After decades of international exposure, embarrassment, broken treaty promises, xenophobic and racist tropes, and deprived children, Japan finally changes its laws to allow joint custody of children after divorce, taking effect in 2026.

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Hi Blog.  Debito.org has been quiet on these developments until they actually came to fruition, and now that they have, it’s time to cheer.  Japan has finally gotten around to fixing one of its worst-kept secrets:  Child Abductions after divorces.  After years of international pressure (and all manner of racist justifications of the status quo, including even the Foreign Ministry accusing foreigners of being naturally violent, and Japan offering safe haven for international child abductions despite signing an international treaty against it), the Diet has just passed legislation allowing for joint custody after divorce.  Meaning both parents now have the ability to have a say in raising a child even if the relationship falls apart.  It comes into effect in 2026 and will be reassessed five years later.

Debito.org has talked about this issue for decades (since I too lost all contact with my children after my divorce, which is in fact the norm in Japan, thanks to the Koseki Family Registry system forcing split couples to sever all legal family ties and thus all rights to any contact).  Not only because NJ are particularly vulnerable to becoming “Left Behind Parents” in intercontinental relationships (since the J spouse can either make off with the child back to Japan or deprive you of a Spouse Visa), but also because this situation affected ALL divorces in Japan, regardless of nationality. It left all children in Japan vulnerable to being used a pawn used to punish one parent out of spite. And that would often carry on into adulthood, with the adult offspring hating the LBP parent without ever hearing both sides of the story or knowing the LBP cares about them.  This is not normal even in peer countries.  As the Mainichi notes below, “Japan had been the only country among the Group of Seven industrialized nation with no joint custody system, according to a Justice Ministry survey of other countries released in 2020.”

Anyway, this is an extremely positive and long overdue development, and it’s another example of Japanese domestic law not changing without international shame and pressure.  It’s just a shame it couldn’t have happened decades ago when it would have made a difference to me and my divorced friends. Let’s hope this brings more reality to future relationships.  Divorces are complicated.  Adding more child abuse into the mix (and by this I mean the child abuse that is inherent in an automatic severance of custodial ties) just made it worse.  Debito Arudou, Ph.D.

(PS:  I even wrote a novel on this subject, if you’re interested.  Details here.)

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JAPAN / Crime & Legal
Japan changes law to allow joint custody after divorce
Legislation that allows the option of joint custody of children after divorce is passed at the Upper House plenary session on Friday.
AFP-Jiji/Japan Times, May 17, 2024
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2024/05/17/japan/crime-legal/japan-revises-law-to-allow-joint-custody/

Japanese lawmakers enacted legislation Friday that allows the option of joint custody of children after divorce.

For decades in Japan, one parent — almost always the mother — has been granted legal custody when a marriage ends, a rule seen by its supporters as a safeguard against domestic violence and child abuse.

But concerns have been raised that it can cause meaningful contact to be cut off between the other parent and their child.

Long-simmering frustrations of noncustodial parents — often fathers — over lack of access to children have helped build pressure for change.

A U.N. committee in 2019 recommended that Japan “allow for shared custody of children when it is in the child’s best interests, including for foreign parents.”

The new bill stipulates that sole custody be maintained if both parents agree it is the best option, or in court-recognized cases of domestic violence or child abuse.

One parent will also be able to make decisions without consulting the other on issues like schooling or health in “emergency circumstances.”

No official tallies exist for the number of minors cut off from a parent in Japan, but even so, campaigns both for and against the changes have been loud.

A 2022 survey carried out by a support group for single mothers found that 80% of single parents in Japan were against or disinclined toward joint custody.

“Even in cases of domestic violence, failure to prove it in court due to insufficient evidence can lead to joint custody being established,” campaigners against the move said in January. ENDS

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Japan passes a revised law allowing joint child custody for divorced parents for the first time
Japan’s parliament has passed a revision to the country’s civil code that will allow divorced parents the option of joint child custody, a change that brings the nation in line with many other countries
By MARI YAMAGUCHI Associated Press, May 17, 2024
https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/japan-passes-revised-law-allowing-joint-child-custody-110330983

TOKYO — Japan’s parliament on Friday passed a revision to the country’s civil code that will allow divorced parents the option of joint child custody, a change that brings the nation in line with many other countries.

The revision, the first to custody rights in nearly 80 years, is to take effect by 2026. It will allow divorced parents to choose either dual or single custody while requiring them to cooperate in ensuring their children’s rights and wellbeing.

Under the current law, child custody is granted to only one divorced parent, almost always the mother.

The change comes as divorces are increasing in Japan and a growing number of divorced fathers hope to stay in touch with their children. A number of high-profile allegations made by divorced foreign fathers who blamed their former partners for abducting their children and returning to Japan also encouraged the change.

The revision requires the sharing of child rearing costs by the parent who is not the main custodian. Currently, most divorced mothers, who often are part-time workers with low incomes, do not receive financial support from their former husbands.

In cases in which domestic violence or abuse by either parent is suspected, the other person will have sole custody, according to the revision.

Supporters of joint custody say it allows both divorced parents to play a role in child rearing. Opponents, including rights groups and some victims of domestic violence, have raised concern that the new system could make it harder for parents to cut ties with abusive spouses and that they may not be allowed a real say in custody decisions.

The concerns prompted some modifications to the legislation during parliamentary debate to require authorities to make sure the custody decision was not one-sided.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters that the revisions address concerns raised by domestic violence victims and their families. But the improvements don’t go far enough and the risk remains high for vulnerable members in the families, said Kazuko Ito, a lawyer who has campaigned against the revision.

Under the revision, divorced parents who choose joint custody must reach a consensus on their children’s education, long-term medical treatment and other key issues, and will need to seek a family court decision if an agreement cannot be reached.

Either parent can make decisions about their children’s daily activities, such as private lessons and meals, or emergency treatment.

The revision is to be reviewed five years after it takes effect. ENDS

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Japan’s Diet passes bill to allow joint custody after divorce

The House of Councillors passes a bill during a plenary session in parliament in Tokyo on May 17, 2024, to introduce joint custody for divorced couples with children. (Kyodo)

May 17, 2024 (Mainichi Japan)

https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20240517/p2g/00m/0na/008000c

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Japan’s parliament on Friday passed a bill to introduce joint custody for divorced couples with children, in a landmark change that paves the way for the adoption of a practice widely used in other nations.

In the first law change regarding parental authority in 77 years, Japan’s Civil Code will permit divorced parents to choose either sole custody or joint custody, a shift from the current system that has only allowed custody by one parent — usually the mother.

The change comes as family relationships diversify in Japan amid a rise in couples splitting and eagerness by both parents to play a role in child-rearing. The current system has also posed challenges for foreign citizens seeking to maintain ties with their children if their divorced partners return to Japan with them.

About 160,000 minors in Japan experienced the divorce of their parents in 2022 alone, double the figure in 1950.

The revised law will enter into force within two years of its promulgation and be applied retroactively to those who have already divorced.

Under the revised Civil Code, parents will generally determine between themselves whether to opt for sole or joint custody, but if there is a dispute, a family court will intervene and decide on custody arrangements.

In cases where domestic violence and abuse by one of the parents is suspected, the other parent will have sole custody.

Proponents of the joint custody system say the revision allows both divorced parents to take part in child-rearing, but victims of domestic violence have voiced concern that the new system could hinder them from severing ties with their abusers as it would maintain connections to their former spouses.

Some also fear such victims may not be able to negotiate single custody or joint custody on an equal footing.

To address such concerns, the bill was modified during parliamentary deliberations to add a clause that calls for considering measures to “confirm the true intention” of each parent, but critics argue the government measures to protect domestic violence victims are too vague.

The new system will be reviewed five years after the revision come into force.

Under joint custody, consensus between parents is not required in making decisions on day-to-day matters, such as what to feed children and whether to vaccinate them.

Parents must reach consensus on important matters such as education and long-term medical treatment, but if they cannot do so in time in an urgent situation, one of the parents can decide on their own.

To avoid ambiguity in what would constitute an urgent situation, the government plans to provide clear examples.

The revision also includes measures against unpaid child support that will oblige a parent to provide minimum payments even if no agreement is reached upon divorce.

The new custody system is expected to increase the burden on family courts in Japan as they will play the role of ultimate arbiter for parents in complex situations in terms of child custody, such as judging whether domestic violence is involved.

Critics question whether family courts possess enough manpower to handle additional duties, with the number of cases filed with family courts rising to about 1.14 million in 2022, up nearly 300,000 from 2012, according to judicial statistics.

Prior to the revision, Japan had been the only country among the Group of Seven industrialized nation with no joint custody system, according to a Justice Ministry survey of other countries released in 2020.

Discussion of Japan’s sole custody system emerged partly in response to global criticism over parental abduction cases involving Japanese spouses who took children away from foreign partners after the failure of marriages and made it difficult for the foreign parent to see their children in Japan.

Japan joined in 2014 an international treaty to help settle cross-border child custody disputes. But in 2020, the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging Japan to improve its child custody rules, under which European parents in Japan have little recourse in the event of domestic child abduction by a Japanese spouse. ENDS

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Reuters: Biden calls ally Japan ‘xenophobic’ along with rivals China and Russia (May 2, 2024). Bravo Biden!

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Hi Blog.  The next significant development over the past couple of weeks is POTUS Biden sounding off on xenophobia in Japan (and fellow ally India, as well as Russia and China), citing Japan’s inability to accept immigrants and harness their potential as a key issue in Japan’s longstanding economic doldrums.

(Reuters article on this below.)

COMMENT:  Debito.org says “Bravo Biden!”, for obvious reasons we’ve covered on Debito.org since its beginning back in 1995.  For generations now Japan has gotten a free pass on its racial discrimination (about which I’ve written entire books) simply because it’s an ally.  It’s about time somebody in leadership chided things in the right direction.  Unfortunately, geopolitics and human rights do not mix, and the latter has taken a back seat to the former for too long.

The response will be predictable and obvious.  There will be the requisite handwringing from the diplomats and media, and the knee-jerk reactions from the ethnostatists defending Japan’s putative ethnic purity or sovereignty in various comments sections (although human rights supersede pat claims of sovereignty if you’ve signed the CERD, which Japan did nearly 30 years ago and still has not passed any laws against racial discrimination).

Whatever.  It’s long overdue to state the fact that Japan as a polity simply will not keep its international promises, and Debito.org agrees with Biden that Japan’s lack of any official immigration policy hurts Japan as a society both economically and demographically.  Debito Arudou, Ph.D.

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Biden calls ally Japan ‘xenophobic’ along with rivals China and Russia
BY JUSTIN SINK AND ISABEL REYNOLDS, BLOOMBERG
Reuters/Japan Times, May 2, 2024
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2024/05/02/japan/politics/biden-china-japan-india-xenophobia/

U.S. President Joe Biden included ally Japan along with rivals China and Russia in a list of countries he called “xenophobic” on Wednesday, in a speech at a campaign fundraising event in Washington.

Biden reiterated remarks he made last month linking China’s economic woes to its unwillingness to accept immigration. This time he added Russia, but also longstanding ally Japan, whose Prime Minister Fumio Kishida he welcomed for a summit and state dinner in Washington just three weeks ago.

“You know, one of the reasons our economy is growing is because of you and many others. Why? Because we welcome immigrants,” Biden told Asian American and Pacific Islander donors Wednesday. “The reason — think about it — why is China stalling so bad economically? Why is Japan having trouble? Why is Russia, why is anyone? Because they’re xenophobic, they don’t want immigrants.”

His criticisms and the fact that Japan was mentioned alongside two major U.S. rivals could raise hackles in Tokyo. The U.S. and Japan announced a “significant upgrade” to their defense ties last month, citing the need to counter China’s “dangerous” actions in the Indo-Pacific region.

The April summit in Washington was overshadowed by Biden’s stance on a plan for Japan’s Nippon Steel to buy United States Steel, after he said the firm should remain U.S.-owned.

Japan’s government acknowledges its aging and shrinking population is a source of concern, with Kishida himself saying the issue threatens society’s ability to function.

The country is also gradually opening the door to more immigrants, many of whom are filling jobs in sectors where there are shortages of workers.

The number of foreign residents in Japan rose to a record high of 3.4 million in December 2023, up 10% on the previous year and representing about 2.7% of the population of about 124 million.

A survey by the Asahi newspaper published last month found 62% of respondents said more foreign workers should be accepted, compared with 44% in a similar poll in 2018. ENDS

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(Prior comments from Debito.org Readers on the Biden statement starting here.)

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My SNA Visible Minorities col 55: “From Dancing Monkey to Symbol of Hope”: Interview with Ibaraki Prefectural Assemblyman and naturalized Canadian-Japanese Jon Heese (May 2, 2024)

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Hi Blog.  Here’s my latest SNA column, where Jon Heese and I have yet another candid chat (previous ones here, here, and here) about politics in Japan — he as a politician, me as a columnist with a PoliSci background and a more adversarial relationship to power. Enjoy. I did. Debito Arudou, Ph.D.

Visible Minorities: From Dancing Monkey to Symbol of Hope
Shingetsu News Agency, May 02, 2024, by Debito Arudou
https://shingetsunewsagency.com/2024/05/02/visible-minorities-from-dancing-monkey-to-symbol-of-hope/

BIOJon Heese is becoming an old hand in Japanese politics, having served 13 years at various levels of government. He is presently one of five councilors representing Tsukuba (60 km NE of Tokyo) in the Ibaraki Prefectural Assembly—similar to a state or provincial legislature. After winning four terms at the city level, Mr. Heese leveled up in December, 2022. He is the first foreign-born politician to ever serve at the regional level.  He sat down for an interview with Debito Arudou for his Visible Minorities column in April 2024.

SNA:  Hi Jon.  Thanks for agreeing to yet another interview with me. 

Heese:  It’s the least I can do for my favorite rabble rouser.

SNA:  Let me open with an argument:  I make the case in one of my recent columns (https://www.debito.org/?p=17392) that we don’t see enough former Non-Japanese running for office because the Japanese government doesn’t want them to.  With no immigration policy, the GOJ doesn’t just encourage NJ to become voters and citizens, they make it hard to graduate up to Permanent Residency and citizenship.  Would you agree with that assessment?

Heese:  No immigration policy? Do you mean “no policy to import labor willy-nilly à la every western country?” The question is already loaded. As for policy to prevent naturalization, thereby enfranchisement, I do not see any active policies intending to keep NJ from getting citizenship. Overall I see their immigration policies as an attempt to ensure that only contributing foreigners are allowed to stay beyond the 90 day tourist visa by obtaining a longer visa. Many countries try to keep out deadbeats. Japan is no different. By deadbeats, I mean people who are only coming to take advantage of our rather generous social services.

SNA:  Hang on.  Point of order.  We’re still falling back on those boilerplate arguments we see in the chauvinistic media that some foreigners are freeloaders.  Not so.  Every person in Japan one way or another pays some form of tax, and we’ve had study after study showing that migrants and immigrants on balance contribute more to every society than they take out.  So let’s not resort to reflexive foreigner bashing “à la every Western Country”.  Now back to your point about naturalization.

Heese: Immigrants are by their nature successful. The poorest and sickest cannot afford the cost of the trip, whether to pay for flights, boats, or other forms of transportation. Migrants demonstrate their motivation just by reaching our borders. Unsurprisingly they work hard to continue in their successful ways or leave for greener pastures. My “à la every Western Country” comment is a reference to how much stricter Japan is to whom they give visas.

SNA:  And that’s kinda the point I’m making in my opening argument. 

Heese:  To continue, it’s been my observation that the highest bar for naturalization is Japan’s demand that new citizens give up their previous citizenship. Though I disagree with the government’s ban on dual citizenship, I believe the government, as representatives of the people, have the right to make the rules. Are their rules shortsighted? In my opinion, yes. Will they change those rules at some point? I believe they will. However, given that it’s actually easier to get citizenship than permanent residency, it’s not the government keeping people from voting, it’s the foreigners themselves that are keeping themselves from voting.

SNA:  Okay, spoken like a true Japanese politician.  Blame the foreigner for the rules that are set by the politicians and bureaucrats. 

Heese:  Would you have the foreigners setting their own rules…?

SNA:  Yes.  I think they should have some input into the process.  They know better what’s best for them.  Especially if they’ve leveled-up out of being foreign.  To circle back to my opening point, the government is trying not to let them level up.

Heese:  It is my understanding that only a few countries out there that allow non-citizens to vote. And those countries that do permit participation limit foreigners to local elections. I understand Japan’s logic but disagree with their fears of potential consequences.

SNA:  Granted, I also make the case that NJ have to take it upon themselves to stop being “guests” and enfranchise themselves.  You’ve advanced a similar argument (even to me when I considered running for office), only much more softly.  Have you encountered much “guestism”

Heese:  I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “guestism,” but I will assume you mean foreigners who see themselves as guests in spite of their very heavy investments in land and life in Japan.

SNA:  Yes, basically.  What of it then?

Heese:  I see guestism all the time. I have also seen quite an uptick in people taking citizenship. Back when you and I naturalized we were still outliers. That is no longer the case. I estimate that the experiences of those who have become Japanese has influenced the thinking of lifers. When I arrived in Japan in ‘91 it was years before I ever met a naturalized person. You may be the first one I ever talked to. Former Upper House Diet Member Tsurunen Marutei would likely have been the first I ever heard of. You can’t be what you can’t see. As more of us appeared, and, with the ability to share our experiences via social media, that we never had any issues getting through immigration, never felt pushback from our surrounding communities, indeed, life was really no different from pre to post naturalization, others took the plunge.

SNA:  Yes, but that was then and this is now.  I say there is a lot more pushback now.  It’s harder to get Permanent Residency because you need a 3-year visa to get it, and there are plenty of incentives—and examples—of people being stuck on perpetual one-year visas.  Then COVID really flipped the script, where even those who had graduated up to Permanent Residents suddenly realized that they were no better than any short-term visa holder.  They were, in the end, just garden-variety foreigners who couldn’t come back if they left.

Heese:  I would argue it’s much easier than when I first came in ’91 to get PR. My first experiences with PR lifers, they needed to have worked 10 (continuous) years or be married to a local to get their PR in 5 years. These days they are offering the same to desired workers after 3 years. Other workers only need 5 years. No Japanese family necessary. I would also point out it’s now easier to get citizenship. Back in our day we needed to have a Japanese spouse to get citizenship. No longer.

SNA:  Just a quick interruption, sorry.  That last bit is not actually true.  I know of a number of single people who managed to naturalize despite being dedicated bachelors or unsavory characters.  Delfo Zorzi or Nicola Zappetti, for example.  And again, back to PR:  Yes, the years are less on paper, but reaching the 3-year visa threshold is harder.  I will agree with you, however, that naturalization is easier than PR nowadays.  As long as you are willing to burn bridges with your country of origin, of course, and that’s no small thing.

Heese:  I was told specifically back then I needed to be married. However, the Japanese bureaucracy does, on occasion, make exceptions. When I make the case these days to lifers, I point to what happened during the COVID pandemic. When the first travel bans were enacted there were no restrictions on the Japanese themselves. Japanese all had the right to come back. Yes, it was shameful, but the mewlings of you and I were not going to influence the Immigration officials.

SNA:  Right.  But again, the rules are not set by the foreigners, so I think mewling is warranted here.  It was a border control policy grounded in racism, not immunological science.

Heese:  No counterargument on my part. As the memory of the pandemic fades I will fall back to my initial argument of, “You have too much invested here for you to have no right to return.” In principle I ask lifers if they honestly believe they’re going back to their “homeland.” If not, then why are they holding on to some privilege they’ll likely never use? In addition, even if they give up their previous citizenship, it’s been my understanding that reacquiring their previous citizenship is pretty easy and straightforward.

SNA:  Really?  Maybe in Canada, but I doubt other countries are so forgiving.  I’ve found that United States officials even view giving up US citizenship as an act of betrayal.

Heese:  I think Canada would be more a world model than the US. Much of Canadian immigration policy would be influenced by the British Commonwealth. Last I saw there were more than 50 countries in the Commonwealth. In any case, I ask what is really being risked by taking citizenship? Importantly, why are they risking their working life’s investment for a “maybe someday” idea?

SNA:  Okay, so to summarize, it’s clear that you’re very much on the side of the philosophy of “shit or get off the pot” when it comes to living in Japan as a Japanese citizen, even finding naturalization preferable to just taking out PR.  Again, COVID made that choice much clearer.  So how hard have you pushed people to naturalize and get elected?  What arguments have you made to them to do so?

Heese:  I would generally recommend PR before naturalization for people from developed countries. Immigrants from less developed societies likely have nothing to go back to so giving up their citizenship is not an issue.

Regarding my efforts to get others to run, there is one poor woman I’ve been hounding to run for city council for a decade already. By now it’s just a personal joke between us. She’ll never run but it wouldn’t surprise me if she naturalizes. I don’t understand why she hasn’t already. Different strokes, I guess.

SNA:  Definitely.  I too came this close to running for Sapporo City Council back in the day.

Heese:  Yes you did. And your decision gave me a lot to ponder on. What I have come to realize is people run for their own reasons. The candidates best suited to run don’t need a dumbass like me to push them. At best I can show them the ropes. Towards that end I’ve written a few blog posts, one with instructions on how to run an election, and another outlining what I actually did as a city councilor. I think I shared those sites already. If not, I’ll pass them along.

There is a link to the second post in the first.

Heese:  This year I’ve started a new project to log all my work activities at the prefecture, including travel times. You may have seen some of them on LinkedIn. As well as activities I try to liven my posts up with personal observations regarding the political system. People think politicians are the government. How naïve! I’m doing my best to show how much work and what the work involves. My job is not at all what people think it is.

SNA:  Well, spill the tea, Marie.  What exactly is your job?  Sell it to us, since you even hound people to run.

Heese:  Rather than just explaining my job, it will be useful to explain government. Understand that even after 15 years my views are still a work in progress.

SNA:  As they should be.  Politics is complicated.  Any official who thinks they have all the answers is self-delusional.  Please go on.

Heese:  The government is actually a symbiosis of elected and unelected officials. I’ll start with the unelected officials, commonly known as civil servants. Their role is to maintain the machine as well as come up with solutions to problems society encounters on our common journey. Maintenance looks automatic but small adjustments still need to be made.

SNA:  So you clearly fall into the camp of government exists in order to solve problems.  For the record, I agree, but remember I came of age during Reagan and Friedman’s “small government” era, where “government is not the solution to the problem; government IS the problem.”  And I’ve spent a lifetime realizing that good public policy is possible.  Japan convinced me of that.  Pity Japan, for its part, is too timid sometimes to solve problems because people fear taking responsibility for making mistakes or causing unintended consequences.  Instead they should better prepare the public in advance for what the potentially positive or negative consequences of a policy might be.  [Sighs]  Yeah, maybe I should have run for office after all…

Heese: Ha! I believe you should have. Serving would have been an eye-opening experience for you. As for public problems, a considerable amount of effort is made creating, distributing, and analyzing questionnaires. Walk-ins also make requests at the various service counters, keeping the civil service well informed of the needs and wants of the people. It is from these questionnaires that new policy is born.

SNA:  So you see policymaking in Japan as more bottom-up rather than top-down.  I think most observers of Japan might think the opposite.

Heese:  Yes, like everywhere the media poorly portrays how the sausage is really made. Generally the populace believe that civil servants are managed by the elected officials, thus the power lies with the politicians. I believe it’s the other way around. If you’ve ever had the pleasure to watch the BBC programs, “Yes, Minister,” and “Yes, Prime Minister,” their depiction of how government actually works is much closer to the truth than the media leads us to believe. If you haven’t watched it, it is MUST WATCH TV for anyone who wants to understand government. In my opinion it is the groups of unassuming civil servants who wield the greatest amount of collective power. Just as the CEO is the one who gets all the credit, it is more than likely the secretary that runs the ship.

SNA:  Then policymaking in Japan actually is top-down, yes?  Then why so many questionnaires?  Are we actually seeing an example of successful Marxist “Democratic Centralism,” where input is collected from below and channeled upwards, but once the decision is made from the top, people below must follow it since they have given their input?  Okay, sorry, I’ll stuff my PoliSci textbook back in my mouth and let you continue.

Heese:  As I said, it’s a symbiosis. My role, as elected representative of the people, is to act as the immune system. My duties in council are generally to shoot down any brick balloons some aspiring group of civil servants might try to float past the house. That bills seldom get shot down is due to a deep understanding by the civil service of what the people want.

SNA:  Okay, let me underscore this.  As a politician, you see yourself as actually protecting the people from the bureaucrats?

Heese:  Absolutely!!!!! One only needs to look at failing countries to see how terrible things can get when the bureaucracy or politicians capture the public purse. If the balance is off, look out!

My secondary job is to act as a mouthpiece for the people. I bring ideas and problems to the civil service they may not yet have been exposed to. However, I am also a teacher, in a sense. I find that I spend about 30% of conversations with citizens explaining how the system works. In addition, I listen to people’s issues and try to solve them by pointing them in the right direction, whether that’s toward the entry point of the government service they are looking for, or the company which will be able to handle their situation.

SNA:  I doubt most people see politicians in Japan, or anywhere for that manner, so positively.  Do you think most of your elected compadres have a similar view of themselves being a dedicated public servant?

Heese:  That is a very good question I’ll need to ask. I’m sure the topic will provide some interesting fodder. Ask me again in 6 months and I’ll spill what I learned.

How I personally approach the public relations part of the job is to engage as many people as I can on any given day. I try to be approachable. I can’t possibly know what people’s needs are beyond Maslow’s basics. And I’ll never know if they don’t tell me.

SNA:  Huh.  Well, that’s a bit strange to me.  In my dealings with Japanese politicians in the past, especially when I was trying to get legislation passed to outlaw racial discrimination and get “Japanese Only” signs down, I rarely saw them giving much more than a popcorn fart about listening to the people.  Perhaps it was the complexity of the issue.  Perhaps it was because people who look like me probably can’t vote so who cares?  But for the most part, if there wasn’t an election at hand, I found Japanese politicians at best noncommittal, at worst actively avoiding any chance to listen to folks like you say you do.  Are you an outlier?

Heese:  Of course I’m an outlier. To be blunt, I take the approach of being constantly in election mode. I don’t have an election machine I can just fire up nor can I assume I’ll get reelected simply because I’m an incumbent. I’ve seen too many cases of incumbents getting their walking papers to believe it can’t happen to me. In my case every vote is won at the individual level so I am required to be out and about.

I am, by nature, very curious. I am always happy to listen to what people do. In “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell mentions three kinds of people: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. I do my best to be a bit of all three but I know I am best suited to be a Connector. I don’t know enough about any given topic to be a Maven and my ideas aren’t well developed enough to be a Salesman. Hence, I spend a lot of time just trying to get to know people and introducing them to others who can help them.

SNA:  I plead guilty to being a Maven.

I can’t speak to your experiences with other politicians except to say that NJ needs are seldom a high priority, not because their needs aren’t important, but because there’s unlikely to be traction within the surrounding community. Your concerns regarding “Japanese Only” signage won’t be showing up in questionnaires either.

On the other hand, here in Tsukuba, where foreigners are plentiful and a vital part of the community, such a sign would only last a day or two before the Mayor’s office would come down like a ton of bricks on any business foolish enough to post one. On a few occasions I’ve been informed, for example, of a policy that a local gym, a chain, has implemented requiring members to be able to communicate in Japanese. Their argument is safety in case of an injury. Pure BS. The problem is invariably a new manager from outside Tsukuba thinks they can run their shop like they do in Butthole-shi. Have staff who speak English ya moron! Or train them in basic English. Easy enough in highly educated Tsukuba. I’ve spoken to the mayor about the issue and he was very attentive, requesting I pass on unresolved instances.

So, to summarize my job, I shoot down bad ideas, promote good ones, and introduce people to others with solutions to their problems. To be blunt, I love my job, but I also recognize that not everyone can do it. One needs a tough skin to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous allegations.

SNA:  I’ll say.  Again, I’m not sure I’d have the patience to put up with what I see you putting up with, just from the standpoint of shrugging off your how you’re treated occasionally as an outsider or an anomaly in the halls of power.  But that’s perhaps a topic for a future interview.  That’s really all the time we have for today.  I want to thank you for agreeing to another interview with me, Jon.  I look forward to slinging some arrows at you again next time. 

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Heese:  We all have our roles to play. At times I’m the dancing monkey. On other occasions I am the symbol of hope for newbies straight off the boat. I do my best to play my part well. Thanks for keeping me on my toes. I look forward to our next conversation. ENDS

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BLOG BIZ: Coming out of the busiest semester I’ve ever had; will try to update more.

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Hi Blog.  On a personal note, it’s been the busiest semester for me ever, teaching 19.5 college credits and around 250 students.  Consequently, updating Debito.org has been slow since I’ve been devoting all my energies to creating lectures, lecturing, grading, and sleep.  Repeat cycle for sixteen weeks.  Just coming out of it now.  I’ll try to do better, since there’s plenty to comment about (and Debito.org Readers have been doing an excellent job in the Comments sections of each post; thanks!).  But for the first time ever, I didn’t immediately blog my most recent SNA column!  I’ll get to it.  Thanks very much to everyone for reading and commenting to Debito.org.  Debito Arudou, Ph.D.

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