This is this week’s bilateral flap, and it involves Kevin Maher, a former American consulate official in Okinawa who is now stateside in Washington.
Mr. Maher is quoted by the Mainichi as saying this:
“Consensus building is important in Japanese culture. While the Japanese would call this ‘consensus,’ they mean ‘extortion’ and use this culture of consensus as a means of extortion.”
“By pretending to seek consensus, people try to get as much money as possible,” [Maher] was quoted as saying.
He also described people in Okinawa as “masters of manipulation and extortion” in their relations with the central government, according to the account.
I think John Roos apologized for this, or one of the other functionaries (not the Z Notes blogger, Jim Zumwalt, another one.)
It’s probably that Maher wasn’t first a JET (Japan Exchange Teachers), and so he wasn’t reading out of the right prayer book when he made the comment stateside. Apparently, a fourth-generation Okinawan, a student at the lecture, picked up the comment and put it in front of someone, who, in turn, put it out there for greater readership.
As someone who knows the bad side of Japan and can also be a Japan critic, I think Maher was over the top when he made the statement about the Okinawan people (Ryukyu people). It isn’t so much trying to be “masters of manipulation” as that their land got invaded by the Yamatos, their government overthrown. Then Meiji sent his men down there to assassinate anyone with influence who opposed the annexation of Okinawa to Japan in the 1870’s.
After that, the Okinawans were just farm labor, and later, during World War II, sacrificial cannon fodder in defense of the Japanese war dictatorship.
Then, America turned large parts of the island into military bases, by agreement of the new Japanese government, during the postwar era.
So the islands of Okinawa suffer a number of wartime hardships, and then they still get the brunt of mutual defense–the bases, planes and noise. Plus, they would be a target in any regional hot war.
Considering all that, I don’t see where Maher was coming from when he said that the Okinawans are masters of manipulation with the central government. To me, it seems like they’re barely holding their own against pushy Edo, which has used them for decades on end and still doing it.
Where I think Maher is right, is that consensus in the Japanese culture is so quite often used as a stall tactic, and a means to extract additional benefits or avoid some due unpleasantry. I saw this time and again in my dealings there. The part that’s offensive is that the people who pull this about “consensus” act like they don’t realize that we realize it’s just a bunch of sh*t and a negotiation tactic.
A lot of decisions get made in Japan where the top guy just goes, “Do it!”, and the subordinates spin around and go, “Hai! Hai! Hai!” Just like the World War II era. Just like when the Japanese colonels were telling the Okinawan villagers to jump off the cliff and kill themselves, because the Americans were going to do that and worse anyway. (But the colonels didn’t jump, and some cultures would look at that as cowardly.)
The thing is, not everything in Japan is by consensus. Only some things. And those usually are ones where the consensus-builder isn’t around to build it. (I.e. there is no strongman to make the consensus happen, if you catch my drift.)
I mean, just look at the current state of the Diet right now.
And the last six years for that matter.
Kevin Maher pointing out the less than flattering side of this Japanese, ehem, culture quirk is a man earning his paycheck from Uncle Sam. As the Z Notes blogger, Charge Zumwalt will tell you, there are a bunch of (bought-off) ex-JETs staffing the consulates all over Japan, and they’re not giving the 311 about Japan. They’re too busy having their exotic junket and “integrating with the culture”. Which is fine, if you don’t represent the United States and American interests. If you do represent, you tell us back home, foursquare, about all the bugs and slimy stuff under the rock, so to speak. Don’t just describe how pretty the top of the rock is.
I think Kevin Maher screwed up in one way, because it sounds like he basically said this negative thing about Okinawans in general, without any consideration for their circumstances. But when it comes to negotiation tactics and trying to get one over on the Gullible Fat Gaijin, it’s not like excuses like “consensus” don’t pop up.
I just wish our own government and Military-Defense Complex were not so keen about having Okinawa as their little baby of a base. I really wish we would draw up plans to leave Okinawa, and let the Japanese themselves decide if they want us there. Tell us they want us there, not make like we’re imposing ourselves on them. I don’t know where that puts South Korea, but I don’t know if trustworthiness and cooperation are the first two things that pop into the average Koreans mind when it comes to “Japan” as a concept. (Not the people, the history and the general idea.)
The South Koreans will feel like they got hosed, agreeing to mutual defense with Japan. Somehow, I don’t think they would feel shocked, though.