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Hi Blog. I’ve been doing Debito.org for decades now, and one thing that I admit I find annoying is how people talk shite about me. I don’t mind if people disagree with me — as I note below, it’s the nature of the beast when dealing with issues this contentious. But what really rankles is how some types will criticize me for things I didn’t say and didn’t do. Even when there’s ample record out there (decades of archives and thousands of articles on Debito.org and elsewhere) for people to properly cite and research, some people still cling to preconceptions and prejudices they formed either long ago, or based upon information they got second- or third-hand from other people of their ilk also talking shite. And since there are lots of them and one of me, I largely have to remain silent towards these criticisms or else I’d have no time to get anything done.
But I had an exchange some time ago when someone shared my blog entry on the Ten-Take tempura restaurant’s “JAPANESE ONLY” sign in Asakusa, Tokyo on a social networking site. As you will see below, the critic is clearly someone who is articulate and should, based upon his education, be able to research better. He voiced his criticisms in much the same way the garden-variety trolls do, but with a degree of persuasiveness that I thought deserved an answer.
Let this exchange be a stock answer to all the people who think I’m making matters worse through my actions to fight racism and discrimination in Japan. Naturally, I’m gonna disagree, and here’s why. Dr. ARUDOU, Debito
This is how the conversation began, being the first response to the shared post:
April 6, 2014:
[Name changed, rendered as Billy] writes:
The problem I always have with David Aldwinkle [sic] comes in his suggestion at the end. Asking people to start harassing the restaurant owner with phone calls? Way to reinforce the 迷惑 stereotype of foreigners that this restaurant owner already has. Aldwinkle often seems to want to head up some kind of gaijin mafia hit squad that goes around naming, shaming, hounding, and publicly humiliating anyone suspected of mistreating foreigners in Japan. It’s ugly mob tactics, and it makes him look just as ugly, if not uglier, than the people with the “Japanese Only” signs. In many cases, Aldwinkle’s attitude and tactics earn some sympathy for those signs.
Aldwinkle’s crude approach especially comes to light in the fifth comment on that blog post. Someone suggests a sensible, conciliatory approach with the restaurant owner, offering to translate menus for him and to resolve other problems. Aldwinkle won’t let this comment go up on his blog without attaching to it a snarky, bolded response that aims to humiliate the comment’s author. Maybe Aldwinkle would be proven right in the end that this restaurant owner wouldn’t budge, but Aldwinkle isn’t particularly interested in finding out. His first pass in these situations is to accuse and attack, immediately putting anyone in his path on the defensive. He tosses hand grenades in situations where gentle words might have more effect.
Arudou Debito…the guy who took Japanese citizenship so that he could try to force Japanese people to behave more like Americans.
April 6, 2014 (in response to some comments):
In my experience, people don’t attack Debito-san for “their own reasons” so much as they criticize him because he is a highly abrasive person who burns bridges and seeks to cause offense. Debito-san always turns these criticisms into attacks against him, and then proceeds to alienate his critics even further. Whatever good points he sometimes has are often lost to his heavy-handed language used to bully people into his viewpoint. This is a guy who publicly stated to a room full of people that he got Japanese citizenship so he could rub it in their (Japanese people’s) noses.
Bully really is the best word to describe him. That, and hot-head. He takes offense at everything, and he tears into anyone who offends him. I’ve seen him in action. He lived for years in my wife’s hometown. If Debito called a restaurant about a sign, I’m fairly certain he launched immediately into angry, confrontational accusations. If a Japanese restaurant owner feels that he can’t deal with foreigners, encouraging a lot of foreigners to call is only going to engender bitterness.
But Debito doesn’t seem to care about how people feel. He doesn’t want to win over hearts and minds. His own abrasive demeanor can’t do this, and so he’s concluded that it’s impossible for anyone to succeed in Japan by being kind. When I’ve spoken to him before, his version of winning seems much more oriented toward orchestrating a public shaming against someone, after which Debito engages in some crowing about how his stance is morally superior to anyone else’s. Threatening and forcing people into submission is much more his style. From my limited interactions with him, I’ve had to conclude that he’s simply not a nice human being, nor a happy person. Even when he does have a legitimate complaint, his approach typically only reinforces whatever negative stereotypes he’s complaining about.
April 6, 2014 (in response to more comments):
That sentiment that society needs to change is, in itself, not a particularly Japanese one. Society is changing nonetheless, but Japan has spent much of its history trying either to avoid change or to carefully manage it within strict (Japanese) boundaries.
We can think Japan needs to change, but short of a massive influx of foreigners into Japan who gain citizenship and through raw numbers effect rapid change, the pace of change is going to be controlled by Japanese people more than by anyone else. Any approach that doesn’t involve changes happening from within the belly of Japanese society might win a few superficial battles (a court settlement against an onsen, for example), but it’s not going to bring about any real change.
In the case of this restaurant sign, I can think of three approaches that might possibly work:
The first is polite confrontation that involves questions instead of accusations and offers to help (menu translations, etc.) It’s hard to say with certainty the odds of this working, but it sometimes does.
The second is simply to walk into the restaurant, sit down and order, and if challenged, reply in Japanese, “Your sign said no one under five years old. I’m over five, so is there a problem?” Focusing on what the Japanese says and pretending the English isn’t even there forces the owner to initiate the confrontation, which many Japanese people won’t do. It may not get the sign taken down, but enough instances of this will render it meaningless in the owner’s mind.
The third way, and probably the most effective in Japan, is to subtly draw attention to the sign and the restaurant to Japanese friends and allies. Make a lot of friends, and make those friendships the sort where those Japanese people will be aghast that you might be barred from an establishment. Many of those Japanese friends might, as Japanese people tend, opt to avoid any conflict, but many will talk. They’ll express in passing how awful a sign like that is to other Japanese people, and then those people will steadily begin to take note of such signs and find them odious, too. It’s a long-game approach. It won’t get the sign taken down today. But it’s probably the best chance at actually changing anything in Japan.
I quite vividly remember eating a very good sushi meal in Abashiri one spring a number of years back with some friends after the owners tried to keep us out. In that case, there wasn’t a sign, but we were told that we wouldn’t be served as soon as we walked in the door. After asking just a couple questions trying to clarify the restaurant’s policy (within earshot of a dozen or so customers at various tables who were in various stages of eating), we were quickly seated. The owners saw their Japanese customers starting to look uncomfortable at our being turned away, which we drew attention to with our questions, and that unspoken pressure from the other customers was enough to resolve the situation favorably. We got good sushi. They got some friendly, polite customers who spent a fair amount of money, and the service grew less awkward and reluctant as our meal progressed.
But Debito? He probably would have opted for a press conference in front of the place rather than eat a meal there, which would have benefited no one.
April 7, 2014:
[Another poster Curtis; name changed] writes:
When [my wife] and I first took over [our workplace], the first teacher we hired was initially denied the apartment we had found for her for being foreign. I contact Debito and his advice and support were very practical and measured. Thanks to his help we ended up getting the teacher into the apartment. I think he has become somewhat more forceful recently–probably out of understandable frustration and in response to attacks that are very often unreasonable and apologist in nature–but the stereotype I hear of him doesn’t match the Debito I’ve encountered in real life. From what I’ve seen in person, I think he would handle an encounter with the restaurant owner in a measured and reasonable fashion.
April 7, 2014:
Arudou Debito writes:
Thank you, [Curtis]. And that’s exactly what I did, in a measured and reasonable manner. I called Ten-take, simply asked if they had a Japanese Only rule in place (they do), and asked why — as I always do. They gave me the three reasons why as I reported them on my website (they wouldn’t have given them if all I did was accused them). When I asked if he thought all foreigners would behave in the manner he gave as reasons, he said that he just couldn’t handle them (tai’ou shi kirenai) due to a language barrier. When I asked him if this was not in some way discriminatory (kore wa sabetsu de wa nai deshou ka), he hung up on me.
You might ask the other person who was in the room with me when I made this call, but there was no confrontationalism, no shouting, no raising of voices on either side, no taking offense at “everything” — in fact, nothing of what [Billy] is accusing me of without any evidence whatsoever (which is quite unbecoming of a PhD-level researcher and former educator of his stature over at [XXXX]).
Frankly, I don’t think he’s ever seen me in action. If he would do some research over at the Rogues’ Gallery of Exclusionary Establishments and read up on some case studies I have recorded there as my doctoral fieldwork, he would see that I have at various junctures taken every one of the steps that he suggests above. Further, if he would read my book JAPANESE ONLY, he might see that we spent more than fifteen months trying to win over hearts and minds during the Otaru Onsens Case before we finally resorted to going to court and holding those inevitable press conferences.
Moreover, I don’t recall ever having the pleasure of ever meeting or talking with [Billy]. And I certainly don’t recall ever saying to any room that I took Japanese citizenship so I could rub it in their noses (the narrative for my naturalization I have always used has been the same as I have said here: http://www.debito.org/japantodaycolumns1-3.html); anyone who has read my essays or seen my speeches online or live knows that sort of language is just not in my vocabulary. Given the length and degree of confrontationalism within this very exchange, I think [Billy] is the one with the anger issues.
April 7, 2014:
[Curtis]: I also want to stick up for [Billy]. While I disagree with the Debito comments and believe they would be hurtful, he is also usually very measured in his responses and I have difficulty imagining him having issues with anger management.
April 7, 2014:
Billy: You never know, [Curtis]. I might be seething deep down inside.
But I am glad, Debito, that you joined this thread. I’d much rather have a discussion of your tactics with you here.
No, I wasn’t present for the phone call to this restaurant. But your description doesn’t do much to alleviate my concerns. I don’t know what the tone was on your initial questions or how the conversation started, but where it ended strikes me as highly confrontational. Accusing someone of racism in any language or culture is probably going to cause them to clam up, circle the wagons, or just walk away.
Yes, the sign is plainly discriminatory. But I question how likely an accusation of discrimination is to resolve the situation. My experience is that the language you use in that conversation, “差別,” is inflammatory, not likely to resolve the situation, and potentially likely to make it worse. At the very best, it will force a superficial change in the behavior (the sign comes down), while leaving a sour impression among those involved. Externally pressuring people to keep their racist tendencies hidden under the surface maybe gets a person into an establishment today, but does it ultimately make the culture or the individuals involved better?
And in Japan, word about such things gets around, and being on the right side of sympathy helps a lot. I’ve had about half a dozen conversations with various Japanese people over the years, some whom I’ve known very well and regarded as good friends–people who are not at all sympathetic to racism–about you and your tactics, Debito. They’ve brought up the topic of you, often knowing I’d lived in Hokkaido and wondering if I knew you or knew of you. What I’ve heard said in some form or another in every conversation is that, while you identify many real problems, your approach decidedly does not fit with Japanese culture, and it probably earns the people putting up those signs more sympathy than they’d otherwise get. That’s the public image that you often project, Debito. Maybe you’re O.K. with that; maybe you disagree that it’s how many Japanese people think about you. But I’ve heard it from enough people that I’m not making off-the-cuff remarks here.
Finally, yes, Debito, you are unlikely to recall, but we have crossed paths on a few occasions. The one at which you made the rather indelicate comment about why you opted for Japanese citizenship was at a JET recontracting conference in Kobe about 14 years ago. I asked a question or two to you during your session and talked briefly with you afterward. Your comment was made in response to someone else asking you why bother with Japanese citizenship if you are so critical of so much in Japan. You gave two three reasons, as I recall, the first two being that it made sense since you owned a home and were invested here that you have the commensurate status and political rights and that some day it might allow you to run for political office if the opportunity presented itself. But then you said that the other reason is to–whether your exact phrasing at the time was to rub or to hold, my memory is fuzzy, but “noses” was definitely a part of it–wave that passport under their noses when they tried to exclude you as non-Japanese. The statement drew quite a reaction from the people sitting around me–it struck all of us as a very crude reason to get citizenship, one in which the goal was less to become part of this other culture and nation and more to gain political standing (power) in this nation in order to force people to bend to your sensibilities.
And, of course, there you are, pictured in your rogue’s gallery, passport in hand, putting pressure on managers to give you entrance. Should they open their doors to all customers? Yes. But I’m not particularly clear how trying to impose on these Japanese people Western ideas of nation-state citizenship when their idea of “Japanese” is cultural and ethnic is really going to solve the problem. In some cases, you’ve definitely gotten policies reversed. You’ve definitely drawn attention to the problem. But is it really progress when a lot of this has to be accomplished by force through courts, human rights offices, and tourist bureaus? I remain skeptical.
April 7, 2014:
Arudou Debito: Thank you for your response, [Billy]. I can see better where you’re coming from now.
1) First, about the discrimination. I’m glad that we can agree that the sign is discriminatory. What you’re objecting to is me and my alleged tactics. So let’s focus on that.
2) When it comes to me, I can only see that you’re basing your information on what I do and have done on the embers of a memory, i.e., a speech I gave for the Hokkaido Association of Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (HAJET) and AJET, on “Survival Strategies, and How You Can Make a Difference in Japan” (Hakodate February 27 and Kobe May 29, 1999, respectively — before I had even “bothered with” Japanese citizenship or gone to the Otaru Onsens). You can read my write-ups for the occasion (which serve better than your memory — since I will again categorically deny that I said anything like what you claim) at http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#survivalstrategies.
3) Despite this, and despite testimonials from others who said that I do not behave as you claim, and despite the fact that I have recorded doctoral-quality fieldwork up at the Rogues’ Gallery (again, if I went in there only making accusations, I would not have engendered such detailed information about why the excluders were excluding), you still cling to this self-admittedly “fuzzy” memory as proof of my malicious character (viz. “not a nice human being”). Then you wonder why “Debito always turns these criticisms into attacks against him.” Because instead of dealing with the issue of the discriminatory sign, the first sentence you open up with in this exchange is a volley against me: “The problem I always have with David Aldwinkle [sic]…” QED.
4) Understandably, much of this invective is the nature of the beast, as we are dealing with contentious issues (racism, which many people deny even EXISTS in Japan), and so doing anything that goes against the status quo (especially in Japan) will cause controversy. Doubly so for somebody trying to get an exclusionary sign down. Trying to get sympathy for that is pretty challenging when we don’t have empathy to begin with — most people who ever see that sign are not being targeted by it, and even if they feel it’s wrong, many conflict-avoiding habits would encourage them to simply ignore it and take their business elsewhere. But as the Rogues’ Gallery demonstrates, that simply encourages copycatting elsewhere, nationwide; the sign must come down, for it legitimizes and normalizes overt exclusionary behavior.
But again, let’s recognize this field of racism for what it is — a minefield — and understand that nobody is going to agree on one solution for how to deal with it. I have basically tried everything (including all the tactics you have suggested), with varying degrees of success. In some circumstances, it MUST be accomplished through courts, human rights offices, and tourist bureaus. Why else do you think these means of mediation exist? Because every society has bigots who simply will never change their minds and treat people without their own racialized baggage. Short of a law to criminalize discriminatory behavior, that is how anyone can (and sometimes must) seek recourse in Japan.
5) Now, usually I don’t bother with this type of bullyragging from people like you who play the man instead of the ball, but I see you have a Ph.D. (in English), and should be able to engage in better research. So I steered you towards some information sources to research. However, all you cite within them is a photograph of me “passport in hand” (for the record, it was taken after I had been refused entry, so forgive me for looking a bit indignant), without citing anything from the sources that would weaken your case (such as the many hours I spent with many of these discriminators calmly trying to convince them to repeal their rules). You thus steadfastly maintain your standpoint by collecting only the information that supports it. This is called confirmation bias, and as such goes against your doctoral training.
6) Finally, if you want to use the old “Japanese culture” meme to level criticism at me, then we’ll have to agree to disagree there (not the least because of the difficulty in defining “culture”). Since you cited some anonymous people who disagree with my alleged methods as some sort of cultural representatives, well, I’ll cite back all the Japanese people who have told me they’re very glad I’m doing what I’m doing and how I’m doing it — partially because they never could (they themselves say they don’t have the mettle), and partially because they’re not in my position as a Caucasian Japanese, fighting for my children’s future of equal treatment here. You don’t agree with that, fine. But don’t serve this soft science to further ground unfounded accusations about my tactics and character.
Let’s put the shoe on the other foot: I can’t help but think that what’s really bugging you is that you’re seeing a White guy doing all this (you even started out this conversation refusing to use my real name, let alone research it sufficiently to spell it correctly). If a native Japanese speaker went in and said, “Sabetsu de wa nai deshou ka?” (which I have heard said by native speakers on these occasions many times; it is a question, not an accusation), I bet you wouldn’t dare accuse him or her of defying Japanese culture or of imposing Western values. Because he’s not Western, in your eyes. Ooh, that sounds a bit racist on your part.
Now, how does that feel? Rather presumptuous, no?
But I have no evidence (short of that interaction you said we had long ago, and we are having now) to impugn your character like that. [Curtis] (a man I have great respect for) vouches for your anger-free character (as I hope he would, since he hired you). So I won’t make a claim that you are being racist. But the evidence is certainly present in this exchange that your spurious judgments about me as a person have overpowered your research training. I can only conclude that if it is not prejudicial in nature towards people like me fighting racial discrimination in my country, then it is based upon a latent anger on your part being facilitated by the Internet that needs pacifying with evidence and reason.
Let’s hope that this exchange ultimately brings your training as an educator and researcher out of you. If not, thanks for the debate, and let’s get back on with our lives.
We did so. Dr. ARUDOU, Debito