President Obama was recently re-elected for his second term as president of the United States. In his sweeping acceptance speech, he makes a remark about how citizens of America can make their own futures happen if they work hard, no matter if they are black or white, gay or straight, abled or disabled.
With one statement, Obama banks on the underlying assumptions of the country that Americans are a) diverse, and b) capable of creating opportunities for themselves where there may not otherwise be any. I think most Americans would agree that these two ideas are, at their core, true – at least idealistically if not also practically. We want to, and do, believe in our iconic melting-pot-ness, and we further believe in our pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps-ness. We like to believe that these ideas can work together for the creativity and innovation we value so highly in an economy that is continually being shaped by new ideas and the new-thinking people who have the ideas and the gumption to realize them. We like to believe these two things together are the best system.
In a country like Japan, these fundamental “truths” remain not so self-evident. I really do appreciate when my JTEs ask me questions, and although most often these questions are about whether or not a particular grammatical structure works in a particular sentence, sometimes, the more interesting times, they genuinely ask me a question about where I’m from, about the kind of world I’m used to and they aren’t, about things they don’t understand. Like about a society seemingly preoccupied with diversity, and moreover, the labeling of that diversity.
My JTE had watched Obama’s speech and had latched onto that first truth – he quoted Obama’s line with the parallel stereotypes and then asked me, “Is there really so much discrimination in America?” Is there really so much disunity between groups that such delineation, opposing pairs of words positioned together suggesting the desire for greater unity between them, even becomes necessary, especially at a time of celebration, like the election of a national leader? I immediately answered yes.
In such positioning of words, although a rhetorical device intended to be emotional and inclusive, I think there is a further assumption that Americans don’t want to think about. We prefer to focus on the feel-good intensity of the reconciliation of differences, but when confronted with the same rhetoric, my JTE saw the emphasis not on hoped-for future cooperation, but on the existing differences themselves.
Photo by Dushan and Miae via Flickr Creative Commons
In a homogeny like Japan, he said, such rhetoric wouldn’t be necessary, because people do not divide themselves into subgroups clamoring for individual recognition, for equal validation. There isn’t the truth of diversity, and further, there isn’t the truth of one’s own merit being able to change the course of the greater society. In Japan, people do not fight to change greater society – society conforms individuals to itself. For example. at one of the high schools I teach at, when first-grade students enter the school, they go on a weekend getaway that is designed to give them a crash course in “moral” education, just to make sure they are clear on what is expected of them for the rest of their lives, even though all of them have had such moral education classes since elementary school. It’s done so everyone enters on the same page, with the same barriers to free-thinking and innovation in place before they even start their regular schedules. Nipping any potential deviations in the bud, so to speak. It’s what my American fundamental truths want to call brainwashing.
Or it could just as easily be my American need for free speech, stemming from free thinking, talking.
Either way, it’s me recoiling from the ideas of not cherishing diversity and not encouraging individual effort in the belief that what I think matters and that I have the power to change a broken system. We do not view ourselves as the problems, but rather the solutions to the problems, perpetrated by society.
This is not the Japanese outlook. If society falters, it is the fault of certain individuals who have strayed from the course. Always this is viewed as negative. Because of this view, Japan has even more recently elected its eighth prime minister in seven years, the second elected in the year and a half I have been in Japan. There is some expectation that if society has a problem, it is the duty of the people to replace the figurehead. However, this does not actually address any of the real, underlying problems that led the previous leader, or the one before that, to his socially perceived failure. It merely shuffles around the cabinet, causing further confusion and a greater slowing down of possible solutions, a move which would seem to me counterintuitive to fixing what the problems actually are. There is too little focus given to the whole, which causes the people to lose sight of the forest for the guide who claims to know the best path out.
I’d like to believe that one or the other contrasting system could be objectively better, but that is not a luxury given to systems run by people who have flaws and who fail, which both systems inherently have. Which is better is not a question solved by the emphasis on – or lack of – diversity, or by individuals – or group – who believes they can better the system for everyone by addressing its perceived problems. It will never be as simple as choosing one over the other, but hopefully, by encouraging honest dialogue, like the one initiated by my JTE, we can find ways to better appreciate the strengths of both, especially the one other to us, and improve the world’s system for everyone.