A Letter to Sono Ayako


On February 11, the Japanese author Sono Ayako penned an opinion piece in the daily Sankei Shimbun that began by urging Japan to open up its borders to immigrants who would work in the burgeoning nursing care field. “Japan must do away with barriers to the entry of immigrant workers, such as insisting that they obtain certain certifications or attain a certain level of language proficiency. When the job is simply caring for the elderly, there is no need for care providers to speak Japanese at some particular level or have some specialized knowledge of health issues.”

This is indeed a pressing issue for the country—as Shimazaki Kenji points out, over the next half-century the elderly cohort will balloon to make up 40% of Japan’s population—but some readers of Sono’s column took issue with the way she painted nursing care as a career requiring little in the way of health-related knowledge or language skills.

Praise for Apartheid, Angry Responses

Their critical voices were drowned out, though, by the tide of criticism directed against the second half of Sono’s op-ed. She begins this section with: “Ever since I learned of the situation in the Republic of South Africa some 20 or 30 years ago, I have been convinced that it is best for the races to live apart from each other, as was the case for whites, Asians, and blacks in that country.”

Going on to describe an apartment building that was once home exclusively to white families, but that fell into dilapidation once blacks were allowed in after the end of Apartheid, Sono concludes with the statement: “Humans can do many things together: business, research, and sports, to name a few. But when it comes to living, this is one area where we must remain apart.”

Her call for segregation (published, ironically, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison) brought angry responses from the Embassy of South Africa, which posted a response in English and Japanese on its Facebook page. The Africa Japan Forum, too, wrote a response demanding that Sankei retract the column and apologize to the people of South Africa. Sono, for her part, issued a statement to the Asahi Shimbun claiming that people “have become agitated based on mistaken information” and that “I have never commended apartheid, but I do think that the existence of a ‘Chinatown’ or ‘Little Tokyo’ is a good thing.”

A particularly interesting response to Sono’s column comes from Yoshimura Mineko, a Japanese woman who has obtained permanent residence status in South Africa, where she works as a language instructor and interpreter. She kindly allowed us to translate and publish her open letter to Sono. Here it is.

A Letter to Sono Ayako
From a Japanese Permanent Resident of South Africa

Sono Ayako has written that after seeing Apartheid in Africa, she came to hold certain opinions on racial matters. As a woman who was born in Japan and went on to live in the United States, Europe, and various parts of Africa before deciding to settle permanently in South Africa, I would like to write a few things about how her opinions betray an incorrect understanding of the reality she viewed.

Dear Ms. Sono,

It appears that your views (as printed on page 7 of the February 11 Sankei Shimbun) can be summed up as follows:

  • Since learning of the situation in South Africa 20–30 years ago, you came to believe that whites, Asians, and blacks should remain segregated when it comes to their places of residence.
  • After the abolition of South Africa’s Apartheid policy, black families living in an apartment that was once reserved for whites called their relatives to live with them, leading to water shortages in the building and wrecking the group existence as the whites left their apartments behind. Based on this example, you conclude that while humans can do many things together, such as business, research, and sports, it is best for them to remain apart when it comes to where they live.

Other people with some connection to Africa have already pointed out many of the flaws in your arguments. But for my part, as a woman who lives as a permanent resident of South Africa, there is one thing I need to point out myself, regarding your choice of example: the apartment where large black families flooded in, used too much water, destroyed the group-living environment, and caused the whites to flee.

Near downtown Durban, where I now live, there are indeed some properties that have clearly seen little maintenance in recent years, although they were once no doubt high-class residences. The owners of units in these buildings have abandoned their duty to pay for the joint upkeep of the structures, for one reason or another. In some cases these buildings have become home to illegal immigrants from various nations.

However, the situation you describe—with an apartment that was white-only some decades ago, but came to be populated by blacks—seems dubious to me.

~ ~ ~

Why do I doubt your story? Because when Apartheid ended, there were almost no blacks wealthy enough to move into a “high-class” apartment that had been reserved for whites until then. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that blacks had no freedom to work or live where they wanted under Apartheid policy. Let us suppose, though, that there were some blacks wealthy enough to purchase a unit in a building like this. Why would they choose an apartment? They would be certain to choose a house on its own land instead.

South Africa is four times as large as Japan. It is only recently that we have seen the need arise for numerous apartment complexes in urban areas. And in any case, I should point out that the very concept of a “high-class” apartment in South Africa differs completely from that in Japan. I’m not entirely sure whether the so-called oku-shon in Japan’s cities—condominiums costing upwards of ¥100 million—are what you have in mind as the equivalent of a top-tier South African residence, but the latter is a huge apartment taking up an entire floor of its building. A place this size could comfortably house even a family with a dozen members.

But I don’t intend to end my letter here. Let’s go ahead and say that there was a wealthy black family that purchased a unit in this high-class apartment building. The sort of blacks who would select such a home would be entirely modern—elites, no doubt, with a high level of education. Black people like these are no different from elites in Japan or the United States. They live in cities as nuclear families. And here, they are likely to build magnificent homes in their countryside hometowns for their parents and siblings to live in.

So you see, it would be a very unusual situation indeed for a large number of blacks to come into these units in a high-class apartment and overuse the water facilities to the point of breaking them. It’s very difficult to see this as convincing evidence to back up your shocking thesis that the races should live apart.

~ ~ ~

Living here, of course, not a day goes by that I do not see some sort of interracial friction. There are still people here who look back fondly on the days of Apartheid.

Ms. Sono, you are a writer of fiction novels. So here I will allow myself to use my own imagination a bit. When you visited South Africa 20–30 years ago, there was a local (probably a white) who showed you around. And that person said certain things to you in a quiet voice.

“Blacks live in huge families, you know. White families are generally just four people—maybe up to six at the most. So you can easily imagine that if those people were allowed to live in our apartment buildings, we’d soon run out of water, and probably even electricity.”

Sadly, even today—in the twenty-first century, after Apartheid has ended—the walls between races remain high. And every race has its share of people who show no desire to learn about the cultures of other races. So I can easily guess that 30 years ago, white people who saw Apartheid as a good policy would have been quick to say things like this, whether or not they had actually suffered such inconveniences in actual life.

Again, though, you are an author, with many books to your name. Don’t you think this was a deeply thoughtless act, to drag out this situation so far divorced from reality and use it as the basis for stating that the races should live apart from each other? This is something you should reflect on not just as an author, but as a person with her share of years and experience.

~ ~ ~

Finally, I will tell you that right now, in the year 2015, my daughter is attending university in Cape Town. There she lives an everyday existence that is completely different from the one you recommend.

The house she lives in is set up in a joint living arrangement. Each resident has his or her own room—about eight tatami mats in size, to use Japanese terms—as well as a spacious lounge and kitchen for common use by all residents. This house is home to eight people in all: from South Africa, a black woman, a white woman, and a colored man; a white woman from Zimbabwe, a black woman from Zambia, a Sri Lankan man, and a Korean woman; and my daughter, a Japanese citizen. They live together with no troubles whatsoever. They are all either students at the University of Cape Town or otherwise affiliated with the school.

Ms. Sono, I would like to know what sort of explanation you have to offer to the people of South Africa—from the late Nelson Mandela, who placed his life on the line in the fight to bring today’s reality about, right on down.

I was born and raised in Japan, but am now a permanent resident of South Africa. I have never been told—not by the government of South Africa, not by South African intellectuals, and not by the common people of this land—that I must live in a certain place. I do not believe anyone in this nation will ever say such things for the rest of eternity.

For nobody in South Africa, whether an “intellectual” like yourself or a common person, can make abusive statements like yours, with their promise of racial discrimination. Here it is against the law to do so.

(Translated with kind permission from Yoshimura Mineko. Banner photo: an Apartheid-era sign at the District Six Museum in Cape Town. Courtesy Adam Lederer.)

racism South Africa segregation Apartheid Sono Ayako