Nakasone's slip: signpost of Japanese cultural issue

Despite his ``heartfelt apology,'' Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's disparaging remark about black and Hispanic Americans has left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. But, as one American observer here said, ``It may be healthier to have these things out in the open than to sweep them under the carpet.'' Mr. Nakasone's offending remarks were made Sept. 22, during a speech at a ruling party seminar for party workers. The day before, he had been in Seoul apologizing for disparaging remarks about Koreans made by then-Education Minister Masayuki Fujio, who was immediately dismissed. But the damage was done.

Nakasone's speech was intended to be a pep talk. His visit to Seoul had required great sensitivity, but now he was back among his own party faithful and in a confident mood. This was an age of high technology, he said, and Japan had attained an impressive level of education -- it was a ``pretty intelligent society.''

Nakasone has a habit of peppering his speeches with English words, not always in their original meanings, and in this case he used the words ``intelligent society'' in English. A party official later said the prime minister had meant ``literate.'' ``Much more so than America,'' Nakasone said, ``if you're looking at averages. In America there are blacks, and Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans -- quite a few people like that, so on the average [the level] is still quite low.'' Phones in Japanese consulates in the United States were soon ringing off the hook, and US congressmen drafted a resolution calling for an apology.

Nakasone, who at first said only that his remarks were quoted out of context, issued a statement Saturday expressing his ``heartfelt apology'' and a firm belief ``that America's greatness derives from the dynamism and achievements of her many ethnic communities.'' It had not been his intention ``to imply any racial discrimination nor to criticize any aspect of US society,'' he said.

Nakasone's slip reflects a widespread feeling here that Japan's economic success since World War II owes much to its homogeneity. Consequently, they find it hard to fathom a multiracial society like the US, and the sensitivities required to live in such a society. Nevertheless, observers say, it is surprising that Nakasone, who has made close ties with the US one of his administration's basic building blocks, made such a slip.

Japanese know they need to ``internationalize'' themselves, to feel more comfortable in other societies. But the greater need, says Kyoto University Professor Masataka Kosaka, is for the Japanese to undergo ``internal internationalization'' -- to accept non-Japanese here.

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