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. 

======================
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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5 comments on “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)

  • Ugh, the first part is painful to read. He sounds like the average right wing rag, à la Sankei, or Breitbart, or the average LDP politician. Did he ever do research on immigration policies of western countries? Because there’s no such thing as a “policy to import labor willy-nilly “. It’s very hard to immigrate to western countries, even countries like the US, Canada, or Germany that take in a lot of immigrants, have strict criteria. I would especially recommend to read the EU’s agenda 2030 document, one important talking point is sustainable immigration for example. The difference is that immigrants have actual human right’s in those countries, while “trainees” (the government won’t even call them immigrants) in Japan mostly don’t.

    “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.”

    Just lol. This right wing argument that most immigrants just come over to take advantage of social services has been debunked by every legit study ever done on this topic (I’m talking about legit studies by legit universities, not by right wing think tanks). All these studies always come to the conclusion that immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take away by using benefits. Also, none of these benefits come for free. If I pay the same amount of taxes and health insurance as a Japanese national, I should have the same rights to social services. It’s that simple.

    I’m glad you immediately pushed back on his statements Debito.

    But he continues with another false statement: ” 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”

    Not true, countless of stories are out there about immigrants failing in Japan and leaving after only a few years (and some unfortunately even die in detention centers, or at work). I would argue that the number of immigrants leaving Japan after a few years is much higher than the number of those who succeed and stay permanently. And like Debito points out this is by design. First of all, the Japanese government doesn’t call most of it’s immigrants immigrants, but “trainees” and only gives them a 5 year visa, after which they have to leave the country and are not allowed to return. If you’re a white collar worker, you can technically stay indefinitely, but as Debito points out, the government makes it hard to get PR or nationalize by design. It’s also not true that the “poorest and sickest” don’t come. The majority of immigrants (who are referred to as “trainees” by Japan) come from poor countries like Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, etc. There are a bunch of articles online that talk about how these people often spend all their money on a “broker” who get’s them a job in Japan and once these people land in Japan, they’re definitely not getting rich, but are mostly staying poor, abused and overworked, especially if compared to Japanese workers. A lot of them also arrive in Japan not in perfect health at all and often their health get’s even worse in Japan, because they have to do 12 hours of manual labor for minimum, or often even below minimum wage. This has been talked about here on Debito.org and was covered by various news publications in Japan and abroad, including the BBC, New York Times, etc. Even the UN calls the “trainee system” modern slavery. A Japanese politician should know this, instead of making incredibly false statements, that don’t reflect the reality of most immigrants.

    “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.”

    Don’t know what to say about such a statement. Completely agree with Debito here, typical Japanese politician talk, blame the victim, not the government. At least he disagrees about the dual nationality ban, but this part is just hilarious to me ” I believe the government, as representatives of the people, have the right to make the rules”. Ah yes, the typical LDP argument every time the UN, or a human right’s organization criticizes their policies. It’s always, “we are a sovereign nation and we can do what we want when it comes to our laws”. Yeah, while this may be true legally, I would like to consider the moral aspect of it too, because killing Jews in Nazi Germany was also perfectly legal, according to their laws. I’m not saying that not allowing dual citizenship is the same as the holocaust of course, but I just want to show how utterly weak the “we are a sovereign nation and we can do what we want” argument is. Also, the dual nationality ban discriminates against a lot of people, not just immigrants and “foreigners”, but mostly Japanese citizens who are the children of international marriages. It’s a bad joke that they have to decide on a single passport before they turn 22. This is a policy straight out of the 50s and the goal back then was to deny Zainichi Koreans Japanese citizenship and the goal today is obviously the same, but now it applies to much more nationalities than just Koreans.

    The second part of the interview becomes better, but I would still like to ask people here if the argument that you had to be married to a Japanese national to qualify for PR or naturalization back in the 90s, is true. Since I came to Japan way after the 90s and only stayed for 2 years because I couldn’t take the racism longer than that, I’m not really an expert on PR, or naturalization, since I never looked into it myself, but that statements seems false to me. I know some people who have acquired PR back then and they weren’t married and some still aren’t. Doing a quick Google search I found this website, which quotes the law for naturalization all the way back from 1899 and even back then, you didn’t have to be married. To quote the law: “The 1899 Nationality Law stipulated the following general conditions for naturalizing in Japan.

    Having had a domicile (住所 jūsho) in Japan for five or more years consecutively.
    Being fully twenty or more years of age, and having legal capacity under the law of one’s own country.
    Being of good character.
    Having sufficient property, or ability, to secure an independent livelihood.
    Having no nationality, or when one would lose one’s nationality as a result of acquiring Japanese nationality.”

    http://www.yoshabunko.com/nationality/Naturalization_0000.html

    It seems highly unlikely to me that there was ever a law or policy which stated that you had to be married to a Japanese national to qualify for PR or citizenship. Such a law doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of the Japanese government. According to such logic, you could just marry a Japanese national and get PR or even nationality, without ever having to do any work. So much about “keeping out deadbeats”.

    “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.”

    Oh, here we go again. First of all, the memory of the pandemic will not fade away for a lot of people, me included. I’ve personally been injured by the Pfizer vaccine and I now have an incurable disease and I’m disabled to a certain degree, while I was previously perfectly healthy. I will never forget the pandemic, neither will the millions of other vaccine injured people around the world, the tens or hundreds of million people who have been disabled by the virus in form of “long covid” and the millions of people who have died from the virus. The immigrants, including PR holders who have been banned from entering Japan for 6 months, will also surely never forget that. Especially all the PR holders who had their own businesses, houses and families they had to return to, but couldn’t (yet still had to pay all the taxes and loans of course). I’ve talked to so many people, including PR holders, who decided to leave Japan for good after that completely racist joke of a policy. A lot of them also accumulated a huge amount of debt, since they had to continue paying taxes, rent and other stuff in Japan, but weren’t able to return to their work and home.

    As to if someone wants to hold onto their citizenship or not, that should be up to the individual. I don’t plan to return to Japan ever, but in my case I would definitely keep my citizenship, even if I planned on dying in Japan, because firstly I know that I will never be considered Japanese and secondly, I believe that my home country and the European Union as a whole will protect my human right’s much better than Japan will ever do.

    “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.”

    Just lol again. Another completely false and ridiculous statement. I’m sure I don’t even have to comment on that.

    I also got sick by just reading this part: “Yes, it was shameful, but the mewlings of you and I were not going to influence the Immigration officials.”

    So, his answer to a racist policy is to just keep quiet and be a “good gaijin”, because your complaining is not going to change the government’s policy? I guess that every protestor ever should just pack up their things then and just go home, because nothing is going to change anyway. I guess MLK should’ve just kept quiet, because his “mewlings” didn’t change anything, oh wait!

    I mostly agree with his comments about how a democracy is not supposed to be top-down, but it’s also not bottom-up like he claims. I mean, maybe in Japan it is yes, because as discussed here on Debito.org, Japanese bureaucrats have immense power, especially over foreigners. They can basically just invent unexisting rules to deny you basic things. But I would argue that a real democracy should be balanced. The lawmakers make laws and the bureaucrats have to follow them, but if the bureaucrats see that a certain law isn’t really working out when applied to day to day situations, their job should be to inform the lawmakers about that and the lawmakers should listen what the bureaucrats have to say and change the laws based on their recommendations. That’s how a healthy democracy works.

    Anyways, I can still agree with most of the things he says at the end, but I have major reservations about the last part:

    “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.”

    It doesn’t matter what priority NJ rights have in the minds of Japanese politicians. The Japanese government signed the ICERD, so abide by it, or exit the UN.

    “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.”

    Well great, this may work in Tsukuba, but it obviously doesn’t work nation wide. It even doesn’t work in areas with a lot of foreign workers like he claims. Let’s take Shinjuku for example, a district with one of the highest numbers of foreigner’s registered, but also a place with the most “Japanese only” signs in all of Japan. Also, what will happen in Tsukuba if the current major is replaced by a right wing one one day? Nope, sorry, but I prefer a national law that would outlaw racial discrimination, like the ICERD demands it. It should not be up to local politicians to decide if they want to apply the ICERD or not, after all the Japanese government signed the agreement, so it should cover all of Japan. I’m also very skeptical about there not being a single Japanese only sign in whole of Tsukuba. And what about Tsukuba landlords? How many of them will deny housing to a foreigner?

    Sorry Debito, it seems like this guy is a friend, or at least an acquaintance of yours, but the majority of the things he said in this interview are just factually wrong, or simply outrageous, especially if you have actually spent any time researching about racism in Japan and spent time talking to some not so privileged immigrants (mostly “trainees” from poorer Asian countries). I don’t know what party and what politics he generally represents, but he sounds like the average right wing LDP politician. If this is the best a naturalized politician has to offer, then I’m not impressed at all. I think you really should’ve run for office Debito, at least with you in the office people like me and people who are even worse off than me would actually have a representative who cares about them, instead of doubling down on Wajin racism.

    Oh I forgot about this gem somehow: “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.”

    Sorry, but that’s just pure racism. Immigrants from less developed countries also have families and loved ones to go back to and they should also have the right to be “patriotic” and keep their citizenship if they want to. Human rights are inalienable and shouldn’t be tied to nationality. The fact that the Japanese government treats all non citizens, including PR holders as second class citizens is Japan’s problem, not the problem of the immigrants. I don’t see why immigrants, especially those from developing countries should have to naturalize in order to side step the racism of the Japanese government. And like I already said a few times before, most people from developing countries come to Japan as “trainees”, so they don’t even have the chance to naturalize.

    God, just almost everything about this interview is just terrible. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve guessed that this was an interview with some LDP and Nippon Kaigi member.

    No complaints about you as interviewer Debito. You’ve conducted the interview very well and pushed back on the racist claims that have been made. I’m just sad to see another naturalized politician who mostly doubles down on Wajin racism. Seems just like another “Gaijin handler” and collaborator you wrote about a few years ago.

    — Regarding me not running for office back then: I got remarried and didn’t want to subject my wife to a life of diminished job opportunities and status in Japan. So off we went and started a new life together. A decade later it still remains the right choice. Sorry. Becoming a politician in Japan will always be one of life’s paths not taken.

    Reply
    • Thank you!
      You’ve saved me the effort of duplicating your excellent summary!
      Basically, this guy is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If he posed any serious risk of improving things, he’d never have been allowed to get so far.
      TIJ, c’mon🙄

      Reply
    • No problems at all Debito. As far as I understood, you were planning on running back in 2009 and it was for some local position in the Hokkaido prefecture (or Sapporo city council, I can’t remember), not something like the Diet. Anyways, since I came to Japan in 2016 and only stayed until 2018 and I lived in Tokyo, even if you managed to push through some policies, I highly doubt they would’ve improved my life, or the life of most fellow immigrants at all. I think I just expressed myself a bit poorly while making such a lengthy comment. I just wanted to express the feeling that you would probably be the first politician in Japan who truly cares about the plight of immigrants and that something like that would be an inspiration for a lot of immigrants. Realistically speaking, not a lot of things would have changed of course, I mean, passing a national anti-discrimination law would require the majority of the Diet to vote for it for example, but you would have still set a positive example for all of us in my opinion.

      But I completely agree with you that not running was a better choice. Firstly, I completely agree that family and the family’s wellbeing comes first, after being chronically ill for the past 3 years and very probably for the rest of my life, I completely agree that things like health and status are way more important than money and prestige.

      Secondly, I think you’re more suited to being an academic and writer, especially since this allows you to view and observe Japanese racism from a scientific perspective. If you’ve had become a politician, you would have to compromise on certain things sooner or later and maybe you would’ve turned out a bit like Mr. Heese in the end.

      So no need to apologize to me or anyone. You did the right thing. After all, if you had become a politician, it’s not clear if you would have written your PHD thesis which resulted in the book “Embedded Racism”, which is one of the best books I have ever read and a book which finally made me understand that it’s not just me imaging all the racism that’s happening in Japan (I read the book back in 2016, which was the year I came to Japan and already experienced a lot of things which would be unacceptable in Europe). To be fair, before coming to Japan I already knew about how xenophobic and unwelcoming it can be, since I was exposed to some of that xenophobia online, but I never could have imagined the extend of it. To just give one quick example, I knew that plenty of landlords refused to rent to foreigners and that there is no law against it, but I always though that it was a minority, like maybe 10-20%, but it turned out the real number was more like 90-95%, so a vast majority. Only through your book did I learn how deeply racism and xenophobia are present in Japanese culture in general and it honestly made me feel a bit better about myself. After reading your book I started to talk to and research myself more about other immigrants, especially those from poorer Asian countries and I was shocked by what I discovered.

      Anyways, I don’t want to go too much into detail here, because everyone reading this knows what I’m talking about, I just want to say that I definitely think that you made the right decision. After all, politics corrupts even the best people. You on the other hand managed to stay true to yourself for more than 20 years, which is not something a lot of people can say about themselves. I said this a few times already, once in an email we exchanged way back in 2019, but thank you for fighting the good fight and an uphill battle for over 20 years! There’s absolutely not a lot of people who would do such a thing and you are the only one that I know of who has been doing it for discrimination related issues in Japan. So kudos. F politics in the end, I think this website is more valuable than anything you could’ve achieved in the office.

      — Thank you again for the kind words. It pleases me immensely that in the end my life work on this blog has meant something to someone.

      Reply
  • Mr. Gregory says:

    Good interview. I met Jon very very long time ago during some extra TV jobs. Good man that days.
    Anyway, speaking of foreigners including PRs why Japan still fingerprint and photograph residents at each reentry. All those fights Debito tried did nothing. It is the only country in the world doing so to people who made Japan their home. In EU and probably US once an individual became resident, not necessary PR will never be treated this way on the border. New Entry/Exit System that EU will implement from October will exempt all residents along Citizens. My J wife won’t need to go through face scan and fingerprinting. Why Japan keep doing it? Because they assume all foreigners are potential criminals and suspects. They keep data for 72 years. 72!!! EU will keep up to 5 years and already British for example don’t like it.

    Reply
  • Whoa! Off to a rocky start there. Kudos for calling him out on the “deadbeat” BS. Also, “Immigrants from less developed societies likely have nothing to go back to”. What the actual…?

    I mean, he deserves credit for what he does as a voice of those whose voice isn’t often heard, but those two statements make it clear why he does well in the politics of Japan, where small-mindedness is treated like a virtue.

    Reply

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