Japan’s ideal and less ideal victims

The brutal murders of Japanese hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa at the hands of ISIS have understandably captured the interest of the Japanese nation. Opinions on the victims have ranged from the deeply sympathetic to the victim-blaming. Moreover the Japanese public seems more willing to embrace Goto as a true victim than Yukawa. These domestic sentiments are important because they touch upon a question that is inherent in every crime: why are some people given victim status and others not?

Yukawa and Goto both suffered the same tragic fate, but the domestic reactions to the hostage crisis have made it clear that similar fates do not necessarily warrant similar victim status. Goto has been described as a brave and kind-hearted person on a journalistic mission to tell the truth about the Syrian war. For a while an “I am Kenji” campaign was even gaining momentum on the internet. There was little or no doubt about Goto’s status as a legitimate victim. Yukawa, on the other hand, was viewed with much more skepticism, not to say disdain. Yukawa was characterized in Japanese media as a confused loner with a death wish, who had gone to Syria as a military contractor in order to restore meaning in his life. Although few said it aloud, many Japanese probably felt that Yukawa had taken unnecessary risks and to a certain extent “had it coming”. Needless to say, no one “was” Haruna.

The denial of victimhood in Yukawa’s case has an ugly precedent. In April 2004 five Japanese who had been abducted in Iraq while doing media and voluntary work were released and allowed to return to Japan after suffering through horrendous threats of being burned alive by their Islamist captors. However upon their return they were met by angry protestors at the airport wielding contemptuous hand-written signs, one reading “you got what you deserve!” The Japanese government even demanded that the returnees pay the 6000 USD air fare. Most of the victim bashing emphasized that, by venturing into Iraq despite governmental warnings against doing so, the victims had failed to take ‘self-responsibility’.

It might not come as a surprise that circumstances apart from the actions of the perpetrators determine whether or not victim status is granted, but is it possible to say something more specific about what these circumstances are?

In order to answer that question it is useful to look at the case of Megumi Yokota, arguably one of the most famous and undisputed victims in Japanese history.

Yokota gained nationwide and eventually worldwide fame in 2002 when late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il admitted to a Japanese Prime Ministerial delegation that Yokota was one of 13 Japanese citizens whom North Korea had abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Megumi Yokota, or just Megumi as she is frequently referred to in otherwise formal Japan, had been only 13 years old when she was kidnapped at the shores of Niigata in 1978. The purpose of the abduction had been to have her teach North Korean spies how to “become Japanese” so that they could infiltrate Japan undetected. Moreover North Korea claimed that she had committed suicide in 1994 – a claim that the Japanese government still denies.

Megumi’s tragic story captivated the Japanese public and she quickly became the poster child of the Japanese government’s various enlightenment campaigns aimed at solving what became known as the North Korean abduction issue. Mangas and animes carrying her name and depicting her life story became popular, and Noel Paul Stookey of the American folk band Peter Paul and Mary wrote the ballad “Song for Megumi” which he performed at the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office. Furthermore, Megumi’s parents became household names as the front figures of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.

But why did Megumi, and not the other abductees, become the rallying point of the various abduction issue campaigns?

The answer is because she was an “ideal victim”.

Criminologist Nils Christie has argued that in most criminal cases the victim isn’t completely blameless and the offender isn’t completely culpable. However the closer one gets to these extremes the more likely it is that the injured party will be given “the complete and legitimate status of being a victim”. This is what he calls the “ideal victim”. Christie developed five criteria for the ideal victim. As we shall see, Christie’s criteria are perfectly fulfilled by Megumi Yokota.

1)      “The victim is weak. Sick, old or very young people are particularly well suited as ideal victims”. – Megumi was 13 years old at the time of her abduction. By far the youngest of all the abductees.

2)      “The victim was carrying out a respectable project”. – Megumi was on her way back home from badminton practice.

3)      “She was where she could not possibly be blamed for being”. – Megumi was walking the same path as always.

4)      “The offender was big and bad”. – The offenders were adult North Korean spies who had illegally entered Japan by boat.

5)      “The offender was unknown and in no personal relationship to her”. – See above.

Megumi is the living (hopefully) incarnation of the ideal victim. Her symbolic power has unquestionably contributed to the fact that the abduction issue has captured far more interest among the Japanese public than conventional security issues like the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

Going back to the case of ISIS victims Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, one can argue that the only thing that substantially separates them is the second condition – “carrying out a respectable project”. It is hard to find fault with a journalist who goes to Syria reporting on the suffering of ordinary people in what is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. Going to said crisis as a military contractor, however, is not likely seen as a “respectable project” in Japan, where anti-militarist sentiments have been strong since the end of WW2.

It is harder to say why Goto was perceived more favorably than the 2004 Iraq hostages, who also arguably were carrying out “respectable projects”. Maybe it simply boils down to the fact that Goto died and the Iraq hostages survived. However it is also possible that Goto’s legitimate victimhood was secured because his death followed the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which spurred a tremendous celebration of freedom of speech, and Goto was, after all, a symbol of free speech.

There are of course no absolute laws of human behavior, but there seems to be a general correlation between victim status and points scored on Christie’s criteria list. This probably stems from our human disposition to simplify an extremely complex world. We constantly seek simplicity, and simplicity is often found in dichotomies such as good/bad and innocent/guilty. But in order judge about innocence and guilt, we need criteria, and Christies’ criteria are probably the closest we can get to saying something general about the construction of victim status.

It is, however, important that we do not let an imperfect victim status overshadow or justify the actions of the perpetrator, as sometimes has been the case in Japan. Beheadings and abductions are not justifiable.

 

Ulv Hanssen

Ph.D. candidate in Japanese studies at Free University Berlin’s Graduate School of East Asia Studies (GEAS).

Contact: ulvhanssen@hotmail.com


Unearthing the Past: From Independent Filmmaking to Social Change

Wu Wenguang, considered the father of independent Chinese documentary film, has since 2005 slowly but surely been handing over the camera to people on the margins and to younger generations of Chinese documentary filmmaking. In 2010 Wu and Caochangdi Workstation initiated the Folk Memory Documentary Project, where young filmmakers go to the countryside to gather and document memories of the Great Famine (1959-1961) from elderly villagers.

 

Wu Wenguang introduces his film "Treatment".

Wu Wenguang introduces his film “Treatment”.

Bumming in Beijing

Wu Wenguang is known as one of the first to make independent documentaries in China. His first documentary film, Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers, aired in 1990 and soon after the film toured the international film festival circuits. Wu started out in 1988 filming five artists, a writer, some painters and a theatre director all involved in the production of art on the edge of Chinese society. The artists had, for the most part, no Beijing registration and they stayed with friends or in shabby courtyard houses on the outskirts of Beijing close to the old summer palace while trying to practice their art in the China of the late 1980s. Only one of the five artists portrayed in the film remained in Beijing, by 1990 the other four had left China to pursue their dreams elsewhere in the world.  Wu’s documentary was the first in China to give the characters of a documentary a space to voice their concerns and dreams of the future, letting the narratives of their stories weave together presenting lives on the edge of Beijing, both figuratively and literally.

For the next ten years, Wu produced several documentaries concerned with people living on the margins of Chinese society and films related to sensitive historical issues. Meanwhile, he toured the international film festivals and presented and discussed his work with international filmmakers and audience. In 2000, when he again found himself at an international film festival and was yet again asked the question: What will your next film be about? Wu realized that he was not interested in ‘the next topic’, making ‘the next film’ or filmmaking in general for that matter. What he wanted was to make change possible by creating the conditions for change in people.  Wu believed the camera could be instrumental in this process: by giving people the opportunity to record and re-experience their lives through the lens of the camera, there was maybe a possibility of creating awareness of the marginalized person’s own position and thereby a possibility to empower this person.

Initial steps

The initial steps in the direction towards engaging in possible social change were taken in 2001, when Wu and the dance choreographer Wen Hui made the performance and documentary film Dance with Farm Workers. 40 migrant workers, originally from Sichuan Province, were hired to be part of a dance performance in collaboration with Wen Hui’s international dance troupe. Nine days of rehearsing culminated in a public dance performance which took place in an old, empty factory in Beijing. The process was intended to establish a relationship between the people who build the city (the migrant workers) and the people living in the city (in this case the dancers and documentarists), while it also directed attention to the poor conditions migrant workers often worked under and the local urbanities prejudice towards them.

Even though the intentions were sympathetic, and the film features moments of sincere interaction between the migrant workers and the dancers, the performance still seemed to reproduce an existing hierarchical relationship between migrant workers and urbanities. The workers remained workers in this new context. Nevertheless, Dance with Farm Workers represented a new attitude in Wu Wenguang’s documentaries moving towards a more engaging kind of filmmaking.

Handing over the camera – the Village Documentary Project

In 2005 Wu Wenguang initiated the Village Documentary Project – an EU-funded initiative projected to document the village self-governance system introduced in the 1990s with democratic elections at village level. Instead of going to the countryside himself, Wu decided to hand over the camera to the villagers themselves. The idea was that the villagers, by looking at their own community through the lens of a camera, would see the community with fresh eyes and reach another level of awareness. Wu advertised nationally for villagers willing to participate in the pioneering project and in the end ten villagers from all over China were chosen. They were given a camera and taught to use it through intensive workshops at Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Workstation in the north eastern corner of Beijing. Each villager made a film which related to the village self-governance system in their own village. The ten villager films feature very different perspectives on and circumstances for democratic elections in rural China, presenting diverse rural communities full of good-will, corruption, laughing children, misunderstandings, close relationships, stubborn village elders, younger generations with new views on society and in some cases seemingly democratic elections in village China. Wu Wenguang has with the Village Documentary Project taken a step back in order to provide a platform for the villagers from where it is possible to transgress social barriers and present rural problematics to a greater audience.

Collecting memories – The Folk Memory Documentary Project

Building on the experiences from the Village Documentary Project, the Folk Memory Documentary Project was initiated in 2010. Young people, some still in school and some recent university graduates, were engaged to go to the countryside to gather and document the memories of the Great Famine from 1959-1961 from elderly villagers, telling the previously untold stories of the millions who died because of the famine. Most young people in China today are taught that the famine was caused by natural disasters and debt to the Soviet Union, a narrative the filmmakers and the villagers come to question once they unearth the memories of the people. Each of the young filmmakers went to a village with which they had a personal connection, either they were born there themselves, their parents or grandparents had grown up there or a family member had been sent there as ‘sent down youth’ during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The young filmmakers spend three months every winter in each their village collecting memories of the troubled and agonizing years of the great famine and being part of the rural community. The interviews with the elderly villagers are used in the documentaries and are gathered in a memory archive at Caochangdi Workstation.

At Lund University. From left to right: Zou Xueping Wu Wenguang Zhang Mengqi and Shu Qiao

While the young people are in the villages to shoot their documentaries they are advised by Wu Wenguang and Caochangdi Workstation to set up small scale, socially engaged projects. The young filmmaker Zou Xueping organized screenings of the Folk Memory Project films and arranged garbage collecting activities, to address one of the more pressing problems in many Chinese villages. Another participant of the project, Zhang Mengqi, made a public library to make books more accessible in the village and to create a place for sharing. A third participant, Shu Qiao, raised funds for a monument to commemorate those who died during the great famine, a way to create awareness in the village of the wrongdoings of the past. Furthermore, he engaged a school class (11-12 year olds) and had them collect and document the memories of their village elders. In this way, the memories of the great famine were transferred to younger generations and thus seized to be the taboo it had previously been. These films collects memories of a forgotten past of suffering and a the same time document young people’s journey into this past as they rediscover themselves through a process of interaction and engagement in an effort to dissolve taboos and traumas of the past.

With the Folk Memory Project, Wu Wenguang has handed over the camera to villagers and young people of China using the camera as a tool of unearthing the unknown and of transforming the present by rewriting history.

Mai Corlin

 

Wu Wenguang and the three young filmmakers Zou Xueping, Zhang Mengqi and Shu Qiao visited Lund University, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) and University of Copenhagen in April 2013 where they presented Caochangdi Workstation’s Folk Memory Documentary Project. Most of the films of the project can be viewed for a small fee on China Independent Documentary Film Archive: www.cidfa.com. For more about Caochangdi Workstation please visit their website www.ccdworkstation.com.

 

Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD student at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, Asia Section. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Activists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.

 

Links:

Wu Wenguang presents the Folk Memory Documentary Project “Memory: Hunger – Protest Amnesia through Documentary and Theater”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pA9DVwbatJY

 Clip from Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers:

http://www.cidfa.com/video/Catalog/Bumming_in_Beijing_The_Last_Dreamers

 Clip from Dance with Farm Workers:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnbvnMYQk3g

 


Doing Design Business in Japan: Experiences from Hirameki

Those who have already been to Japan – and particularly the bigger cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya – know that people consume a lot and in a fast pace. Despite the economic downturn in 2008, Japanese people have continued to spend remarkable amounts of yen on designer products. Design products to many Japanese people are what honey is for Winnie the Pooh. Japan is a haven for design products and aesthetics aficionados, so it would be silly not to try to get your products there or become inspired by their aesthetics.

While many scholars have already been investigating Japanese consumption and consumers, little is still known how foreign designers and design companies can penetrate the Japanese market, which is why in the summer of 2010 we initiated a project to study Finnish designers and design companies entering the Japanese market. Our findings are based on an empirical study dealing with Hirameki Design x Finland – the biggest Finnish design export initiative to date.

Below, I will briefly introduce our research group, after which I discuss some of our main findings. Finally, I will offer my take on how design-related research in the Scandinavian-Japanese context should develop.

Our research group – titled JaBuPro – consisted of eight researchers (one coordinator, three PhD students, and four Master’s students from Aalto University, Finland) who – for various reasons – had fallen in love with Japan and Japanese aesthetics.. Before this project, our coordinator – Virpi Serita – had already coordinated two student-driven Japan-related projects (first about business communication, second focusing on marketing Finnish design in Japan), so against this backdrop our recently finished project was a natural continuation to the previous two projects.

The book we released – Doing Design Business in Japan: Experiences from Hirameki – was mainly practical in focus; aimed at giving hand-on guidance to designers. In this publication we touched Japanese business etiquette and culture, storytelling, network models to name few examples. In terms of academic contributions, members of our team have worked on various topics.  Some have written conference papers on the internationalization motives of Finnish design companies, one is currently working on questions dealing with the Japanese mobile market and accessible design, while others are working on PechaKucha presentations as visual knowledge communication tools in multicultural settings. Thus, the academic and practical contributions of our guerrilla project (we all worked on it in addition to our PhD and Master’s studies) varied from internationalization strategies and accessible design to visual knowledge creation and storytelling as a communicative icebreaker in Japan.

As we saw it, the challenge related to managerial books on Japan is that they always seem to focus on stereotypes and heavy industry. The problem with these kinds of books is that they over-simplify Japan and the Japanese, and leaves out some of the “softer” elements of conducting business.

Focusing on the generally accepted stereotypes does not bring us closer to each other culturally simply because stereotypes often do not apply in practice. Furthermore, there are also great variations between different industries and professions – particular rituals and norms being held as more important in certain fields than in others. We found, for example, that the Japanese business etiquette it not followed as strictly within the creative industries as it might be within heavy/traditional industry. The tendency to ignore internal diversity has had a strong hold on cultural analysis within business disciplines (e.g. management, international business, marketing), and cultural research has taken major steps, these disciplins still rely heavily on Hofstede’s notion of culture. We found, however, that equating culture with nationality has a tendency of leading to empty constructs since within a nation, it can be argued that there is cultural deviation between professions, cities, educations and so forth. In fact, during our project we found that often the Finnish designers felt they could easily relate to their Japanese counterparts. Thus, with our project it was our ambition to contribute to making a shift the focus of cultural studies in business, from explaining to describing. The ambition was to give our reader rich and detailed accounts of a specific context rather than attempt making reductionist generalization.

We also found, during our data collection phase that storytelling (something we would characterize as a rather “soft” business practice) plays an extremely important role in Japan as a means to convey not only knowledge, but also emotions. Indeed, in terms of storytelling, it would seem that Japan is one of the most fertile contexts to collect empirical material. Japan has a very long history of storytelling, and the power of stories has endured or even become stronger in the 21st century and today stories are an essential aspect in consumption, and business negotiations, for example. Our focus was on the intersection between stories and business negotiations and one of our findings was that stories can be used to connect with one’s client or to break the ice in business negotiations. What makes business negotiations interesting in Japan is that things have a tendency of progressing slowly and matters are usually dealt with indirectly. In this light, approaching your potential customer or agent indirectly with stories  (behind your product or company, for example) seems to be a path worth investigating.

To conclude, we launched the project because we felt the companies required tools to expand to the Japanese market and because our theoretical understanding of Finnish (or Scandinavian) design companies entering the Japanese market is still rather limited.

In terms of further research, the intersection between Scandinavia, Japan, and design is interesting not only because it hasn’t been studied extensively, but also because we still don’t know much about the actual processes related to internationalizing design products and services, and how meanings and symbols embedded in a design product are carried from culture to another (or from a market to another). Thus, cultural studies have a lot to offer to design-related investigations.

Miikka Lehtonen

miikka.j.lehtonen@aalto.fi

+35840 353 8451

References:

JaBuPro research group (you can download the book from the web site): http://www.jabupro.fi

Hirameki – Finnish design export initiative by Design Forum Finland: http://www.hiramekidesign.com

Aalto University: http://www.aalto.fi/en/