Rising Slums

The Newspaper Columnist Who Wants to Bring Apartheid to Japan

A sensational column in a leading conservative daily says the country needs more immigrant workers, and holds up South Africa in the 1970s as a model.

TOKYO — One of this country’s largest newspapers took the occasion of the Founding of Japan holiday earlier this week to publish a column by a noted author who advocates apartheid. Japan should solve the problem of a dwindling population by bringing in foreign workers, she wrote, but it should make sure that they live segregated from the natives.

The author of the column, Ms. Ayako Sono, is a well-known novelist in Japan and also a close advisor of Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, who has been criticized here and abroad for appointing Nazi sympathizers and racists to his cabinet.

Ms. Sono was also a member of the Education Rebuilding Implementation Council under the prime minister’s office, where she promoted the idea that pregnant women should quit work.

Just another of Prime Minister Abe’s dubious friends, some might say, but one who definitely has his attention.

The article in question appeared in Sankei Shimbun’s February 11 edition. Sankei is considered Japan’s fourth largest daily with a circulation (for the printed edition) of 1.6 million copies.

The column appeared with the headline: “Labor Shortage and Immigrants: Allow them in while maintaining ‘proper distance.’”

It opens with a reference to ISIS and how hard it is to understand the culture and feelings of other races. It then notes that the number of Japan’s youth keep going down in comparison to the rest of the population and Japan needs labor, especially when it comes to taking care of its growing elderly population. The author suggests that there’s not a need for rigid special training to let foreign workers handle taking care of the elderly, and Japan should admit them.

So far, so good.

But then: “At the same time, we must make a system which strictly keeps immigrants in their legal status.” Sono adds, “It may seem contradictory but it’s almost an impossible task to understand foreigners if you share living space with them.”

The author points out that 20 or 30 years previously, after learning about the “real state” of South Africa, she became convinced that white people, Asians, and blacks should all live separately.

To make her point she cites the example of “a condominium in Johannesburg where black people started living after apartheid was abolished.” She goes on to explain that “black people are basically believers in big families,” and says the blacks took over the condominium by bringing all their family members, ruining the facilities, until eventually all the white people left.

Sono gave no indication where this happened exactly, or when. The name of the condominium, and any details that could verify the anecdote were lacking. But she concludes on a definitive note: “I have said since, ‘Humans can work, research and exercise together. But it is better to keep the living space [residence] separate.’”

The Daily Beast attempted to contact the author, for clarification, through Sankei, the publishers of her works, and the Cabinet Public Relations Office, Cabinet Secretariat. No reply was forthcoming and Sankei refused to provide any contact details or pass on the questions.

Sono is not a stranger to controversy. Her argument that women should quit their jobs as soon as they have children and her opposition to maternity leave would seem to clash with Abe’s much-vaunted gender equality push known as “womenomics”.

Sono’s apartheid column, however, has drawn a considerable amount of controversy even in Abe’s Japan, where casual racism seems to be condoned by the establishment.

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A Twitter aggregation web site had over 110,000 views on the story the day of publication, even though it was a holiday. Comments were primarily negative along the lines of: “At a loss for words. I have doubts about the good conscience of editors that would print up (this column) and scatter it around. To take South Africa under apartheid as an example and say (races) should be separated….”

We asked Sankei about the column, pointing out that in its own publicly posted “ethical prospectus” it vowed to “seriously respect human rights, correct mistaken reporting, provide an opportunity for counter arguments and take proper measures” in all aspects of the newspaper production.

Sankei replied to The Daily Beast: “Ayako Sono’s column is a regular feature and we published it as her opinion. It’s only natural that there should be many different opinions about it.”

Sankei is one of Japan’s most conservative newspapers and reportedly closely aligned with the Abe administration. It has been at the forefront of nationalist media in Japan that seeks to whitewash or minimize the history of the country’s war crimes.

One of the early Sankei company presidents wrote in his memoirs about his own involvement recruiting women for sexual slavery under the military during WWII; the newspaper seems to omit the memoir from all its reporting.

Last year the paper, apologized for running an anti-Semitic ad for books that claimed that Jewish people were behind the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and that the holocaust was a fabrication used to create the state of Israel.

Like many newspapers in Japan, the company’s sharon (official company editorial viewpoint) and the good work its reporters do, don’t always match up. Sankei’s news teams did some very solid and hard-hitting investigative journalism after the 3/11 disaster and the nuclear meltdown. But the management and the reporters appear to have different priorities.

The column did not hugely surprise Jeff Kingston, the author of Contemporary Japan. “It was published on National Foundation day, a time to celebrate the glorious and inglorious past where myth and fiction [in Japan] are intertwined,” he told The Daily Beast.

By publishing this paean to apartheid, Sankei has yet again “given a prominent platform to the country’s lunatic fringe,” he said, adding that one can only cringe at the thought of what advice Sono gives to Abe behind closed doors about educational reform, and what other clocks she wants to turn the hands back on. “Abe has repeatedly called for Japan to bolster immigration,” says Kingston, “but migrants will now have good reason for second thoughts.”

And, yes, some have misgivings already.

A 30-year-old South African woman working in Japan in communications, when shown the column, shook her head and said, “I already deal with enough subtle racism at work. If a major newspaper is going to print this kind of bullshit, they empower all the racists in the country. I’ve almost had enough. Maybe we all should leave and just leave Japan to rot in its own xenophobic dementia. If the sexism here is as bad as the racism, no wonder women don’t want to give birth—it seems hopeless.”

It is indeed a sad time in Japan when neither the prime minister nor one of its leading newspapers feels that there is any need to condemn racism at all, even when it involves individuals they closely work with. Maybe that’s because it gets votes and sells newspapers? Or maybe they share the same views? Perhaps, a bit of both. But if Japan needs to attract foreign labor in order to survive, it’s a problem that the country will have to deal with—and building ghettos won’t be the answer.