Overcoming the 'Japanese Only' Factor

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Niccolo and Donkey
Overcoming the 'Japanese Only' Factor

Asia Times Online

Victor Fic

January 12, 2012

When US-born Dave Aldwinckle became a Japanese citizen named Arudou Debito in 2000, two Japanese officials told him that only now did he have human rights in Japan. Such prejudice galvanized him into becoming a crusader against anti- gaijin (foreigner) discrimination after braving death threats to him and his family. Is Arudou throwing the egg of morality and legality against the rock of ancient bias? In this exclusive interview with Asia Times Online contributor Victor Fic , he sees Japan turning inward.

Arudou Debito, 46, holds a BA in government from Cornell University and an MPIA (Master of Pacific International Affairs) with a Japan concentration from the University of California, San Diego. Since moving to Japan in the 1990s, Arudou has become a controversial figure due to lawsuits he launched against
Yunohana Hot Spring and the Otaru municipal government in Hokkaido over alleged discrimination against gaijin (foreigners).

Victor Fic: Did you ever think that you would become a Japanese citizen?

Arudou Debito: Hell no! I wasn't even interested in foreign languages as a child. But I moved from my birthplace, California, to upstate New York at age five and traveled much overseas, learning early to communicate with non-native English speakers. I'd lived a lot of my life outside the US before I graduated from high school and wasn't afraid to leave home. But changing my citizenship and my name, however, was completely off the radar screen. I didn't originally go to Japan to emigrate - just to explore. But the longer I stayed, the more reasonable it seemed to become a permanent resident, then a citizen. Buying a house and land was the chief reason that I naturalized - a mortgage means I can't leave. More on me and all this on my blog [1].

VF: The contrast with your earlier life is dramatic because you started life as an above average American guy in the northeast ...

AD: How do you define "average?" I certainly had opportunities. I grew up in a good educational district and had high enough grades to get into Cornell University, where I earned a degree in government. I springboarded into a quality graduate program at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the UC San Diego, and availed myself of excellent Japanese studies programs, including a mentor relationship with the late East Asia expert Chalmers Johnson. I then did the hard slog of learning the language and culture and it set me up my life as an academic, writer, commentator, and educator about issues Japanese.

VF: Why do you insist that prejudice towards foreigners in Japan is severe?

AD: It's systematic. In my latest Japan Times column [2] I discuss the lack of "fairness" as a latent cultural value in Japan. Japanese tend to see foreigners as unquestionably different from them, therefore it follows that their treatment will be different. Everything else stems from that. My column gives more details, but for now let me note that a 2007 Cabinet survey asked Japanese, "Should foreigners have the same human-rights protections as Japanese?" The total who agreed was 59.3%. This is a decline from 1995 at 68.3%, 1999 at 65.5% and 2003 at 54%. Ichikawa Hiroshi, who was a Saga Prefecture public prosecutor, said on May 23, 2011, that people in his position "were taught that ... foreigners have no human rights " [3]. Coming from law enforcement, that is an indicative and incriminating statement.

VF: When immigrants to the West naturalize, they hear "congratulations!" But when you became Japanese, you were greeted with another statement ... what was it?

AD: On October 11, 2000, I naturalized. And yes, I heard "congratulations". But I was also visited at home by two representatives of Japan's Public Safety Commission to tell me that they would now take action against the threats and harassment I had been getting during the Otaru Onsens case. They said clearly, "Now that you are a Japanese citizen, we want to protect your human rights." Meaning rights to protect when I became a citizen - not before.

VF: Can you cite practical examples from daily life?

AD: Sure. Do you want to live someplace? Many landlords in Japan state up front that they will not rent to foreigners. Want a loan? Many realtors also say flat-out no to foreigners, and as long as there is no contract signed, there is generally nothing legally you can do. Want to get a job as a tenured academic in Japan's universities? Too bad - very often those jobs are explicitly not open to foreigners. Want to become a volunteer firefighter, a public-sector food preparer, a family court mediator or a manager in the bureaucracy? Sorry, citizens only. The same goes for many job opportunities at "Hello Work", the government job placement agency for Japan's unemployed. If you actually apply there, you will find many job listings have an unofficial nationality clause - simply because Japanese bosses presume no foreigner can speak Japanese, or their clients won't want to deal with a foreigner.

VF: You became a human-rights activist in Japan after you experienced prejudice ... what happened?

AD: Shortly after I had lived in Japan for about a decade, married a Japanese, had children, and bought a house near Sapporo, I got a big surprise. I found out in 1999 that there were public hot springs, onsen in Japanese, in a nearby city called Otaru that had "Japanese Only" signs up. My friends and I took our families there for a bath. Management there allowed the people who "looked Japanese" to enter but barred those who "looked foreign" - meaning me, my German friend Olaf, another American friend, and one of my daughters. She looked "more foreign" than her older sibling, who was "safe" because she looked more like her Japanese mother. However, they let in a Chinese member of our group because she looked "Japanese enough". Then they kicked her out when she revealed herself as foreign. It was a case study in racial discrimination, and it eventually became a court case that went all the way to the Japanese Supreme Court.

Debito in front of formerly "Japanese Only" bathhouse "Yunohana", the subject of his lawsuit, in Otaru, Hokkaido.

VF: Before you went to court, you tried to reason with people ... arguing what?

AD: The bathhouses insisted that they had experienced difficulties with foreign customers, meaning language and order issues. They said that drunken Russian sailors were making a ruckus, driving their Japanese customers away. We countered that those sailors were indeed obnoxious individuals, but you couldn't paint all foreigners based upon the actions of a few. Besides, the management's practice of deciding who is "foreign" based upon physical appearance was flawed because they were in fact banning Japanese, like my daughter, while letting in foreigners, like our Chinese friend. So they should improve their filter and wait until an individual misbehaves before banning that miscreant.

VF: That sounds like a reasonable proposal ... what happened?

AD: The bathhouses refused, calling it a "matter of their business's survival". Then the issue entered the crucible of public debate where inevitably stoneheaded pundits began saying, "Bathing is part of Japan's unique culture, and foreigners naturally can't understand our customs so there's nothing we can do but keep them out". It got really absurd after I took Japanese citizenship in 2000. One Otaru onsen , a place called Yunohana, still banned me from entry even after acknowledging that I was now a citizen, saying that my Caucasian features would cause "misunderstandings". So in the end, it didn't really matter what anybody did - the management in these places assigned you a predestined position of insider or outsider based upon how you were born and looked genetically.

VF: Doesn't the constitution protect these rights?

AD: No. The bathhouse owner can do that because Japan has no law in its civil or criminal code against racial discrimination. Actually, the legal scholar Colin Jones wrote in the Japan Times on November 1, 2011, that "the Japanese Constitution speaks of defining equality and "fundamental human rights" as being conditioned on nationality rather than being human." [4]

VF: When you hit that wall, you went to court ... and what happened?

AD: Before that, we spent more than a year negotiating with everyone trying to find extra-legal solutions. But we ultimately took that one bathhouse and the City of Otaru to court for failing to abide by the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination [UNCERD] that Japan signed in 1995. It took four years to wend through Japan's judiciary, but the ultimate conclusion was this: The bathhouse was wrong, but the city was not bound to follow the UNCERD. That last bit has triggered much international criticism of how Japan ignores international treaties.

VF: Why did the court nail the bathhouse but absolve the city? Didn't the international treaty cover both?

AD: Tokyo has repeatedly claimed through explicit exceptions and caveats, called "reservations", that it made when signing that non-citizens in Japan do not qualify for protection against racial discrimination or for equal civil and political rights [5]. But the judges exploited every loophole to exonerate the government, including saying that the treaty is only a guideline, not a legal map for the political arena to enact legislation. Judges rarely rule against the government in Japan.
Niccolo and Donkey
VF: Overall, did you get a fair trial?

AD: We were heard, but our arguments were mostly rejected in Japan's district and high courts, forcing us to go all the way to the Supreme Court. Then they stupefyingly dismissed it as "not a constitutional issue". But ours is not the only case. As I said, it's systematic. As I brought up in my Japan Times articles of March 24, 2009, and August 14, 2007[6], there are different standards in both Japan's civil and criminal courts if you're not a citizen. A 2008 Supreme Court decision made it clear that citizenship is essential to enjoying constitutional and human rights in Japan.

So regarding "our day in court:, I feel fortunate that I am a citizen - it wasn't a loophole the courts could exploit. They split the difference and the onsen was punished.

VF: Where does your case stand now?

AD: It's been concluded since 2005 with that split verdict. So one moves on.

VF: Are you still fighting for human rights in Japan?

AD: There are other issues to talk about now but still related to basic human rights. My latest book, entitled In Appropriate , came out earlier this year, and addresses how Japan is a safe haven for international child abduction [7]. This issue, about how Japanese can kidnap their kids away from their spouse after separation or divorce, and get away with it if they live in or return to Japan, is a very hot issue at the moment. In Appropriate melds several true cases of international abduction into one fictional account as a primer, so people can learn more and maybe protect themselves and their kids.

VF: What kind of press coverage do you get in Japan?

AD: Our activities have been featured in all the major Japanese newspapers and TV networks. The slant during the Otaru Onsens Case was "gosh, how complicated; it is tough for foreigners to understand us". Note that I was already a Japanese citizen, yet they completely refused to honestly call the case racial discrimination. They put it down to "cultural misunderstandings". The overseas media, fortunately, was much more candid.

These days, I'm still getting heard, thanks. My occasional articles for the past 10 years in The Japan Times have morphed into a regular monthly column called "Just Be Cause", still going strong after nearly four years. In light of all the messiness of the Tohoku Tsunami and the Fukushima meltdowns, there are plenty more human-rights issues to deal with in Japan these days. I'm very lucky to have a venue both there and on my blog to share and discuss them.

VF: Are you a trend-setter for your fellow Japanese?

AD: I don't know ... Japanese tend to find activism discomfiting. "Activism" is associated with "extremism", and very little of it overtly succeeds as there is a long history of political agitators doing extreme things in Japan. For instance, Kaikaku-ha and Kakumaru-ha are two extreme leftist groups that set off bombs and riot from time to time.

There is also no happy legacy of a "flower power" 1960s generation in Japan, where grassroots social movements successfully toppled governmental administrations through peaceful efforts. This is unlike North America and Europe, where activism is seen more as a benign phase among college students. So the knee-jerk tendency is to assume that activists will take things too far sooner or later.

VF: You allege that you experienced threats and harassment ... in what form?

AD: Oh, we got harassing phone calls at all hours forcefully telling us that they not only disagree, but also know where we live and that they might "drop by". My children and I have had death threats - you can see one of them reproduced in book Japanese Only on page 305 of the English version. There are still websites and web users out there that are even stalking me, but I won't offer the "urls" because that will only raise the number of hits and encourage them. It comes with the territory, alas.

VF: But surely you win the backing of foreigners?

AD: Actually, many non-Japanese here decry me and our supporters for being "culturally insensitive" or "imperialistic". Or else they accuse us of despoiling their temporary "guest status" of privilege and entitlement. It's very difficult to get anything done when the default mode in the Japanese milieu is keep calm and carry on without complaining over much. Don't rock the boat, live an average life, and you'll squeak by. Or maybe you won't - too many times I've heard people say they were sorry for their initial reactions towards our activism when discrimination eventually happened to them.

VF: Your critics say that rather than fight the bathhouse, you should just go elsewhere ... why not forgo the fight?

AD: It is because if you don't fight against discrimination, it spreads. See evidence of that at my "Rogues' Gallery of Exclusionary Establishments" [8]. It charts the development and spread of signposted "Japanese Only" establishments nationwide across Japan. Business owners saw that other places were putting up exclusionary signs with impunity elsewhere, so they copycatted, in one case down to the sign font, even if they had never had problems with foreign customers before. My point is eventually there won't be someplace else to go if this becomes widespread and systematic enough.

Besides, what kind of a society, or a father, would tolerate one of my daughters being refused service just because she looks more like her Caucasian daddy than her Asian mommy?

VF: Do any Japanese politicians take the lead on combating prejudice the way, say, President Barack Obama did in the US?

AD: Yes, some do. But then opponents argue, "If we give any more rights to foreigners, then the North Koreans and Chinese will take over our country". You saw that during the suffrage debates for permanent residents a few years ago. The fear is that giving the outsider any political rights will supposedly create an avenue for political abuse. "You can't put foreigners in a potential position of power to sanction Japanese in Japan!" It's the Japanese version of the xenophobic "Yellow Peril" threat, common in the West long ago, and it's political poison for many politicians here.

VF: The pictures show you removing exclusionary signs from a disco and bar ... did you convert these few cases?

AD: I went in and chatted with management. I heard out their grievances. Then I asked what rules they would like to make clear to customers who don't read the rules the managers wrote in Japanese. Once I heard them, I wrote them in English for them to post on their wall, making it clear that if anyone breaks the rules, the police will be called. They found that acceptable, and put them up as a poster. Then I asked if I could have their signs. They said yes. I have a collection on my wall. Everyone must have a hobby, I guess.

Debito removing (after getting permission) an exclusionary sign from a disco in Akita, Tohoku, November 28, 2003.

Japan's distant culture and racial stock hails from Korea, but some commentators say the latter face apartheid-like conditions in Japan such as having to change their names ...

AD: "Japanese" should be seen as merely a legal status, meaning if you have citizenship, you are a Japanese. The question about citizenship here as presently phrased is predicated upon antiquated and unrealistic racial concepts of nationality, especially in this era of unprecedented levels of migration and immigration. Japan and Korea have close enough historical ties that genetically it really shouldn't matter. But it still does.

VF: So where does change start?

AD: The problem is you are simply less human in Japan without Japanese citizenship, and institutional practices back that up. How does one preclude this? To start, Japan must develop an ironclad sense of "fairness" and "Do unto others ... " as the cornerstones of a liberal society with equal opportunity and essential civil, political and human rights. Then these ideas must be promoted constantly in the public arena to raise awareness until they are unquestioned. But I don't see much promise of that.

Change must also come from those who would benefit from it. I have written my experiences of trying to do this in two books in English and Japanese, and co-authored a Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan [9] to help others help themselves assimilate.

Debito in front of an erstwhile exclusionary bar in Monbetsu, Hokkaido, August 28, 2006. The sign, in Russian, says, "This shop exclusively for Japanese."

Have you started an organization for change, something that your supporters can join?

AD: Yes, I have been involved in several, but have started two. One is "The Community in Japan" [10], founded in 1999 as a free yahoogroups organization for long-term residents to pool their Japan experiences and help each other. The other is registered "NGO FRANCA," which stands for Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association [11], founded in 2009 and currently looking for leadership. Or you can drop by the archive of thousands of articles and essays on Debito.org, which started even further back in 1997, to lend your support, feedback, articles, and opinions, of course.

VF: Can you praise any Japanese who are thinking about progress?

AD: Yes, how about Mr Sakanaka Hidenori? He heads the Japan Immigration Policy Institute [12] and formerly the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau. Sakanaka has talked at great length about "Big Japan" vs "Small Japan". The former is where Japan regains its vibrancy and vitality through an open and organized immigration policy encouraging a multicultural Japan. The latter is where Japan becomes an aged, traditional, and stagnant monoethnic backwater with little economic clout in the world. It hinges upon whether Japan adopts immigration as part of its future.

VF: What factors make one or the other outcome more likely

AD: I see the "Small Japan" scenario currently coming to pass. We still have no formal immigration or assimilation policy, nothing to help foreigners "become Japanese", and all sorts of cultural conceits. But as the society ages, the population drops, and the international labor market realizes that there are much better opportunities elsewhere like China, Japan faces a continuing downward demographic spiral.

VF: You tie your dire predictions into the recent nuclear disaster ... .

AD: Now that the Fukushima disasters are being so badly bungled by the authorities, this is further testimony to the failure of mechanisms of Japan's mandarin-led nanny state to consider the greater good of tolerance and inclusiveness.

VF: So 2011 was a turning point downward for your new homeland?

AD: It was the year the world realized Japan has peaked and faces a downward spiral of economic stagnation, inept governance, ingrained mistrust of the outsider, a mythology of uniqueness, but also powerlessness as a virtue - and perpetual victimhood. Japan has lost its attractiveness for newcomers because they may be ostracized for daring to fix problems. Now, thanks to the continuous slow-burn disaster of Fukushima, we can hear the doors of Japan's historically cyclical insularity slowly creaking shut.
Niccolo and Donkey

I believe in a real sense that a very insidious convergence of Anglo-American ethical tendencies besieged Japan beginning with the zeal of European missionaries arriving on its shores to persuade commoners to abandon the old Gods in favor of the elevated morality of Christ, continuing with Perry's demands that Japan avail itself and its spoils to the burgeoning mercantile empire of America, culminating with the punitive assault on Nagasaki and finally the imposition of a political constitution that required Japan never again compete in the great and dangerous game of global politics.

The reasons for this are myriad, probably they are grounded in the view of Japan as a sublime ornament of pure insularity in the Orient and the evaluation of its people as brilliantly industrious and productive. Liberals and imperialists found the temptation to meddle with it, to subdue it, to improve it to be irresistibly compelling.

General Ishiwara Kanji's challenge to American prosecutors at the Tokyo trials was timely, but fell on utterly deaf ears:

You can dismiss this kind of sentiment as nothing more than a florid affirmative defense of Japan's own imperial ambition, but it does beg the question as to what America's hopes were for Japan. In forcing Japan to adopt an internationalist political perspective, it seems inevitable that Japan would have only come to war with the United States, China, the USSR, and the United Kingdom. The strategic landscape wouldn't have abided any other outcome.

Concomitant with Japan's terrible security challenges in the early 20th century were an internal crisis of the Japanese culture. Japan's people had to find a way to reconcile their way of life with the intrusion of modernity and they responded by emulating, IMO, the thought and structure of modern Germany - which was not accidental. The Japanese do not now I don't believe and never had viewed individual men as the architects of their own worlds and their relationship to their own culture. Its difficult to identify the source of these kinds of feelings, but more of the world ascribes to this kind of ontological view of social existence (and aims to weave its core values into national political culture) than the competing perspective, delivered aggressively by America to the ends of the Earth, that political behavior must reflect an abstract morality that has been extricated from any kind of cultural insularity.

The man who was interviewed in the OP is not very thoughtful. He seems to disdain his adopted homeland more than he loves it, and derives some kind of smug satisfaction from assigning himself a duty to correct Japanese cultural behavior. Zealots of that kind remind me of people who kill swans.

This guy really represents our era so well. I'm just surprised he's not Canadian. He looks like a Kids In The Hall character in this pic:

[​IMG] [​IMG]

President Camacho
Japan’s criteria for national identity has always been something of a mystery to me, and I think all Westerners really. I know they are better at distinguishing between Asian nations better than Whites, but it's still a shaky litmus. You can’t apply a “one drop” standard when the indigenous national pigmentation ranges from basically white to brown, so their standard is understandably just based on subjective appearance.

I’m guessing that half-Chinese/Koreans can be accepted as fully Jap without turning heads, but for those with white ancestry it’s not possible until it’s diluted by at least ¾ Japanese. Then there are groups like the Yakuza who will fully accept Koreans and other foreigners, but the status of even native Japanese Yakuza (which translates as "outsiders" IIRC) with regard to the national body is unclear as well.

Other things I take from the article:

- This guy they interviewed is just a faggot sperg agitator. No Japs perpetrated violence on him, they just refused him from certain establishments and he seems to take mandated integration as some universal “human right”.
- The tolerance or indifference of America with respect to Japan’s (and Korea’s) blatant tribalism stands in stark contrast to America’s attitude towards the European and Middle Eastern varieties of tribalism. For these latter peoples who happen to live in areas sensitive to Jewish interests, ZOG adopts a zero-tolerance policy. But Japan could send all the Ainu to the gas chambers and Washington wouldn’t lift a finger.
Only Semites think it’s normal for judges to challenge political institutions.
The Japanese view of race is complicated. Its not rigidly morphological/biological like this clown is suggesting. He's basically trying to tilt at windmills and reading up on Gunnar Myrdal and the history of Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board to assail Japanese society, under the auspices of them being Jim Crow racists.

My Korean friend's father was born in occupied Korea in 1942 and was assigned a Japanese name on his birth certificate. This was a regularized practice, as the Japanese believed the Koreans could be directly assimilated into the Japanese Empire - they didn't consider them to be racial aliens like they did (and do) the Chinese. The comparison the commie in the OP draws between South African apartheid and the Japanese view of Koreans is off base. If somebody wanted to draw a comparison from the Western historical/imperialist experience, an imperfect one could be drawn between England/Scotland and Ireland.

Ya- Ku- Za translates as ''8, 9, 3'' - its a losing hand in the card game of Oicho-Kabu . A Yakuza is a gambler as a matter of law, which mark's him as loser with respect to the remainder of society. Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, Yakuza organizations are a repository of Emperor reverence and uncompromising patriotic nationalism; in no small part because the Yakuza is a man who still must ply his trade by violence and whose survival and livelihood still depends upon his relationships with his lord and his fellows. Burakumin and Yakuza also enjoyed what solidarity they had with the rest of the Japanese race due to their stalwart fealty to the Emperor himself, which was, after the Meiji Restoration, the lynchpin of Japanese 'national learning' along with a 'purified' Shinto ethos.

Warriors and thieves-in-law often retain a Feudal orientation after the destruction of monarchy. They're the orphaned children of history.

Thomas, I mostly agree with what you say, but would you elaborate on a few things, if possible. The European missionary expeditions to Japan were largely Catholic, and seem to fall out of the penumbra of "Anglo-American ethical tendencies" and it seems that England more than Germany was, at least in geo-strategic terms, more of a correlate with Japan i.e. as an island, monarchy, thalassocracy etc. Would you be able to say more on the links with Germany? I know Mishima (though somewhat unrepresentative) was strongly influenced by Germany as were certain philosophers who studied Heidegger.

As to the subject of this thread, the fellow seems little more than a narcissist and professional trouble maker. The signs excluding Russians are not done for racial reasons, but are merely pragmatic: people don’t want drunken sailors smashing up their premises. Exclusion from various places is premised on their strict and arcane etiquette, of which foreigners are largely bound to be ignorant. It is far easier to exclude them in order to please regulars than to find out if they are au fait. His biggest grievance is that the Japanese are unwilling to play silly games and pretend to believe in the existence of some universal man, freed from history, biology and culture.

I’ve been a few times now, and have never experienced anything but unfailing politeness. Never having been to Tokyo (where the majority of expats engaged in “business” live), the greater part of long-term westerners I see are highly degenerate. They tend to be anime spergs or new age types out for some form of idealised, peaceful, eastern mysticism in contrast to the brutal structures of the Christian west. Suffice to say, the Japanese seem to have little respect for either.

President Camacho
I think the Japanese were very practical and thorough when researching which Western nations to borrow from during the modernization and reforms of the Meiji Period.

The decisive German victory against the incumbent continental power in the Franco-Prussian War convinced the Japanese that the German Army provided the best model going forward for Japan; additionally the conservative and feudal character of Prussia was highly appealing to a ruling caste that didn't want to change the basic nature of Japanese civil society (as would have been necessary had they chosen to imitate, say, France).

The Japanese did base their naval modernization on the British Royal Navy for obvious reasons, but I don't believe they borrowed many ideas from the British in terms of governance; parlimentarianism (and lassez-faire) was eschewed as alien and subversive. "Prussian Socialism" on the other hand provided them with a real blueprint for the technological modernization of the nation while retaining traditional social institutions.