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Visible Minorities: Carlos Ghosn’s Escape from Japan Was the Right Move

SNA (Tokyo) — I have to admit more than a twinge of sympathy for Carlos Ghosn’s Great Escape.

Ghosn, the former CEO of Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Renault, was arrested in November 2018 on the initial suspicion of falsifying his compensation levels, and subjected to more than a year of Japan’s “hostage justice.” That is, he was held hostage to a judicial system that detains you until you confess to a crime, and subjects you to days, weeks, months, or conceivably even years of interrogation and tortuous conditions until you crack. Understandably, most do crack, and Japan’s conviction rate after indictment is famously more than 99%.

But as you have probably heard, at the end of December Ghosn suddenly turned up in Lebanon, one of three places he has citizenship. Out on bail in Japan, he made a daring escape that people are still trying to piece together, including man-sized musical instrument cases, an uncharacteristic lack of Japanese border security, and a mysterious visit to Lebanon’s president by Japan’s state minister for foreign affairs mere days before Ghosn jumped bail.

Ghosn is now making good on his threat to expose everything that happened to him while in custody. His multilingual press conference in Beirut two weeks ago was breathtaking to watch, full of documentation, pointed fingers, and hot-tongued accusations of the human rights denied to Japan’s incarcerated.

This has been covered exhaustively worldwide, so what more is there to say? My perspective comes as a person who also tried to change Japanese rules and practices, and found that The System similarly fought back dirty.

I’m talking specifically about the Otaru Hot Springs Case. In 1999, some friends and I challenged Japan’s lack of a law against racial discrimination, as manifest in signs up on businesses nationwide saying “Japanese Only.” Places with these “no foreigners allowed” rules included public bathhouses, restaurants, shops, bars, public facilities, and even hotels, schools, hospitals, realtors, and other public services essential to life in Japan. People were (and still are) arbitrarily being refused service because they “look foreign” to proprietors, and that includes allegedly “foreign-looking” Japanese citizens.

We first took several exclusionary cases to the court of public opinion, where we had some initial victories (signs coming down and the rules changed). But soon Japanese media began putting up resistance (similar to what Ghosn noted in his press conference) to reasoned, informed, and factual public debate.

It’s all described in detail in my book Japanese Only (available for purchase at online book stores), but some of the media strategies we faced were similar, including:

1) Media quoting the proponents of the exclusionary status quo at length, but much less so the arguments of the critics;

2) Media portraying the proponents as somehow pitiable, as “keepers of the faith” in “traditional Japan.” Exclusions by physical appearance were soon construed as being essentially normal, regular, or even necessary practices that keep Japanese in business;

3) Media portraying the critics as “Japan bashers,” “Japan haters,” and generally “anti-Japan”;

4) Media portraying the issue of as a matter of “cultural misunderstandings by foreigners who don’t understand Japan” and “outsiders and guests disrespectfully telling Japan what to do.”

After that, public debate almost completely elided the issue of racism. The consequences were that issues of fair and equal treatment under the law were mooted, which affected the judicial outcome when we eventually took this case to court.

This enabling of exclusionism also empowered the militant netto-uyoku (rightwing internet trolls) to inject anger, fear, and loathing into the debate. Then came the hate mail and death threats (which I still get to this day) to our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces. With this came the hairy eyeballs from our neighbors and colleagues, meaning it was now somehow our fault for causing all this trouble. Thus, by standing up for our rights, we had brought all this upon ourselves.

Point is, I think Ghosn and I would have a lot to talk about.

Granted, there are caveats to this comparison. Ghosn’s is a criminal case and ours was civil. We were not arrested, fired from our jobs (luckily), or put in jail for months.

But I really get Ghosn. I understand why he decided to do a runner. It wasn’t just because he was denied access to his wife for months as a means to break him down psychologically. It wasn’t just because prosecutors have decisive power over the evidence (even exculpatory evidence) submitted to court. It wasn’t just because they decided to have separate trials for each charge, and the first trial would probably begin in 2021 and then take years. And it wasn’t just because there is a separate and unequal jurisprudential track for foreigners than for Japanese (as detailed in my book Embedded Racism). It was that given this level of legalized bullying over the accused in Japan, Ghosn knew he would never get a fair trial with the presumption of innocence before proven guilty—neither in the courtroom, nor in the court of public opinion. And he was exactly right.

Even Japan’s justice minister demanded, initially, that Ghosn return and “prove his innocence.” Although viewed as a political gaffe, that’s exactly the legal system in Japan. And he would never be able to prove it when the courts and media follow the same presumption: you got arrested, so you must have done something wrong to bring The System down upon yourself. You’ll never get a fair hearing because your side will not be heard. There won’t be a fair hearing within Japan, anyway; especially as a foreigner.

I appreciate the fact that Ghosn’s skipping bail in this manner means that foreigners will probably never be granted bail again. I am also aware that becoming a fugitive from justice just makes him look guiltier. Moreover, the fact that Ghosn could actually escape is testament to his level of privilege, unlike the multitudes of suspects, foreign and Japanese, caught in the wringer without the means and connections to flee.

But there was no other way but Ghosn for Japan’s judicial excesses to finally be brought to light in the international arena in such a dramatic light. I care less about one rich man possibly escaping justice for white-collar crimes than about all the innocent people taken hostage by Japan’s unfettered police and sadistic prosecutors, who are less interested in finding the truth than in losing face for losing a case.

For too long now, Japan has gotten a free pass for its human rights abuses and torture of suspects. Ghosn is in the best position possible to blow the lid off this system and to bring international pressure for reforms.

Ghosn can clear his name for his personal benefit if he likes, but as long as he winds up improving conditions for others incarcerated in Japan, I say support him in this quest. Let’s see if he can reform Japan’s vicious criminal justice system where we couldn’t reform Japan’s racist social justice system.

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