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Japan Tries to Shed Image Left by Racist Comments

ONE month after Japan's justice minister made a slur against American blacks, the aftershocks are still rattling relations between the United States and Japan. ``It is a serious incident. We take it seriously,'' says Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe.

On Sept. 21, after police arrested prostitutes in Tokyo's red-light district, Justice Minister Seiroku Kajiyama told Japanese reporters that ``bad money drives out good money. It's like in the US when neighborhoods become mixed because blacks move in and whites are forced out.''

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Shun Oide of the opposition Japan Socialist Party says his party will demand in parliament that Mr. Kajiyama ``take responsibility '' for his remark. ``Since the remark was made by a justice minister, its consequence is grave,'' he says.

The government, while quickly trying to control the damage to Japan's image in the United States, has refused demands that the minister be fired.

After an outcry from blacks and others in the US, Kajiyama soon apologized. But the US House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee, with support from the Congressional Black Caucus, drafted a resolution asking for Kajiyama's resignation. That request was later dropped. Congress is expected to move this week to condemn the remark instead.

Japanese officials argue that the minister has gone further in making amends than two other top politicians who were caught making antiblack remarks before all-Japanese audiences in recent years. Kajiyama received a ``stern warning'' from Kaifu.

In addition, on Oct. 19, the Justice Ministry notified its local offices to increase public education on racial and minority issues.

``We do need wider recognition of the American civil rights movement,'' says Mr. Watanabe. But, he adds, ``it is wrong to assume that all Japanese'' are racists, suggesting that those who think so may themselves be racist.

One factor working against Kajiyama's resignation is his political pull with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He was given the justice post just last month in what analysts say was an attempt by LDP factional leader Shin Kanemura to prevent him from joining forces with rival politician Noburo Takeshita, the former prime minister.

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Charges of racism are not new to Japan-US relations. The two sides have very different perspectives: The Japanese view themselves as a racially pure society, while Americans take pride in being a ``melting pot'' of ethnic diversity.

Although anti-Japan feelings have grown recently in the US following Japanese buyouts of US companies, officials in Tokyo point to the lack of similar American resentment over European investments. They also note the recent payments and apology given to Japanese-Americans who were detained without charge during World War II.

Still, Japanese commentators worry that Japan is not yet close to becoming ``internationalized'' - sensitive to plural societies or able to accept more immigrants.

Many Japanese companies, too, are criticized for rarely hiring local citizens for top management positions in overseas plants and for locating such plants away from black or heavily unionized areas in the US.

In Japan, racist images are often used commercially, with many Japanese seeing little harm in this. At a particularly trendy nightclub in Tokyo, for instance, customers are greeted inside by a grinning black man. He is dressed in a top hat, penguin tux, white gloves, and utters welcomes like ``How de do.''

He is imitating Hollywood's caricature of a 1920s Harlem tap-dancer in tails. He's also an African. The cafe could not find an American black willing to act out such a stereotype.

LOST in this recent dispute is the fact that last month's vice raid was directed mainly against prostitutes from poor Asian nations, such as the Philippines. Bigotry in Japan is not so much based on whether one is Asian, African, or Caucasian, as on whether one is Japanese.

Japan has a long history of discrimination against its own minorities, which make up about 3 to 5 percent of the population. These include the native Ainu people; Koreans conscripted as workers in Japan decades ago; atomic-bomb victims; and the ``invisible'' minority known as burakumin (hamlet people).

The burakumin, who were a class of leather-and-meat workers in the shogun era, are ethnic Japanese. They were legally liberated a century ago, but their lineage is often well recorded and results in job discrimination.

The timing of the justice minister's remarks could not be worse for Japan. South African black leader Nelson Mandela arrives here Oct. 27 and will speak before the parliament. Japan is a leading trading partner of South Africa.

Then, in mid-November, several dozen heads of state and other dignitaries will be in Tokyo for the enthronement of the new emperor, Akihito.

Several African ambassadors in Tokyo have protested the minister's remark. Foreign Ministry officials worry that some nations may decide to send a lower-ranking official to the ceremony.

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