A sorry state – the loss of democracy (+de)

A Sorry State (für eine deutsche Teilübersetzung klicke hier: Ein leider Zustand)

Last week, the Available Light Cinema film series in Whitehorse screened the new documentary by local director Mitch Miyagawa with the catchy title “A Sorry State”. Indeed, much of what we read in the news about politics, be it at the level of the territorial government, the federal government, or many national governments around the world, supports the impression that this world is in a sorry state.

But do not fear: I am not going to write a lament about our current political situation. I’ll leave that for other writers in local newspapers that dared to describe our cage-fighting MP a sock puppet of the Prime Minister… (Yukon News)

The sorry state in Miyagawa’s film refers to the various apologies his extended family has received over the last decade from the government of Canada for political wrongs of its colonial history: His paternal family (among thousands of Canadian citizens of Japanese origin) got forcibly expropriated and shipped to internment camps away from the coast of British Columbia after the allied declaration of war against Japan in 1942. The Canadian government said “sorry” for that act of injustice in 1988.

Mitch’s stepmother received a collective apology in Parliament for her experience of residential school as a First Nations child. Again the government of Canada realized in 2008 – more than a 130 years since the initiation of these genocidal actions – that they have been wrong and said “sorry”.

The third government apology that is part of the documentary was received by Mitch’s stepdad. The 2006 apology was for yet another racist government policy, the Chinese head tax (beginning in 1885), the denial of citizenship, and the exclusion from immigration of Chinese nationals between 1923 and 1947.

Through my own research interest in cross-cultural practice and cultural safety, I was well aware of the colonial atrocities that have over centuries fueled the progress of and wealth accumulation in the British colonies in North America (and elsewhere), and subsequently the Canadian state. My Master’s project analyzes a not yet resolved colonial legacy within our health care system.

However, there are surprise moments in Miyagawa’s documentary for me: As the director seeks to discover what these blatant injustices by the state mean to him, to his parents, his young children, and to his country, by assuming and trying to uncover layers of pain and suffering, he finds very unexpected responses. For example, his father not only remembers the train ride across the Rocky Mountains with his family as one of the highlights of his youth – a far cry from the imagery of boxcar shipments of human beings to concentration camps. He also came to terms with the past, declaring

仕方がない Shikata ga nai, – it cannot be helped”

But the real eureka moment for me came, when Roy Miki, one of the survivors who helped prepare the brief Democracy betrayed: The case for redress (1984), speaks about the meaning of the apology the survivors and the families of the 22,000 Canadian citizens labeled as “enemy alien” received: He observed that the apology and compensation was a thing that was appropriate and long overdue. But it has very little importance in the grand scheme of things: It only deals with impact it had on the deportees; but it does not address the structural elements of the state that made the grave injustice possible back in 1942. He simply states that a similar genocidal action could reoccur anytime it serves the government of the day, because there is a systematic flaw in the present democratic system that has not been addressed. The people have no feedback mechanism that can prevent such injustice in form of abuse of power by elected representatives and their officials from happening today and in the future.

Wow! Now that was a statement that made this documentary stick with me.

Some Canadian citizens affected by this systematic injustice, legalized by a convenient interpretation of the War Measures Act, refused to remain silent and rejected to be seen as victims. “When the government wrongfully interned [Japanese-Canadians, they] argued, the principles of democratic governance were “betrayed” in its actions “ (Miki, p. 208)

Although government authorities, including the RCMP and the military, knew from evidence that the mass uprooting was not a necessary security measure, and that it reflected a capitulation to racist pressures in BC, decades had passed and nothing official had been done to acknowledge the injustices…

…By using the War Measures Act to intern JCs [Japanese-Canadians], the government could argue as administrators and politicians did that it acted legally. Consequently, when the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) initiated redress as a political movement, they based their call for justice on the abuse of the War Measures Act. In other words, the government’s policies may have been legal, but the effects of these policies—mass uprooting, dispossession, forced dispersal, and deportation—far exceeded the norms of fairness and due process under the law. The violation of citizenship rights on the basis of ascribed racial origin—being categorized as “of the Japanese race”—could not be defended as a necessary security measure…

…While they held the government accountable for their losses, they remained proud of
the ways in which they managed to rebuild their lives and to maintain their loyalty to the Canadian nation. Their belief in democratic principles explains why the language of citizenship struck such a resonant chord for them, confirming as it did their efforts over many decades to be responsible Canadians. The abrogation of their rights, especially for the Nisei (second generation) in Canada, signified the ultimate insult to their faith in democracy. This attitude became a critical component of the case for redress presented in the NAJC’s 1984 brief to the federal government. Instead of adopting the voice of victims who sought compensation for losses and damages (the language of law), the brief focused primarily on the democratic system itself. When the government wrongfully interned JCs, it argued, the principles of democratic governance were “betrayed” in its actions. (Miki, pp 208-210)

“Miki remained wary of government expressions of remorse, concerned that the emotional content of apologies—the focus on “healing”—distracted from the more important issue of justice. “Now the apology has become the central thing,” he said. “It allows the government to be seen as the good guy. But there’s a power relationship in apologies that has to be questioned; the apologizer has more power than the apologized-to.”(Miyagawa, p. 182)

This is indeed a sorry state of affairs. It helps to explain, why some people call for less government or even for anarchy. I have just received a recommendation for a book that speaks strongly and intelligently to that theme:

James Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play.

“…only in the last two centuries or so has even the possibility arisen that states might occasionally enlarge the realm of human freedom. The conditions under which such possibilities are occasionally realized, I believe, occur only when massive extra-institutional disruption from below threatens the whole political edifice.”  (Scott, p. xiv)

The Canadian state has polished its image from a colonial enterprise to a modern democracy, but it fails to make use of the above-mentioned possibilities to enlarge the realms of human freedoms for all beyond lip service. What kind of extra-institutional disruption does it take, after the case for redress by the survivors of the ‘enemy aliens’, the demand and establishment of Aboriginal self-government, and many other bottom-up initiatives to transform into a government that truly serves the needs of the people?

“One thing that heaves into view, I believe, is what Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had in mind when he first used the term “anarchism,” namely, mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule. Another is the anarchist tolerance for confusion and improvisation that accompanies social learning, and confidence in spontaneous cooperation and reciprocity.” (Scott, p. xii)

In my mind, spontaneous learning and cooperation are the key factors for a benign form of governance without state rule or other forms of hierarchy. Such a government would not have the need to repeatedly say “sorry” to its citizens for its own expert policies and legal actions.

German translation – deutsche Übersetzung:

Letzte Woche hat die Available Light Cinema Filmreihe in Whitehorse den neuen Dokumentarfilm des einheimischen Regisseurs Mitch Miyagawa mit dem eingängigen Titel “A Sorry State” (übersetzbar als „Ein bedauernder Staat” oder “Ein leider Zustand”) gezeigt. In der Tat, viel von dem, was wir in den Nachrichten über Politik lesen, egal auf welcher Ebene, unterstützt den Eindruck, dass diese Welt in einem erbärmlichen Zustand ist.

Aber keine Angst: Ich werde nicht ein Klagelied über unsere aktuelle politische Situation schreiben. Das überlasse ich anderen Autoren, zum Beispiel in den lokalen Zeitungen, wo sie es wagten unseren Parlamentsabgeordneten als Marionette des Ministerpräsidenten zu beschreiben… (Yukon News)

Der leide Zustand in Miyagawa´s Film bezieht sich auf die verschiedenen Entschuldigungen für politisches Unrecht aus kolonialen Vergangenheit, die seine Familie im letzten Jahrzehnt von der kanadischen Regierung erhalten hat: Seine Familie väterlicherseits (mitunter Tausenden von kanadischen Bürgern japanischer Herkunft) wurde zwangsweise enteignet und in Internierungslager weg von der Küste British Kolumbiens geschickt im Anschluss an die alliierte Kriegserklärung gegen Japan in 1942. Die kanadische Regierung sagte im Jahre 1988 “sorry” für diesen Akt der Ungerechtigkeit.

Mitch´s Stiefmutter erhielt eine kollektive Entschuldigung im Parlament für ihre Zwangseinweisung in Internatsschulen als Indianerkind. Die Regierung von Kanada realisierte im Jahr 2008 – mehr als 130 Jahren seit der Einführung dieser völkermordsartigen Praxis, dass sie sich geirrt hatte und sagte “sorry”.

Die dritte Entschuldigung der Regierung im Dokumentarfilm betraf Mitch´s Stiefvater. Die Entschuldigung im Jahre 2006 war für eine andere rassistische Politik der Regierung: die Kopfsteuer für chinesische Einwanderer (ab 1885), die Nichtgewährung der Staatsbürgerschaft und der gesetzliche Ausschluss von der Einwanderung für chinesische Staatsbürger zwischen 1923 und 1947.

Durch meine eigenen Interessen in interkultureller Zusammenarbeit war ich mir wohl bewusst der kolonialen Gräueltaten, die im Laufe der Jahrhunderte den Fortschritt und die Vermögensbildung in den britischen Kolonien in Nordamerika (und anderswo), und anschließend im kanadischen Staat, angetrieben haben. In meiner Master-Arbeit analysierte ich ein noch ungelöstes koloniales Überbleibsel in unserem Gesundheitswesen.

Es gibt für mich allerdings auch Überraschungsmomente in Miyagawa´s Dokumentarfilm: Der Regisseur versucht aufzudecken, was diese eklatanten Ungerechtigkeiten des Staates für ihn, seine Eltern, seine kleinen Kinder, und sein Land bedeuten. Er nimmt an, dass die Betroffenen von Schmerz und Leiden sprecehn werden: aber er findet auch sehr unerwartete Reaktionen. Zum Beispiel, sein Vater erinnert an die Zugfahrt über die Rocky Mountains mit seiner Familie als einen der Höhepunkte seiner Jugend – weit entfernt von der bildhaften Vorstellung von der Einlieferung von Menschen in Konzentrationslager in Güterwagen. Der Vater schien auch mit der Vergangenheit klar zu kommen und erklärte

“仕方 が ない Shikata ga nai, – es ist nicht zu ändern “

Aber das eigentliche Aha-Erlebnis für mich kam als Roy Miki, einer der Überlebenden der Deportation der zur Vorbereitung der Dokumentes “Democracy betrayed: The case for redress” (Betrogene Demokratie: Ein Fall für Wiedergutmachung, 1984) beigetragen hatte: Er spricht über die Bedeutung der Entschuldigung für die 22.000 kanadischen Bürger und deren Nachkommen, die als “feindliche Ausländer” abgestempelt wurden: Er hält fest, dass die Entschuldigung und die Entschädigungen eine notwendige und längst überfällige Sache war. Aber sie hat relativ geringe Bedeutung im Rahmen den größeren Zusammenhängen da sie  sich nur mit individuellen Auswirkungen auf die Deportierten befasst, nicht aber mit den strukturellen Elementen des Staates, die 1942 die gravierende Ungerechtigkeit ermöglichten. Er stellt fest, dass sich eine ähnliche völkermordartige Handlung jederzeit wiederholen könnte, falls es der jeweiligen Regierung dienen sollte. Die systematischen Schwachstellen im gegenwärtigen demokratischen Systems sind bisher nicht angesprochen worden. Die Bürger haben keinen Mechanismus um eine solche Ungerechtigkeit in Form von Machtmissbrauch durch gewählte Vertreter und ihren Beamten in Zukunft verhindern zu können.

Wow! Nun, das ist eine Aussage, die diesen Dokumentarfilm für mich bemerkenswert macht.

Dies ist in der Tat ein trauriger Stand der Dinge. Es hilft zu erklären, warum manche Menschen einen Abbau des Regierungsapparates befürworten oder sogar nach Anarchie rufen.

Der kanadische Staat hat sein Image von einem kolonialen Unternehmen zu dem einer modernen Demokratie aufpoliert. Aber er scheitert in der Nutzbarmachung der vorhandenen Möglichkeiten, um die Freiheiten für alle Menschen um mehr als nur Lippenbekenntnisse zu erweitern. Welche Art von äusserem Einfluss braucht es – nach dem Fall für Wiedergutmachung von den Überlebenden der “feindlichen Ausländer”, der Forderung und Einrichtung der Selbstverwaltung für die indigenen Nationen, und vielen andere Basisinitiativen – um eine Regierung so zu transformieren dass sie den Bedürfnissen der Menschen dient?

In meinen Augen sind spontanes Lernen aus Erfahrung und Zusammenarbeit die Schlüsselfaktoren für eine gutartige Form des Regierens, die ohne Staatsherrschaft oder andere Hierarchieformen auskommt. Eine solche Regierung würde nicht die Lage geraten, immer wieder den Bürgern “sorry” sagen zu müssen wegen von Experten erschaffenen Richtlinien und gesetzlich gestützen Maßnahmen.



Miyagawa. M. (2012). A Sorry State. In Speaking the Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation and Residential School, 169-189. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation. http://speakingmytruth.ca/downloads/AHF_READER.pdf

Miki, R. (2012). By Turns Poetic: Redress as Transformation. In Speaking the Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation and Residential School, 205-218. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation. http://speakingmytruth.ca/downloads/AHF_READER.pdf

Scott, J.C. (2012). Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9816.html

Related Links:

First broadcast dates for Miyagawa’s documentary: Jan 9, 10, and 12, 2013 on TVO: http://docstudio.tvo.org/story/sorry-state

Experiments in living – to govern or not to govern


7 thoughts on “A sorry state – the loss of democracy (+de)

  1. I am reflecting on these two seemingly opposing ways of thinking: it cannot be helped vs. massive extra-institutional disruption. The former may seem, to the one who advocates on behalf of the latter, like passivity, and yet the radical acceptance required by Shikata ga nai may be one of the surest paths to (inner) peace.

    1. Dear Celia,
      Shikata ga nai is definitely an expression for a possible path to healing. In the film, the expression is translated in two different ways: “it cannot be helped” and “what was done is done”. From a Western point of view, the phrase and attitude is often interpreted as a loser’s mentality. However, the Buddhist understanding seems to be quite different:
      Ryuta Furumoto describes it this way: ““Shikata ga nai” is an acceptance of the situation as it is, and making the best of the bad situation, which I feel enabled the Issei and Nisei generations to persevere. When they were sent to internment camps, they said “Shikata ga nai, It cannot be helped.” At the camps, they cultivated the desert soil, educated their children, created Japanese gardens and built ponds in front of their barracks, cleared away the brush to make baseball diamonds, etc.
      After the internment many discovered that all of their property was lost, but again with a sigh of “Shikata ga nai”, they began to rebuild their lives and helped guide their children to becoming successful and responsible members of society.”
      It appears that from a Buddhist point of view, coming to peace with the (troubled) past through acceptance is in no way in opposition to action for a different future. I would further argue that action from a place of acceptance and peace is a much better starting point to envision a better future (which can become a form of an extra-institutional disruption) than unresolved trauma and resentment.
      In the Judeo-Christian traditions, acceptance is not honoured in the same way as in Eastern traditions: We are more familiar with the phrase “forgive and forget”. Which appears to me like a superfluous combination: True forgiveness is absolute, there cannot be anything left that needs to be forgotten; otherwise it would not have been forgiveness in the first place. The way I understand it, forgiveness includes a component of acceptance: A wrong has occurred, I acknowledge it (it can’t be helped), and I move past the transgression by giving up resentment or claim to compensation.
      I am still contemplating some of the differences between acceptance and forgiveness. Acceptance seems to be a way that I can do unilaterally (with divine support); forgiveness is “a dyadic relation involving a wrongdoer and a wronged party” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), which does not preclude the divine.
      I think it does not matter which way we come to a place of peace. Each tradition recognizes ways to get there. What is important to me is that we envision a future that is consistent with that (inner) peace. Writing a document such as “Democracy betrayed: The case for redress” (1984) is one example. It is one form of extra-institutional disruption, of resistance against and non-perpetuation of an unjust status-quo. Breaking the convenient silence is disrupting the abuse of power and is a beginning for a better future.

  2. Dearest Othmar,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my reply. After reading through it a couple of times it occurs to me that by the end of Miyagawa’s doc, Mitch’s father, who had come to terms with his past by way of Shikata ga nai, may actually have begun to embody the form of extra-institutional disruption that you mention above. By beginning to share his experiences with his grandchildren he was, in fact, taking steps to break the convenient silence he had been living in/with for all of those years.

    1. And I am glad that Mitch persisted in making the documentary. The film as a medium seems to speak to a different audience than written word. I commend him for doing so in a time where his father was struggling with his physical health. A nice legacy for future generations.

  3. The author and director of the documentary has responded by email:

    Hi Othmar, thank you for your email and for your thoughtful and meaningful blog post. I’m so glad that my documentary could spark and inspire your reflection.

    I was very intrigued by your thoughts about what Roy Miki said. Roy’s part in the documentary was really important to me and I wish I could’ve included more. He really opened up a new way of thinking for me by putting the apologies into a political context.
    It would be great to have more of a dialogue about this sometime. I’m currently in Victoria with my family as we contemplate a move here in the spring. I hope we have a chance to meet sometime when I am back in Whitehorse.

    Happy New Year,


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