Am I a Conservative?!

David Wong reflects on how a Japanese student revealed a disturbing truth to him.

September 17, 2020
Yosemite National Park

“Am I a conservative?!”

I stared in disbelief at what I had just written in my notebook. How in the world could I even consider the possibility that I’m a conservative?

I had always seen myself as a progressive liberal. I grew up in Oberlin, Ohio. My father taught at Oberlin College, historically one of the most liberal in the country. My mother is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College. My youngest brother is gay and the founder of HIV-focused nonprofit organizations in Malawi and Cambodia. I’m a university professor, live in Ann Arbor, am a sustaining donor to NPR. I shop weekly at Trader Joe’s, for heaven’s sake!

What caused, “Am I a conservative?” to appear in my notebook?

I had written these words while on an airplane from Japan to the United States. I was returning from working for almost three months as a visiting professor at a well-known Tokyo university. Over the years, I had been to Japan many times. However, during this extended stay, I lived and worked at the university, which gave me a wonderful opportunity to really get to know Japanese people and their daily lives.

As my Delta 276 flight pushed back from the gate at Narita airport in Tokyo, I had taken out my notebook. I was prepared to capture those spontaneous thoughts that sometimes well up in poignant moments of departure. At the top of the unlined page, I jotted down words and phrases that came to mind: “Japan,” “connection to traditional culture,” “consideration for others,” “implicit understanding.” Next, a few memories from the classes I taught. Some arrows pointing here and there. Then, toward the bottom of the page, underlined, “Am I a conservative?!”

The question in my notebook startled me, as if it was written by a stranger’s hand. What line of thinking could have possibly led me to connect my general impressions of Japan with this sense I might be a conservative?

The plane leveled off as it reached cruising altitude. Moving eastward, afternoon quickly turned into evening. More memories from my time in Japan came to me. One in particular stood out. I was giving a lecture to my Japanese undergraduates on immigrants in Japan …

I began class by presenting a few charts illustrating how Japan is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. I showed the students figures about how both the population and economy of Japan were in rapid decline. The government was considering new policies that would make it easier for foreigners to come to Japan to work. I asked the students how they felt about the prospects of significantly more foreigners and immigrants coming to Japan.

Many students expressed worry about the difficulties increased immigration might cause. At first, I thought the Japanese students’ reaction to immigrants was quite similar to the negative reactions expressed by many Americans. But as I listened more to what some students were saying, I began to think the American and Japanese anti-immigrant stances might differ in small but important ways.

One Japanese student’s comment stood out vividly. In a voice small and hesitant, she said that Japanese people share a common culture that allows them to better understand each other. A variety of Japanese related to what she was referring to. Since these things are so distinctly Japanese, they are difficult to fully translate to English -- such as ishin-denshin ("what the mind thinks, the heart transmits,” or communicating without speaking) or aun no kokyu (“breathing the same air,” or being implicitly in unison with those around you). In general, she was referring to a distinctive quality of the Japanese way of interacting, and she was worried this quality might be lost.

On my Delta flight, the first beverage service passed through. I asked for a Yebisu -- a premium Japanese beer difficult to find in the U.S. My notebook page was beginning to fill up. I had drawn several arrows, straight and curving. Some arrows started at the top of the page from the bulleted lists of features of Japanese culture. Other arrows pointed to notes about students’ concerns about immigration and losing distinctive aspects of Japanese culture. In the middle of the page, a short, thick arrow formed from the merged force of what preceded it. This arrow pointed to a new set of words: “Preserve, protect, conserve.” Then, some blank space before the bottom of the page where, as before, “Am I a conservative?!”

I see many aspects of Japanese culture as special, important and beautiful. Having been to Japan many times, having Japanese friends and colleagues, being of part Japanese descent myself, my understanding and affection for Japan has grown. Indeed, I don’t want to see some aspects of Japanese culture change. And I especially don’t want to see this change forced by external pressures such as policy intervention from other countries or the influx of tourists and immigrants. Furthermore, I might go so far as to say I would support efforts to preserve and protect some aspects of Japanese culture against the forces of change.

Alas, it seemed the more I elaborated my thoughts, the more they seemed similar to conservative ideology. Awfully similar.

Characteristics of Specialness

To the side of the notebook page, I had drawn a small box with double-lined sides that separated it from the rest of the page. The heading at the top of the box read, “U.S. National Parks.” It seemed like a non sequitur, but I sensed the connection might be helpful. In this protected space on the page, I was hoping to explain my conservative notions in a way that was more appealing to myself.

The idea of conservation is very much at the heart of the mission of U.S. national parks. U.S. national parks were established to preserve and protect natural places characterized by beauty and distinctiveness (not being found in many places). Each national park has these characteristics of specialness. To the specialness of the place, add the risk of losing it; there you have the basis for the principles of conservation. Thus, just as people feel a need to conserve extraordinary and precious places such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, the same sentiment and logic can be applied to aspects of Japanese cultures.

I happen to be a big supporter of national parks. I’ve been spending time in national parks about as long as I’ve been spending time in Japan. I feel strongly that national parks are extraordinary and precious places. I get really upset when I see people disrespecting the sanctity of a national park. Often, visitors treat one of these places like it’s their backyard. They bring all their stuff from home, as well as their ways of talking and behaving. Don’t they know they don’t own this place? They are guests! Sure, they may contribute to the economy of the park, but they also have negative effects on the natural environment of the park. Sometimes I wish they would just stay at home.

I get the same feeling when I see foreigners in Japan acting disrespectfully. They dress like they’ve come for a backyard picnic. They don’t understand how to behave respectfully. And Western foreigners -- especially we Americans -- often expect everyone to speak English, without bothering to try to speak even a few Japanese words. They act like they are still at home, not in a special place that belongs to someone else. Sure, they may contribute to the economy of the country, but they also have negative effects on lives of the Japanese. Sometimes I wish they would just stay at home.

The analogy between how national park conservationists and cultural conservatives preserve and protect was obvious. And painful. Indeed, my little excursion connecting the preservation of culture and nature had failed to make me feel any better. Indeed, this comparison seemed to only further confirm how my thoughts and feelings about Japanese culture were genuinely conservative.

To be honest, I had hoped to bring this essay to a different conclusion. I had imagined I could present a smart and artful reconciliation between my inclination to preserve traditional culture with my belief that I was a progressive-minded liberal. But the more I thought about it -- the more I made connections to the broader idea of preservation and conservation -- the more I find myself thinking like a tradition-minded conservative.

Sunrise had come quickly, and Delta 276 was beginning its descent. With the flat Midwest plains of the U.S. visible below the plane, my mind drifted back again to that fateful class in Japan. My plans for that session had been to broaden my students’ awareness of Japan’s ethnic homogeneity and restrictive immigration policy. Instead, those 90 minutes may have been a tipping point for my own views.

I remembered something more about what that one Japanese student said. Actually, it was more about something she didn’t say. As she was talking about how a large influx of immigrants might cause Japan to lose aspects of its culture, I couldn’t detect in her words any negative feelings about the immigrants themselves. I was unable to sense any undercurrent of fear, anger or hate toward the foreigners coming to her country. That struck me as a stark contrast to how Americans often speak when expressing their concerns about immigration. Furthermore, on the topic of immigration, we Americans inevitably regress to the rhetoric of political opposition -- that is, we adopt the language of fighting, where the primary purpose is for liberals and conservatives to disagree and defeat each other. There is no room in this hypercharged politicized arena to be uncertain, to self-question. Even worse, there is no room for agreement or common ground among liberals and conservatives.

This one Japanese student’s words were motivated by her deep love for certain aspects of her culture. Her concern was a natural reaction to the possibility of losing those cultural things that pervade -- even constitute -- daily living for Japanese people. These things are special not only to her but also to her parents, their parents and many generations before them. Isn’t it natural for anyone to want to conserve things precious to them?

So am I a conservative? Maybe. Sometimes.


David Wong is an associate professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University.


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