Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why Norimitsu Onishi’s Report Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance Is Wrong, and Why It Matters: First Installment

People who know me know that I rarely swear except in jest. And extreme anger. (And just because it’s fun.) Moreover, I carefully weigh and measure everything that I write and take personal responsibility for each and every word. Having said all that, I have a confession to make: I had been a little tipsy so early in the evening when I posed the question: On the Occasion of Barack Obama’s Inauguration, Should I Be Calling Norimitsu Onishi a Fuckwad? Now that I’ve had a chance to sober up, I’d like to apologize for my foulmouthed ways, follow Jon Stewart’s example, and change it as follows: On the Occasion of Barack Obama’s Inauguration, Should I Be Calling Norimitsu Onishi a Wuckfad?

Now that I have got that confession out of the way, I’d like to explain what’s so wrong about Onishi’s report Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance. However, this will be a sizeable task, so I’ve decided to do it in multiple posts. I will hopefully be able to tie them all together in a concluding—conclusive—post. Here, my friends, enemies, and neutral parties, is the first installment.

In 2001, Hiromu Nonaka, possibly the top powerbroker in the Hashimoto faction, the largest such group in the LDP at the time, sought to enter the race for the LDP Presidency. Every LDP President but one (Yohei Kono) has served as Prime Minister. Thus, a Nonaka victory would have been a landmark event for Japan; for Nonaka was a self-declared member of the buraku people, descendants of the social outcast classes whose discrimination went back more than a thousand years. Nonaka would have been the first known member of the long-suffering underclass to become Prime Minister of Japan. But it was not to be, for Nonaka gave up his quest almost before it began. Onishi in his article uses quotes from Taro Aso, his former colleague and now DPJ Diet member Yasuoki Kamei and Nonaka himself to suggest that it was the opposition from his colleagues to his outcast status and his fear of the negative fallout on his family that forced him to give up his quest. As usual, he never comes out and says it outright, although the caption to the accompanying photos “Mr. Nonaka rose to chief cabinet secretary, but as a descendant of a class of outcasts further advancement was blocked” is far less coy. But the implication is clear. An artful piece of work, again, as usual. But in the telling, he left out some crucial facts, basic assumptions about Japanese politics, that cast doubt on his understanding of or intentions regarding the reason for Nonaka’s withdrawal.

Nonaka had received three Cabinet postings p-rior to his failed quest: Chief Cabinet Secretary, Minister of Internal Affairs, and the Chairman of the National Public Safety Commission. This track record is crucial to understanding what must have been Nonaka’s standing in the LDP and his image in the public eye. Now Onishi sees great significance in his assignment as the Chief Cabinet Secretary, which he claims to be “the government’s No. 2 official”. But few things can be further from the truth. That’s like putting Rahm Emanuel ahead of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Tim Geithner in the pecking order. Moreover, Onishi fails to mention Nonaka’s earlier Cabinet assignments. The latter is also at best a grievous omission.

Let’s take the Chief Cabinet Secretary assignment first. LDP Prime Ministers typically will have served in one of two (or three) high-profile Cabinet positions before he is deemed fit to serve as Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance or Minister of Foreign Affairs. (In a pinch, the Ministry formerly known as MITI would have served in the days before the luster of Japan’s post-WW II resurgence wore off.) The Chief Cabinet Secretary has often been a plum assignment, but a junior one nonetheless, an opportunity for the appointee to display and hone his skills as a political operative and collect political chits before—this is important—progressing to more senior Cabinet and party posts. True, in more recent years, the LDP has put forth a couple of Prime Ministers whose administrative experience consisted mostly of Cabinet Secretary assignments— but we know how those Abe and Fukuda experiments turned out.

Nonaka’s other, earlier, Cabinet postings also tell a story. It is notable, if not out of the ordinary at all, that he fulfilled them simultaneously. In fact, it had been customary for a single Cabinet Minister to serve in both capacities, that is, right up until the final months of the ill-fated Mori administration—which Nonaka sought to replace in 2001. For the typical Home Ministry appointee was a long-serving, inoffensive, party hack or the nominee of a junior coalition partner. As for the National Public Safety Commission, it is still hard today to say what it really does—more so for non-Japanese speakers, since uniquely among Japanese bureaucracies headed by Cabinet Ministers, it has no English-language web pages—beyond that fact that it is nominally in charge of the police force. The Japanese police force uncomfortably saddles the local and national bureaucratic divide—a legacy of the occupation years—which fact no doubt figured in the double assignment for so many years.

In any case, all this did not add up to an auspicious beginning for someone with aspirations for the highest reaches of constitutional powers. In fact, it was a career path that was more conducive to following the footsteps of the top inside political operators—at best the likes of Masaharu Gotoda, at worst Shin Kanemaru. And that was the public perception, to the extent that there was one, of Hiromu Nonaka, more a kingmaker than a king. It may have been Nonaka’s added misfortune that the embattled incumbent Mori had also been regarded as an over-promoted ward-heeler with little taste or aptitude for real statecraft. In any case, Nonaka had not followed the typical career path for a future Prime Minister, and he was not yet head of his own faction when such things had still mattered, had not been anointed as Hashimoto’s successor, and still had rivals within his own faction, let alone the other factions and the local party rank-and-file. Simply put, there is a highly plausible explanation of Nonaka’s failure independent of his burakumin background.

But what of Aso’s statement, “Are we really going to let those people take over the leadership of Japan?” Now before I go on, I want you to note that I am quite willing to accept that he said such a thing, if not exactly in those words as translated into English. Onishi cites a highly credible witness and the thought if not the words are plausible for someone of Aso’s generation and background. (I’ll try to return to this point as part of a later installment.)

Aso reportedly made that statement in a meeting of the Kono mini-faction, which he was still years from inheriting from the eponymous Yohei Kono (who you likely remember as the issuer of the Kono Statement and less likely as the only LDP President to date who has not served as Prime Minister). In the event, Aso did stand for the 2001 LDP Presidential election, where he received a grand total of 31 votes as Junichiro Koizumi surprised everyone by trouncing the heavily favored Hashimoto 298 to 155. But is it not a little too much to conclude that the words of a secondary figure in his own mini-faction influenced decisively the choice of the candidate in what was still the largest faction in the LDP?

I do not claim to have proven that Nonaka’s failure had nothing to with his burakumin background. But I do believe that I have lined up and explained some easily available facts that have been omitted in Onishi’s narrative—facts that would have pushed it to the very edges of falsehood by omission as far as the interpretation of Nonaka’s failure is concerned.

Onishi also fails to give a plausible explanation of Nonaka’s rise within the LDP. But here, I have no good explanation either. I think that this place is as good as any to end my first installment.


Anonymous said...

I've heard quite a bit about the (in)famous Norimitsu Onishi. I'm appalled at this man's journalism at work. The blatant subjective bias reeks from his writings. Are English-savvy Japanese made aware of his activities? And are they remitting their complaints and commentary to the New York Times? I admit I have some problems with the less savory aspects of Japanese xenophobia, but Norimitsu Onishi exaggerates too much and calls attention on his own anti-Japanese agenda.

Jun Okumura said...

Stormbringer: I’m sure that he’s one of the main discussion points for the right-wing denizens of 2 Channel and the less anonymous frequenters of the Sankei-sponsored blogs. The mainstream media does not appear to pay any attention to dispatches by foreign correspondents unless there are political consequences, such as Onishi’s report on Shinzo Abe’s comments regarding the Kono Statement on the comfort women.

I’m not sure that I’ll get around to it this weekend, but the next installment will deal with what Onishi claims to be the media’s self-enforced taboo. I believe that a much more plausible explanation of the media’s current lack of attention—in contrast to past decades—is the lack of newsworthiness. It’s a much smaller problem today, and media coverage reflects that. Moreover, I believe that major changes in social outlook occurred even before today’s young came of age. That installment, or possibly a much shorter separate one, will cover Taro Aso’s comments and my conjectures about the reason for his outburst. Another, possibly final, installment will deal with the electivity issue through my answers to two questions:
1) Is it harder for a burakumin to become Prime Minister of Japan than an African-American to become President of the United States?
2) Is there likely to be a burakumin Prime Minister in the foreseeable future?
My answers are: 1) no; and 2) no. I’ll also try to answer another question that I put to myself: Why bother? Stay tuned.

Anonymous said...

While I don't want to sound like one of the right-wing fanatics from 2-channel - nor a race-baiter - aren't some of the comments regarding Onishi's own ancestry worth noting? Specifically, he is supposed to be ethnic Korean - which might be relevant and also helpful in explaining some of his political views and possible agenda.

Anonymous said...

Is there any credible evidence that Onishi is of Korean ancestry? And if he was Korean, would that really be a good explanation for the bias of his articles?

Back when I was in the States taking courses in Japanese Studies, most of the assigned readings and lectures painted a picture of Japan quite similar to the kind of stuff Onishi writes. It's possible that some Western journalists know better, but choose to stick to the pre-existing notions about Japan to play it safe.

Jun Okumura said...

I’ve never heard about Onishi having Korean ancestry either, folks, though most of us Japanese probably do if we go back far enough.

Seriously, it doesn’t matter what his ancestry is, since there are plenty of Japanese who hold more extreme views than Onishi. In any case, I want members of the mainstream media to do their best to establish a common understanding of reality on which people can superimpose their value judgments, instead of allowing your personal agenda to edit the facts. Outlets such as the NYT are particularly important because they are often the only sources regularly accessed by the average English-language speaker who do not have an abiding interest in Japan.

Benjamin said...


Jun, don't spoil the secret! Anyways, Im sure everyone knows that Norimitsu Onishi is a descendant of the sun, just like everyone else with a Japanese name.

(I wish I had something more constructive to add. Sorry!)

Jun Okumura said...

You could furikomu into my kanchan-machi when we go tile-to-tile is what you could do if you really want to be constructive.

I was thinking maybe the idea was that he's half-Korean, half-Japanese, which was not unknown even in my parent's generation. But that's irrelevant in this context.

Martin J Frid said...

I thought it was well known that he is of a Korean background, born in Japan, and went with his family to live in Canada and the US at a young age.

Since The New York Times doesn't provide any personal data about their journalists, we have no way of knowing if he is a US citizen or not.

As for his blatant anti-Japanese bias, and the rethoric that he seems stuck with, it is very problematic. If he was a regular book writer with a regular axe to grind, I wouldn't mind so much, but for a journalist there is no excuse. Thank you for exposing his journalistic short-comings about the buraku, well done.

Jun Okumura said...


The Wikipedia article only says, “Some Japanese conservatives claim that Onishi is a naturalized Japanese citizen of Korean descent.” Moreover, the only sources cited are a couple of article in Shukan Shincho, a weekly magazine somewhere between the newspaper-sponsored (boring) magazines and the true-blue tabloids when it comes to veracity that has been sued often, sometimes successfully, by its targets. For the time being, I’ll take it on faith that he is Japanese by ethnicity.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry links to an unintentionally hilarious—humor is not Onishi’s strong suit—and ultimately sad essay of his from 2004. Perhaps the following excerpt reveals the driving force behind his outlook as a correspondent in Japan:

“Or, in this island nation where leaving Japan has always meant leaving the village, does one start becoming non-Japanese the minute one steps off Japanese soil?”

Martin J Frid said...

Perhaps you could contact the NYT, and ask?

Jun Okumura said...

Martin, I am quite satisfied with the circumstantial evidence that speaks to his ethnicity and, as I think that I have indicated, I believe that that point is moot as far as my complaint against this article is concerned. In fact, I am beginning to think that his Japanese background is essential to explaining his behavior. I will try to address this subsidiary issue in an outtake from this series of posts.

Jon Doe said...

Japanese politics always seems to be nuts like this.

Jun Okumura said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jun Okumura said...

I make it a point to respond to all comments, but the last one stumps me.