Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Narrative Nations

The media, all said and done, could not help but frame the recent financial crisis in Ireland in terms of the country’s fierce sense of identity when a crucial by-election was held Nov. 25 in the northern rural county of Donegal. The senatorial election occurred the day after Prime Minister Brian Cowen introduced an emergency austerity budget, made necessary to satisfy the lenders of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund as Ireland faced the bleak possibility of bankruptcy. In reaction to the budget which, among other things, raised the sales tax and cut minimum wage and welfare payments while leaving corporate taxes untouched, the electorate chose to pull the incumbent Brian O’DOmhnail, the candidate for the Prime Minister’s Fianna Fail party, and elected in his stead the candidate from the extreme left: Pearse Doherty representing the Sinn Féin. (Sinn Féin in Irish, befittingly, means “we ourselves”.)

His victory, announced Doberty as quoted by the Irish Times, was a rejection of the budget, as well as its acceptance by Ireland’s other major political parties: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. He also clearly added, however, that “It is also a rejection of the interference of the IMF in Irish affairs.”

The statement punctuated the narrative that had long since become as much about nationalism as economics. Just a week earlier, the editorial in the same newspaper equated the then-anticipated bailout by the IMF and the European Central Bank with a decisive loss of the country’s sovereignty. “A nation’s independence is defined by the choices it can make for itself,” the paper’s editorial board stated. “Irish history makes the loss of that sense of choice all the more shameful. The desire to be a sovereign people runs like a seam through all the struggles of the last 200 years. ‘Self-determination’ is a phrase that echoes from the United Irishmen to the Belfast Agreement.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, another island nation finds itself caught between its own steadfast identity and reality. Japan, like Ireland, wrestles with its own pressing economic quandaries, its demographic consisting of a shrinking as well as aging population that paints an arguably even bleaker picture of the future. As reported on CBC Radio’s The Current, deaths outnumber births in Japan by 10,000 people, and the country's population is expected to drop by 15 per cent over the next 40 years. Moreover, the declining birthrate will result in a labour shortage in which the population of the workforce will be half of what it is today. The number of retired persons over 65 will also roughly equal the number of those in the workforce, meaning each worker will have to provide economically for one retiree.

“As the working-age population rose from 50 million in 1950 to 75 million in 1975, savings boomed and companies channelled them into breakneck growth,” explained The Economist in its recent special report on Japan. It quotes Akihiko Matsutani of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies as saying, “What goes around comes around, and the same demographic profile that supported economic growth will now begin to weigh heavily on Japan’s economy.”

“If this decline continues,” Hidenori Sakanaka, the former Director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, said on The Current, “it will be impossible for Japan to support its economy, financial structure, social security and everything else that is necessary for people to live.” Sakanata is the author of the Immigration Battle Diary, his manifesto on how Japan’s should shape its future immigration policy. Indeed, while other highly developed countries, including Canada, face similar problems with respect to demographics, much of the effects are offset by immigration. Sakanaka for this reason recommends that Japan accept 10 million immigrants in the next 10 years. “Unfortunately, this idea has not gained wide acceptance yet,” he laments. “I feel that the way in which the Japanese regard immigrants has to change.”

The Mainichi Daily News reports, for example, that Japan decided in December 2008 to accept Karen ethnic minority refugees from Burma. "But with a quota of 90 people over three years, compared to the tens of thousands that the United States and various European countries are taking in, what Japan is doing does not qualify as having fulfilled its responsibility," says Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer actively involved in human rights issues relating to refugees and other foreign residents in Japan. This admittedly is only a snapshot example of the country’s overall attitude toward foreign immigrants, but the difference between Japan and the rest of the world is at once stark and typical.

“The Japanese have always seen themselves as a single ethnic group,” University of Toronto sociologist Ito Peng* explained on The Current. She added the Japanese have traditionally defined themselves according to “one national narrative” premised on the idea that their nation consists of one, single ethnicity. “This narrative was very important, I think, for Japan in terms of creating a social harmony – for its economic and social development. The problem with immigration is that if we accept that Japan could be multicultural then this grand narrative actually falls apart, and that’s frightening.”

The rules of semiotics state that the signified is defined by the signifier and not the other way around. Contrary to the intuitive belief that words are defined by the concepts they evoke, it is actually the concepts that are shaped by the words. Similarly, it is not the identity that evokes the narrative, but the narrative that defines the identity. William Randall, the director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Narrative at St. Thomas University, once wrote, “How can we have an existence – a human existence – apart from stories?” He then answered his own query. “In my view the answer is clear: We cannot.”

If a strong narrative can define one’s identity, its sudden absence must be no less traumatic than the loss of a limb. Yet, narratives, in the end, are meant to be abandoned. Adhering to them beyond the appropriate shelf life can only result in what the Buddhists call “attachments”. This is true for a nation as it is for an individual.

Changing the Japanese perspective of themselves, however, is no facile task. Its success is far from certain if the government simply and unilaterally imposes immigration policies and quotas onto its public. Just as much effort must be devoted toward formulating new, promising narratives for the future based on multiculturalism and the benefits it brings. The need for a fresh perspective and narrative equally applies to Ireland as it sets to rebuild itself in cooperation with the international community. And while governments may assist in the process, artists, academics, social workers and the general populace will inevitably need to take equal ownership in formulating their new identity.

Peng, for her part, is hopeful about the Japanese. “I have begun to see and hear people saying, ‘Well, Japan needs to really think about its immigration policy and we have to begin to consider thinking of Japan as a multicultural society,’” she told the CBC. Finally convinced that the door in front of them is closed, some Japanese are starting to see how countless others have just opened. Whether we are speaking of a nation or of the personal and individual, steering away from the path as soon as it becomes defined is what sages for centuries have called the Way.

* - Full disclosure: Ito is a neighbour and good friend who always has very insightful things to say about Japan's social policies.

Photo by nattavut at Freedigitalphotos.net


Infinity moment said...

The problem with immigration is that if we accept that Japan could be multicultural then this grand narrative actually falls apart, and that’s frightening.

Rui Umezawa said...

Thanks for dropping by.

Yes, that is precisely the point. However, what is certain is that the narrative will evolve -- just as it did for Japan in the Meiji period, before and after World War II, before and after the Bubble, and now before and after the earthquake and tsunami.

And each individual can try to keep it from evolving or try to be a part of the change. That Canada is a welcoming, multicultural nation borders on propaganda in this country today, but the narrative was defined over decades by the people, government, artists and others.

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