Debito Arudou (formerly David Aldwinckle) was born in California and raised in Geneva, New York. After spending a long period of residence in Japan, he became a citizen of that country. Frequently engaged in outspoken activism on the issues of anti-foreigner discrimination and racism in Japanese society, Arudou has written extensively on these topics for various publications, including his regular contributions to the Japan Times newspaper for over 15 years as well his web site Debito.org. In 2005 he and other plaintiffs won a racial discrimination lawsuit against a hot spring bath house in Otaru, Hokkaido, which had instituted a policy of barring entry to “foreigners”, applying the term to include Japanese citizens deemed “foreign-looking”. He is the author of several books, including Japanese Only, which details the Otaru hot spring case, Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan (with Akira Higuchi), and most recently Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination. Debito took a break from Japan from 2011, when he got an Affiliate Scholar position at the East-West Center in Honolulu. Currently living in the US, he works as a university lecturer. He agreed to an interview with PopMatters to discuss his take on life in Japan and the focus of his activism.
Please explain a bit about your background, and how and why you came to live and work in Japan.
I was in the US for my formative years, and came to Japan in the mid-’80s. I had started a relationship with a Japanese lady in the States, and followed her to Japan. We got married and had two kids. I soon realized I had fallen in love not just with a person but with a country. It was such an interesting place, especially in the ’80s! Japan’s economy was booming, and lots of interesting things were happening I would never see overseas. For example, I recall sodai gomi [large-item refuse] in the form of perfectly good consumer electronics people had thrown out and replaced with more elaborate items bought with their semiannual bonus pay. You could simply pick this stuff up and walk away with it because to the previous owner it was obsolesced “garbage”.
Anyway, I decided to stay on after finishing grad school, and I went to work for a trading company. I soon got tired of that stint and then started teaching at a Japanese university. I worked there for eighteen years. I think Japan is a wonderful place to visit or to live in, and a fascinating place to study. Everyone should give it a try.
Was there any reverse culture shock in relocating back to the US?
To some extent. The biggest thing was suddenly not being alienated on a daily basis, of not being made to feel like a foreigner (even though I was suddenly again a foreigner in the US). I wasn’t being constantly reminded of my “foreign-ness”. After twenty-four years of being perceived as a representative of something – of the United States, of the West, of white people, or whatever – being seen as an individual again, or at least ignored as an individual again, was pleasant. My initial thought when I got back was: “Something’s missing here. Why aren’t I being stared at or pointed at?” I’m not being viewed as an internationalizing force wherever I go. For example, I don’t have to walk into a restaurant and have people comment “Kokusaiteki!” [“How international!”]. It’s delightfully refreshing to be able to be unnoticeable and anonymous again.
It’s also good not to have the seat to next me on a train be vacated, to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and not expect to be hazed just to get a driver’s license, to open a bank account with no hassle. But the training remains. I still get a little nervous whenever I see police (even now, in America) because instinctively I think “They’re going to stop and profile me. They’re going to suspect me of a crime because I’m ‘walking while foreign.'” And I generally get anal when filling out official forms for bureaucrats, expecting to have to start all over if there are any mistakes; I chuckle when they say I can just cross it out and continue. But all that was just my experience in Japan becoming a force of habit. It’s not an issue anymore, though I’m sure racial profiling for example is a problem for other kinds of people in the US and other societies.
Also, interactions are not so complicated anymore. The Japanese language is very contextual, so it’s easier not to have to think “Am I using the exact tone of voice and form of speech that I’m supposed to? Is this the exact word for the exact situation that won’t cause people to flip out into the ‘I can’t understand foreigners!’ zone?”
But on the minus side, I miss being able to walk into a 7-11 for dinner at any time of the day or night. (Convenience stores are everywhere, even more than in the US.) And I miss being able to walk up to a vending machine and buy a non-sugary tea. The base taste for most food where I am now is sweet and savory. I miss the other ones so readily available in Japanese food. I bet the first thing most people miss about Japan is the food.
There was a definite readjustment, for better and for worse, but I must admit that overall I feel more relaxed and less stressed. I can do my thing without feeling like I’m constantly being watched.
How would you describe the essential points of your activism?
Quite simply, I want to get rid of racial discrimination in Japan, which, despite official claims, does happen.
When I started this quest to get an even break for both Japanese and non-Japanese residents in Japan, it was commonly the view that discrimination wasn’t racial, that these were just ethnic or cultural misunderstandings, linguistic problems, or standard operating procedure: “Some people are treated differently because they are obviously not Japanese, so we can’t treat them the same as we would Japanese. So it’s not racism. It’s just how we do things.”
This is one of the central issues I discuss in my book Embedded Racism, it’s not just a situation in which someone says “That person looks different, therefore I will treat them differently.” It’s also a matter of rules, laws, standard operating procedures and practices, and media messages, all of which point to the assumptions that 1. a foreigner “looks like a foreigner” and 2. a foreigner will never be a Japanese because they don’t “look like a Japanese”. I’ve been striving to confound these assumptions for the past thirty years, to say that if a person pays his or her dues, learns the language, becomes assimilated, invests in society, and takes out citizenship, they should be Japanese just like any other Japanese.
This ties into the narrative by which a society defines itself, deciding who is and is not a member. In the case of Japan – and many other countries as well – this is based upon phenotype: “Of course you’re going to be treated differently. You don’t look like one of us.” This is established and enforced even in Japanese law: there is legally a bloodline requirement for being Japanese. If you don’t have Japanese blood — even if you are born in Japan — you are not a Japanese citizen. And once you get into the blood quanta, it becomes a matter of degree, in that there are people called haafu and kuootaa [half and quarter Japanese, respectively]. Non-Japanese roots off-set them from being regarded as “full” Japanese. Shades of belonging cause unnecessary identity crises in the individual, and busybody identity policing by the collective.
This way of thinking is reinforced by public policy and media narratives, and even officially by the police in racial profiling, when they stop you on the street if you “look foreign” to ask about your visa status and demand your “gaijin card” [residence card for foreigners]. Everyone else in Japan can legally only be stoped like that if they’re suspected of committing a crime, which means simply “walking while foreign-looking” is grounds for suspicion. All these things make it so that in order to be accepted as a member of this society, you have to look like one. I am opposed to this state of affairs, and that’s the focus of my activism in a nutshell.
What, in your view, are the most fundamental changes needed in Japanese society?
The most fundamentally needed change is that “Japanese-ness” as a legal status needs to be enforced. That is, it should be the case that if you have Japanese citizenship, you are a Japanese. Period.
You mean as opposed to the phenotype criterion.
Exactly. Because if you use phenotype to decide who is a “real” Japanese and who is not, all sorts of strange judgements and nasty forms of “othering” come into play: “You don’t look Japanese enough to be considered a Japanese,” or “I don’t like this celebrity, and that’s because he apparently has Korean roots.” The only way to eliminate this is to say, “No, I’m a Japanese just like you. Here’s my koseki [family registry] and here’s my passport to prove it.” When we get to the stage where you don’t have to constantly prove your membership status to the self-appointed identity police, that will be real progress.
What do you love about Japan?
Where do I start? There are so many things. I love the Japanese language: for example the way high-schoolers invent forms of language to text each other with, and the flexibility of the language in absorbing foreign loan words. The way Japanese can be used to describe the aroma, flavor, and texture of foods in ways English seems unable to. And the amazing variety of onomatopoeia: poripori for scratching under one’s nose, gabi-n for being agape in surprise, and so on.
There’s also the “kawaii” [cuteness] culture, which can be a bit cloying, especially as one gets older. Yet when the embedded hierarchy implicit to the Japanese language is not being used to pigeonhole people into little boxes, it presents things in a way that’s both upbeat and marketable. At the least, if I’m in a good mood the Japanese language puts me in a better one. Though I have to admit, I think Japanese society lacks sarcasm, and having been raised in a culture with sarcasm I sort of missed it while I lived there. Especially in sarcasm’s ability to skewer political speech. But anyway.
I particularly love Hokkaido, where I lived for more than two decades. It has breathtaking natural beauty and wide-open spaces, and is a fantastic place for cycling and camping. If you’re on a cycling tour there are of course minshuku [Japanese-style bed and breakfasts] you can stay at, but I prefer to sleep in a tent. Go cycle in any direction, have a meal on the cheap at a convenience store, have a soak at an onsen when you’re done. You can spend the whole magical summer there and not get bored.
And of course, the food. Like so many other people, I fell in love with it. The typical attitude at eateries is true dedication to a job well done, pride in customer enjoyment, and that a paying customer gets their money’s worth. The entire time I was in Japan – a quarter century – I had three bad meals. That’s it! Three. Excellence is the norm.
I also love the train culture, the fact that you can go to so many places in Japan just by using public transportation. This is somewhat less true in rural areas such as Hokkaido, but in Japan overall you can generally get around without a car. Train, then bus, then taxi if necessary. I love being able to know (in most cases) exactly what time I’m arriving somewhere because the train system is so efficient. Of course especially during rush hour in Tokyo there can be train delays and sardine-packed trains, but still the transport system is amazing. Cities everywhere in the world should aspire to Tokyo’s transport system.
For example, one day, just on a whim and with no advance planning, I visited Ise, the site of a famous Shinto shrine. I’d made no train reservation, no hotel reservation, and when I got to the train station the bureaucrat at the tourist information counter was able to arrange a room for me right away, as well as provide detailed information on local sights and eateries. And there are accurate and detailed maps, which is marvelous if you can read Japanese. So not just the transport system but also the quality of customer service in general is fantastic.
Of all the social issues you have become involved with, which would you say was (or is) the most difficult and contentious?
As I mentioned earlier, the issue of resolving racial discrimination. The Otaru, Hokkaido hot spring case [noted in the introduction above] is an example of this. You had, for example, international couples – a Japanese and a non-Japanese partner – going into a public bath (which by law they are allowed access to) and being refused service. This included refusing service to one of my children – who is a Japanese citizen – because she was deemed “foreign-looking”. And then I watched the debate degenerate into arguments like “We want our traditional Japanese bath house to be a foreigner-free zone” and “These foreign white males think they are entitled to go anywhere they want because they’re white.”
The simple fact is, the people being denied service at the hot spring were legally resident in Japan, and some were even citizens of Japan, including my daughter and myself. So when two other friends (one German, one American) and I took it to court, criticisms arose – especially in the English-language press – that we were acting like stereotypical litigious Americans. These critics were willfully ignoring important facts of the case.
The lawsuit resulted in, to say the least, an interesting five years. That was how long the case lasted because it went all the way to Japan’s Supreme Court. But the first “Japanese Only” sign went up in Otaru in 1993, and the legal proceedings didn’t end conclusively until 2005, a total of twelve years. The district and higher courts both ruled that the situation was improper conduct under Japanese mores regarding “discriminating too much”. Then when it came before the Supreme Court they simply refused to rule on it. But the point is, the bath house lost.
You know, a major point here is dealing with the ignorance of people who willfully won’t do the research needed to understand the details involved, and just assume: “Well, this is just one guy, and he’s white, therefore he feels entitled.” But no, it wasn’t just me. There was also, for example, a Chinese woman married to a Japanese who was also refused service. And a number of other Non-Japanese residents who were also refused entry with their Japanese families. And there is the assumption that I went in there to cause trouble. No, I went in there to take a bath.
The most egregious bit of mean-spirited ignorance was overlooking the fact that Japanese citizens as well as foreigners were affected. And then there is the idea that I acquired Japanese citizenship just to get into a bath house. No, that’s not how it played out. You can read up about it on my website or in my book, Japanese Only, in two languages. But there are people who simply won’t make the effort. They’ve already made their minds up or gotten their information from trolls on the Internet. It’s disappointing.
A recent immigration issue in Japan is controversy over the new immigration law due to take effect in April, which will bring in 345,000 foreigners over five years to work in certain occupations such as construction, food service, and home-visit care for the elderly. What do you see as the pros and cons of the law?
I’m going to take a wait-and-see attitude on it. The government of Prime Minister Abe, by introducing the new law, is acknowledging the fact that Japan needs to bring in foreign labor. There’s no other way to get around the current demographic crisis; the ageing population plus low birth rate means there aren’t enough people to pay the taxes and do the “dirty work” that most Japanese don’t want to do. But, as usual, it’s arranged so as not to allow these people to settle and invest in Japanese society. Over time, many entrants will surely gain a better understanding and appreciation of Japan, so they should be allowed to make a real contribution to Japanese society for their entire lives if they so choose.
Depriving them of that opportunity because they are essentially seen as temporary labor on revolving-door visas (if longer-term, this time) is basically the same mistake that has been made with the trainee / intern visa system Japan has had for more than two decades now. One wonders if Japan’s ruling elite is ever going to learn its lesson about giving quid pro quo to people who have made their investments into this society. If you stay here, learn the language, pay your taxes, and contribute to the workforce, sooner or later you should be allowed to stay permanently. But that’s not implicitly promised even in these new visas.
There has really never been a true “immigration policy”, one of making foreigners into Japanese, in Japan to this day. We don’t just need a temporary migrant labor policy. Bringing in more people in and of itself is not a viable solution to the demographic crisis. The solution is incentivizing them to stay and to become Japanese.
Having lived in both countries, what do you think are some key differences and similarities between Japan and the US in terms of social activism?
I think that in many of the liberal democracies, activism is seen as a phase one goes through: you go to college, get involved in student protests, maybe join a union or interest group, advocate for social awareness and concern about issues that will help expand the frontiers of tolerance toward those who are different. (There have been some recent hiccups, though, with the intense debate on immigration and intolerance toward it in many Western democracies.)
Because of this, activists in the US aren’t so commonly seen as extremists, as they are in Japan. The Japanese word for “activist”, katsudouka, is often associated with the word kagekiha [radical; extremist], particularly regarding those who take up leftist causes. They are stereotyped as angry, unreasonable people who want to undermine traditional Japan, abolish the monarchy, fight against the government, carry out bombings and so on. They are viewed as people who want to overthrow the system, as opposed to agitating for some kind of reforms and increased tolerance. And as soon as these students get to the stage of a job search, they drop their activism and become “regular”, passive citizens. It’s unsustainable.
I recall reading years ago the opinion of a Japanese activist who was amazed that his American counterparts could balance activism with ordinary day-to-day life. He said that Japanese are either activists or in the mainstream of society.
I would agree with that. Have you ever hung out with labor union activists in Japan, for example?
I’ve met some.
Well, a lot of them look awfully beat up. They’re at a different income bracket, people who have been struggling all their lives. And they’re justifiably angry for not being listened to and being treated like they’re not worthy of the same respect as everybody else. I think that points at the lack of balance between “normal” life and activism. It’s often not possible to say “I can join a labor union without having to devote my life and social interactions to it.”
This sidelining and disenfranchising of people who have dissenting, left-leaning views (which is where I fall on the political spectrum) is a shame, because people whose views lean to the right get preferential treatment by the ruling elite. This is because conservatives tend to stick together; their calculus of motivation is simpler – keep society as it is, get rich enough to keep their money and fund their causes, and be a team player. Trying to get liberals to come together on one issue is like herding cats.
So yes, there’s more tolerance of activism in other countries, and we’ve even seen it succeeding in places. We’ve seen it overthrow De Gaulle in France, for instance. And undermine US President Johnson to the point of exhausted resignation over Vietnam, regardless of his Great Society reforms. Another example is the counterculture / hippie movement in the Sixties. I would say it was something that changed the United States for the better. By comparison, in Japan in the Sixties, leftist protests against continuing the US-Japan Security Treaty were put down forcibly by the government, and for the Left there’s a narrative of generally never winning. As can be seen by a permanent rightist party in power and leftist opposition parties in permanent disarray.
Is there an activist, past or present, whom you especially admire?
I truly respect those people in the progressive movements of the 19th century who advocated for changes such as the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage. Susan B. Anthony is one of my personal favorites because in her battle for the right of women to vote she suffered indignity after indignity, and never even saw suffrage in her lifetime, yet still persevered. And for the same reason, I admire Emmeline Pankhurst and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, of course. Confronting continual setbacks, they still carried on. And that’s why we can see Susan B. Anthony on a coin.
I was watching a movie this afternoon called Get Me Roger Stone (2017). It’s an excellent documentary about a Republican Party political operative named Roger Stone, who basically engineered not only Trump getting into office but also various other political candidates who are repugnant and amoral yet still somehow electable. Anyway, there’s a scene in which people who had voted for Hillary Clinton on Election Day in 2016 went to Rochester, New York to visit Susan B. Anthony’s grave and put their “I Voted” stickers on her gravestone, because they were so sure that for the first time a woman was going to be elected president. The narrative of Susan B. Anthony is still that strong. It’s harder to find a progressive activist in Japan who has that mainstream a following.
While it’s not rare for long-time expats in Japan to seek permanent residency status, in principle acquiring Japanese citizenship means giving up one’s birth citizenship. What’s your opinion on the pros and cons of each option?
Permanent residency, or eijuuken, lets you stay in the country indefinitely, but unlike citizenship, you could possibly lose it if you stay outside Japan for an extended period, say a year or more. (In the “bad old days” of mandatory re-entry permits for foreign residents, you could lose your residency status accrued over many years simply for not paying the “gaijin tax” [re-entry permit fee].) But that said, you have almost all the benefits of citizenship except suffrage. You can take out a loan, buy a house, and you can say “I live here, therefore.” But citizenship gives you the leg-up of being able to vote, and run for office if you like.
That mattered to me; I wanted to be able to vote, to be a fully participating member in Japanese democracy. I believe in democratic systems. Not being able to vote despite living there and paying taxes bothered me. But the thing that really made me decide to naturalize was not, as I said earlier, wanting to get into a hot spring bath. It was because I had bought a house. So if I was going to live in Japan like any other citizen, why not be one?
My advice would be that if you don’t mind being a foreigner in Japan, and you consider having to give up your previous nationality an issue of identity sacrifice, then keep your foreign citizenship and become a permanent resident of Japan. If you consider nationality to be just a piece of paper, and you want to live in Japan permanently, then I would recommend applying for citizenship. Besides, if you live a quiet life you can probably get away with maintaining dual nationality, as long as the country you come from also recognizes it. There are probably more than a million people born to international marriages in Japan who have done this; the government’s official stance is that they have to relinquish one citizenship or the other upon reaching adulthood, but the policy is not strictly enforced. Long may it stay that way.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to live and work in Japan?
Get permanent residency. There really is no drawback to it. It makes it easier to buy a house. Unlike a spouse visa, if you get a divorce you won’t lose your visa. Or of you have a work visa, it’s contingent on what kind of job you’ve been granted, meaning that if you quit, bang goes your visa. But again, permanent residency eliminates those issues. I don’t recommend naturalizing unless you really want to vote or run for office. (And before you scoff, there are numerous naturalized Japanese who have run for office and, yes, gotten elected.)
It’s very common for Anglophones in Japan to work at some kind of English teaching job. Do you have any advice for those who seek such employment?
Well, the bottom has fallen out of the market, and I’m not sure how the pay is now for newcomers who want to teach English. With that caveat, I would say that if you’re coming over on a lark in your early 20s and want to save some money or just party down every weekend (if not every night), you’re going to have a marvelous time teaching English. But if you want to have a future in Japan, you’ve got to go beyond that. You need to have a special skill that can’t be taken away from you by some other garden-variety native speaker, and can’t be replaced by that of a native Japanese. If you don’t have that, and you want to live in Japan long-term, I say good luck, because you’re probably going to remain in a disposable English-teaching job with limited prospects for advancement or greater income.
English as a skill, or just as a default skill, might allow you to be a perpetual eikaiwa school [English conversation school] teacher. You could make a good living at it about 30 years ago. But now, unless you get a full-time tenured position at, say, a high school or university, you’ll probably find the experience less than sustainably lucrative or satisfying after about twenty years at it. Also, if you decide to return to your country of birth, English teaching ability might not be deemed a marketable asset, and you’ll find yourself decades behind on the occupational skills ladder.
What’s next on your to-do list?
I’m going to be 54 years old next month, so I have to think about the future. I’ve done my volunteerism, given twenty years of my life to a cause, so now I need to focus on how to retire comfortably. I’ll be working, writing, and planning how to spend the remaining twenty years of my productive life. And although I know a lot about Japan, there’s a big, big world out there to see. I want to see more of it while I am still physically able.
As one who weighs in on controversial issues, you’ve been on the receiving end of criticism. What would you say your critics consistently get wrong about you?
They think I hate Japan because I criticize it. If I didn’t care about Japan, I wouldn’t be critical. I wouldn’t make suggestions as an educated, productive member of society, which was the point of getting an education in the first place. Criticism is not hatred. It is, if anything, an act of love. I think Japan can do better, and the prescriptions I’ve offered are not untenable. They’re not radical. They are a simple matter of the Japanese government acknowledging that people who live in Japan and pay taxes can be and should be citizens, can be and should be Japanese like any other. Anyone who says this demonstrates a hatred of Japan, or an imposition of Western values, is ignoring the fact that there are plenty of Japanese children out there who don’t “look Japanese” and who are being hurt by this narrative of racialized citizenship.
Japan can do better. In fact, as I conclude in my book Embedded Racism, it must do better. Japan has an ageing, falling population and declining tax base that will likely be insolvent within a generation or two. Even the Japanese government acknowledged as such nearly twenty years ago. It has to make more Japanese. It can’t do that by reversing the below-replacement-level birthrates. So it has to bring people in from outside. Make foreigners into Japanese. That’s what Japan did to me. And that’s what it should do for anyone similarly dedicated to Japanese society. If that’s not love for a country and a people, I don’t know what is.