JAPAN TODAY NEWS WEBSITE COLUMNS 1-3
By Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
Published Dec 2000-Jan 2001
COLUMN ONE FOR JAPAN TODAY
ON NATURALIZATION, PART ONE
YOU DID WHAT?
(loosely adapted from a NPR Radio Broadcast
of Dec 15, 2000)
By Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
Take a look
at my photo and tell me what you see. A green-eyed, heavy-set, Tom-Cruiseish Caucasian,
right? Okay, three out of four. But believe it or not, I am a Japanese. A Japanese
citizen, that is; the Justice Minister granted my request to naturalize in October,
Yeah, but, uh...given how Japanese society is towards foreigners and outsiders in
general, why would a person (short of being certifiable) do it? Let's take inventory
and engage in the inevitable debate:
My first reason is concise: I live here. Have done for thirteen years, so far. I
am tied to the ground by a 30-year loan on a big Hokkaido countryside house, designed
with my wife and children who are also citizens. And I have a satisfying job as an
educator with a decent income. That took care of my requirement for personal inertia.
Next, I like it here. I have plenty of friends (yes, that includes even old Japanese
men in my village), enough Japanese ability to do far more than just get by, and
a very comfortable lifestyle. Moreover, if readers have been following my activities
over the years, it's pretty clear I enjoy the daily mental challenges that a White
Boy gets in this society. That took care of my requirement for a life of adventure.
Ultimately, after so many years here, my argument ran, "why not naturalize?"
I pay taxes and contribute to this society the same as any other citizen, but without
the right to vote I have no say in how it's run. As I fundamentally believe in the
democratic process, even in Japan, I have a harder time criticizing the LDP gorillas
(the technical term) if I can't make my vote heard. Plus I have grown pretty sick
of people (Japanese, yes, but also and especially foreigners) saying, "Hey,
shut up, you're not Japanese―you're just a guest here by the good graces of the
Foreign Ministry." When I realized that I would be here for good anyway, that
took care of my requirement for a passport.
But then, the counterargument still runs, "why bother?" As that abovementioned
White Boy you'll never be accepted as a "real" Japanese, right? Even internationals
with Japanese bloodlines have enough trouble avoiding some semblance of nationality
This is where I took care of the self-justification requirement. Hey, I'm not quite
that Japanese, and thus don't care much about what other people think. Like
most immigrants around the world, I am the one who will determine my identity. And
I do this regardless of passport (an essential attitude, as Japan has not permitted
dual nationality, as seen in the ex-Peru-prez Fujimori case, from 1985). So Doubting
Thomases and Taroes, lump it: Anyone who doesn't believe that I am a Japanese can
simply face the legal reality. It's about time concepts of Japanese nationality shifted
away from blood and behavior anyway.
Fortunately (granted, this is only within the span of two months), that shift seems
to be occurring. No Japanese persion as of yet has outright denied that I am Japanese.
Doubtless that won't last, but it's a refreshing start.
But... but... what about the sticking-out-nail factor? Aren't you just begging to
get hammered? Phooey. No matter what I do anyway, I will stick out. So I might as
well stick out in a way that is more to my advantage. As a citizen, I can dispel
petty attempts at disenfrancisement, try to claim uncaveated rights in court if necessary,
even run for public office (as other naturalized people have). Yes, I may very well
be treated as a foreigner for the rest of my life here, but I would anyway. No reason
for me to legally remain one.
Anyway, in conclusion, let's not misunderstand what I am trying to say. I am not
selling naturalization as an option for everybody. It isn't for everybody. I just
elaborated upon the mindset behind my decision, and it should not be construed as
buying into Governor Ishihara's argument that people who want equal rights should
become citizens. That should not be necessary in a society with the purported role
of a developed nation in the world arena. Fellow OECD countries offer enough example
of the rights of foreign residents being legally respected and upheld, and it should
put Japan, which turns a blind eye to many forms and instances of clear and acknowledged
discrimination, to shame. Non-Japanese across Japan should continue their push for
sensitivity, tolerance, and equal protection under both domestic and international
And let's be frank: I got lucky. Japanese citizenship is not all that easy to get
even if you wanted it. I'll tell you more about that in my next column.
Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
December 20, 2000
JAPAN TODAY COLUMN TWO
NATURALIZATION PART TWO
"GET THAT FUNKY PASSPORT, WHITE BOY"
By Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
December 27, 2000
As I said last column, becoming a Japanese citizen is not easy.
But that should come as no surprise. With its perpetual shimaguni shimmy, Japan might
be just a little chary of a proactive immigration policy.
Moreover, naturalization into any country is not easy. Countries don't just take
anybody unconditionally. For good reasons:
Have candidates been here long enough to get to know the place? Will they obey laws,
pay taxes, maintain a steady job and not be a burden on the State? Will their presence
be culturally and institutionally stabilizing? And if there's nothing wrong with
them, is there a good reason to let them in?
This is just part of the inevitable profiling and weeding.
However, Japanizing is unduly arduous in places. Let's look at the procedures I went
through preparing my papers for the Ministry of Justice.
First, fill out basic bureaucratic forms: Statements requesting citizenship and forsaking
dual nationality (Japan is now the only OECD country requiring this). Police records
demonstrating an unadulterated past. Statement of finances for the past year with
tax records. Resume describing your professional and academic past with addresses
So far, not too bad, if you're used to US Government employee security checks.
Now let's get more homey:
Outline of both sides of your family from parents on down. Don't forget to check
the boxes on the form indicating whether your relatives approve of your naturalization.
If married to a Japanese, shell out for the Japanese ward office documentation.
For your relatives overseas, import a raft of notarized foreign documents, such as
your birth certificate, your parents' wedding/divorce/adoption/etc. certificiates--this
in order to fill in a koseki (Family Registry) required for all Japanese.
Here difficulties can pop up. In my case, as an only child, there was no US documentation
proving the ABSENCE of siblings.
So bureaucrats asked my mother to sign a form swearing she had no other children,
also attesting to the veracity of matters already documented elsewhere (her first
marriage, her divorce, her second marriage, her birthday).
She found this understandibly intrusive. "This is your citizenship, not mine.
They can kiss off." Dad, a naturalized American, signed in proxy to avoid hypocrisy.
Then of course you must translate all foreign documents into Japanese. Fortunately,
the government trusts you to do it, saving huge translator bills. But it took me
some weeks--a divorce document written in legalese, sentences lasting for paragraphs,
was difficult to comprehend as a native.
Then we get a bit petty:
Submit snapshots of your family, home exterior and interior, and workplace. Hand
draw maps to your home and workplace for police records. Demonstrate the Japanese
language ability of a third-grader. Write a one-page essay on why you want to become
Japanese. And buy a wheelbarrow so you can bring it all in (okay, I'm kidding).
It took me a year to collate and submit. Once accepted, the fun begins.
Now comes the deliberation period, lasting, I was told, a minimum of one year, probably
two or three given my speeding tickets. Keep my nose clean and my pedal foot light
and all might be well. Meanwhile, they would check on my Japaneseness.
Say what? You heard right. Ministry officials said they would talk to my neighbors
to ascertain how "Japanese" I am. And visit our household to see how "Japanese"
Further investigation revealed how arbitrary a requirement this is. Unconfirmed but
repeated reports had officials opening refrigerators, cautioning children against
playing with ethnic dolls, testing Japanese ability by having candidates read a newspaper
aloud, asking Filipinas suspected of mizu-shoubai connections about their previous
sex partners. An ethnic Korean friend confirmed that his candidacy was voided by
a speeding ticket.
I felt cross-hairs. Our house is 2x4 with imported hardwood floors and no tatami
(I'm allergic). I prefer meat and potatoes to nattou and oden. We get generous Christmas
CARE packages with toys from overseas. My 30-centimeter feet necessitate imports.
Would tatami tick shite, A-1 Steak Sauce, Barbie Dolls, or no pokuri geta in our
genkan be my undoing?
When asked, officials said, "Not to worry. Just don't give us a feeling of incongruity."
I shrugged and said fat chance on passing. And as I was drawn deeper into the Otaru
Exclusionary Onsens Issue (a future column), I watched MoJ files fatten with newspaper
clippings bearing my name and face. Seriously. I would be a test case.
"Will my activism void me?" I asked.
"No. You are protesting within the parameters of the Japanese Constitution.
It will have no effect."
I took that as tatemae--until the phone call came in September 2000, a mere eleven
months after submission.
"Welcome to Japan, Arudou-san."
I still can't believe it. I'd like to believe I got off easy because I'm Caucasian
or American or something. Although the Kouan Secret Police did keep tabs on me, they
didn't visit our house or neighbors.
So what does this indicate? That things are easing up and the MoJ is becoming more
tolerant or lenient?
Honestly, I'm not sure. I did ask officials why me of all people? Once naturalized
my activism would only intensify.
They would reveal no reasons. Pass or fail is completely at the MoJ's discretion,
and not subject to critique or appeal.
But I can conclude one thing: Whenever people like Ishihara or Nonaka dismiss granting
the vote to Permanent Residents with a diffident, "they should naturalize",
they are missing the point.
I passed a test that many Japanese, i.e. corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, not
to mention fashionable young people, could not pass. Unless they are crooks and dictators
like former Peru Prez Fujimori. Then they can bypass all criteria automatically and
overnight by dint of their blood.
Japan should reconsider this double-sided double standard. They want more people
to beef up their labor force and tax revenue? They better make it easier and clearer
for more immigrants to want to take off their coats and stay awhile.
About 20,000 people a year naturalize into Japan. The US processes that many in about
ten days. To me it's procedurally very clear why.
JAPAN TODAY COLUMN THREE
NATURALIZATION PART THREE
"HAS IT MADE A DIFFERENCE?"
My first two columns were about the hows and whys of Japanizing. Now let's talk about
(I'll soon have this topic out of my system so we can talk about more pressing matters.)
"How does it feel to be Japanese? Is there a positive difference? Is it worth
I could give the standard "yes, and no" exposition, but I won't. Given
my personality, my answer is yes.
Granted, as I said before, I am still me regardless of passport. I don't feel gelded
by the inability to call myself an American. That feels no different.
But there are the touches of being a national which give me the glow.
Last week, when I was in my local post office scribbling kanji on last-minute nengajou,
an old farmer, circling me and displaying what Jack Seward termed "the white-hot
curiosity about anything a foreigner does", eventually got warm enough for a
"Do you have greeting cards like this in your country?"
My answer: "Japan is my country."
Farmer: "Oh, so you've naturalized, then." Then he rephrased the question:
"I mean, in your country of birth."
Okay, that's different. I said Americans generally don't send holiday postcards (they
should, though--cheaper and with photos more personal). But they do have Christmas
Cards etc. From that we got friendly enough for goodbyes by our cars.
Then a less friendly exchange two weeks ago: Swimming my thrice-weekly mile in the
local pool, I saw an old man expectorating on our lane line.
Sez I: "Oi! Spit in the gutter over there! I don't wanna snort your snot!"
He later cornered me in the shower room for a lecture on Japanese pool etiquette,
which apparently permitted him loogie-ing at will. "I don't know how it is in
No prizes for guessing my reply.
That gave him pause, but his indignation hadn't sufficiently deflated. "But
in Japan, we don't scold our elders like that..."
Interjection: "If you are going to ascribe behavior to nationality, I will not
talk to you. I don't care how old you are. If you are unsanitary in a public facility
I will have words. You might as well pee in the pool. At least the gutter is closer
than the toilet."
Eventually we talked this out: There is an outflow drain by the lane line hook, and
he did in fact splash his backwash into it. I apologized, and we left mutually piece-of-minded.
Okay, two anecdotes, but what extrapolation?
In neither case, nor in any case I've yet encountered, has anyone denied I am Japanese.
Whenever I give my name over the phone and the listener wonders about the je ne sais
quoi of it, my magic wand: "Kika shimashita no de..."
Whenever people couch "wareware Nipponjin" (We Japanese) to contrast me:
"I am also part of that 'ware', so kindly rephrase that." And they do.
Whenever I see my name katakanized, I advise and they kanjify with no bullcrap.
This could not be done or be seen to be done without the passport. For many people
here are plenty aware of the racial implications of verbally denying my status.
The only person with discriminating enough tastes to say, "You're not Japanese
'cos you don't act like one," was a non-Japanese on an internet mailing list.
Nihonjinron switches languages sometimes.
Thus, when I start appealing to people further Right (or West), I will have to deal
with the slippery stoneheadedness of nationality qualifications outside of legality.
But I still have the magic bullet:
"I'm officially sanctioned. I passed a 'Japaneseness' test even you'd have trouble
with. So if anything, I am quite possibly more 'Japanese' than you."
Still, it can cut both ways. Last month, a prof in my university tried to force me
to do his bidding by saying:
"You're a Japanese now. You must show the proper respect and consideration to
However, I've been here before. I took this up with HIS superior, and the regret
he expressed "for having such a congratulatory event used against me" I
felt was genuine. The pressure from above disappeared.
In sum, the benefit of naturalizing for me has been the surprising acceptance and
consequent legitimacy. Believe it or not, when I announced my new status in a faculty
meeting, I got applause.
This acceptance may be due to the robber-baron history and shallow traditions of
Hokkaido. Dwellers in more conservative parts of Japan need not apply?
But I doubt that. Don't forget: Hokkaido has those seaport towns with openly discriminating
bathhouses and businesses, excluding customers by race.
I am proof of that. More on this in my next column.
Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
January 5, 2001
COLUMN THREE ENDS
(click here to see next columns)
Copyright 1999-2002, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan