Temporality, civic engagement, and alterity: Indo-kei in contemporary Japan.

Author:Vij, Ritu
Position:Interview
 
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Abstract

Recent studies of civic engagement with ethnic others have attempted to rethink the ground of liberal multiculturalism by locating the migrant in coeval, not differential, time. Based on an ethnographic study of subcontinental migrants (Indo-kei) in contemporary Japan, this article draws attention to the limits of claims of coevalness, specifically its inadvertent reinscription of identitarian thought. Drawing on Kojin Karatani's notion of the "borromean rings" of capital nation state, and the multiple times associated with each, the article tracks the figure of the Indo-kei within a fluid terrain of social relationality through the varied sites and spaces of capital, nation and state in twentyfirst-century Japan. This enables a more nuanced understanding of the borders/lines/distinctions that shape the migrant's journey through multiple zones of civic engagement/disengagement in different locales.

Keywords

civic engagement, temporality, migrants, Japan

Introduction

Recent studies of civic engagement with ethnic others have attempted to rethink the ground of liberal multiculturalism by locating the migrant in coeval, not differential, time. Based on an ethnographic study of subcontinental migrants (Indo-kei) in contemporary Japan, this article draws attention to the limits of claims of coevalness, specifically its inadvertent reinscription of identitarian thought. Drawing on Kojin Karatani's notion of the "borromean rings" of capital nation state, and the multiple times associated with each, the article tracks the figure of the Indo-kei within a fluid terrain of social relationality through the varied sites and spaces of capital, nation, and state in twenty-first-century Japan. This enables a more nuanced understanding of the borders/lines/distinctions that shape the migrant's journey through multiple zones of civic engagement/disengagement in different locales.

Registering the shift from the international to the global in the context of contemporary Japan, Koichi Iwabuchi (1) has recently suggested that the landscape of civic and cultural engagement between the (national/cultural) Self and the Other in Japan has been irreducibly altered. Within the hypermodern, highly global venues of geocities, including Tokyo, encounters between people of different cultures do not necessitate a traversal of cultural distance; rather, because temporally coeval in the late modern capitalist world, spatial distinctions (anchoring distinctions of ethnie and nation) that once distanced Self from the Other are subsumed in a shared temporality where indifference rather than difference is the ordering logic of civic engagement. "The imaginary does not devalue the other culture as 'inferior' or 'less developed' within an uneven bilateral relationship; rather a spatial difference is explicated by situating two cultures on the same temporal level in the late modern capitalist world." (2) Within a transnational economy, the mobility of capital, media, people, and things occasions a "common difference," (3) a stance of self-absorbed indifference to the other such that an earlier hierarchizing mode of intercultural encounters gives way to a multicultural equivalence. Within this emergent context of multicultural temporal coevalness, "transnational indifference" inaugurates a new mode of transnational social relationality rendering forms of othering defunct: cultures encounter each other not by means of an orientalizing or occidentalizing gaze, (4) through which the constitution of the self other binary implicates both in a complex and a fraught entanglement, but now by a set of mediations that open up the social field to alternative social imaginations. (5)

The shift from intercultural to multicultural or global encounters expressed here confirms claims of civic engagement with ethnic and cultural others advanced in a number of recent studies. (6) From claims about Japan's originary multiethnicity forged in its imperial moment to the suppression of domestic minorities, (7) the presence of nearly two million foreign nationals (less than 2 percent of Japan's total population and relatively small compared to Euro-American figures, but a record high for Japan historically) has been the subject of much debate in recent years. Citing instances of civic activism on behalf of economic migrants, advocacy to endow denizens with municipal voting rights, (8) and recent efforts to support foreign workers hard hit by the fallout from the financial crisis, current discourse on an emergent multiculturalism in Japan draws attention to a shift in Japan's orientation to and engagement with a world of others. This cosmopolitical opening is especially evident, others (9) suggests in the cultural domain as festivals celebrating non-Japanese culture dot the urban landscape: the Asakusa Samba Festival near Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, the Brazil Festival in Shibuya, the "Namaste India Festival," for example, echo the celebration of the rainbow of cultures regularly featured in the popular NHK program "Cool Japan." (10) Civic engagement with ethnic Others on this register appears unequivocal, signaling the constitution of a "diasporic space" (11) in contemporary Japan.

At the same time, however, decrying instances of "strident racism, xenophobia, and forms of exclusionary violence," (12) including increased security and surveillance practices operative in a post-9/11 world, commentary on the difficulties of incorporating ethnic others into the mainstream of civic life has led to charges of a "cosmetic" (13) or donburi (14) style multiculturalism, the putative shift to a multiethnic nation a paradoxical reinscription of Nihonfinron (Japanese identity). (15) Scholars critical of a premature celebration of Japan's passage to a multiethnic/multicultural society draw attention to Japan's seeming inability at the societal level to absorb difference. Indeed, Iwabuchi himself notes as much: "One of the most dreadful society-wide trends in current Japan is the suppression, if not the erasure, of multicultural engagement at the societal level," iwabuchi writes, (16) drawing attention to the criminalization and demonization of racialized foreigners by the media, and the anxiety unleashed by rising unemployment, and an increasing precarization of life in Japan's ushinawaretta nijyu nen (two lost decades). "Actually existing multiculturalism is being lost ... in media-aggravated transnational anxiety." (17) Temporal coevalness, in other words mitigates exclusionary hierarchies within global cultural encounters but is (partially) negated by a larger security problem generated within the racialized vectors of a global political economy.

A closer look, however, at different sites of civic engagement with ethnic others in urban Japan offers a far more complex picture than the one that emerges through the binaries of exclusion/inclusion, multiculturalism/racism that frame ongoing debates, one that I want to suggest may be better grasped in relation to a fundamental ambiguity that locates the migrant in ambient not coeval time in the varied contexts of Japan's "capital - nation - state." (18) The "borromean rings" of "capital - nation - state" generate distinct but overlapping logics that render community, exchange and the state (within a system of states), the key moments shaping modern life. The temporal frame, however, within which subjects are located in relation to each (capital, nation, and state) are not identical, yielding modes of social relationality across civic space that are therefore distinct. Recuperating the temporal frame of each within Karatani's theorization of the interlocking structures of "capital-nation-state" helps to illuminate zones of civic engagement/disengagement with the Other in contemporary Japan. Interpellated by the locations/dislocations of multiple times--of capital, nation, and state--the ambient times of the migrant are divergent, not coeval with those of the "self," yielding modes of social relationality across civic space that are therefore distinct.

Changes in global flows of capital and labor complicate the question of location, and by extension the self-other relationship in diasporic contexts-the ethnic Chinese in Japan for instance, refugee, manual worker, or business tycoon, occupies a fluid terrain of social relationality, one not fixed by ethnicity alone, but variously configured by the multiple temporalities of capital, nation, and state, Within the transnational space of a global economy, the migrant traverses the ambient time of the borromean rings of capital - nation-state at multiple sites and in distinct ways through its diasporic locations/dislocations, inhabiting at times spaces that generate a coeval albeit abstract sociality, at others hierarchical forms, and at still others abject ones: as the bearer of abstract labor power in "capital time" and commodity exchange; a stranger within the temporal-social frame of community; and punctuated by the time-space hierarchies that locate the state (or country of origin) within the system of states. Civic engagement with alterity is thus shaped by the different temporalities, of market, state, and community, arguably not just in Japan, but equally elsewhere.

Insofar as this is correct, the trope of multiculturalism as aspirational normativity or realized potential obscures more than it illuminates, given especially its articulation to the de-territorializing logic of late capitalism. (19) Recuperating a more nuanced understanding of the borders/lines/distinctions (20) that shape the migrant's journey through the varied sites and spaces of capital, nation, and state in a specific locale, in this instance Japan, may then prove illuminating. Eschewing the rigidity of ethnicity-based practices of inclusion/exclusion that subsume other heterogeneities (of class, gender, religion, etc.) but also the contingencies of global capital, the focus on temporality proposed...

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