Asia Times Online
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 .
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  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 " . 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." 
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 . 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.