The Symbolic Discourse of “jiko-sekinin (Self-Responsibility)” and its Semiotic Ideology in Japan

Authors: Toshiyuki Aoyama (University of Tsukuba, Japan)
Speakers: Toshiyuki Aoyama
Strand: Text, Context and Entextualization
Session Type: General Session


This paper analyses the semiotic ideology of jiko-sekinin-ron which is one of the most symbolic political arguments in late modern Japan. The term jiko-sekinin (自己責任: self-responsibility) has been used prominently since the 1990s in criticizing people who made mistakes in their lives, as well as those who fell victims of unexpected accidents such as natural disasters. The 2004 Iraq-Japanese hostage incident was one of the main events in which the term jiko-sekinin circulated widely in Japanese society. In this incident, the criminals requested the Japanese government to retreat the Self-Defense Force (SDF) from Iraq in exchange for the hostages who were Japanese citizens visiting Iraq as volunteers and journalists. This incident provoked a rupture in public discussion, centered on whether the Japanese government should submit to the threat or not. Initially, the hostages’ families proactively requested the government to save the hostages by retreating the SDF. This stirred severe public criticism towards the hostages and their families for causing “nuisance” (meiwaku) towards other Japanese and that their deeds were their own responsibility. This paper defines the semiotic processes of the term jiko-sekinin being circulated in Japanese society as “self-responsibility discourse.” Using newspaper articles from Asahi and Yomiuri, related to the Iraq-Japanese hostage incident as data, this paper analyzes how multiple meanings of self-responsibility discourse have been socio-historically created. I base my main analysis by referring to the “semiotics of differentiation” (Gal & Irvine 2019). Particularly, I describe the processes of “enregistering” self-responsibility discourse from two socio-historical perspectives. First, I analyze how self-responsibility discourse has been promoted by the conservative nationalists (cf. Liberal Democratic Party) to enforce their power as a developed country. Second, I analyze how ordinal people have recognized the need for taking self-responsibility as they faced social anxiety due to Japan’s economic instability since the 1990s. Finally, I discuss the effectiveness of the “semiotics of differentiation” approach in revealing the poetics of discursive conflicts (Gal 2016: 132). Likewise, I argue how different interpretations towards the term jiko-sekinin have been used as symbolic semiotic resources in Japanese political conflicts. References Gal, Susan. (2016) Sociolinguistic differentiation, In Nikolas Coupland. [Eds.] (2016) Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates, p.113-135., Cambridge University Press. Gal, Susan. and Irvine, Judith. T. (2019) Signs of Difference: Language and Ideology in Social Life, Cambridge University Press.

Keywords: Semiotic Ideology, Enregisterment, Political Discourse, Cultural Norm, The 2004 Iraq-Japanese Hostage Incident