Kyoto's Luminous "Other" People


An Interview with
Human Rights Warrior

Ono Sensei

Nancho Advisory: Ono Nobuyuki passed the bar exam a year before his graduation from the University of Tokyo, and went on to found the Karasuma Law Office in Kyoto, one of the few Kansai law firms to accept female partners. Founder/director of the Kyoto Civil Liberties Union, Ono has headed human rights missions to Southeast Asia, represents Kyushu miners in industrial disease cases, and is counsel for a class action suit against the Ministry of Education's current plan for mandatory singing of "Kimigayo," the national anthem associated with militarism and emperor worship. Out of court, he is an expert skier and mountaineer.

- Verbatim Excerpts -

What set you on the path of civil rights law?

Ono Nobuyuki: It all started with one Korean client at the Tsubono Law Office where I was interning. He was a radical leader during Syngman Rhee's regime in South Korea. He was sentenced to death for sedition or something and escaped to Japan where he was arrested as an illegal alien. I was allowed into the consultations with him and he, well, he woke me up. He was brilliant, well educated, an analytic Marxist and a Korean nationalist. I had come out of a protected education at the University of Tokyo and he was about the most "alien" person I had ever encountered. And yet when he talked about his time in Japan, and how marginalized foreigners here were, and how little protection they had, how few rights they were accorded, it fascinated me. In fact it changed my whole life. After that I got very involved with international issues, joined the anti-Vietnam war movement and began meeting foreigners from all over. I also started representing Koreans in civil rights and discrimination suits, and the phone just kept on ringing.

So this led you to start a civil liberties union?

ON: Well, we've had a Civil Liberties Study Group in Kyoto for the last ten years. There were a lot of things to discuss: the rights of mental patients here, free speech, police interrogation procedures, resident aliens' problems... But it never really got beyond the "study" stage. Then recently there has been this influx of "foreign problems," as the media calls them: illegal foreign laborers, bar girls from the Philippines and Thailand, all kinds of foreigners attracted by the New Japan. And pretty soon there was all this prosecution and litigation regarding their visa status, their exploitation, their basic rights. And this cut through our procrastination and moved us to organize.

So you might say we finally accomplished it because of the notorious gaiatsu [foreign pressure]. [Laughs] I mean, when we finally decided to do it, it wasn't from external coercion but from a feeling of, what, internalized foreign pressure. [Laughs] It's a subtle but still effective influence. We sort of felt that, hey, the world is watching, let's put on a worthy show. We knew from foreign experience that organized human rights advocacy could be done, should be done.

Looking just at Kyoto for a moment, what do you see as the top human rights problem here?

ON: In Kyoto? Let me see... If I can briefly step back from traditional human rights concerns, I would say the city environment here, the townscape issue is an important thing. Kyoto is a traditional, historic city, a city of some aesthetic and architectural significance. And day by day you can see it being rather systematically destroyed, or "developed," as they like to call it now. If you remember how beautiful the town was, and still is in places, it's really sad, strange and sad, how little people are willing to talk about what's going on. Money has become a whole new and dangerous language here, with the jiageya [gangster eviction experts], the flood of Tokyo money pouring in. They are targeting Kyoto now. And people's collaboration or acquiescence in the destruction of the natural and urban environment is a sign of their spiritual and emotional...well, I don't think devastation is too strong a word.

In the midst of these ancient traditions, among these historic creations, we have somehow lost our sense of their value, their meaning. Everything has become a question of money, of profit. Society has focused on one brief, impoverished instant - Money now! Who can watch the destruction of the skyline, the old streets, the disappearance of any neighborhood feeling, and still say, "Beautiful Kyoto, traditional Kyoto, Kyoto the living symbol of Japanese culture?"

What concerns me most is that when people will not look after what is theirs, the best of their culture and history, they are certainly not going to care about other cultures, other traditions, either. The whole idea of human rights begins with self-respect and a sense of what is valuable in one's life. People are losing the habit or capacity for sympathy, compassion, the ability to put yourself in another person's place and feel what they feel. It is bound up with your sensitivity to your environment generally. When your environment is damaged or destroyed it can scar you too. And many people cope with that vicarious pain by turning themselves off, by learning to feel less. so it is not just an aesthetic problem. It has a lot of important social and political effects. As Kyoto people learn to shrug off the destruction of their neighborhoods and traditions, of their most intimate environments, they become more self-centered. Other people matter less, other living things matter less still.

So you connect cultural preservation with human, or at least humane survival?

ON: Yes, but there are problems with our current cultural preservation movements, too. If you look at the world today you see two parallel tendencies: one to try to evaluate and chart our future as a race and a planet, and the other to try to appraise and protect our history. Both are necessary, but they have to work together toward the future. Preserving the past just because it is old, historical, venerable - despite the many supporters for such propositions - can't prevail as either a tactic or a strategy anymore. You have to think about how we are going to create the next era, and how these traditions will inform or enhance it. This is where ideals come in. To revive our legacy, we have to look to the future and its demands. And I don't see that we Japanese are thinking in those terms at all.

But Japanese industry is famous for taking the "long view"...

ON: That's only business - markets, products, sales. But can big business survive without parasitizing the environment? Even if business could stay profitable forever, is mass consumption the key to human happiness? Business planning may be long-term, but it is still short-sighted. Nothing fundamental is being addressed.

Another thing destroying Kyoto is the automobile. There's been an incredible increase in the number of cars, in their speed, in their domination of city life. And for the weaker members of society - old people, children, handicapped people - they have brought real danger. When you think of ways of being that are most human, it's worth thinking about how the old experience life - walking slowly, stopping for a moment of worship at a corner shrine, taking pleasure in the grasses, the flowers, the details and moods of the town... All in all, you could say we are now creating a society that is aggressively anti-old, anti-female, anti-child. Anybody I've forgotten? [Laughs] And we haven't begun to stop it.

This is all pretty dark, and yet for a pessimist you continue to put out a lot of energy...

ON: Well, I guess I retain some basic faith in people. I think they or we could be a whole lot smarter with a little effort. Personally I've been really lucky. I've had American friends, British friends, Korean friends, Russian friends - and I'm not speaking loosely, these have been important friendships for me. And through them I somehow have a real confidence that things are all right or could be all right, at least at the human level, the personal level. Once you take it up to the societal level, the level of politics and economics, it all gets very complicated and difficult.

Regarding power, one often wants to ask, "are there any real laws in this country?" Prostitution is illegal, pornography is illegal, gambling is illegal, except that the gangsters run whorehouses, sex theaters, and pachinko parlors everywhere. If you have power here, most laws you can pretty much ignore. If you don't have power, the laws won't protect you.

ON: As an American you may find it difficult to understand, but Japan is a "law-governed state." That is, the state governs or manages society, the population, by means of law. In America, you have the "the state as the rule of law." Under that system citizens create the laws and are all mutually, equally bound by their force. And to enforce them and maintain their legitimacy also requires citizen participation. Keeping the system honest and working is therefore everybody's business.

In a "law-governed state" like Japan, the state uses laws to rule. It's the state's authority that gives it the power to use the laws, not our mutual agreement as citizens. So when we see illegal acts or abuses, it never occurs to anybody that we have any responsibility to do something about it. After all, they are not breaking our laws, they're breaking the government's laws. So the government should do something...

Then where is change going to come from?

ON: From radicalism. I don't mean crazy extremism. Radical means the root, to go to the root of something, to get back to the most basic, significant issues. And for that, somebody once said that the most radical people in Kyoto are women and old people. They are the most in touch with what's really important. The old facing death, and the mothers watching their children grow. feel that the first step has to be the electoral overthrow of the Liberal Democratic Party. It has been in power so long that people equate it with the state. Once people learn that the current establishment is not invulnerable, does not have some divine right to rule, we Japanese may finally see that major change is possible, that we ourselves are responsible for what happens to us.

- End -

Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak

Shareright (S) 1998 : Nancho Ijin Butai