Historical background about Japanese views of human rights
The concept of human rights as we know it was alien to most Issei coming from Japan’s pre-war society. Instead of rights, the Confucian idea of obligation was emphasized. In the Imperial prescript of Education of 1890, all students were taught loyalty to the Emperor and obedience to one’s parents. It was regarded as dominant codes of behaviour, with limited room for individual rights in the Meiji Imperial Constitution. During the Meiji Period, which began in 1868, Japan experienced significant political, social, economic and even spiritual reforms. When Japan opened its doors to the outside world, Japanese youth were encouraged to go overseas.
Our Issei (first generation in Canada) grandfathers came to Canada at the turn of the century, dreaming of wealth and a higher social status upon returning home. Eventually they remained and families were established. The Issei upheld Japanese social principles and values as they adapted to their strange and hostile environment. They experienced racial discrimination and a segregated existence. It was unthinkable to identify with a system that placed the individual before family honour and loyalty. The Issei valued hard work, self-control, stoic resignation and gratitude as necessary ingredients of character-building and upheld the traditional Japanese principle of absolutely honouring one’s social obligations. At a deeper level, these obligations and the rules of any close personal relationship are idealized in the concept of wa (harmony).
For the Nisei (second generation) living bi-culturally was especially difficult. The Nisei experienced the demand to integrate the uncompromising traditional expectations of their parents with the pressure in public school to reject non-Canadian ways and assimilate into Canadian society. What a challenge it was to develop solid self-esteem while meeting these opposing expectations.
The trauma of the internment and its effect upon our sense of human rights
The uprooting and internment between 1941 and 1949 was a time of unimaginable physical and emotional hardship. The effect of this generation-long period of trauma resulted in lasting change to our Japanese Canadian community. Although the Japanese Canadian community experienced human rights violation from the time our grandparents immigrated, we are still reluctant to protect our human rights. Reasons for this may be:
- The highly disciplined principles of personal conduct of our Issei generation did not acknowledge fairness, individual rights, democracy, and social equality as social values.
- The primary significance of the spirit of wa or harmony which pervades Issei and Japanese past and present social behaviour. Wa identifies the primacy of social obligations and the greater interests of the collective or group over the individual. Examples of group include the family, kin group and employment group. Within the spirit of wa there is no place for conflict.
- The impact racism had upon our community in Canadian society on a personal and institutional level.
- The Second World War dispersal and internment of Japanese Canadians resulted in psychological trauma of individuals and economic destruction of the community. This particularly affected the Nisei generation. Evidence of the psychological trauma was indicated in a fatalistic, self-blaming attitude common among issei and Nisei described in the phrase ‘shikata ga nai’ meaning ‘it can’t be helped’. This attitude during and after the internment was common among many Issei and Nisei who tended to feel shame while denying their pain and justified anger with Canadian society. Instead there was focus upon proving worth through good citizenship, endurance and hard work.
- The Nisei focus upon assimilation into Canadian society was a means of survival for their children. Results of this included loss of language and a 90 percent intermarriage rate among third and fourth generation Japanese Canadians.
Introduction of Democratic Principles in Japan after World War II
After recovering from the shock and devastation of war and defeat, the principles of fundamental human rights was entrenched in the new Constitution of Japan proclaimed on November 3, 1946 and stipulated that: All the people shall be respected as individuals. Their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness shall, to the extent that it does not interfere with the public welfare, be the supreme consideration in legislation and in other governmental affairs.
Individual rights and freedoms were approved, as was the equality of men and women. Social rights of enjoying association (unions), education and a decent living were added to the concept of human rights. The (family) system of privileges for the head of an extended family was abolished and the new civil code supported the nuclear family.
Even though legal and political systems were “modernized” to support individual freedoms and human rights, changes in Japanese society itself took place at a much slower pace. A major persisting element is “group identity within a homogeneous society.” Many people were still inclined to identify themselves as a member of a group rather than as an individual. This type of human relations tends to enhance group loyalty, while hampering the development of individual rights such as the isolation of handicapped people, and unfair treatment of minorities such as Korean, Burakamin, and Ainu. Foreign nationals living in Japan have to carry an alien registration ID at all times. However, since the end of the war, considerable progress has been made in the area of human rights in Japan.