Forgiveness vs. permission

A former boss of mine sometimes liked to say that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” He was a lawyer, of course.

In Japanese, the distinction is not quite as clear, as the usual word for both acts is the verb yurusu. Traditionally, though, there are different kanji characters for the two senses of the word. The usual kanji you see in Japanese nowadays, “許す,” originally only referred to permission (i.e., before the fact); by some accounts, the proper kanji to use for forgiveness (i.e., after the fact) is the more archaic “赦す.”

Not many people bother with the distinction nowadays (see this little social media experiment) and Microsoft’s Japanese input method editor helpfully suggests that the latter kanji is not commonly used in this sense (“常用外”); although it is one of the Joyo Kanji learned in compulsory education, schoolchildren generally only learn its usage in Chinese-derived compounds like 赦免 (shamen) and 恩赦 (onsha), both of which are used to refer to “pardons” of particular individuals and “amnesty” regarding a particular offense.

赦, the forgiveness kanji, [unsurprisingly] comes from China. It was imported to Japan in the late 600s AD. Before this time, there was no concept of human-granted amnesty or pardons in Japan (see this Japanese Wikipedia article), and even under the common-law system introduced in Japan around that time, amnesty was at the imperial court’s discretion and limited to lesser offenses. The system was formalized in the 1700s under the Tokugawa shogunate; under this system, various pardons and amnesties were handed down through the court bureaucracy at the order of the shogun, often at seemingly auspicious times such as the enthronement of a new emperor. The emperor regained control over the amnesty/pardon process under the Meiji Constitution of 1889, and still conducts the final seal of approval under the modern constitution, although the actual decision is now made by the cabinet.

Today, the most avid users of the “forgiveness” kanji as a verb are Christians, who are used to the extensive discussion of forgiveness in the Bible, where the old kanji 赦す is used in most common translations. A simple Google search for the term mostly turns up Christian-related web pages.

It was through Christians that I found out about “the other kanji for yurusu.” Before getting married earlier this year, I had been going to weekly “marriage classes” with the future Mrs. Jones at a Catholic church in Tokyo (more on this here), and one of the main points of discussion was the great importance of forgiveness in a marital relationship.

This perspective is by no means limited to Christians: the broader secular Japanese society (as well as most rational human beings) also acknowledges that one has to “forgive and forget” if they want to survive a lifelong marriage with someone. Long-time readers of this blog may even remember that “I’m sorry” is as important as “I love you” in the estimation of the “National Husbands’ Advisory Association.” Forgiveness is a common theme in the Abrahamic religions as well as in Buddhism (English Wikipedia has a pretty good round-up), but the Buddhist perspective seems to place greater emphasis on simply detaching completely from the mundane world, as opposed to taking things seriously but channeling the heart to forgive them anyway. That said, Japanese people are generally not Buddhist until someone dies, which might explain how many marriages here end up absolutely wrecked (even if not quite in a state of divorce).

Anyway, to my predominantly non-Catholic Japanese classmates, most of whom just wanted to get married in the nice church (theology be damned) but were polite enough to humor the clergy, the distinction between 赦す and 許す was harder to understand, let alone justify. One of my more-or-less-atheist Japanese co-workers took a look at the writeups on forgiveness provided to my Marriage 101 class, and said “I could never let my husband think he’ll be forgiven for everything… but otherwise it sounds like a good idea.”

I guess life wouldn’t be interesting if it were so easy.

Karen refugees to start resettling in Japan next month

Starting toward the end of September, a group of 27 Karen refugees will resettle in Japan.

The refugees currently live in Thailand, part of more than 100,000 Karen people living in refugee camps in Thailand, along with thousands more living among the Thailand general population. The Karen are natives of Burma, where their people have been waging guerrilla warfare against the central government since the end of World War II. In response, the Burmese army has waged a campaign of torching villages and terrorizing people to try and weaken support for the insurgency. Talk about a Long War.

You can get many details from this English-language Asahi report (emphasis mine).

Twenty-seven refugees from five families—all members of minority Karen tribe—will be relocated from the camp to Japan in late September. They will be the first group to arrive under a “third-country” resettlement program adopted by Japan, which has long been criticized as closed to refugees.

The program is designed to help refugees in camps outside their home countries.

...

“We have no worries as long as we stay here,” [one of the 27] said in Karen, as he sat on his knees. “But I want to see our lives improve. I want my children to have goals and dreams. I will go to Japan to live a new life.”

He said he wanted to farm in Japan. “I believe I will manage if I make the effort.”

Since late July, those accepted under the resettlement program have been taking one-month training courses from the International Organization for Migration, which was commissioned by the Japanese government.

Initially, 32 members of six families were accepted, but a family of five decided not to move because of Japan’s high prices.

A 36-year-old man in a family of seven did not hide his anxieties about living in Japan.

“Away from Myanmar, without knowing the language, how can I possibly find a job soon?” he said. “But there is no future in this camp. I will do my best trying to become a naturalized citizen.”

An 8-year-old girl has also set goals for her life in a new country.

“I want to go to school and make many friends. I want to get in a car, too,” she said.

Japan plans to accept about 90 refugees from Myanmar in three years from this fiscal year.


Best of luck to them. The government apparently plans to train them in Tokyo for a while before finding a suitable place for them. In any case, relocation of refugees is tough. The children will probably have the easiest time assimilating. In Bangkok, Mrs. Adamu used to work with Burmese refugees, including several Karen. They often had only just arrived in Bangkok, and because it was their first big city, a lot surprised them. They’d get scared on elevators, throw up in taxis, never been bowling or seen a movie in a theater before. These folks are in for some serious culture shock, especially the adults. The first winter will probably be a little scary.

Little boy learning Japanese writing, courtesy Yahoo News

This move by the Japanese government comes after years of pressure from the US, the EU and other nations that participate in refugee relocation programs. Japan accepts a fraction of applications for refugee status made on Japanese soil, but it has previously not taken part in third-party settlement programs. In contrast, the US receives tens of thousands of refugees every year resettling for various reasons, recently in the aftermath of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In recent years, upward of 80% of Japan’s refugee applications have been filed by people from Burma because of stepped-up pressure by the junta and pressure on overflowing refugee camps. There are an estimated 10,000 or so Burmese living in Japan, with a particular concentration in the Takadanobaba area of Tokyo (notable for delicious and authentic Burmese restaurants). Near the industrial complexes in greater Kanto, Burmese workers can be found work

In the past, Japan accepted many “boat people,” refugees from Vietnam who fled political persecution after the communists won control of the country in the mid 70s.

The Vietnamese experience in Japan has been mixed. English Wikipedia actually has a fairly detailed article on this, noting that while many of the original refugees had trouble integrating, many of the 2nd generation are completely assimilating, taking Japanese names and perhaps not even mentioning their non-Japanese heritage to people they meet on a daily basis. With their distinctly Southeast Asian features, the Karen may not have that option.

It’s unclear at this point where the new arrivals will live or how exactly they will be taken care of (unclear to me at least; I am sure MOFA has plans), but generally they can be expected to receive some form of government assistance for the foreseeable future. They will also benefit from being first, which will bring extra attention and a greater commitment to get things right. But eventually they and their children will have to form some connection and relationship with Japanese society, along with the hundreds if not thousands more who will follow. Much like the test groups of Indonesian and Filipina nurses, these refugees will be yet another test case for Japan’s immigrant experience.

Japan’s execution chamber opened to the press

Japan’s justice minister has allowed media to come in and look at the gallows where the executions take place:

Here is a video from TBS with more details. Apparently, the whole place smells like burning incense. The reporter has a good description of the room – 無機質 which literally means “inorganic” but I guess would be more naturally conveyed as sterile and banal.

The room is located at Tokyo Detention Center, which is a 20-minute or so walk from my house. It’s always a little disturbing to think this is where it all goes down.

I would strongly encourage people to read the NYT’s article, written by superstar Japan reporter Hiroko Tabuchi who should go down in history as their best ever Japan correspondent.

According to accounts in local news outlets, journalists were taken to the execution site in a bus with closed curtains, because its exact location is kept secret. There are seven such sites across Japan, the Justice Ministry said.

The journalists were led through the chambers, one by one: a chapel with a Buddhist altar where the condemned are read their last rites; a small room, also with a Buddha statue, where a prison warden officially orders the execution; the execution room, with a pulley and rings for the rope and a trapdoor where the condemned inmate stands; and the viewing room where officials witness the hanging.

The inmate is handcuffed and blindfolded before entering the execution room, officials said. Three prison wardens push separate buttons, only one of which releases the trapdoor — but they never find out which one. Wardens are given a bonus of about $230 every time they attend an execution.

Satoshi Tomiyama, the Justice Ministry official who later briefed the foreign news outlets and others excluded from the tour, said that wardens take the utmost care to treat death row inmates fairly and humanely.

The Buddha statues can be switched with an altar of the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion for followers of that faith, he said. For Christians, the prison provides a wooden cross. Inmates are given fruit and snacks before their execution, and sentences are not carried out on weekends, national holidays and around the New Year.


What amazes me is that this system has been in place for so long even when just about everyone, including death penalty supporters, knows there are serious problems. If nothing else, the government needs to reform the itinerary for carrying out executions. It just seems exceptionally cruel and Kafkaesque to keep the execution date secret for so many years and only tell them at the last minute. I also see no reason why the justice ministry should be allowed to hide their decision-making process on when to execute people.

Why Nausicaa is awesome

Via Roger Ebert, here is Filipino reviewer Michael Mirasol’s take on what’s so great about Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind:

My favorite part (emphasis added):

The film is considered to be the first of Miyazaki’s works to showcase his strong environmental inclinations. In every film since he has made his case for man to grow closer to nature as a return to the olden days. He does so with positive reinforcement, hardly ever resorting to demonizing, moralizing, or sermonizing. Here, the toxic jungle isn’t so much an inhospitable realm as it is a fearsome marvel of nature. It’s huge arthropod denizens never come off as oozing grotesques, but wondrous (though scary) creatures. The film’s largest creations, the ohmus, are wholly original, and are almost proof that the eyes are the window to the soul.

Miyazaki’s refusal to narrow down conflict to two or even three sides is refreshing, and quite admirable considering its target audience. The film’s story does concern good versus evil, but they aren’t manifested in simplistic ways. Each populace has its own motivations. Each conflict has its reason. Wars exist among man and against nature. Several stakes exist. Even death is hardly out of bounds. For much of the film, there is no one problem/solution. But despite this moral complexity for an animated film, it all fits Miyazaki’s big picture, and in the end we see it.


The link has a transcript, so it might be easier to read that instead.

I think it’s a testament to Miyazaki’s subtle storytelling power (or maybe just my own lack of insight) that this point never explicitly dawned on me after watching the movie. It’s just a natural part of the landscape. And it’s surprisingly rare for movies to take this approach, though it seems to be a major feature of Miyazaki films.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I sense a broader point here. One of the refreshing things about living in Japan is that people seem much less dogmatic than in the US. That is, issues are seldom as black and white as they seem in the States, and there seems to be less pressure to adopt the “correct” set of opinions based on political leanings. Could this have something to do with a generation raised on Miyazaki’s pluralistic stories as opposed to Americans growing up with Disney tales of good and evil?

The changing borders of Shikoku

At ComingAnarchy, I’ve spent years publishing posts that show, through simple graphic animation, the changing borders of nations over the course of human history. Japan as a nation is not a very exciting topic—the borders have stayed pretty much the same, except for the brief imperial period a century ago, at least internationally. Domestically and internally, there has been much change through the years, that may be too much of a Japan-centric topic for ComingAnarchy, but which may interest MF readers.

For the first of what I hope will be several examples, let’s look at Shikoku at the end of the 19th century. I was recently reading 日本全国「県境」の謎 (The mysteries of Japan’s prefectural borders) by Kenji Asai, who has written dozens of books on Japan’s regional geography. I was amused by the sudden changes that took place in the administrative divisions of Shikoku in less than two decades. Shikoku, which means “four countries”, and went from four “countries” during the Edo Period, to five prefectures, then three, then two, then three again, and finally back to four. The transition goes like this:

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