An Interview with Jinno Akira

by Brian Covert

GET INVOLVED at even the slightest level of the various grassroots human rights movements in Kansai and you inevitably run into Jinno Akira, either in person or by word of mouth. His focus for at least the last decade has been in protest against the South African government’s racial segregation system of apartheid, whereby the white minority of about five million people rules over a black population at least five times that number.

Jinno, 38, is considered to be the most knowledgeable activist in South African affairs in the Kansai area. He is now heading the Kyoto branch of the Japan Anti-Apartheid Committee, known as the Kyoto Southern Africa Solidarity Committee, which he founded in 1981.

Japan has grown over the years into the largest trading partner with South Africa ($4.2 billion in 1987). Now organized and coordinated grassroots voices have grown in protest, a phenomenon that was almost non-existent in this country even up to a year or so ago. Perhaps the strongest catalyst to date has been the screening of the motion picture
Cry Freedom, based on two books by exiled South African newspaper editor Donald Woods about his friendship with black leader Stephen Biko, who died in police detention. Woods’ visit to Osaka in June [last] year peaked with an unprecedented 300-person anti-apartheid protest march through the streets of downtown Osaka and later a well-received speech appealing to Japan to terminate its South African ties.

No one could be more happy — or surprised — than Jinno at the recent growth of awareness in Japan of the apartheid issue. Yet Jinno himself, an Osaka native, has been quite familiar with the subject since his Kyoto University days in the late ’60s and early ’70s. His studies in law and world political history eventually led him to study the theories of fascism and Marxism. This in turn led to studies of the political struggles throughout Africa, about which he wrote his post-graduate thesis. The struggle of blacks under the repressive apartheid regime touched him especially deeply, sparking a full-fledged personal commitment to ending apartheid that continues to this day.

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Let’s start with a general assessment of the South Africa-Japan relationship. Japan has become South Africa’s largest trading partner — do you see that changing in the near future?

I would hope for some change in the present unwelcome relationship between the South African apartheid regime, the Japanese economy and Japan as a whole. But in the near future I’m very pessimistic because the so-called sanction measures taken by the Japanese government are not so effective. They did not totally succeed in curbing the growth of trade between South Africa and Japan.

This year, after receiving some bitter criticism from the outside world, especially the United States, the Foreign Ministry changed its stance and took this problem seriously...and tried to reduce trade with South Africa by asking only top Japanese organizations for some self-restraint. This stance by the Foreign Ministry is not effective, in fact, because the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) is a very strong opponent of effective sanctions.

Leading companies, such as Toyota, Nissan, NEC, Fujitsu and Pioneer, have expressed intentions to decrease exports to South Africa over the previous year, fearing a boycott in the U.S. Statistics from January to June this year showed that imports from South Africa were decreasing slightly. Unfortunately, the nine-percent import reduction was offset by a 45-percent increase in exports, for a 13-percent total increase over the same period last year.

The subject of sanctions has come up many times as to whether they would be effective or not. How do you feel about that?

I think economic sanctions are the only way for the international community to exert pressure on the South African government and the economy as a whole, to force them to end this apartheid policy. At the same time, international sanctions against the South African regime encourage the struggle inside South Africa by the South Africa people themselves. And I feel we should emphasize this “encouraging effect.” We hope change in South Africa would be as less murderous or bloody as possible.

What has been the response of Japanese businesses you have dealt with?

We have organized a consumer boycott campaign against South African products such as “Appletiser” (apple drink), Nederburg wine, some fruits and canned food. We asked some supermarket chains to stop selling those products. When we delivered handouts in front of their shops, they became very sensitive. This June, some big supermarket chains — Itoyokado, Daiei, Jusco and Seiyu — declared they would not continue to sell those South African foods. They refused to admit that it was for human rights, but said that it was based on profit-making considerations — since “Appletiser” was not selling so well, they stopped carrying it.

But the issue is very important for those companies, I think, because it points out whether or not those companies are conscious of human rights. Some companies have a humanistic stance, and others do not. We will choose the humanistic ones.

You have mentioned Japanese public opinion is not strong enough on the apartheid issue. Why do you think that’s so?

It’s a most difficult problem for us. ...Japanese society is a very, very capitalistic one and has a very sophisticated way of dividing people according to their social status or their status within a company. And our society has its own problems with discrimination. But because of economic prosperity in general, people tend to forget the basic human needs. I can point out some symptoms of this disease in our society. One is increasing cases of suicide among children because of stress in their life — in school or in the family. I would call it a tragedy. The second is a strong trend toward profit-making among ordinary people. This is partly because the Japanese social welfare system is insufficient, so people have to resolve their own problems by making money. That’s the only guarantee for security in their life. And this tendency is a very strong one, so they have no time or consciousness for other people, even in their own society. So needless to say, they don’t care about people in the Third World or other countries. I think in Japanese society, the Japanese themselves are divided and separated from the other “real world” of human beings.

Much like in South Africa...

Yes! That is the point I wanted to make.

What do you think it will take to get the Japanese public more awakened to the South African problem as a human rights issue?

These days civic movements and campaigns are growing on various issues: environmental pollution,
buraku liberation, anti-nuclear power. As these movements grow, the general concern for human rights will grow also, and within that we can raise the anti-apartheid issue. I think we should be concrete when proposing activities and campaigns. There are various ways to join us.... The consumer boycott is one way. It’s very easy to take action by refusing to buy South African products, but we need to explain to people why we should not buy those products.

This leads us to the “honorary white” status of Japanese companies involved in South Africa. What is your general feeling about that?

The status of “honorary white” is a very disgraceful one for Japanese — an Asian people. Some Japanese have misconceptions about this status of “honorary white.” In my opinion, this “honorary” is in name only, but many Japanese understand this as meaning “honorable” or something to be “honored.” In Japanese it is translated as
meiyo hakujin, and I think this “meiyo” is a mistaken term for “honorary.”

This disgraceful status given to Japanese citizens in South Africa symbolizes the disgraceful relations with the racist regime of South Africa. For South Africans, Japan is seen as a country with no sense of reality under the apartheid regime. I think Japanese companies know well the reality of apartheid, but still choose profit-making over human rights.

We should reject this “honorary” status by showing our will against apartheid, by not buying South African products or by writing a letter of protest to the South African government. And at the same time, we should speak out more strongly against our own government’s stance.

Speaking about your activities, to what extent are you involved in the anti-apartheid movement as far as contact with the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress is concerned? Do you have close ties with them?

Yes. ...Those organizations are authorized by the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity and non-aligned movements as authentic representatives of the South African people — this is the official stance. My personal contacts with those people began by writing letters to the ANC and FRELIMO (Mozambique liberation group).

1977 was the first time for the Japan Anti-Apartheid Committee to invite a guest from
inside South Africa. That was Ranwedzi Nengwekhulu, co-founder of the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) with Steve Biko. It was just after the murder of Steve Biko in detention on September 12th; (Nengwekhulu) was in exile in Botswana at the time. Recently more people have come to Japan, and that has been a catalyst to our committee’s development: in 1985, Maud Jackson from the PAC’s women section visited Japan. She was born to a South African white family but when she was eight years old she was classified as “coloured” because of her dark hair and skin color — it was rather dark. So she was separated from her family and adopted and brought up by a “coloured” family. Her experience was very shocking for us; some people decided to join our activities after listening to her story alone. In the same year, Mr. Seretsi Choabi from the ANC’s cultural section in London visited Japan, and we explained our wish to help with their cultural problems, especially SOMAFCO, the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College which the ANC was building in Tanzania, sponsored by the Tanzanian government. We started our campaign to support SOMAFCO and I was sent as a delegate from Japan carrying donated goods: short-wave radios, tape recorders and 16mm film projectors. They were very heavy!

I know about conflicts between the ANC and PAC. But these people are all South African people, and I have no choice but to accept them as they are. It depends on the South Africans themselves as to what future they choose. I don’t like to intervene in those internal politics. (Whether they’re) ANC or PAC or Black Consciousness people, I don’t like to differ in my stance towards them.

How much do you think the Japanese as a whole are influenced by the South African government’s propaganda or stereotypical views?

Not so many (common) people are influenced. But many business people are influenced by the argument that sanctions will hurt black people themselves. The second argument is that South Africa is indispensable for the Western world as the main or sole supporter of rare metals. And for those reasons, we cannot effectively take sanctions against South Africa.

It may appear that anti-apartheid awareness is starting to spread in Japan as witnessed in the packed auditorium of people who came to see Donald Woods in June and by the anti-apartheid march through Osaka. Do you see that as evidence of growing awareness among the Japanese, or as a case of isolated incidents?

The anti-apartheid sentiment was very isolated up to this year, when certain elements began to increase awareness among the Japanese public. The first was the fact that Japan had become South Africa’s largest trading partner, and with it came some criticism from abroad. The second was the showing of the film
Cry Freedom last March. It was the first commercial movie to depict the reality of apartheid. It was a shocking movie. Some people may call this just a “boom,” but even so, we can make use of it. I could never have imagined that more than a thousand people would attend the lecture by Donald Woods. I was shocked to see the size of the audience. I couldn’t have imagined that up to last year. It’s a very new development, and I’m calling this “Year One” of anti-apartheid as a movement in Japan.

Do you have any predictions for the future of the anti-apartheid movement in Japan?

I think we need to broaden our base of operations in various cities. In Kyoto we are now planning to launch a campaign, called the “Citizens’ Declaration Against Apartheid,” in cooperation with some local civic groups. We are thinking the target date should be March 21st, the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre and the “International Day Against Racism.” We will call for broader consumer boycotts in the future. We should also be more effective in mobilizing public opinion against apartheid — public opinion against the (Japanese) government’s official stance.

Lastly, what specific course do you think Japan-South Africa relations will take in the next few years?

It is certain that next year Japan will again be South Africa’s largest trading partner, and will again be condemned by the international community. Especially in the United States, where they are now examining a boycott of products from Japanese companies that profit through trade with South Africa. Some Japanese business people are now realizing the necessity to do something...otherwise they will end up isolated from the international community.