June 02, 2014

Reefer madness

The two social upheavals that ushered Japan into the modern age—the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the Occupation (1945-1952)—were imposed upon and accepted by the populace with such efficiency and acquiescence that the existing status quo was never truly displaced.

It simply stepped to the side to make room for yet another political order, as it had several times before. The result is a society simultaneously running multiple operating systems, a living paradox that few Japanese feel compelled to settle or resolve.

The traditional adorns the post-modern, the very old lives beside the very new, with no fear of the one displacing the other. Japan's economy presents a model of "flattened" capitalism dreamed of by Piketty and his peers, that at the same time preserves the baked-in social stratification left over from 250 years of Tokugawa rule.

Extreme permissiveness thrives alongside extraordinary conformity. In a society that at times appears devoid of moral limits, a police force with almost unfettered powers ruthlessly enforces the lines that must not be crossed. With few checks and balances, the accused are presumed guilty until predictably found guilty.

The most recent case of a crossed line is Ryo Aska, the "Aska" (on the right) in the popular rock duo of Chage & Aska. When he got busted last month for possession of ecstasy and meth, the boom was lowered on him like a battered ram.

It's a case that might bring to mind the travails of Robert Downey Jr. from a decade or so ago. Except that when Robert Downey Jr. ended up behind bars, Walmart didn't immediately sweep the shelves clean of any movie or television series in which he had ever appeared for fear that his sins would taint their good name.

Aska should be so lucky if he only had to worry about the ire of the retailers. Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Chage and Aska's label, Universal Music LLC, released a statement Monday saying it would halt shipments of all of the duo's works and retrieve all previously distributed products from stores.

Yes, there is such a thing as bad publicity. The way the Japanese media treats it—including the stolid NHK—you'd think Eliot Ness just nabbed Al Capone (and all before any formal indictment or arraignment). Michael Cucek sees this laissez-faire-meets-iron-fist approach as part of a nationwide scared-straight strategy:

By selectively, infrequently, but mercilessly applying themselves to cases, the police and the courts [in Japan] create strong incentives for the citizens to police themselves . . . Tak[ing] note of what happens to those who become trapped in the pit of the law (don't call it "justice") system, [they] will strive, of their own volition, to never, ever become trapped in that system themselves.

On the other hand, do keep in mind the words "selectively and "infrequently." The incarceration rate in Japan is 55/100,000 population, compared to 149/100,000 in Britain and 716/100,000 in the U.S. Unless he's an idiot, Aska is unlikely to do "hard time."

A silver lining briefly glimmered as the scandal brought to light the obscure "On Your Mark" music video Hayao Miyazaki created for Chage & Aska back in 1995. But it only came to light because the release of a box set of Miyazaki's films was delayed so—you guessed it—the offending title could be removed from the collection.

Appropriately penitent.
If Ryo Aska is a good boy and plays according to the script, he'll eventually be rehabilitated. Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a member of the aging boy band SMAP, could give him some pointers. Back in 2009, Kusanagi was arrested in Tokyo's Hinokicho Park at three in the morning, drunk as a skunk and buck naked.

Kusanagi only had to spend a month in the wilderness. He donned the requisite sackcloth and ashes and "Tokyo prosecutors decided against indicting Kusanagi because he had expressed regret and had already suffered social embarrassment."

Aska, however, is accused of a more serious felony. Robert Downey Jr. ended up sentenced to an "extended stay in rehab." Aska can at best hope to follow the example of singer Noriko Sakai.

In August 2009, Sakai received a three-year suspended sentence for drug abuse (a tiny amount of meth). Even before sentencing, she had lost all of her endorsement deals, her clothing line was pulled from stores across Japan, and her record label withdrew her CDs from distribution and suspended downloads of her songs.

Her entertainment career didn't resume until November 2012.

Right now, the big decision before Aska is making the carefully-timed transition from proclaiming his innocence to bowing and scraping and publicly atoning for his personal failings. And then figuring out what to do until he can start working gigs again.

Related posts

On Your Mark
Lawyering up
Justice for all (Japanese)
(Less) crime and (less) punishment

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# posted by Blogger Joe
6/02/2014 9:40 AM   
So, is the issue drugs or that they got caught?

I don't imagine they'll simply stop using drugs, so what happens next? Is there a shakedown? Or is there an unwritten rule that a celebrity gets in trouble only once (unless they are gauche enough to be caught in public!)
# posted by Blogger Eugene
6/03/2014 9:01 AM   
It's a little of both, I think, involving the following criteria:

1. The infraction and/or the accused is too obvious to ignore.
2. More sordid connections come to light that trace back to the celebrity. Noriko Sakai's biggest problem was her self-destructive husband (she stereotypically married a dumb jerk).
3. So law enforcement feels it necessary to draw a line and make an example.

If Aska plays his cards right, like Sakai, I imagine he'll get a suspended sentence of several years, during which he'll do the requisite "don't do drugs" circuit and probably get tested on a regular basis (he can ask Lance Armstrong for advice there).

But for what are essentially nonviolent crimes, the Japanese public itself is very forgiving (much less so if you're not Japanese and/or not the "right kind of people," i.e., yakuza or the wacko fringe).

Shortly after I first went to Japan, in January 1980, Paul McCartney got busted for pot possession. After nine days in jail, he was sentenced to getting deported (hardly permanently). He's definitely the "right kind of people."

If some nobody got caught with half a pound of marijuana in his luggage? See you in seven years. Though McCartney also says he made every effort to be the model prisoner and judges in Japan like that.
# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
6/03/2014 7:31 PM   
Is there any equivalent "grassroots" (ha ha) movement to what we see in the United States? A large number of my Maine students are completely obsessed with the legalization of marijuana (Portland citizens over 21 can now sort of carry 2.5 ounces of recreational marijuana). So much so that I have banned the topic for the final argument/persuasion essay of the semester. I think there are legitimate reasons to legalize marijuana, but I was completely fed up with reading the same half-plagiarized drivel semester after semester.

It seems sometimes that there is nothing else that grabs my students' interest--or awakens their brains. I get downright excited when a student wants to write about how goldfish make great pets (seriously--it was a very good essay).

Does Japan have anything like this? Or is it more a "don't ask, really, don't ask" policy?
# posted by Blogger Eugene
6/04/2014 2:38 PM   
"Don't ask, really, don't ask" is a good way to describe it. Now that I think about it, marijuana rarely (if ever) comes up in policy debates. Discussions in the press refer to what's going on in the U.S. Smoking marijuana apparently doesn't make the Japanese teen rebel to-do list either.

Gay marriage gets mentioned now and then, but again, in reference what's going on in the U.S. and Europe. Changes to Japan's marriage laws that significant would require a complete reform of the koseki system, which will happen, oh, some time between not now and never.