American Police through Japanese Eyes

Via Chris Butcher, the cover of a Japanese magazine devoted to … um … American police. Oddly enough, this magazine seems to be celebrating the fine cops of the United States, at least according to the translation of a headline provided by one of Chris’s readers. According to LillianDP, the headline on the top left reads  “32 pages jam-packed with America’s heroic and hot-blooded police! Your hands will get hot just turning the pages!”

I really want someone to explain this to me.

This is perhaps a good opportunity to remind readers that Chris’s blog is chock-full of wonderful photographs of Japan, photos that brilliantly zoom in on that nation’s urban and consumer landscape.

Japan’s Justice Minister Hatoyama on Death Penalty

Hatoyama Kunio, Japan’s Justice Minister, gave an interview in the magazine Weekly Asahi last October that has been reprinted on Japan Focus, (a peer reviewed electronic journal and webzine on Japan), and reported recently in the Japan Times. The interview has some fascinating nuggets, but none so interesting as Hatoyama’s explanation for why Japan should continue to uphold the death penalty in contrast to Western countries:

Interviewer: Why should Japan not consider abolition?

Hatoyama: As the Japanese place so much importance on the value of life, it is thought that one should pay with one’s own life for taking the life of another. You see, the Western nations are civilizations based on power and war. So, conversely, things are moving against the death penalty. This is an important point to understand. The so-called civilizations of power and war are the opposite of us. From incipient stages, their conception of the value of life is weaker than the Japanese. Therefore, they are moving toward abolition of the death penalty. It is important that this discourse on civilizations be understood.

 Q.E.D.

Welcome to Osaka

ferriswheel.gifThe touchdown at Osaka airport by night is rather enchanting: there is even a lit up ferris wheel visible from the air. Enter the customs area at the airport, however, and the mood is somewhat less magical. Behind the row of customs officers processing visitors is a massive yellow sign, perhaps more than 30 metres across, with the words: “Strict inspections are being carried out for the prevention of terrorism.” Every visitor to Japan is not only photographed, but also fingerprinted, one index finger from each hand.  

Japan is not the first country to go down this path. The American decision to introduce fingerprinting of visitors led the esteemed Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben to turn down an NYU teaching invitiation in 2004 because he refused to submit to the procedure, seeing in it very menacing overtones. As Agamben wrote in Le Monde at the time of finger and retina prints and other such procedures, “by applying these techniques and these devices invented for the dangerous classes to a citizen, or rather to a human being as such, states … have made the person the ideal suspect, to the point that it’s humanity itself that has become the dangerous class.”Agamben pointed out that what begins at the border could find its way into other areas of political life within the state: “the bio-political tattooing the United States imposes now to enter its territory could well be the precursor to what we will be asked to accept later as the normal identity registration of a good citizen in the state’s gears and mechanisms. That’s why we must oppose it.”

The Japanese are, of course, following the American lead: as the Bush administration has entertained ever more intense suspicions of outsiders under the guise of its war on terror, it has given new animus to the xenophobic side of Japanese culture in its wake. I find the Osaka airport experience objectionable, and not only for the reason so well articulated by Agamben: travel to another country should not have to feel like a booking at a police station. As a visitor, I should not have to face a rebuttable presumption that I am up to no good. It is a remarkable achievement in the EU that European citizens are able to travel freely from one country to the next with minimal to no oversight. But the EU model is starting to look less like a glimpse of the future and more like a global exception.

It would be easier to accept the entry procedure to Japan, perhaps, if one had reason to believe that it will meet its stated objective of preventing terrorism. But as with Jeet Heer in a previous post, I have trouble taking what Japan says on terrorism seriously. I see the procedure as feeding a kind of indeterminate suspicion of the world, with little behind it in the form  of coherent policy. Anti-terrorist rhetoric is now used the world over by states to strengthen their control and oversight, and Japan is playing its own version of this game.

What terrorists in particular does Japan hope to detect – and against what sources of intelligence? Recall that the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways in 1995 – the most serious terrorist attack in Japanese history – was conceived of by graduates of Japan’s elite universities; the cult flourished under the plain light of day because most of its practitioners were, to all appearances, ordinary Japanese – the sort of people who would pass through airport security stalls without raising eyebrows. And then there is the question of what will happen to the photographic and fingerprinting information on visitors now being assembled. In a country that has managed to lose at least 10 million pension records from its own citizens, one is now simply forced to hope, as the price of a visit, that one’s personal fingerprinting and photographic information will remain secure in the hands of the Japanese state.

Japan is now hoping to improve its poor international ranking of inbound tourism – somewhere in the order of 35th place, way behind other G8 members and most other Asian countries.  The tone for visitors begins at its entry gates, where first impressions are made.  

Gothic Lolitas and Goldfish Earings

Chris Butcher, general manager of the world’s greatest comic book store, went on a honeymoon in Japan and brought back a series of remarkable photos. Most camara-armed tourists are tempted to go the National Geographic route, becoming amateur ethnographers recording strange folkways. Chris has a different approach: his brings to Japan a retailer’s eye, zooming in on what might be called mass culture quirkiness: fashion trends, storefronts, unexpected packages and odd toys.

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