In Japan, U.S. Expat Fights the Yankee Way

The Washington Post
Style Section, July 4, 2003, Front Page
By Doug Struck
Courtesy http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A10762-2003Jul4.html

TOKYO -- Don't call me a foreigner, the green-eyed native New Yorker tells a Japanese sharply.

And don't call him David Aldwinckle, the name he was born with. He prefers Debito Arudou, a Japanese garbleization of his old name.

And certainly don't call him an American. Aldwinckle returned his blue U.S. passport along with a screed aimed at President Bush, and proudly displays his Rising Sun-red passport of Japan.

Arudou, 38, took the rare step of renouncing American citizenship to become a naturalized Japanese in October 2000. But he has not embraced all things Japanese with the gusto of the converted. Like a transplanted species wreaking change on the native environment, he is trying to bring what might be called American-style civil rights to his adopted land.

"I guess if I have an epitaph it would be: 'Somebody's got to do it. Why not me?' " he says with a grin.

Arudou is gaining recognition -- some say notoriety -- in Japan for fighting discrimination against foreigners, the very label he renounced. His chief target is the "Japanese Only" signs found at bathhouses, pachinko parlors, barbershops, bars and other businesses throughout the country.

He also has challenged police who depict foreigners as cheats and thieves, universities that treat foreign professors as chattel, bureaucrats who refuse to enter the names of foreign-born spouses in family registries, hotels that bar foreigners, and a host of other acts of blatant racism routinely accepted in Japan. "We're talking about apartheid here. This is segregation," Arudou said in a recent speech in Tokyo.

Arudou is emerging here as the Outraged Man, tilting at uncomfortable truths about Japanese racial discrimination. He does so with powerful armaments: a Japanese wife, two children born here, fluency in both languages, and a Japanese passport to prove his loyalty to cause and country.

"This is a wonderful place to live," he insists in an interview. "There are hiccups. There are hiccups in any society."

His prescription is often high-profile. He made headlines by suing a bathhouse that refused entry to foreign-born husbands of Japanese wives. (The Sapporo District Court ordered the bathhouse to pay Arudou and two other foreign-born husbands about $8,500 each last November, but dismissed Arudou's claim against Otaru City for failing to prevent discrimination. Both the bathhouse and Arudou are appealing parts of the verdict.)

He courts reporters as he jousts with telephone companies that require hefty deposits only from foreigners. He organizes protests, threatens boycotts, pours out e-mail, and recently dashed out a book in Japanese -- written in 24 days -- on racial discrimination.

He does all this with the boyish American enthusiasm of the Eagle Scout that he is. "How now, brown cow?" he exclaims gleefully as he brandishes his Japanese passport at anyone who argues that "we Japanese" are different from foreign-born persons.

He gets the "different" argument a lot. This island-nation is steeped in the legend of uniqueness. Contact with foreigners was punishable by banishment or death until 1859. Japanese business owners justify banning foreigners on the grounds that they don't follow Japanese customs; that they don't know how to bathe in public bathhouses, or don't play by Japanese rules in gambling parlors, or don't understand Japanese etiquette in bars.

Japan considers itself uniquely homogeneous. Of the 127 million population, less than 1.5 percent are foreigners, and they are not counted as citizens. Since 1965, about 300,000 foreign-born persons have become naturalized citizens, requiring a five-year stay, third-grade fluency in the language, and evidence of "culturization'' to Japan. Most are ethnic Koreans whose families have been in Japan for generations. Few are "white boys,'' as Arudou impishly refers to himself.

But the mono-ethnic Japan was always partly myth, Arudou argues. Many Japanese, including the emperor, have Korean roots. And with the rising numbers of children born here of international marriages, the argument is increasingly hollow.

Arudou offers up himself -- and his family -- as evidence. Some of the bathhouses he has targeted would accept his older daughter, Amy, 9, who looks Asian like her mother, while refusing Anna, 8, who looks Caucasian, like her dad.

"They would bar one of my kids and take the other because of their appearance," he says. "As a parent, I can not allow that to stand."

But even his Japanese passport often fails to prove he is Japanese. "When you're naked, everybody will think you're a foreigner," said one bathhouse owner, persisting with his refusal to admit Arudou.

Anywhere else, that would be called racism or xenophobia, Arudou admits, though he prefers the more tactful term "cultural blind spot." In many other places it also would be called illegal. The Japanese constitution, drafted by the American military after World War II, renounces such discrimination. But Japan has no laws to enforce the clause, and so discrimination by sex, by age, and by race are openly practiced here.

"Japan is the only developed country without an anti-racial-discrimination law," Arudou says. "The government is backpedaling and doing everything it can to avoid passing a law.''

Arudou's use of media, lawsuits and boycotts grate some in a society that prefers consensus over conflict. "I am confrontational," Arudou admits. "There is a lot of in-your-faceism." But he says he resorts to that only after first trying quieter persuasion. And he says he is using bullying tactics only to trump bullies.

"People who think Japan doesn't like conflict don't speak Japanese. It's rife with conflict," he insists. "There's a huge amount of bullying, huge amount of cultural mechanisms for enforcement. It's just that most people don't stand up to it."

Arudou says he gets abusive phone calls, and about one-third of his e-mail is hostile. One letter, which he keeps encased in plastic, threatens: "We will kill your kids." Another message, sent to his supporters, raged, "I can't believe the arrogance of white people. Especially Americans. Have you no shame? Know your place!"

Some of his issues have been championed by other Western-born foreigners, as well as Korean and smaller ethnic minorities, who have suffered long and mostly quietly in Japan. Arudou's wife, Ayako Sugawara, 44, supports him on some causes, but cringes at others, she says.

"I am more of a peace-seeker," she said in a telephone interview. "I don't want confrontation. I sometimes say to him, why do you do that in a confrontational way? As a result, he doesn't always tell me what he's doing." She doesn't see a clash of cultures in her marriage, however: "It's not American or Japanese. It's just Debito.''

Sugawara, a town councilor in their home of Nanporo, Hokkaido, has other worries. Arudou's work might affect her elected post, she notes. More troubling are the threats, which include what seemed to be something shot through their glass door last year. "I am scared. I can protect myself, but my children can't."

Arudou is in Japan because of Sugawara. They met at a Christmas party in 1984 when she visited a relative in his home town of Geneva, in Upstate New York. He followed her in 1986 to Hokkaido, Japan's remote northern main island. "I didn't even know what sushi is," he laughs.

They got married, had children, and bought a house with a lawn. Arudou learned the language, got a job teaching debate and business English at a private college, and eventually concluded he should become a Japanese citizen. "I thought if I'm going to do this like anyone else, and pay taxes like anyone else, I might as well be like anyone else."

Applicants for citizenship in Japan can be rejected if they got so much as a parking ticket. An immigration officer can peer in the applicant's refrigerator, check toys used by children in the house, or question one's sex life to determine "culturization." But Arudou's application was approved routinely -- surprisingly, he says -- with none of that. His official parting with his native homeland was more mixed. "I wasn't happy with America," he says. He insists his decision was not political, but when the U.S. consulate demanded a written reason for renouncing his citizenship Arudou dashed off a scathing criticism of President Bush and American swagger in the world.

"I don't feel American anymore," he says. "I sit back and look at America, and see how the American superpower has become too big for its boots." Dissension is muted, he claims, foreigners are secretly detained, and "it's McCarthyism all over again, just substituting terrorists for communists,'' he said.

Still, when he wrote his parents in Geneva, N.Y., where his father is a professor at Cornell University, about his decision, his mother replied, "You have broken my heart." They have not talked since, he says.

Only once has he had second thoughts, he says. During the World Cup games co-hosted by Japan last year, a wave of hysteria swept Hokkaido that foreign "hooligans" would invade the island for the premier England-Argentina soccer match, hosted in Sapporo.

The place was flooded with police, who regarded foreigners with suspicion. Arudou says he was repeatedly stopped and questioned. When the event passed peacefully, Arudou demanded apologies from the police for their fear-mongering and from a politician who had predicted a crop of mixed-race babies because of rapes by the foreign invaders. He got neither.

"I think the Japanese are afraid of the unknown and the unprecedented," he says. But Arudou says he will not relent from his self-appointed role of gadfly with an American accent, trying to set those precedents.

"It's addictive," he says. "The more you do, the more you find you can do."

Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company

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