November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
May 7, 2021
But before being a question to be dealt with, before designating a concept, a theme, a problem, the question of the foreigner is a question of the foreigner, addressed to the foreigner.—Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality
His earliest memories were of discrimination and botched assimilation. Born at the turn of the century to an influential white American lawyer-Japanologist and the daughter of an officer to Yokohama’s Daikansho (intendant’s office), Imao Hirano was haunted throughout his life by the response of his fellow Japanese citizens to his multiracial heritage.1 During the Second World War, he was regarded as an enemy and spy. Medical issues in his twenties resulted in drug addiction. And he experienced rejection from religious communities: Hirano and his family, who attended Mass together when he was a child, were offered a room by the Catholic church after a bomb dropped from a B-29 destroyed their house, but when Hirano began translating banned books, a newly assigned priest drove him and his family out.2 Much like the good Samaritan, Hirano was a social outsider and a religious outcast.
With the parable of the good Samaritan, the man who ignores social conventions and laws to help an injured man of a different ethnicity, Jesus asks us to consider what makes someone a neighbor and who belongs to God’s family and chosen people. By telling the story, Jesus challenges sociocultural assumptions and practices concerning hospitality, charting a new kind of moral community. Christians who are inspired by the parable’s subject—that of moral membership in the covenant community—can address a wound in contemporary Japan, a wound that Hirano bore as he envisioned an alternative way of familial living following the war.
The myth of ethnic homogeneity held Japanese society captive in the years following Second World War and the that myth is still powerful today. It is a myth that stipulates a rigid binary between nihonjin (Japanese) and gaijin (foreigner), and it conceals the reality of an ever-diversifying Japan.3 Exclusionary sociopolitical practices, often codified in law, enforce this myth of monolithic ethnic exceptionalism, and multiracial persons, like Hirano, bear the cross of the other in the Japanese imagination because their existence poses challenges to this myth.
For instance, a new immigration law was put into effect in April 2019 by the Japanese government prior to Japan’s transition to the new imperial era of Reiwa. This immigration bill created new visa categories allowing foreign workers easier entry into the country and was sold as a potential solution for Japan’s aging problem and labor shortages. However, critics fear that this new bill does not thoroughly account for the rampant human right violations existing in the technical intern trainee program for foreign workers in Japan. They worry that like earlier laws passed in the 1990s, this new law will fall short of protecting foreign workers from exploitation.4
To tackle the problem of Japan’s shrinking population, an updated and comprehensive immigration policy in Japan is long overdue, and the enactment of these policies has resulted in the rapid influx of foreigners. According to the Ministry of Justice, figures from the end of 2018 show that the number of foreign residents in Japan is at a record high of over 2,730,000 people, a number that has more than tripled since 1985 and that will likely increase by another 345,000 in the next several years.5 But the new laws will likely only continue to perpetuate Japan’s history of drawing strict boundaries between those who are Japanese and those who are not, as they work to categorize specific groups of people according to nationality, ethnicity, and potential labor productivity.
The dangers of Japan’s immigration policy are already apparent. In December 2019, a Vietnamese technical intern trainee suffered a brain hemorrhage while working as a construction worker in Sapporo, Japan. The injury left him unconscious, bedridden, and connected to an artificial respirator. The man’s visa status expired in March 2020, and the law demands immediate deportation if the man overstayed his visa. In response, a member of the Catholic Commission of Japan for Migrants, Refugees and People on the Move appealed the man’s deportation order, arguing that the “people being welcomed are people with human rights and not just a labor force. It is necessary to recognize that various cases will occur and to establish a system of accommodation that will avoid discriminating between them and those who are Japanese.”6 The unintended consequences of characterizing a group of people as temporary workers are serious—a matter of life or death for some.
The exclusionary logic functioning in such immigration laws and in narratives that downplay a culturally and ethnically diverse Japan is problematic for those who celebrate diversity and welcome difference—those who are critical of the current government and eager to imagine a meaningful life together in Japan. Rigid binaries between insider and outsider, marginal and privileged, will be further reconstructed and reinforced in the Japanese imagination unless these issues that obstruct what it means to be a moral community are not adequately addressed and dismantled. An alternative way of collective existence and flourishing is necessary, one that does not rely on the utilitarian or neoliberal capitalistic interests of the global market at the cost of reducing certain people’s dignity to mere workability and employability. National and ethnoracial self-understandings have come to monopolize meanings of identity, citizenship, and belonging in the modern nation-state and to limit our collective consciousness—excessive identity politics have fueled hate speech and promoted policies that lack empathy toward those who are different.
I expect that this sounds eerily familiar to Americans. Xenophobia and narrow views of nationalism are neither a uniquely Japanese form of injustice nor a new form of sin. Ethnonationalism, which also draws on myths of ethnic exceptionalism, has always marked the modern West and has seen a resurgence in recent years. Ancient Israelite communities similarly had to negotiate their collective identities among the stranger, alien, and gentile—the other.
Israelite reflections on the other took place while they were the other. The postexilic writers compiled these commands and norms while their experiences as slaves and captives under foreign forces were fresh in mind.7 The exile profoundly shaped the Israelite social and religious imaginary concerning who belongs in Israel and precisely how to belong. The Holiness Code and the Deuteronomistic History, for example, include commands to “love the alien” and “stranger” (Lev. 19:33–34; Deut. 10:19 NRSV).
Later, when a lawyer concerned with acquiring eternal life strikes up a conversation with Jesus, it is Jesus who develops this rich Jewish tradition through the parable of the good Samaritan. After an initial question-and-answer sequence between the two, Jesus says that the lawyer is to love his neighbor as he loves himself, and when the lawyer seeks to delineate tidy conditions for who counts as a neighbor, Jesus rephrases the question to complicate those conditions.8 Jesus asks the lawyer to identify the neighbor—which of the three tended to the violated and vulnerable (Luke 10:36)? The lawyer names the neighbor as a Samaritan, which further complicates membership in Israel. As Fred Craddock suggests, a Samaritan in first-century Palestine would have been considered by the first listeners of the parable as “ceremonially unclean, socially outcast, and religiously a heretic.”9 Jesus undercuts creedal affiliation and ethnic affinity as conditions for belonging. It is hospitality toward the vulnerable that establishes one as a neighbor, a member of the community, and a sibling in the family of God.
Hirano’s social activism and location in twentieth-century Japan underscores how Jesus’s radically liberating redefinition of membership can be lived out. As I will show, Hirano’s liminality echoes the Samaritan’s marginality. Moved by compassion, the Samaritan stranger finds and cares for a man who was abandoned on the dangerous journey down “to Jericho” (Luke 10:30). Likewise, in 1953, Hirano joined several friends to form the group 1953 no Kai (1953 Meeting), and then he served as the president of its successor, Remi no Kai (Remi’s Meeting), both of which sought to resist discrimination by offering support for the children born to Allied soldiers and Japanese mothers—these postwar multiracial children were called konketsuji (mixed-blood child) or the derogatory term Ainoko (in-between child). The momentum of this movement grew as Hirano and his fellow members led conferences around Japan—including in Okinawa, where there were many multiracial children as a result of the large military presence there—and started funds to aid the children. Through this work, Hirano was able to provide a safe space for these vulnerable children and mothers, like “the inn” where the wounded traveler found rest and healing in Jesus’s parable (Lk. 10:34). Hirano’s vision for social reform centers around the most vulnerable—the least of these who face both outright discrimination and hopeless ignorance.10
As Remi no Kai organized and worked privately to create a sense of solidarity between the children, mothers, and sympathizers during the postwar konketsuji crisis, they also began raising awareness about ethnic discrimination through books, radio, and film. Hirano wrote newspaper editorials, magazine articles, and many books that exposed the social crisis faced by these multiracial children, including an award-winning autobiographical children’s book called Remi wa Ikiteru (Remi is Alive) that details both the struggles and victories of his youth under racial discrimination. In addition, members of 1953 no Kai were also regular guests on public radio, and one of Hirano’s radio broadcasts titled “Remi wa Ikiteru”(“Remi is Alive”)—an ad-libbed recording of his life—won a commercial broadcasting competition and as a result was frequently broadcast nationally. They also helped make the film Konketsuji, which was the first film in Japan to feature postwar multiracial children.11
Hirano also practiced what he preached. He welcomed about a dozen multiracial orphans into his home, which sometimes risked getting him in trouble with the law. He also recognized some of these abandoned children as his own through adoption, and by doing so, the children were able to attend school and to have agency in their lives. In Japan, fatherless children could not easily acquire a ninchitodoke (a certificate of recognition)—which is closely tied with the koseki (family registry)—and consequently they would be barred them from accessing public education, finding employment, and getting married. Hirano especially focused on children whose fathers were African American servicemen (many of whom left Japan at the dawn of the Korean War), as he knew they faced even more severe discrimination than multiracial children of white American parentage. He recounts, for example, how no schools would accept a biracial girl because there was “no precedent” and how another boy would scrub his skin with soap, but he couldn’t become “white.”12
Hirano’s embrace of these children was radical, not only in his time and place but even by today’s standards. He somehow took responsibility for raising a small herd of children and enacted a literal restructuring of what it means to be family. His perspective was more inclusive and progressive than many of his contemporaries and those who came after him. Indeed, the attitudes and obstacles surrounding adoption and foster care have not changed nearly enough since Hirano’s time. According to a 2013 investigation by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there are about forty-eight thousand children who are subject to social protection. Because blood relations are still highly valued, economic support for foster care is limited in contemporary Japan and adoption is an uncommon practice.13
It’s now been nearly seventy years since Hirano’s campaign to help the children his fellow citizens considered outsiders, and the care for children remains a challenge for contemporary Japan. As the general population ages, attention has been turned to the elderly and in many cases, children are neglected. In 2018, child-welfare facilities responded to 159,850 child abuse cases, the largest number ever. And the more than four hundred thousand children born from intermarriages continue to face the same problems that Hirano experienced as a child, including learning barriers, bullying, and conflicting identities.14 It seems that the logic of exclusion persists in every age.
I contend that Hirano’s eclectic approach to multiracial children born after the Second World War can perhaps help us to envision a new way of familial living today. Especially in uncertain and unprecedented times, I believe we must look to the good Samaritans for clues on how to identify and welcome our neighbors. People like Hirano are striking reminders of what we are truly called out to be—vessels of divine compassion, as we care for the wounded, vulnerable, and oppressed. Hirano’s ekklesia (called-out community) is a challenge to every Christian community, as we are sent out to serve, suffer together, and search for God’s inseparable love in the most unexpected places. We desperately need to be people like Hirano, people who continue to embrace our neighbors and envision a life together despite hardships and crisis. Finally, as the ekklesia, we must “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)—to be a loving family to those in need.
Joshua Ryo Nelson-Hashimoto