Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Time is precious

As English essayist Charles Lamb (1775-1834) said, "New Year's Day is every man's birthday." January 1st certainly witnesses one of the world's biggest annual celebrations. It is the beginning of a new year, so our eyes are filled with new dreams and our hearts are replete with expectations. Many of us use the opportunity to make New Year's resolutions.

The New Year makes me think about time, which seems to pass more swiftly each year. From an objective viewpoint, time has neither color nor form, and neither quality nor substance. Yet, with strictness, it penetrates and governs life, society and the universe as a relentless force.

While meditating upon the passage of time, I am reminded of an insightful story my late grandfather once told me:

A wealthy man was near death. He had all the material possessions he wanted: a mansion, a private jet, pleasure boats and fancy cars. Yet his last words were, "I will offer all my possessions for a moment of time." Just before he passed away, the wealthy man realized he had always spent his time on foolhardy activities, not on his children's spiritual upbringing — and that was the most precious thing in the world. He undoubtedly wished he could live a little longer to provide his children with some words of wisdom, and undo the wrongful deeds of his past. Unfortunately, all his expensive possessions could not buy time.

Foolhardiness is the vandal of time. But if we can spot this vandal, we may be able to do whatever is necessary to prevent his acts. The crucial question becomes: "How do we stop the vandal of time?"

Before committing our time to any activity, we should ask ourselves the following question: "What will be the fruit of this activity?" If there may be negative consequences, we should not commit our time to such an endeavor. We should instead invest time in things that will make a difference in our families and communities.

When I examine my own life over the past ten years, I am sometimes frustrated that I hadn't greater results. But when I ask myself what will be important in another ten years, the first thing that comes to my mind is the spiritual backbone of my children.

In a decade, I may not speak to a dome full of people, write a best-selling book, or do anything that can be perceived as a mark of success. However, if my children become adults that show concern for the rights and feelings of others, I will be blessed.

Today my three children — aged 14, 12 and ten — are still young and have tender hearts filled with love, compassion and respect for life. To help them develop these essential human values and bloom into considerate grown-ups, I need to devote time to their spiritual upbringings. Since this doesn't always happen naturally, I must discipline myself to spend time thoughtfully and intentionally, remembering that someday I will have to feel sorrow for every moment wasted on foolhardy activities.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: January 1, 2010 (Published in Japan Times ST)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Empathy: The answer to social ills

Lately, Japan has been dominated by serious socio-economic problems. Unemployment, poverty, homelessness, discrimination, divorce and murder-suicide — all these heartrending issues are in our communities, or at least in our newspapers and on our television screens — threaten us every day. It seems that in spite of wealth, affluence and education, something is wrong.

Thousands of people are crying right now. Many are saying, "The bottom has dropped out of my world." For my friend Saburo, a 55-year-old man who was laid off from a construction firm two years ago, finding another full-time job is impossible. Despite holding several temporary jobs, he still can't afford a place to live and he suddenly became homeless. For my acquaintance Yuka, a single mother in her 30s, putting food on the table for her three school-aged children and paying her monthly bills seems a marathon task. She has to work long hours at a low-paying job to make ends meet.

What makes things all the more tragic is deafening silence of public indifference around social problems. I sense a sharp lack of compassion for the needy. This is because the focus in contemporary Japan has generally been on personal success and self-gratification.

The other day, after my lecture on discrimination prevention to a small group of prefectural government officials in charge of human rights education, we had a hansei-kai, or "self-reflection meeting" at a Japanese restaurant. I thought it was a perfect opportunity for all of us to ponder current issues, but to my great disappointment the focus was just on feasting. I was trying to have a word or two with a middle-aged man about the impact of Prime Minister Hatoyama's government on Japanese society when he said, "Don't talk about that. It makes me think, and I hate thinking about society." He then continued, "If you foreigners want to get along in Japan, you'd better stop talking about hard issues and get drunk. We Japanese don't like such topics. Let's just enjoy delicious sashimi and sake." I was stunned by his selfish words, but all his colleagues apparently agreed with him. "Joel-san!" exclaimed a middle-aged woman, "don't you like Japanese gastronomy?" The so-called "self-reflection meeting" was simply a "self-indulgence party."

I often meet Japanese civil servants whose jobs require full consideration of social matters, yet most are indifferent to politics and society. With such a "don't rock the boat" (kotonakare shugi) mindset, how can they reach out to vulnerable citizens and promote positive social change?

It's obvious that all of humanity shares the same fate. Greed, selfishness and foolishness are the fundamental causes leading society down a path of destruction. The problems we presently face in Japan are indeed universal, and their solutions seem to have all but escaped interpersonal love and the accumulated wisdom of humans. This world only will change into a more tolerant and sharing culture if individuals allow their profoundly good human nature to arise. It is crucial for each and every one of us — whether adult or child — to use our sensitivity in order to build a society in which empathy replaces indifference.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: NOVEMBER 27, 2009 (Published in Japan Times ST)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Promoting reading

Fall — with its dazzling foliage in a palette of red, orange, yellow and gold — inspires me to paint colorful pictures, write spirited poems, and curl up with noteworthy books as often as possible. Still further, I regularly travel around the nation during this season to promote the importance of reading good books among children, parents and educators.

As an ice breaker before starting a reading seminar in mid-September this year I asked the participants, all of whom were Japanese schoolteachers, "What's the title of the best book you've read during the past months?" I was subsequently confronted by a sea of blank faces. Finally, a woman broke the silence and asked if magazines counted. I was shocked into the realization that most of them read no books at all. Of those who did read, weekly magazines and comics were their top favorites.

"I get drowsy when I open a book full of printed words, so I just browse through magazines with beautiful images." said a science teacher, a weakness with which even some participants who teach Japanese could unfortunately and ironically identify. Yuko, a middle school Japanese teacher, confessed she had not read any novels in the last five years and would rather spend time watching television.

Last week, while talking about Japanese writers with a former high school English teacher who is presently an education board official, I mentioned that I was rereading "Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself," the 1994 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and other texts by the internationally acclaimed novelist Kenzaburo Oe.
— "I haven't read a book in ages," he mumbled.
— "Very sad, isn't it?" I sighed.
— "No," he replied, shaking his head emphatically. "I hate reading, especially passages with subtle shades of meaning that are difficult to grasp. Playing pachinko is much more exciting."

I often hear from Japanese teachers that getting students to read meaningful books is increasingly difficult, but how can this be easy in a culture where "dull" activities such as watching television, reading manga, and playing video games or pachinko are the national pastime? Many Japanese adults (including parents and teachers) don't value literature, and it's no wonder Japanese children don't care much about reading good books.

It has long been conventional wisdom that well-read adults transmit their love for reading valuable books to children. Cultivating this love requires all of us to get on board -- parents, teachers, education board officials. We must definitely make daily reading a priority for ourselves and our children because our purely "information-based" society cannot afford a generation of poor readers anymore. Reading good books is so important. Apart from giving us the great opportunity to find out about the world, it also provides us with some food for thought. It increases our hunger for knowledge and our thirst to learn more.

Mark Twain (1835 - 1910) once observed: " The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." This quote must remind us of how fundamental it is to produce citizens who not only can read, but do read books which cultivate the mind.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: October 23, 2009 (Published in Japan Times ST)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Voters' verdict

Japan's democracy has frequently been described as immature, its citizens as apatheticand uninterested in politics. What does it mean when a considerable number of the Japanese electorate does not vote? I hear various excuses: "The state of politics is awful," "There is no one worth voting for," "Nothing will change no matter which party I vote for," and so on. For the latest Lower House election, however, things were a little different. There was a relatively high voter turnout (69.27 percent), which showed that authentic democracy has taken root.

Many people went to the ballot box this time to register their disagreement with the government's socio-economic policy. The way that message came across so clearly was amazing: the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was left with 119 seats — the lowest in the party's history. On the other hand, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won an unprecedented 308 seats in the House of Representatives, and took over the reins of government which were long held by the LDP-New Komeito coalition. Many influential politicians in these parties suffered a humiliating defeat. The ones who somehow managed to retain their seats couldn't even show their contentment. "I have mixed feelings about the good news, because many of my fellow candidates lost. It's not the time to celebrate my victory. For the LDP as a whole, it's a critical moment," Kunio Hatoyama, the LDP candidate of Fukuoka constituency No. 6 said lamentably, when the news of his victory was announced on NHK.

At last individuals have become angry. I think the result mirrors their sense of crisis and their feeling that if things stay as they are, Japan will sink. For the last decade, all that we have seen from Japanese politicians and bureaucrats were nonsense conflicts for socio-political power and an outrageous waste of valuable public assets, which were in sharp contrast to the painstaking struggle for existence by a growing number of ordinary citizens.

LDP and New Komeito politicians — the biggest losers in this election — must accept the voters' verdict and reflect upon their mistakes. When they look carefully at the situation, they are no doubt reminded of those French politicians who, unaware of the simmering rage of the people, indulged themselves in luxuries on the eve of the French Revolution. Comte de Salvandy (1795 - 1856), a French writer of the time, satirically observed, "They're dancing on a volcano." It's obvious that lawmakers who fail to look up to their voters are short-sightedand very likely to fall. I deeply believe the power of ordinary citizens is rooted in Mother Earth herself. Come hell or high water, they have the tenacious ability to survive, just like weeds.

To change the attitude of selfish leaders, ordinary citizens must step up to the challenge. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, "Leaders only change because they either see the light or feel the heat." Indeed on August 30, Japanese leaders have finally felt the heat from "boiling" voters, and they must now light the torch of humanism to bring about great changes in the socio-economic spectrum.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: SEPTEMBER 18, 2009 (Published in Japan Times ST)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Historical awareness

While talking about World War II with a group of Japanese high school seniors the other day, "Who started the Pacific War?" I asked. I got answers ranging from the Chinese to the Americans, but not the Japanese. They all knew well about the atomic bombings and the hibakusha's suffering, but none of them seemed to know much about invasions and acts of human cruelty committed by the Imperial Japanese Army.

I was saddened — but not surprised — by the fact these teenagers were unaware of Japan's militaristic past. Their ignorance reminds me of the content of controversial history textbooks and TV documentaries that condoned Japanese brutality:
— In 2001, the Ministry of Education approved a textbook titled "Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho." It was published by a group of conservative scholars to present the Pacific War as a sacred struggle for Asian liberation, glorify Japanese imperialism, and promote nationalism.
— In April this year, a committee of the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization (BPO) criticized NHK officials for altering a 2001 program, "Towareru Senji-seiboryoku," in response to pressure from then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. The program was about the Imperial Japanese Army's treatment of "comfort women."

For better or worse, it is indeed history from which we learn the irrevocable truth to help bring healing to war victims, and to promote human dignity, justice, freedom, peace and happiness. However, it does not just happen by waiting, erasing harm done to others, playing political games and ignoring responsibilities.

It's unwise to teach children about the U.S. Army's attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet neglect the Imperial Japanese Army's war crimes. It's beyond my imagination how much the A-bomb victims suffered, and everyone should learn about their pain. Atomic bombs are the most abhorrent weapons ever devised, mainly for the particularly cruel long-term effects of radiation poisoning, and we must all unite to abolish them. But if some Japanese media and texts continue to present an obviously biased view of historical facts to children, they will grow up believing that Japan hasn't done anything wrong before it was attacked by America, and this can be a serious threat to world peace.

Every belligerent nation needs to reflect on the war from an impartial standpoint. Japan has to sincerely regret its invasions and military sexual slavery system. Canada and America have to contemplate the atrocious treatment of Japanese immigrants during and after the war. America has to look back and feel deeply sorry about the misery it had caused the atomic bomb victims. And most of all, Germany has to feel guilty about the Holocaust. The only way we can stop such terrible things from reoccuring is to honestly teach our children about them, and hope they learn the valuable lessons offered by history. Otherwise, how can we ever hope to stop history from repeating itself?

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: AUGUST 14, 2009 (Published in Japan Times ST)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Summer jobs for teens

Summer is the best time for teenagers to take a break from the school environment, and experience the world of work. In North America, junior high and high school students are given the opportunity to learn the value of a hard day's work, through various summer youth employment programs. In Japan, however, youngsters are confined to school club activities and prep schools; otherwise they are left astray and for the most part given money to spend any way they wish.

Kenji, an acquaintance's 16-year-old son, doesn't care about finding a job this summer. "We have bukatsu (club activities) during the summer vacation, and I have no time to work," Kenji innocently said. "Besides, we must go to juku to study for juken because our parents want us to enter a good university."

Kenji doesn't work, but he always has money to go out and have fun with friends. He owns a brand new scooter, a trendy cell phone and an expensive iPod. His mother tries to buy him anything he asks for, even if it means straining her purse. "I've spoiled him," she admitted. "If he could work, it would be a valuable lesson for him because he doesn't know the value of money." Still, she encourages her son to exclusively focus on academics and bukatsu which she believes will propel him to a "stable" civil servant job in the future.

Like Kenji, many Japanese teenagers are missing out on the practical experience of summer youth employment, which undoubtedly imparts confidence in the ability to compete in the permanent job market. I'm not saying that extra schooling and club activities are terrible things, but there should be a balance of studying, working and playing in young adults' lives.
Even if youth employment is not based upon real economic need, I believe it enables teens to mature into productive adults. When young people are exposed to the world of work, they reap a wealth of benefits that remain with them for a lifetime. They learn the value of hard work, personal initiative and self-reliance. They also learn how to carry out instructions, how to collaborate with others effectively in the workplace, and ways to manage time and money. Through summer jobs, earnest teens may even meet career mentors who can provide future job recommendations.

Young people no longer have a career path carved out for them when they leave school. A degree from a "good" university guarantees nobody a job these days, and there's just no such thing as lifelong employment anymore.

To better prepare our children for an ever-changing world, help them reach their potential and deal with whatever life throws at them; we must nurture a culture of creativity and resilience. Now more than ever working-age students need to be exposed to the world of work, and be taught how to think like entrepreneurs. Then, they'll be able to create their own inspiring businesses and community projects, and be more innovative within their careers and society.

Shukan ST: July 17, 2009 . By Joel Assogba (Published in The Japan Times ST)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Calderon case shows need for new mind-set

Tuesday, July 7, 2009
, The Japan Times
Chikugo, Fukuoka

Dear Japanese lawmakers,
In mid-March, I opened up my newspaper to find an article about the government granting one-year temporary resident status to Noriko Calderon, an ethnic Filipino girl. I was shocked by the news because Noriko was born and raised in Japan. And just like most of her ethnic Japanese counterparts, Noriko said she loves her native country. Still, the Japanese government treated her like an "alien." As far as I am concerned, Noriko is not a foreigner, and she shouldn't need any special permission to live in Japan. Sure, her parents are from the Philippines, so she is of Filipino ancestry. But for that matter, all the children born to Japanese parents in Brazil, the U.S. and the Philippines are of Japanese ancestry. Does that make them "aliens" in their countries of birth?

People of Japanese ancestry, or nikkeijin, have been accepted as full members of other societies. According to the Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad, there are about 2.6 million of them living in their adopted countries. Some have even become lawmakers in their country of birth or adoption. But the contrast with Japanese attitudes is sharp. The government here maintains a racist and xenophobic system under which people who fulfill every internationally accepted qualification for citizenship are denied it.

Each year, I give about 60 lectures to PTAs, students and ordinary citizens around Japan to promote multiculturalism. There is a profound problem here in that the fight against racism and discrimination hasn't been taken seriously. The hurdle is a lack of knowledge and sensibility when it comes to tackling these matters. I believe the public would react positively to an educational campaign about these issues, but there is a real lack of political push in this fight.

The majority of Japanese people still firmly believe that the key to Japanese identity is found in the blood. A Japanese is not someone born in Japan or someone who became Japanese through naturalization, but someone born to ethnic Japanese parents. This is a very racist concept, and doesn't fit with the present, more multiethnic reality of Japanese society. Now, a remarkable new debate is needed to change the Japanese concept of citizenship.

A few open-minded lawmakers are willing to consider granting citizenship to anyone born in Japan, and to offer dual citizenship to those with foreign-born parents. But the idea always comes up against opposition from the most conservative politicians. They argue that Japan, unlike America or Canada, is not a country of immigrants. The more rightwing Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers claim Japan is an ethnically homogenous nation.

Japan's political culture has not caught up the reality. While hundreds of thousands of Japanese have chosen to marry foreign nationals and have children in Japan, the government still treats foreigners as intruders. Neither the government nor civic organizations have significant programs to help foreigners integrate. The country still has no law regulating immigration.

The debate about liberalizing citizenship laws needs to be stepped up, particularly considering the large number of babies born here that are currently classed as "non-Japanese." The largest group of foreigners in Japan are ethnic Chinese and Koreans, but these people, who pay taxes and often feel more Japanese than Chinese/Korean, can become Japanese citizens only with great difficulty. They cannot get dual citizenship either, as Japan does not admit the concept.

Redefining Japanese citizenship by birth or choice instead of blood will certainly encourage Japanese people to accept foreigners. It would provide relief for millions of people who are now destined to live in a country where they feel they will never fully belong.

Most people take pride in their heritage, and this is important. But to function effectively in the 21st century, we must reach beyond our ethnic and cultural borders and work to create moral and just communities that foster the common good.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Concept of Japanese citizenship

Sunday, June 28, 2009
(The Japan Times)

Chikugo, Fukuoka

In mid-March I found an article about the Japanese government granting one-year temporary resident status to Noriko Calderon, a Japanese-born Filipino girl. Noriko's parents, facing deportation for being undocumented workers, thought it was better for their daughter, who speaks only Japanese, to stay in Japan and continue her middle school. I was shocked by the news because Noriko was born and raised in Japan. She said she loves this country; still, the government treated her like an "alien."

My first reaction was to ask the justice minister, "Why does Noriko need a special permit to stay in her country of birth?" Sure, one could argue that she is of Filipino ancestry, but for that matter, all the children born to Japanese parents in Brazil, America, Canada, Peru, Australia or France are of Japanese ancestry. Yet, nikkeijin have been accepted as full members of other societies. The largest of these foreign communities are in Brazil, the United States and the Philippines. Descendants of emigrants from the Meiji Era still have recognizable communities in those countries. Some have even become lawmakers in their country of birth or adoption.

By contrast the government in Japan persistently maintains a racist and xenophobic system under which people who fulfill every internationally accepted qualification for citizenship are denied it. There is a real lack of political push in this fight. The majority of Japanese people firmly believe that the key to Japanese identity is in the blood. A few open-minded lawmakers are willing to grant citizenship to anyone born in Japan and to allow dual citizenship for those with foreign-born parents, but the idea is always opposed by most conservative politicians. They argue that Japan, unlike America or Canada, is not a country of immigrants. The Liberal Democratic Party goes even further to the right: It says Japan is an ethnic Japanese nation. That, however, is no longer the reality.

The country still has no law regulating immigration. Many new babies born in Japan are not Japanese. The largest group of foreigners are ethnic Chinese and Koreans, but these people, who pay taxes and often feel more Japanese than Chinese or Korean, can become Japanese citizens only with great difficulty.

Redefining Japanese citizenship by birth or choice — instead of by blood — will encourage Japanese people to accept foreigners. It would provide relief for millions of people now destined to live in a country where they will never fully belong.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Stop ijime

It happens so many times in Japan; an elementary school kid, a middle school boy, or a high school girl — is driven to suicide by ijime. At some point, every kid has been teased by a classmate or a friend. Teasing is usually harmless when done in a friendly and mutual way. But when it becomes hurtful and incessant, the teasing crosses the line into bullying.

Taro, a teenage boy who attended my anti-bullying seminar with his mother the other day, described his middle school years in harrowing terms. Going to baseball club practices meant sure torment from a group of senior students and the coach — being hit on the head, slapped in the face, and called "faggot."

The other club members, several teachers and even the principal witnessed the bullying, but they all turned a blind eye. Their demeanor just permeated the whole school. "There was the idea that somehow toughness is equated with cruelty," said Taro. "That's the way it was, not only at the baseball club, but elsewhere." The bullying extended beyond the schoolyard. On their way home from school, the same students kicked Taro, spat in his face, and even extorted money from him. They also cyberbullied him.

Unbeknownst to his mother, Taro had suffered a long period of crushing harassment. The cumulative effect of the harassment eroded his self-esteem and even prompted suicidal thoughts. "On several occasions, I thought about attacking my tormentors with a baseball bat and killing myself," Taro tearfully said. Like many ijime victims, he fell into a deep depression and finally dropped out of school. Even today, he still harbors resentment against his perpetrators and the bystanders.

In fall 2006, the suicide of middle school students who were victims of ijime was one of the top news stories in Japan. The media were flooded with images of principals and board of education officials kowtowing to apologize for their insufficient response to bullying.

I thought those high-profile incidents would have pushed educators to found firm anti-bullying programs in schools around the nation. But things haven't significantly changed since. Many helpless victims of ijime continue to commit suicide. Even when the victims mention bullying in their suicide notes, teachers and principals usually try to deny it.

Bullying creates a climate of fear and insecurity, affecting whole schools and communities. Those who fail to recognize and stop bullying behavior as it occurs actually promote violence. It is a complex problem that cannot be solved once and for all. Therefore, I believe schools must make a constant effort to defy any tendencies toward bullying. This can be achieved by having an effective anti-bullying program as a standard component of the school philosophy.

When educators teach children respect for others by insisting on civility in their schools or institutions, they are not only preventing bullying, but also laying a foundation for human kindness in the world of adulthood to come.

*Joel's poster and 111 tips to prevent ijime: http://joelass.web.fc2.com/kenshukai.htm

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: June 5, 2009 (Published in Japan Times ST)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

POINT OF VIEW/ Joel Assogba: We must teach our kids to welcome diversity


Racism is certainly not a part of human nature. A newborn child does not instinctively have prejudice against others. Prejudice and racism are learned from the society that raises the child. These attitudes are derived from fear and ignorance, and it is only by combating them that we will ever achieve a truly multicultural society based on mutual respect.

One of the best things we, as parents and educators, can do to help our children understand and fight against prejudice is to ask questions and listen to them as they talk about their discrimination experiences.

The other day, I had the opportunity to exchange ideas on racism with a group of multicultural children and their parents. I could not hold back my tears when I heard some of them talk about their painful experiences:

"I was playing with a friend in the schoolyard the other day, and a group of ethnic Japanese boys spat in my face," said a 13-year-old Filipino-Japanese boy. "They told me to go back to the Philippines, or to die."

"My best friend invited me to his home after school. His father asked me where I was born. When I replied 'Japan,' he laughed and uttered: 'If you were born here, why are you black, then?'" said a 7-year-old African-Japanese boy.

Most ethnic Japanese children sympathized with the victims after hearing their stories, but the big problem was many stubborn Japanese adults who said they live in monocultural neighborhoods, and think talking about racism with their children is useless.

When these adults say they don't have cultural issues in their communities, they are defining "culture" in a narrow sense, thinking only of racial and language differences. Some issues are just less visible.

For instance, there is discrimination against other East Asians in Japan. A Korean-Japanese acquaintance urged her children not to reveal their Korean origin in order to avoid mistreatment. Many Japanese of Korean or Chinese origin were born here and speak no other language but Japanese. Visually, and often in their living habits, they cannot be distinguished from the ethic Japanese. Still, the ethnic Japanese do their best to ostracize them.

To survive, these people often hide their identity by using a tsumei ("pass name"; a Japanese-style name). Such hidden diversities can be a springboard for people to think about the need for anti-racism and multicultural education.

"I'm not racist. I treat all people with respect, and I expect my children to do the same. Why do I have to do more?" a Japanese mother asked me after one of my lectures on racism prevention.
Of course, there are many Japanese who are not actively racist. But the question is: How many Japanese parents and teachers are actively anti-racist?

There's no such thing as being passively anti-racist. It is not enough to set a good example. Nor can one shield children from bigotry.

If a society continues to discriminate against racial and ethnic groups, it will nurture prejudice in each new generation. If we avoid these subjects with our children, we actually run the risk of strengthening prejudices we want them to reject. Children are barraged by images and ideas we don't control on the playground, on television and at school.

However free from prejudice we may be, our children, even very young children, can absorb the biases they encounter outside of our homes.

We must teach our children to be critical thinkers, specifically about prejudice. Critical thinking is when we strive to understand issues through examining and questioning. Young children can begin to develop these skills, to know when a word or an image is unfair or hurtful. This is also a time when children are in the process of developing empathy. Here are a few suggestions for adults to arouse critical thinking in children:

・Encourage children to think and talk about images they see in books, on television and in movies. Use age-appropriate books and stories to help them begin to understand struggles for justice and equity.

・Find moments to practice empathy with children: "If I was ridiculed because of my ethnic origin, I would feel terrible. How would you feel if that happened to you?"

・Don't let racist and prejudicial remarks go by without intervening. It's important to let children know from a very early age that name-calling of any kind--whether it's about someone's religion, race or ethnic background--is wrong. Each time we don't intervene, we are indirectly giving children permission to be cruel.

The quality of our children's future is at stake. In the 21st century, the ability to communicate and work with people from different racial and ethnic groups is as essential as computer skills. Japanese children will inherit a very diverse society from now on. We, their parents and educators, must help them learn to live and work closely with people whose race, religion or culture may be different from our own.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Redefining Japaneseness

On March 17, I opened up my newspaper and found an article about the Japanese government granting one-year temporary resident status to Noriko Calderon, a Filipino-Japanese girl. Noriko's undocumented parents, who were facing deportation, finally returned to their native Philippines on April 14. The couple thought it was better for their daughter to continue her studies at her junior high school in Japan. So, they entrusted Noriko to her aunt, who is a permanent resident.

I was puzzled by the news because Noriko was born and raised in Japan. And just like most of her ethnic Japanese counterparts, Noriko said she loves her native country and its culture. Still, the Japanese government treated her like an "alien." My first reaction was to ask the Justice Minister, Eisuke Mori, "Why does Noriko need a special permit to stay in her country of birth?"

Noriko is definitely not a foreigner, and she shouldn't need any special permit to live in Japan. Sure, her parents are Filipinos, so technically one could argue she is of Filipino ancestry. But for that matter, all the children born to Japanese parents in Brazil, America, Canada, Peru, Australia, or France are of Japanese ancestry—does that make them "aliens" in their respective country of birth?

People of Japanese ancestry, commonly known as Nikkeijin, have been accepted as full members of other societies. And when their descendants visit Japan, speaking only "broken Japanese" or none at all, they have had to be regarded as foreigners. Some have even become lawmakers in their country of birth or adoption. But, the contrast with Japanese attitudes is sharp. The government in Japan persistently maintains a racist and xenophobic system under which people who fulfill every internationally accepted qualification for citizenship are denied it.

In 1994, Japan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its most important principles are: "non-discrimination" (Article 2), and "best interests of the child" (Article 3). But, an examination of the situation of Japan-born stateless children clearly shows the violation of these two basic principles by the Japanese government.

There's a tremendous number of children born to Japanese fathers and undocumented foreign mothers, living in Japan without proper citizen rights, including the right to compulsive education or to healthcare. Even worse, many have been deported. This awful problem should be an international outrage, but unfortunately it is not.

The light of peace begins to shine where lawmakers regard children as precious, and don't discriminate against any. Regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, all children are human beings and must be treated with dignity.

Indeed, the Japanese government needs to grant nationality to every single child born in Japan, and also make it easier for foreigners to acquire citizenship. Redefining Japaneseness by birth or choice, instead of "blood," will surely encourage the ethnic Japanese to accept individuals of other ethnic origins as their fellow citizens.

By Joel Assogba Shukan ST: May 1, 2009 (Published in Japan Times ST)