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ISIS meme

On January 19th, 2015, two Japanese journalists, Haruna Yukawa (42) and Kenji Goto (47) were taken hostage by ISIS. The extremist group demanded Japanese government to pay 200 million dollars – the same amount of money the Prime Minister Abe promised to give to aid the countries fighting against ISIS when he was visiting the Middle Eastern countries from January 16th to 20th. The demand made by ISIS appears to be a direct response to the Japanese government’s commitment to help the International communities in the fight against terrorism. ISIS demanded the ransom be paid within 72 hours in exchange for the two hostages. As Japan would not and could not succumb to the terrorists’ demand, the deadline passed and one of the hostages, Yukawa, was mercilessly executed by ISIS. This was in many ways an inevitable outcome, despite the ceaseless effort of the Japanese government to locate their whereabouts to rescue them unharmed. ISIS then made a second demand in exchange for the life of Goto, but this time they did not want money but the release of an Iraqi woman, Sajida al-Rishawi, facing a death penalty in Jordan for bombing hotels in the Arab Kingdom, killing dozens of people. Having failed to make the exchange of the hostage with the terrorist, the second hostage, Goto, too was executed shortly after.

I am writing this, however, not to talk about the political underground maneuvers the Japanese government was undertaking, but rather, the Japanese public’s insensitive response to ISIS’s video message to kill the hostages and, what is more difficult to swallow, the uncanny fascination of the foreign media and the foreign public about the said Japanese response. I have heard people commenting on how clever and brave Japanese people are to respond to ISIS with the memes of the ISIS executioner, photo-shopped so he would look ridiculous and absurd, undermining the fear and apparent authority of ISIS, so as to downplay their threat. Anyone who thinks the Japanese did something the International communities failed to do in responding to ISIS, I think, is full of themselves and completely ignorant of the context as well as the socio-cultural background of the contemporary Japanese public’s mindset with regard to the international relations.

“Unfortunately, the fate of those two men has already been sealed,” says one Facebook user in the US, “there is no way that they would ever be freed by ISIS. This meme, while admittedly insensitive to the loved-ones of those two men, is a way of saying that the people of Japan will not fear ISIS and mock their attempts at terrorizing their country.”[1] Yet another user commented, “I actually think this is the most brilliant response to ISIS yet. They feed off of their ability to create memorable, terrifying images that are spread over social media. This kind of undercutting is precisely what’s necessary here.”[2] On the other hand, there are also many Westerners who share the sentiment that these photos ridiculing the execution are simply insensitive and not funny at all. But yet again, those of us who express our disapproval of what the Japanese public did are mercilessly bashed as ‘being ignorant of the Japanese culture’ and hence do not know what we are talking about. Simply because these photos are coming from Japan, this response of Japan becomes so exotic and right. Indeed, a lot of Westerners praise Japanese public for making the memes of ISIS and their executions, and when asked if they are not being insensitive themselves, their response follows more or less the exact same line as this one commenter says with confidence,

“[t]his is a way for Japanese citizens to say ‘fuck you, we will not give in to terrorism’. They’re mocking ISIS, not making light of executions. It’s a cultural difference. You all are just looking for something to be offended about. This is Japanese people trying to turn a terrible situation into a message, and we are Americans judging their response from the outside.”[3]

Whenever people argue in support of these memes, what I find everywhere is the word ‘cultural’ as the support for their claims, as if this word takes care of everything they claim and justifies anything they say. Japan has a different culture, they say. Those who criticize their way of dealing with things are simply idiots who only want to impose the Western viewpoint. We who know that there are various cultures in the world and we who know the plurality of views and accept them are the wise, the smart, the transcendent. But these people do not yet understand that the ethics does not work that way. Stoning of women to death is wrong everywhere in the word regardless of their culture. Rape has in recent years become depicted as a ‘culture’ in the West, but that certain does not make it okay. Overworking the company’s employees should not be excused just because we are talking about Japan, while maintaining that it is completely evil when done in China or in the developing countries. One’s culture does not determine a social ethics – it does not change from region to region, or from time to time. While it is true that some unethical conducts are legally accepted in various regions of the world, either explicitly or implicitly, what used to be ethically commended does not become unethical in our time. Discrimination against women, slavery, or killing of people by Samurai warriors in the past may have been accepted but was never commended except politically. It never was okay to kill with swords any by-passers, for instance. Their killing may have been justified through socio-political code of conduct, but that is NOT the same as saying these conducts were ethically sanctioned. Similarly, the appeal to ‘their culture’ simply misses the point when one is talking about ethics and humanitarian sentiments.

This, however, is not unique to the topic at hand. What is unique about the comments made by the foreign public and media alike about Japanese public is that all these people who argue either for or against this response of Japanese twitters is this: they all assume the Japanese public understands what is at stake in taking any action against ISIS or any foreign affairs. Their arguments are based upon this premise that the Japanese public knows what they are doing – after accepting this premise, both parties argue for or against the response made by the Japanese. Those who say the memes are insensitive do not understand what the Japanese public is thinking by making these memes. Those who say the memes are excellent response attribute a certain intelligence and agency to the Japanese public who created the memes. This is why they praise the Japanese public because they think the Japan made these memes in response to the offense made by ISIS. The reasoning for their support is that Japanese people responded to the fear with the laughter. I thank them for giving us a credit, but I respond to them that they should have done some research into the very Japanese culture they so fondly speak of. Thus, Kirk Spitzer from Time Magazine[4] and Adam Taylor from Washington Post[5] speak accurately when they both reach the conclusion that Japan lacks sympathy for the hostages held by ISIS. By saying, as the aforementioned social media commenter did, that “[t]his is Japanese people trying to turn a terrible situation into a message, and we are Americans judging their response from the outside,” she is also guilty of her own bias that ‘outsiders do not know what the people in other countries do’.[6] In the similar manner, NBC as well as other news media also accepts the false premise in reporting, “Japanese Twitter users are defying their country’s hostage crisis by mocking ISIS.”[7] This should be made obvious when we see how the Japanese public responded the ISIS threat by commenting that Goto and Yukawa are responsible for going to such a dangerous place in the beginning, and that “[n]either Mr. Goto nor Mr. Yukawa went to Syria upon request from the Japanese government,” and “[t]hey needed to know the possible results before going to that region,” concluding adamantly that “[t]hey are responsible.”[8] This is indeed the sentiment the majority of Japanese people unfortunately share.

Indeed, this kind of unsympathetic attitude by the Japanese public for the hostage situation also happened in 2004 when three NGO Japanese members were taken hostage by a militant group in Iraq. Since a lot of foreign media and the public alike are making assertions about the Japanese ‘culture,’ I think a little background about how the Japanese public responded to the hostage situation in the recent past would help them understand the socio-cultural mindset of the Japanese public. If you still think what happened in 2004 was due to the bravery of the Japanese and completely permissible because it is of a different culture from the Western one, you can pat yourself on the shoulder for at least being consistent.

On April 8th, 2004, two freelance activists and one photojournalist were kidnapped by a militant group in Iraq, who sent a video message to the Japanese government, showing the kidnapped with knives held to their throats. The captors demanded that the Japanese government withdraw its troops from their humanitarian mission in Iraq. Although they were released unharmed after a week of captivity through the mediations from the Islamic clerics and the International communities, the released victims were severely judged for their irresponsible behaviors and were unwelcome in Japan. Heavy criticisms followed, blaming their faults for deliberately going to a dangerous place under the slogan, ‘self-responsibility’, jiko-sekinin. When this incident happened in 2004, I was in Japan, teaching at a cram school. As I finish teaching at the cram school, I would usually catch a train home after 11 pm, where a lot of college students as well as salarymen are seen on the train. Only a day or two days after the video was released from the militant group in Iraq, I started to overhear everyone talking about the situation and how the government should respond to the terrorist threat. What I kept hearing from the general public on the train still infuriates me whenever I remember it. Two middle-aged men were talking to each other loudly enough for the others around them could hear them. “It is stupid,” one man started, “that they [the captured] should go to Iraq. It’s completely their fault and they should take their own responsibility [jiko-sekinin].” The other man excitedly responded in agreement and in anger, “why should the Japanese government do anything to save them? They are at fault for putting us in the precarious situation! Young people should think thrice before acting selfishly.” These two men kept complaining about how idiotic the young people are and how they should get killed at that instant so the government would not have to worry about it anymore. In the next few days, I asked around to my friends and acquaintances about the hostage situation, and not a single person responded that the captured individuals were at fault and “although it would be nice if they could be saved, they are causing so much trouble” and it is simply not worth the risk to save them. The conversation always ended with the question, “seriously, why did they even have to go to Iraq? They are so stupid.” It is bad enough that the Japanese public had technically abandoned them while victims’ lives were still at stake, it did not end there. The Japanese media as well as the government also rejoiced in unison that the captured brought this on themselves and they should take jiko-sekinin. Indeed, after the victims were released and rescued back to Japan, then Prime Minister of Japan, Koizumi Junichirou, told the media that “these [the rescued] people should be more considerate of the others,” and should not leave the country. As can be gathered from what the public and the government kept saying, when the three victims returned to Japan, they were severely criticized and literally no one welcomed them back to Japan. Even during the week of this hostage situation, the family members of the captured were constantly harassed, and they received countless number of letters telling them “because of your child, Japan is now in danger,” and “why don’t they just die there in Iraq already?” In fact, the family members received continuous threats and hate mails while their kids were held captive that they had to take shelter under the police protection! “You got what you deserve!” said a sign that greeted them at the airport.[9] Similarly, the Japanese government spokesman, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda commented on the rescued, “[p]eople who go there say they do so on their own responsibility, but they should think about how much trouble they cause when something like this happens,” expressing the sentiment the majority of Japanese public shared, “I wish they would use a little more common sense.”[10] He further added, “if you go to a dangerous place like that, your loss of life is your responsibility. You have to be prepared for something like that.”[11] According to Adam Taylor from Washington Post, a psychiatrist who treated the rescued hostage told the New York Times that “their stress levels back home in Japan probably were worse than they had been while kidnapped in Iraq.”[12] The tragically inhumane response by the Japanese towards the rescued victims did not end here, however. The Japanese government, in addition to bashing the victims for lacking the common sense, billed their family for the airfare home and other related cost in rescuing them – a sum total of more than $6000 each![13]

As you may see, the Japanese public’s attitude towards the hostage situation in the past was a cold one. Looking at the recent ISIS hostage situation with this social background, I am sure the readers will begin to wonder if what the Japanese public did with the insensitive memes was actually a response to ISIS at all. In fact, it is easier to think that the memes were directed at those Japanese captured rather than at ISIS. Let us now take a look at some Japanese twitter comments, instead of those comments made by English speakers on the Internet. Indeed, the Japanese-language social media have been nothing but unsympathetic toward the hostage situation. “They needed to know the possible results before going to that region, especially now. They are responsible,” says one Twitter, while another reprimands Goto and Yukawa for going to Syria ignoring the government’s warnings.[14] What should jump at you when you see these responses from the Japanese public is that the Japanese public is angry at the victims rather than the captors. ‘Of course this was going to happen,’ the Japanese criticizes, ‘there are some dangerous people out there, and by going to Syria, they were asking for it.’ Notice the similarity of the argument in the North America when women get raped – the North American public would say, ‘of course you get raped wearing clothes like that, it is your fault!’ The Japanese public’s response to ISIS, to me, is nothing different from this kind of argument. It is the victims’ fault. They brought it upon themselves. Shame on them. It is not difficult to see in the society whose mindset is so detached from solidarity that hostages “tend to be hard to raise sympathy amongst people, especially anonymous Internet users, and instead the are forced to become a subject of online mockery.”[15] I hope I have shown that the Japanese public had no interest in responding to ISIS but were only annoyed with the hostages and found the opportunity to mock them on the video clip sent by ISIS. For, as is obvious from the comment made by Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, the general public in Japan is illiterate in the International political affairs. Holding an hour press conference, Junko repeatedly equated the Islamic people or religion with ISIS itself, and showed no sign of understanding the issue at stake. Rightfully, a Syrian reporter present at the press conference asked her at the end if she was aware that there is a difference between the extremism and the Islamic religion or people, Junko apologetically responded, “I am sorry, but I was not aware that there are any different.”[16] In my private conversation on Facebook with a friend on how insensitive the memes made by the Japanese public were, I pointed out that the Japanese public is not at all concerned about the hostages, nor are they aware of the current affairs. He responded, however, along with other foreign public, “[b]y reducing ISIS’s self- presentations to banal video-game type images the Japanese memes take away their exoticism. The Japanese public doesn’t need to have been literate about Islam for me to make this argument.” This, I think, is missing the point. Because my argument precisely is that the Japanese public is not making an argument at all. Again, they are mocking the hostages and not ISIS. This is what the foreign media and the public alike do not seem to understand. “Although many people are criticizing ‘ISIS Crappy Collage Grand Prix’ as imprudent,” one Japanese Twitter commented, “ISIS, who uploaded a video clip just because they want to kill people, are even more imprudent.”[17] Comments like this are swarming all over in Japanese-language social media. That this is not isolated incident or a misrepresentation of the Japanese sentiment should be clear from what has been written. It is perhaps natural that they do not, for who could possibly think that the Japanese public is mocking the hostages in the situation like this? But again, by assuming that the Japanese would not make fun of their own citizens, and by assuming that people naturally would be upset about their own people being taken hostage, they are once again guilty of, what I may call, enlightened cultural relativism. Cultural relativism condemns those who speak of what is right and wrong solely according to their own cultural standards. So, a cultural relativist would argue that there is no objective standard to rely on to make a judgment about morals or etiquettes of another culture. So a cultural relativist would acknowledge a certain practice such as slurping of noodles as culturally appropriate and passes no judgment on it even though it is seen as inappropriate in his own culture. While it seems to show respect for other cultures, a cultural relativist faces a more difficult problem when the issue at hand is stoning of women to death or mutilation of female genitalia that are culturally still practiced in various parts of the world. Because these are cultural practices, a cultural relativist must accept them as culturally correct and has no authority to interfere with such practice. This is what I meant at the beginning that the appeal to the culture misses the point when we are talking about humanitarian sentiments. But then, there are other, recently emerging groups of intellectuals who claim to have an emic understanding of issues, and thereby argue with authority that some cultural practices are beyond our comprehension yet they must be coherent in their own cultures and hence are correct, while condemning other cultural practices as outright wrong from emic perspective. These groups of people, i.e. enlightened cultural relativists, claim to argue from inside the said cultural framework as if they themselves are positioned in the culture (which is why they can claim an emic perspective), and while acknowledging, as cultural relativists do, different standards in cultures, they exert their own interpretations of the culture as someone who understands the cultural system they are speaking of. In this way, they can argue that mutilation of genitalia is wrong because presumably a lot of people in the said culture too would feel the same way as the enlightened cultural relativists themselves do. Similarly, they can argue that slurping of noodles is acceptable because although as the outsiders of the culture, it is inappropriate but their emic perspective assures them that it is culturally appropriate and reach the conclusion that it must be acceptable. What gives them the authority is their confidence that they have understood the culture inside out. This is why they are enlightened – they believe they understand the cultural relativism and having understood it, they go on to make an argument about cultural practices. The problem, however, is that these people are not anthropologists or ethnologists. They do not literally go into the said culture and live for years to understand the cultural presuppositions and implications. The way they get their ‘emic’ perspectives is through imagining themselves as positioned in the said culture and from there draw an inference. In the case of the Japanese public’s response to ISIS, the group of enlightened cultural relativists once again interpreted the memes, and immediately concluded that the Japanese public must be attacking and mocking ISIS, rather than the hostages. Their emic perspective would tell them that if they had been positioned in the Japanese society and made these memes, they would most certainly be mocking ISIS, hence there must be some coherent meanings even to this apparently insensitive response to ISIS. Now that they are arguing from the Japanese perspective on the situation, they do not imagine themselves as ignorant individuals but attribute to themselves intelligence and agency. Supposing that there is intelligence and “common sense”, they argue, the Japanese people must be making a rational argument. The argument they come up with that the Japanese are responding to the fear with laughter. What an exotic means of responding to a terrorizing organization! This is such a sophisticated argument the Japanese have contrived! Creating the memes, collaging with game characters? This is truly Japanese! ‘This must be it,’ the enlightened cultural relativists would say, ‘this is the Japanese response.’ We have decoded the cultural mystery! Whoever says the otherwise is ignorant and does not care to understand the cultural perspective, for we know what we are talking about.

Sadly, this seems to be the general attitude from the foreign media, as the French radio program also rejoiced in the sentiment, “En ce sens, les Japanais aussi sont Charlie.”[18] While the dialogue of the enlightened cultural relativists walked on its own, the Japanese public cared not at all about whatever the foreign media was reporting. Many Japanese Twitters in fact commented and wondered why the foreign media are praising the Japanese for the memes, which come from the website equivalent of Reddit in the North America. This is why no Japanese media are taking up on the issue, and why in fact, the Japanese commentators and analysts are criticizing, as I am, the level of insensitivity displayed by the Japanese public.[19] It is only the foreign media like France Inter in France, Global Mail in UK and NBC News in America that seem to interpret the absence of intent in Japanese public’s mind as the meaningful, well-contrived strategy against the terrorist organizations.

[1] http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/japanese-social-media-users-are-protesting-isis-with-memes#.fsY162xmJ, accessed on February 12th, 2015. See the comment by Jeannie Cerda.

[2] A conversation had on my Facebook. Accessed January 24th, 2015.

[3] http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/japanese-social-media-users-are-protesting-isis-with-memes#.lq9jXMN0r, accessed on February 12th, 2015. Italics mine. See the comment by Sarah Stuchbery.

[4] http://time.com/3680492/japan-isis-hostages/ accessed February 15th, 2015.

[5] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/01/20/japan-and-hostages-a-nagging-feeling-that-its-their-fault/ accessed February 15th, 2015.

[6] http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/japanese-social-media-users-are-protesting-isis-with-memes#.morm0rG8D, accessed February 15th, 2015. See the comment by Sarah Stuchbery.

[7] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/japanese-twitter-users-mock-isis-internet-meme-n291591, accessed February 15th, 2015.

[8] http://time.com/3680492/japan-isis-hostages/ accessed February 15th, 2015.

[9] Adam Taylor, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/01/20/japan-and-hostages-a-nagging-feeling-that-its-their-fault/, accessed on February 15th, 2015.

[10] Ibid.

[11] NBCnews. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/4843265/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/freed-japanese-hostages-billed/#.VOKDPznvzdQ, accessed on February 16th, 2015.

[12] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2015/01/20/japan-and-hostages-a-nagging-feeling-that-its-their-fault/, accessed on February 15th, 2015.

[13] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/4843265/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/freed-japanese-hostages-billed/#.VOKDPznvzdQ, accessed on February 16th, 2015.

[14] Kirk Spitzer, “Why Japan Lacks Sympathy for the Hostages Held by ISIS” in http://time.com/3680492/japan-isis-hostages/, accessed on February 15th.

[15] http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/isis-crappy-collage-grand-prix, accessed on February 15th, 2015.

[16] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XECVIcKp0Fs

[17] France Inter, http://www.franceinter.fr/blog-net-plus-ultra-photoshop-contre-les-djihadistes, accessed on February 16th, 2015.

[18] France Inter, http://www.franceinter.fr/blog-net-plus-ultra-photoshop-contre-les-djihadistes, accessed on February 16th, 2015. “In this point, the Japanese are also Charlie,” referring to the recent Charlie Hebdo attack in France.

[19] http://matome.naver.jp/odai/2142303045830159601, accessed on February 16th, 2015.

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