japan until 1992), to the strange practice of firefly viewing (the insects are trucked in to Tokyo hotels), to geishas, the first women in the Diet, discrimination against Koreans, a meeting with the Emperor, fashion trends, and a reporter who brought down a prime minister.

Bergman often uses the word “democracy” in relation to Japan, but the picture that emerges is of a society where feudalism is all too alive. In parliament the bureaucrats field questions for their ministers and then write the minister’s answers. (Nothing impromptu here.) When Bergman challenges one politician on the general lack of concern for policy, the response is: “You know, in Japan, these things don’t matter too much.” During the author’s bureaucrat-scripted six-and-a-half minute encounter with the Emperor, the proscribed subject is cherry blossoms, the mention of which is the ultimate in Japanese insults.

Ostensibly, this book is a celebration of “the nails that stick out,” i.e., those who stand up and battle Japanese society’s wrongs. The reference is to the phrase every Japanese child is brought up on: “The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.” By my count, nine of the 23 pieces deal with this idea, and while the nails aren’t always pounded down, they aren’t exactly allowed to stick out either. The “nails” include such issues as family planning (the establishment of which has involved an ongoing fifty-year struggle) and honest coverage in school textbooks of Japan’s occupation of Korea and the massacre of Nanjing, still not dealt with after thirty years. Rather than celebrating those who try to make a difference, however, we regret that out of a population of 128 million there are so few, with so little possibility of success.

Bergman asks good questions and researches thoroughly. There are a few salient points that have been missed but probably couldn’t have been picked up without direct experience of a Japanese working environment. One example is the author’s observation of “amicable” conflict resolution. In one sense she may be right; as she points out, the Japanese legal system is focusing more on mediation, a concept with which the confrontation-shy Japanese are reasonably comfortable. In another sense, though, she is naive, basing her assumption on the myth of agreement by consensus in Japan. In practice, “consensus” means that meetings go on until the last person is silenced. As we all know, there are many ways to achieve silence.

On the other hand, Bergman’s distance also allows her observations unavailable to those in the fray. She notes that there is no concept of justice as we accept it in the West: there is only “the way things are done,” exemplified by the apocryphal story of a peasant complaining to the lord about the killing weight of taxes. The taxes are lowered – after all, peasants finished off by starvation are no use – but the peasant is put to death for complaining. This is justice.

The only note of hope in Bergman’s account is the description of a community holding a referendum on the building of a nuclear plant. While the referendum has no legal weight and could be completely ignored, it is not. For the first time, protest is succeeding in a Japanese way. It is a group action. There are no nails sticking out. mRb

Linda Ghan lived in Japan for seven years, and her most recent book is Interview with an Artist: A Dominican Priest in the World.

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