JAPAN TODAY NEWS WEBSITE COLUMNS 10-12
By Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
Published June-July 2001
SPORTS DAYS IN JAPAN
WHY I HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THEM
By Arudou Debito
Column Ten for Japan Today
It's that time of year again in Hokkaido. Six months of snow have melted into a clean
green, summer dresses are out, cops are earning their keep through speed traps, and...
children are marching in the name of sports.
It's the Undoukai (Sports Day) Season, an annual event for Japan and an annual ordeal
for me. Schools sponsor a daylong event of kids, from kindergarten on up, participating
in sporting relays, challenges, and various obstacle courses in front of cheering
families and relatives.
Inexplicably, undoukai mist many an eye. Quite frankly, I have always disliked them.
A veteran of many, I see undoukai as high-pressure, rushed affairs, where hundreds
of families cram onto uncomfortable trackside tracts to get soaked or sunburnt. Payoff?
A glimpse of your kids zipping past in an inconsequential homeroom race, or camouflaged
in a parade of white shirts that stimulate demand for zoom lenses.
I confuse the hell out of my wife and relatives when I consistantly beg off going.
1) They last a whole day and blow a whole weekend. Usually falling on a Sunday
(right in between a Saturday half-day and a Monday day-off), many last from early
morning to late afternoon. For an example of one I attended with 23 (yes, 23!) different
events, see http://www.debito.org/undoukai.html. Undoukai
prevent us from doing other family things, and I can think of better ways to spend
time than roasting in the sun or shivering in drizzle.
2) They take a lot of preparation and energy. Aside from days taken away from
kids' school time essentially just to put on a show, parents too have to show team
spirit. Since lunch is an on-site picnic, my mother-in-law comes over, spends the
night, and gets up with my wife at 4AM to help fill coolers with food. Fathers, meanwhile,
are supposed to line up at the crack of dawn (around 3:30 AM this time of year) and
dozily wait for hours like Okies or Tondenhei to stake out a prime spot for the day.
The real competitition, it turns out, is not between kids. Some families lug chairs,
folding tables, beach umbrellas, and even portable beer machines to show off their
3) Undoukai are not spectator sports for passive parents. Guardians who don't
go to these things raise eyebrows, and bringing a book or homework to grade during
boring bits is frowned upon. There are even events for moms and dads to join in--like
embarrassing obstacle relays where somebody inevitably crashes and burns. When I
claim my patented heatstroke excuse, my wife assigns me the handicam to record every
minute like everyone else (who sagely invest in tripods).
4) To me, undoukai have military overtones. Every approved school in Japan
must have a parade ground, and when kids march out (swinging arms and marking time
with high steps) led by their homeroom teacher-cum-closet majorette, I am ready for
flags and speeches and stiff-armed salutes (which ultimately surface in high school
baseball). At times, undoukai feel like a Kim-Jong-Iled event for visiting diplomats.
Okay, I'll acknowledge the caveats:
I accept that plenty of other societies have sports days and surfacely militaristic
affairs. Marching to music is the easiest way to get a crowd out in a orderly fashion,
and what else is a US high school marching band but a fife-and-drum corps led by
a mini-skirt and baton? The kids seem to enjoy it, and what's wrong with getting
parents out there for a day rooting and running for their kids?
I guess to me it just feels so forced. All this effort just to make even kindergartners
march and their parents compete. If I had been brought up with undoukai, I might
feel differently, of course. But it still seems like a lot of work to put on something
that hardly appears individualistic or creative, let alone educational.
Even if Sports Days are here to stay, I would hope that schools will wise up and
end them by lunchtime. Exonerate mommies from picnic preparation and everyone else
June 1, 2001
JAPAN'S MISGUIDED KOKUSAIKA
By Arudou Debito
Column Eleven for Japan Today
"Kokusaika", or "internationalization", for decades has not only
been a buzzword in Japan, but also a purported elixir. Given time, kokusaika would
improve Japan's modernization, competitive trade, living standards, fiscal and bureaucratic
efficiency and responsibility, respect in the world community, and even interpersonal
communication and openmindedness.
An ambitious agenda for one word. It's a pity the very concept was awry from the
Look at the definition of "kokusaika" in the Koujien, Japan's Webster's
"The act of expanding things to an international scale." (kokusaiteki na
kibo ni hirogaru koto)
That's all. Under a definition this vague, eating a bagel or going downwind of Deshima
(as many Tokugawa-Era commentators did, expressly seeking The Foreign Experience)
Now look at kokusaika's application. Most intriguing has been in the field of education.
Huge resources have gone into studying what has been deemed the world's language:
English. Secondary education gives most Japanese six years of it. With the Eikaiwa
Gold Rush during Bubble Japan, immense imports of native speakers changed views of
Japan both within and without.
Even today, tertiary education, in the face of declining student bodies, still sees
competitive value in founding or beefing up their international departments.
At local levels, many associations of old farts and housewives, often under the aegis
and funding of regional authorities, see little amiss about establishing homestay
and exchange programs, giving their children newfound opportunities abroad.
Even the national government, sponsoring the world's largest international exchange
program, clearly stated in 1998 as a goal:
"[The JET Programme] will contribute to the enrichment of foreign language education,
as well as the development of international communication on a regional level, as
well as increasing mutual understanding between Japan and foreign countries, and
the promotion of internationalization." (see research paper here <LINK TO:
Don't misunderstand. I support these pushes, as they have earnest intentions. But
in my view they are not something so easily branded and justified as "internationalization".
They largely neglect to promote an essential facet: world communality and inclusiveness.
For still endemic is the view that Japan must learn about the "outside"
world. Consequently, more stressed in Japanese-style social studies are cultural
"differences" rather than "similarities". This often winds up
defining "Japaneseness" through a constellation of contrasts, reinforcing
"us" and "them" dichotomies.
Unquestioned is whether the concept of "outside" is appropriate, or if
the "outside" could ever become part of the "inside". This permutation
of kokusaika can be counterproductive, creating the "box" so hard to think
This is most clearly illustrated by Japan's labor market. Decades of importing foreigners
have still not fostered the awareness that foreigners belong in Japan, that they
are paying taxes and contributing to Japanese society the same as everyone else.
The influx has still generally been under the rubric of "foreigner as guest
or temporary worker", not as immigrant.
For example, many "foreigner jobs" are inconducive to long-termism <LINK
TO: http://www.debito.org/jobsforus.html>. Many companies
and regional governments offer foreigners contract employment without promotion or
social safety net. Most Japanese universities continue to deny foreigners tenure.
Even JETs by design are limited to three years' employment.
Legally, even though foreigners anywhere are not treated the same as citizens, foreigners
in a developed country like Japan have particularly abridged civil rights. Only they
must carry ID at all times and can be collared at any time <LINK TO: http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#checkpoints>.
They cannot legally be residents (juumin) of Japan. Their marriages even to Japanese
are not recognized as such on official registries. Japan is still the only OECD country
without a law against racial discrimination.
This is where real internationalization ought to in fact be occurring. True "kokusaika",
in my view, is realizing that people are people, with feelings, lives, needs, and
rights--worthy of legal protections and social repect regardless of where they live
and what nationality they have.
More radically, it is the act of including those who wish to be members of Japanese
society--and by this I mean being "Japanese" on their own terms--as Japanese
I'm sure this is pretty hard for most to swallow. Fortunately, my interpretation
may be gaining ground.
Last May, at the 55th Annual Prime Minister's National High School Speech Contest
in Nagoya, Watanabe Mami, a 17-year-old high school senior in Hokkaido's Keishou
HS, gave a talk entitled "Living Together in the 21st Century" (see Japanese
newspaper article here <LINK TO: http://www.debito.org/doshin051201.jpg>)
Citing the flaws of a society where people in Otaru bathhouses <LINK TO: http://www.debito.org/otarulawsuit.html>
can put up "JAPANESE ONLY" signs, refusing even Japanese citizens merely
by appearance, she said, in paraphrase:
"I have come to believe that Japan's kokusaika is basically pretty words with
no feeling... Kokusaika is not merely using English to understand foreigners... It
is the realization that people's hearts can meet and feelings can be shared, even
without language... Only when we understand how to resolve the onsen problem without
shutting people out, understand what non-Japanese need, and understand the facts
behind prejudice, can people begin to work together to bring about a century of internationalization."
Her speech, I might add, took the First Prize. A first for Hokkaido.
This is very hopeful. With youth as coopting as this, I look forward to the Japan
of the 21st Century.
June 22, 2001
EX-PREZ FUJIMORI SHOULD FACE JUSTICE
By Arudou Debito
Column Twelve for Japan Today
These are heady times for international justice. Serbia's Milosevic is currently
on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity. Chile's Pinochet had his 1998
Britain visit ruined by house arrest and a lengthy trial (which ultimately sprung
him, but a trial nonetheless). Over half of the number of countries necessary (36
out of 60 minimum) have ratified a treaty creating a world criminal court. It seems
the world's rotten leaders are losing their escape routes to overseas sanctuaries,
and developed countries are cooperating to bring them to book.
Meanwhile, Japan bucks this trend. Our country harbors former Peruvian president
Alberto Fujimori, wanted back home to answer charges of corruption. Peru's demands
for Fujimori's extradition receive a trite, "Fujimori is a Japanese citizen,
so he has the right to stay here."
This pulls my chain for a number of reasons.
One is that it is odd that Japan should harbor a fugitive, which Fujimori essentially
is. On the pretense of visting a Brunei APEC meeting last autumn, Fujimori "defected"
to Japan, glibly faxing Peru his resignation from a Tokyo hotel room. Administrative
necks barely bent at this, declaring him a Japanese citizen in no time. This even
though Japan very rarely grants political asylum or takes in even UN-affiliated refugees.
Why should Fujimori be treated any differently? Or for that matter, be treated so
well? According to the domestic press, he hobnobs with political elites, stays in
borrowed beachfront or downtown apartments, and rarely grants interviews to explain
to the public what happened and why. He remains high on the hog, without trial or
Contrast this with Fujimori's cronies, who are getting their due. For example, the
number two man in Fujimori's administration, CIA-trained spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos,
was recently extradited from Venezuela to Peru with the help of the United States.
His videotaped evidence of bribery at the highest levels has even been shown on NHK.
He is currently plea-bargaining with the courts, and when he spills his guts, I bet
it will be clear that Fujimori knew what was going on, and that power corrupts even
the most originally well-intentioned of leaders.
Another chain-puller is how race (or ethnicity--whichever you prefer) factored in
to give Fujimori a free pass. It may be understandible how national pride swells
when Japan's Diaspora rise to the highest office of another country. But what does
it say about the rule of law here when the main reasons Fujimori got Japanese citizenship
are blood and politics?
What about the rest of us Japan emigres--those thousands of people who for years
lined up to apply for Japanese citizenship, myself one of them? What of the long
and rigorous screening process, which tests one's character, financial stability,
lawabidingness, acculturation, and ability to get along with the neighbors? (see
What even of Japan's required third-grader language ability when Fujimori doesn't
even speak Japanese?
Japan is strict enough to reject candidates with parking tickets. What about a man
who suspends a nation's constitution, circumvents parliament, assumes dictatorial
powers, and rigs elections? Forget the double standard. Fujimori ought to run the
naturalization gauntlet like the rest of us.
I understand the government's claim that Fujimori has Japanese connections. Born
in Peru in 1938, his birth was registered in Kumamoto by his emigre parents via the
Japanese Embassy. But under Japanese law, dual nationals must decide to be Japanese
or not by age 20. Moreover, in many countries, election to a high office voids foreign
citizenships (I contacted the Peruvian Embassy about their rules but received as
yet no answer). So Japan's claim that Fujimori never expressly gave up his passport
is disingenuous, and it sounds like officials are engaging in classic "koji
tsuke": starting at their conclusions ("Fujimori must stay") and working
backwards to justify them ("because we consider him a Japanese").
But my biggest chain reaction is when I think about the people most adversely affected
by all this: the Japanese Diaspora. How can Nikkeijin ever again be trusted to assume
high office in their adopted countries? With the Fujimori Precedent, it seems they
can run rotten regimes and then abscond to Japan. Fujimori has thus hurt their ability
to assimilate and participate in politics. I bet Peru, for one, will never elect
another "Japanese" executive.
The point is that justice must not just be done, but must also be seen to be done.
By keeping Fujimori under wraps, Japan is obstructing Peru's healing process. If
Fujimori is not a crook, let that be seen in a court of law, preferably in Peru.
Send him back. Show us that the world's leaders, including our own, cannot ignore
the rule of law with impunity.
July 16, 2001
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Copyright 2001-2002, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan