A recent op-ed by a Japanese author is making its way around the world. Ayako Sono is a well-known novelist and a Person of Cultural Merit here in Japan. The opinions she expressed in her article touched on topics that are controversial in many countries: immigration and race.
Whatever she was trying to convey to her own country, the message quickly slipped the leash and was received in a multitude of contexts that nevertheless have a common theme: the national debates found the world over about how to manage migration and integrate migrants and their children into host societies.
The outrage over her remarks marks the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in the public debate over immigration in so many countries. Segregation has terrible connotations for a very good reason: it's been tried and the repercussions of such policies still haunt some countries and their citizens today. Of the many criticisms that can be directed against her commentary, lack of originality is surely the easiest one to make.
Ms. Sono has been asked to expand on her comments or give interviews to explain her position and how she came to the conclusions she expressed in that rather short opinion piece. She has refused. Perhaps a better way to approach her would be to ask her to do what she evidently does best: write a novel.
But a bad idea is still a bad idea whether it's propagated though fiction or an op-ed piece! Fair enough. And yet wouldn't it be interesting to know what she thinks Japan might look like if people were indeed sorted by race into residential areas? How would that differ from countries where such a thing already exists and is an unfortunate fact on the ground? And finally, what does she imagine is going on in the minds of native citizens and migrants alike that leads her to believe that both would find this a better state of affairs?
In fiction an author can conduct a thought experiment on just about any controversial topic. Fantasy, in particular, is good for this because it gives us even more distance to examine ideas and events as they play out in an alternate universe. A good example pertinent to this discussion is Anne Bishop's fantasy series known as The Others.
In her books Bishop indirectly addresses migration, colonialism, discrimination, integration, separatism and even genocide. Impossible to know her personal opinion about those things, but it is interesting that her most sympathetic characters in this imaginary world are ones that hold beliefs that we would find horrendous if we heard them on the street or read them in an op-ed in The New York Times. I am still a bit bemused that I made it through three volumes without noticing that I was rooting for those characters who were contemplating the extermination of another sentient species: human beings who The Others refer to as "the clever meat." And one of the questions I am still asking myself is this: why does mass murder seem palatable, and even rational, when those espousing it have tails and use telepathy to communicate?
Because it's just a story, right? And here we see the power of good fiction that beguiles us into revisiting old ideas in fresh guises. We may still come down against them in the end but we are forced to work for it and that's always a useful exercise.
It's a pity that Ms. Sono put her ideas in an tweetable opinion piece. A more thoughtful expression of her opinions that used her talents as a novelist might have elicited more thoughtful responses, and started a conversation as opposed to shutting one down.