TOKYO — On February 11, a well-known author and former education advisor to Japan’s prime minister published a column in one of Japan’s largest newspapers praising the racial segregation in South Africa—apartheid—as a model for Japanese immigration policy.
In the last few days, the column by Ayako Sono, 83, has become a source of international scandal and embarrassment.
While the scandal was at first ignored by the mainstream Japanese press, on February 13, South Africa’s ambassador to Japan sent a letter of protest to the Sankei Shimbun deploring the column and soundly scolding the newspaper, the author and Japan itself. The embassy also posted a copy of the letter, in Japanese and English, on its Facebook page on Monday evening.
Sankei Shimbun published an on-line article the next day noting that they had received a protest from the South African embassy. The newspaper summarized the gist of the complaint and reiterated its statement, made earlier to The Daily Beast, that it was only publishing an opinion piece and that there would be many reactions to it. Sankei added that the newspaper did not support or condone apartheid and “that we do not think that racial discrimination or any other discrimination should be forgiven.”
Kyodo News Service and other Japanese media then picked up on the story. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper and one of its most conservative, did not mention that Ayako Sono was an advisor for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s educational policies nor that she is featured in a textbook which was distributed by Japan’s ministry of education to the country’s middle schools last year. In the book, titled Our Morals, she is featured as a model of “sincerity.”
One possible reason the Japanese mainstream media is reluctant to criticize Sono and the Sankei newspaper is due to the fact that Prime Minister Abe makes it a habit to regularly wine and dine the top executives of Japan’s media groups, often at the same time—usually before major political announcements or decisions—creating a cozy relationship that makes criticizing him or those close to him particularly awkward or difficult in Japanese culture.
The reaction of the alternative press and the Internet to the controversy has been fierce, with over 100,000 people expressing anger and disgust. A translated copy of the first Daily Beast article was viewed over 10,000 times.
Prime Minister Abe has made the news several times for having associates who make controversial statements and appointing racists to his cabinet.
In the February 15 printed edition of the Sankei Shimbun, Sono Ayako replied to the critics as follows: “In my writing, I am not suggesting that apartheid polices be conducted in Japan. I am simply writing (of) my own personal experience that living with humans that have different lifestyle habits is difficult.”
The \letter of protest to the managing director of Sankei Shimbun from Mohau Pheko, the South African ambassador to Japan, does not let off the author or the newspaper. It discusses the problems more eloquently than anything written so far:
It is important to place apartheid in its correct context in order to avoid any country… glorifying it as a policy consideration. All South Africans were racially classified into one of three categories: white, black (African) or colored (of mixed descent), and Asian. Classification into these categories was based on color of a person's skin, appearance, social acceptance, and descent. Non-compliance…was dealt with harshly. These laws gave the apartheid regime the leeway to torture and detain blacks arbitrarily, it forced blacks to work under the most humiliating conditions earning meager wages… Surely the respected columnist and writer is not suggesting such treacherous and archaic laws for nursing care immigration to Japan? Why would Japan, a respected member of the United Nations, and a bidder for the United Nations Security Council non-permanent seat for 2016 even consider such laws? Apartheid is a crime against humanity. It can never be justified in the 21st century to deliberately discriminate against other human beings anywhere in the world on the basis of skin color or any other classification. President Nelson Mandela has said: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
The Japanese government has overtly and covertly tried to distance itself from Sono, pointing out that she is no longer a member of the Education Rebuilding Implementation Council, an advisory council to the prime minister, which helped create Japan’s current “moral education.” According to Reuters, the spokesman for the Japanese government, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga would not comment on Sono's remarks at a regular news conference, but restated that, "Our immigration policy is predicated on equality, which is guaranteed in Japan."
Sono has been a long-time advisor to the Liberal Democratic Party, which Prime Minister Abe heads, and reportedly is a friend of his wife as well.