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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
July 4, 2002

Japanese Perceptions and Reactions to Terrorism

Steve McCarty (Professor, Kagawa Junior College, Japan, and President, World Association for Online Education)

The original article "Another Against the Other: Terrorism Through Japanese Lenses" appeared in the January 2002 issue of "The Online Journal of Education, Media and Health," New York University

The fallout from 9/11 includes many values that no longer seem viable, for instance, to world peace activists who own up to the implications (1). But how are the same events viewed through different culture-colored glasses, as influenced by a consensus interpretation among the media? Internet sources in English indicate, by comparison, that some literate Arabs in the Mideast still wish to believe that conspiracy theories involving Jews are the salient issue. How do Japanese people view 9/11? If that is phrased "Japanese individuals," it will be more difficult to generalize beyond anecdotes. But sources including the Japanese language media are often in support of these perhaps surprising interpretations.

Except for the pornography of death, terrorism is a nuisance to Japanese people, yet another uncontrollable force from the outside that threatens the safe and stable domestic scene among Japanese. So they see a clash of two civilizations unrelated to Japan but just impacting on Japan and forcing Japan to react diplomatically (in both senses of the word). The rhetoric of "civilisation versus terrorism, east versus west, freedom versus evil doers" is utterly foreign to the Japanese way of thinking, which identifies neither with the East nor with other civilizations of any sort.

There is an old Japanese fable about frogs in a well croaking among themselves and thinking that the little circle of light above is the whole sky. However, this Japanese fable may have some universality as well. In any event, this is the country that remembered Hiroshima but forgot Pearl Harbor until the movie came out. In other words, popular sentiment about WW2 has been that Japanese people were victims. Frequent sudden disasters such as earthquakes had also led to a historical feeling that major events could not be helped, so a safe and predictable life was the best to be hoped for. Media biases reinforce attachment to time-worn values.

Most passers-by interviewed in a youth mecca of Tokyo showed concern that Japan or they personally could be harmed by terrorism, but considerable apathy was expressed. A mature woman said, "I have stopped travelling by plane and worry this terrorism will spread to the rest of the world." But a 36-year-old man said, "In no way, really. I was interested after the U.S. attacks for a few weeks but my life and business are not directly affected." An 18-year-old woman said, "No. I have no interest in the events" (2). On a BBS I predicted with black humor that Muslim veils would become a fad, not realizing that Muslim scarves were already the rage. That shows how some young women were able to gain ownership of world events.

There have been signs that the media in Japan are out of touch with changed realities, and that the public is influenced to hold attitudes very different from those of Japan's ostensible allies. This could be because the post-War pacifist ideology has served Japanese people so well that they cling to it even when it is no longer viable. The day before the fall of Kabul the vernacular daily Asahi newspaper with a circulation of about eight million demanded that the U.S. stop bombing and send in food. Of course that would have given the Taliban a new lease on Afghanistan. A cable news network in Japan decided to offer the Al-Jazeera channel for free, just when the U.K. was considering banning them for inciting hatred. Nightly news broadcasts have tended to focus on the innocent Afghan victims of American bombing, and the tug of manipulated emotions was noticeable to this viewer.

Few mentally healthy humans are eager to change their values, as it is one's world view rather than the actual world that brings a sense of stability. Similarly, in the U.S. there has been controversy surrounding peace activists who remained true to their values. Rightly fearing instability, people tend not to change their values until incontrovertible evidence mounts that their outlook must change for survival.

Multiculturalism has flourished in recent times with the growing recognition that cultural diversity is enriching, yet now the complete transcendence of racial profiling can appear to be a luxury of political correctness that a besieged country cannot afford.

Japan has been privileged like the U.S. in recent decades, not having to dirty its citizens' hands in direct warfare. The rumor that Japan was asked by the U.S. to "show the flag" has been widely criticized by Japanese media commentators. Yet on both sides of the Pacific many individuals and businesses have in effect displayed a white flag, by canceling trips, laying off workers, and so forth.

East Timorese Nobel Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta provides some realism, saying that intervention in his country stopped the genocide by Muslim-dominated Indonesia. Saddam Hussein was the first leader to use biological weapons -- on fellow Muslims in Iran. The "al Qaeda fighters are actually mercenaries" (3).

Japan was the first country hit by chemical terrorism with the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack by the Aum cult, but memories are fading back to inchoate fatalism.
Japan's most popular novelist, Haruki Murakami added Aum non-fiction to his previous characters with a dark underside (4). Murakami's "Underground" has become literal in the case of caves and tunnels sheltering bin Laden's foreign legion from the deserts of the Mideast and Africa to the Central Asian mountains. The English-language daily Japan Times reflects on a rift between traditional and modern culture that can lead to extremism, which is true in the Islamic world and elsewhere as well as in Japan. Religion led to terrorism by highly educated believers in both Aum and on 9/11 (5).

Terrorism jolts national self-absorption. A foreigner in Japan may not wish to go back to 9/10 when the front page news was usually domestic and the Internet provided the main window to the outside world.

The most active force internationalizing Japan was Ichiro. Until New York was broadsided by regular tourist carriers, Tokyo pedestrians would not have been asked how they were affected by events abroad. Prior to 9/11, with Japan's traditional attitudes labeled racist, Time magazine's online Japan correspondent agreed with me that what Japanese people want is economic recovery without having to change their values (6). For when they do come out of their self-absorption, the post-War generation faces various accusations about WW2 that they do not fathom, yet they do not want to let go of ongoing Japanese ways that define them and satisfy their needs for safety and affiliation. It may work better to lay low vis-a-vis the outside world, focusing on economics and uncontroversial trivia, not showing their true feelings but projecting a time-tested persona.

In perspective, however, all citizenries could be described as self-absorbed to a degree. While U.S. media saved money pandering to domestic issues like who did Monica's hair, the U.S. government was caught flat-footed and uninformed despite recent events in the Mideast and Africa. The U.S. might rank below Japan in self-absorption but above some countries that are decidedly multicultural and multilingual.
Since Plato, Western systems are ostensibly based on the rule of law, with location of birth often determining nationality. In an extreme manifestation, confrontational individualism exploits unbridled freedom to work the system to one's advantage through litigation.

Whereas crowded East Asian societies have learned to avoid confrontation in elaborate ways. In a rule of men more than laws, blood determines nationality more than location. Middle men buffer the domestic business world against victors and vanquished, with compromise for mutual survival. The system can be worked more effectively by connections and behind-the-scenes consensus-building than by the conspicuous assertion of merit, principles, criticism or lawsuits. Given such differences in common sense, judging Japan by what is currently PC in the U.S. is simplistic labeling. Working the system of international trade and remaining self-absorbed are both self-protective. Avoiding the possibly accusing eyes of foreigners altogether may be a way to hold onto a jittery sense of security. Thus the cultural gulf remains, and the relatively few Japanese who become fluent in a foreign language tend to be seen as crossing over. Nonetheless, they vastly outnumber the fluent non-native speakers of Japanese.

Unsung heroes of our time are those who risk cultures going back millenia to privilege English as the world's lingua franca. Then let English be a neutral tool without presumptions of cultural superiority, and let the enrichment of East-West communication be mutual (7). So Japan represents a magic mirror to the U.S., responding unexpectedly and showing that doing things even the opposite way can work, like driving on the left side, or owning a car but not using it to commute. Japanese responses will continue to confound outsiders, but a change in world views to make sense of world events has been sped up by necessity, and traditional pragmatism will find a way.

Also in a positive vein, few foreign students left NYU and other American universities, though parental pressure to return was especially strong from "safe" Japan (8). That is evidence of critical thinking by nonWestern individuals that can make them safe from conforming to destructive influences. The free flow of multilingual information and education through the Internet may be the best long-term protection for lovers of peace.


(1) Warshauer, M., "Bin Laden tape, media wars, and strong horses"
Papyrus News (WWW document from e-mail newsletter, 13 December 2001)

(2) Kobayashi, T., "How has the terrorism in the U.S. affected you?"
Japan Today (WWW document [BBS, so the URL may change], 16 October 2001)

(3) Transcribed online chat, "Jose Ramos-Horta: Achieving peace amid Muslim tensions"
CNN Access (WWW document, 11 December 2001)

(4) French, H., "A Japanese Writer Analyzes Terrorists and Their Victims"
New York Times (WWW document, 15 October 2001)

(5) Matsubara, H., "Extremism fills intellectual void?"
The Japan Times (WWW document, 11 December 2001)

(6) McKillop, P., "Letter from Japan: Can of Worms"
ASIANOW - TIME Asia (WWW document, 12 May 2000)

(7) McCarty, S., "Cultural Liberation: East-West Biculturalism for a New Century"
University of Virginia Multicultural Pavilion International Project (WWW document, March 1998)

(8) Heins, C., "Exchange students in U.S. plan to stay"
Daily Yomiuri On-line (WWW document, 11 December 2001)

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