Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Que sera, seraren't

 [Photo: Edwin Pijpe]


There are many surprises that new foreigners in Japan will come across. One of the more notable ones relates to the concepts of the future and change that are apparently held by many Japanese people.

In a fascinating recent newspaper article, a Japanese University professor (whose name unfortunately escapes me) made some very worthwhile points on these themes. I am can paraphrase his basic argument as this:

For the future to be a real or immediate concern for Japanese, as something to aspire to or actually work towards, there would have to be major changes to the national mentality. This would mean that for future events to be more than some kind of remote or abstract possibility, it is necessary that people in this country do away with accepting “things as they are” and start imagining “things as they should be.”

He went on to explain that the idea of change would have to be embraced more, which would be contrary to the well-established mentality of  “not upsetting the status quo.” According to the Professor, this is a major reason why few Japanese people hardly have a picture of what justice is, or can be. He argues that to hold this belief someone would first need to have a view of how “things can be,” ideally.

Of course, I would compare this with a principle that many Westerners keep dear to their hearts. In the USA, “having your day in court” is seen as one of everyone’s fundamental human rights, and is exercised often over very minor and trivial matters.

Commonly though, the only people who actually gain anything from these lengthy and expensive legal proceedings are the lawyers from both sides. Of course, some cases drag on for months and even years and the one left standing at the end of the battle is most likely to be whoever was the richer at the start.

Therefore, the so-called “justice system” provides a self-sustaining method of keeping a high demand for lawyers, while strangely making sure that the wealthiest individuals and companies can avoid losing in court by keeping their case as a legal “marathon.” This is surely wrong.

However, what is also equally unhealthy for a modern society is when a large number of people hardly consider taking their own legitimate grievances to court to be settled.

It would clearly be silly to make the same mistakes as the in the US system, but there could be improvements in Japanese justice if a change in mentality happened.

I understand that in Japan it is extremely rare to fight in court over a long period of time, as in the Kabutoyama case, where, after twenty years, a teacher is still trying to clear herself after a seemingly baseless murder charge.

This is a sad but very relevant example of what can happen when authorities who are generally held in high esteem by the public consider themselves as untouchable. When someone believes that they are not accountable to anyone “below” and do not have to fully explain the reasons for their actions, then this is bound to produce problems of extreme unfairness.

Change has been a central part of Japanese life over the last fifty years. The rapid rise of commercialisation has been quietly absorbed into people’s everyday patterns but the aspirations of some appear to go no further than being materialistic. Where is idealism?

It is apparent that accepting “things as they are” while not thinking about “things as they should be” is against the better interests of the majority of Japanese. A view of the future which sees “things as they are” and also “things as they should be” could well mean a more just experience for those who deserve better.




Footnote: an interesting comparison with Japn would be with the Aymara people who live in the Andes highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Chile. A metaphor for their concept of the future is that they are on a boat rowing backwards with the past in front of them and the future at their behind them. There is a kind of sense to this beacause none of us can see the future but we can “see” the past before us.