A recurring theme in Japanese literature and TV dramas is the conflict between giri (obligation) and ninjo (humanity). The protagonist could, for example, be a salaried worker torn between putting in long shifts at the company or spending more time at home with the people he loves. In fiction (as is so often the case in reality) it's usually giri that wins out.
Traditionalists see this ingrained sense of duty to superiors as an embodiment of the national characteristic. The prevalence of this disposition today is something for academics to quibble over, but the recent hullabaloo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu boat collision has tossed up cases of how ninjo ultimately may have prevailed over giri.
The Japan Coast Guard officer who claims to have posted the footage of the crash on YouTube has been quoted as saying he wanted to reveal the truth and that his act shouldn't be considered criminal. He also told a TV reporter that he believed (like 66 percent of respondents to a Yahoo Japan poll, as of Friday) that the public had a right to see the incident for themselves.
As Paul said here yesterday, while public servants have a duty to keep confidential information secret, some people will agree that the officer’s insubordinate act was in the public interest and so he should not be prosecuted.
Had the navigator sat on thumbs, he would have maintained his giri towards his organization; but his mouse click to post the video online seems to have been an act of ninjo towards the public.
The extent to which the leakage of the footage will affect this thorny diplomatic issue is yet to be seen. Comparisons can be drawn (while admittedly hardly on the same scale) with the recent WikiLeaks outpouring of confidential US war records in Afghanistan and Iraq. But questions do remain as to whether the leaked collision footage was actually secret, and it will be interesting to see if prosecutors can press criminal charges against the navigation officer.
In fact, prosecutors may also have been part of a giri-ninjo conflict related to the maritime spat – namely the decision to release the skipper of the Chinese trawler boat.
The local prosecutors office’s obligation should have been to question the captain and make a decision on whether to indict Zhan Qixiong. But giri may have forced prosecutors to release him, as many people believe that the government (to which prosecutors are ultimately responsible) extended an order to let him go.
It also has to be considered that Zhan could now be facing trial in Japan if he had been charged over ramming the two Japanese coast guard vessels. Who knows the depths to which diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Beijing would have plunged had Japan followed its rulebook and indicted the skipper?
Japan’s decision to hand Zhan back to China can therefore be said to be a humane, or ninjo, act that kept diplomatic tensions in the frying pan and out of the fire.