By Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
Published Dec 2000-Jan 2001



(loosely adapted from a NPR Radio Broadcast of Dec 15, 2000)
By Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle

Take a look at my photo and tell me what you see. A green-eyed, heavy-set, Tom-Cruiseish Caucasian, right? Okay, three out of four. But believe it or not, I am a Japanese. A Japanese citizen, that is; the Justice Minister granted my request to naturalize in October, 2000.

Yeah, but, uh...given how Japanese society is towards foreigners and outsiders in general, why would a person (short of being certifiable) do it? Let's take inventory and engage in the inevitable debate:

My first reason is concise: I live here. Have done for thirteen years, so far. I am tied to the ground by a 30-year loan on a big Hokkaido countryside house, designed with my wife and children who are also citizens. And I have a satisfying job as an educator with a decent income. That took care of my requirement for personal inertia.

Next, I like it here. I have plenty of friends (yes, that includes even old Japanese men in my village), enough Japanese ability to do far more than just get by, and a very comfortable lifestyle. Moreover, if readers have been following my activities over the years, it's pretty clear I enjoy the daily mental challenges that a White Boy gets in this society. That took care of my requirement for a life of adventure.

Ultimately, after so many years here, my argument ran, "why not naturalize?" I pay taxes and contribute to this society the same as any other citizen, but without the right to vote I have no say in how it's run. As I fundamentally believe in the democratic process, even in Japan, I have a harder time criticizing the LDP gorillas (the technical term) if I can't make my vote heard. Plus I have grown pretty sick of people (Japanese, yes, but also and especially foreigners) saying, "Hey, shut up, you're not Japanese―you're just a guest here by the good graces of the Foreign Ministry." When I realized that I would be here for good anyway, that took care of my requirement for a passport.

But then, the counterargument still runs, "why bother?" As that abovementioned White Boy you'll never be accepted as a "real" Japanese, right? Even internationals with Japanese bloodlines have enough trouble avoiding some semblance of nationality without caveats.

This is where I took care of the self-justification requirement. Hey, I'm not quite that Japanese, and thus don't care much about what other people think. Like most immigrants around the world, I am the one who will determine my identity. And I do this regardless of passport (an essential attitude, as Japan has not permitted dual nationality, as seen in the ex-Peru-prez Fujimori case, from 1985). So Doubting Thomases and Taroes, lump it: Anyone who doesn't believe that I am a Japanese can simply face the legal reality. It's about time concepts of Japanese nationality shifted away from blood and behavior anyway.

Fortunately (granted, this is only within the span of two months), that shift seems to be occurring. No Japanese persion as of yet has outright denied that I am Japanese. Doubtless that won't last, but it's a refreshing start.

But... but... what about the sticking-out-nail factor? Aren't you just begging to get hammered? Phooey. No matter what I do anyway, I will stick out. So I might as well stick out in a way that is more to my advantage. As a citizen, I can dispel petty attempts at disenfrancisement, try to claim uncaveated rights in court if necessary, even run for public office (as other naturalized people have). Yes, I may very well be treated as a foreigner for the rest of my life here, but I would anyway. No reason for me to legally remain one.

Anyway, in conclusion, let's not misunderstand what I am trying to say. I am not selling naturalization as an option for everybody. It isn't for everybody. I just elaborated upon the mindset behind my decision, and it should not be construed as buying into Governor Ishihara's argument that people who want equal rights should become citizens. That should not be necessary in a society with the purported role of a developed nation in the world arena. Fellow OECD countries offer enough example of the rights of foreign residents being legally respected and upheld, and it should put Japan, which turns a blind eye to many forms and instances of clear and acknowledged discrimination, to shame. Non-Japanese across Japan should continue their push for sensitivity, tolerance, and equal protection under both domestic and international laws.

And let's be frank: I got lucky. Japanese citizenship is not all that easy to get even if you wanted it. I'll tell you more about that in my next column.

Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
December 20, 2000



By Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
December 27, 2000

As I said last column, becoming a Japanese citizen is not easy.

But that should come as no surprise. With its perpetual shimaguni shimmy, Japan might be just a little chary of a proactive immigration policy.

Moreover, naturalization into any country is not easy. Countries don't just take anybody unconditionally. For good reasons:

Have candidates been here long enough to get to know the place? Will they obey laws, pay taxes, maintain a steady job and not be a burden on the State? Will their presence be culturally and institutionally stabilizing? And if there's nothing wrong with them, is there a good reason to let them in?

This is just part of the inevitable profiling and weeding.

However, Japanizing is unduly arduous in places. Let's look at the procedures I went through preparing my papers for the Ministry of Justice.

First, fill out basic bureaucratic forms: Statements requesting citizenship and forsaking dual nationality (Japan is now the only OECD country requiring this). Police records demonstrating an unadulterated past. Statement of finances for the past year with tax records. Resume describing your professional and academic past with addresses since birth.

So far, not too bad, if you're used to US Government employee security checks.

Now let's get more homey:

Outline of both sides of your family from parents on down. Don't forget to check the boxes on the form indicating whether your relatives approve of your naturalization. If married to a Japanese, shell out for the Japanese ward office documentation.

For your relatives overseas, import a raft of notarized foreign documents, such as your birth certificate, your parents' wedding/divorce/adoption/etc. certificiates--this in order to fill in a koseki (Family Registry) required for all Japanese.

Here difficulties can pop up. In my case, as an only child, there was no US documentation proving the ABSENCE of siblings.

So bureaucrats asked my mother to sign a form swearing she had no other children, also attesting to the veracity of matters already documented elsewhere (her first marriage, her divorce, her second marriage, her birthday).

She found this understandibly intrusive. "This is your citizenship, not mine. They can kiss off." Dad, a naturalized American, signed in proxy to avoid hypocrisy.

Then of course you must translate all foreign documents into Japanese. Fortunately, the government trusts you to do it, saving huge translator bills. But it took me some weeks--a divorce document written in legalese, sentences lasting for paragraphs, was difficult to comprehend as a native.

Then we get a bit petty:

Submit snapshots of your family, home exterior and interior, and workplace. Hand draw maps to your home and workplace for police records. Demonstrate the Japanese language ability of a third-grader. Write a one-page essay on why you want to become Japanese. And buy a wheelbarrow so you can bring it all in (okay, I'm kidding).

It took me a year to collate and submit. Once accepted, the fun begins.

Now comes the deliberation period, lasting, I was told, a minimum of one year, probably two or three given my speeding tickets. Keep my nose clean and my pedal foot light and all might be well. Meanwhile, they would check on my Japaneseness.

Say what? You heard right. Ministry officials said they would talk to my neighbors to ascertain how "Japanese" I am. And visit our household to see how "Japanese" it is.

Further investigation revealed how arbitrary a requirement this is. Unconfirmed but repeated reports had officials opening refrigerators, cautioning children against playing with ethnic dolls, testing Japanese ability by having candidates read a newspaper aloud, asking Filipinas suspected of mizu-shoubai connections about their previous sex partners. An ethnic Korean friend confirmed that his candidacy was voided by a speeding ticket.

I felt cross-hairs. Our house is 2x4 with imported hardwood floors and no tatami (I'm allergic). I prefer meat and potatoes to nattou and oden. We get generous Christmas CARE packages with toys from overseas. My 30-centimeter feet necessitate imports.

Would tatami tick shite, A-1 Steak Sauce, Barbie Dolls, or no pokuri geta in our genkan be my undoing?

When asked, officials said, "Not to worry. Just don't give us a feeling of incongruity." (iwakan)

I shrugged and said fat chance on passing. And as I was drawn deeper into the Otaru Exclusionary Onsens Issue (a future column), I watched MoJ files fatten with newspaper clippings bearing my name and face. Seriously. I would be a test case.

"Will my activism void me?" I asked.

"No. You are protesting within the parameters of the Japanese Constitution. It will have no effect."

I took that as tatemae--until the phone call came in September 2000, a mere eleven months after submission.

"Welcome to Japan, Arudou-san."

I still can't believe it. I'd like to believe I got off easy because I'm Caucasian or American or something. Although the Kouan Secret Police did keep tabs on me, they didn't visit our house or neighbors.

So what does this indicate? That things are easing up and the MoJ is becoming more tolerant or lenient?

Honestly, I'm not sure. I did ask officials why me of all people? Once naturalized my activism would only intensify.

They would reveal no reasons. Pass or fail is completely at the MoJ's discretion, and not subject to critique or appeal.

But I can conclude one thing: Whenever people like Ishihara or Nonaka dismiss granting the vote to Permanent Residents with a diffident, "they should naturalize", they are missing the point.

I passed a test that many Japanese, i.e. corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, not to mention fashionable young people, could not pass. Unless they are crooks and dictators like former Peru Prez Fujimori. Then they can bypass all criteria automatically and overnight by dint of their blood.

Japan should reconsider this double-sided double standard. They want more people to beef up their labor force and tax revenue? They better make it easier and clearer for more immigrants to want to take off their coats and stay awhile.

About 20,000 people a year naturalize into Japan. The US processes that many in about ten days. To me it's procedurally very clear why.




My first two columns were about the hows and whys of Japanizing. Now let's talk about the effects.

(I'll soon have this topic out of my system so we can talk about more pressing matters.)

"How does it feel to be Japanese? Is there a positive difference? Is it worth it?"

I could give the standard "yes, and no" exposition, but I won't. Given my personality, my answer is yes.

Granted, as I said before, I am still me regardless of passport. I don't feel gelded by the inability to call myself an American. That feels no different.

But there are the touches of being a national which give me the glow.

Last week, when I was in my local post office scribbling kanji on last-minute nengajou, an old farmer, circling me and displaying what Jack Seward termed "the white-hot curiosity about anything a foreigner does", eventually got warm enough for a predictable conversation-starter:

"Do you have greeting cards like this in your country?"

My answer: "Japan is my country."

Farmer: "Oh, so you've naturalized, then." Then he rephrased the question: "I mean, in your country of birth."

Okay, that's different. I said Americans generally don't send holiday postcards (they should, though--cheaper and with photos more personal). But they do have Christmas Cards etc. From that we got friendly enough for goodbyes by our cars.

Then a less friendly exchange two weeks ago: Swimming my thrice-weekly mile in the local pool, I saw an old man expectorating on our lane line.

Sez I: "Oi! Spit in the gutter over there! I don't wanna snort your snot!"

He later cornered me in the shower room for a lecture on Japanese pool etiquette, which apparently permitted him loogie-ing at will. "I don't know how it is in your country..."

No prizes for guessing my reply.

That gave him pause, but his indignation hadn't sufficiently deflated. "But in Japan, we don't scold our elders like that..."

Interjection: "If you are going to ascribe behavior to nationality, I will not talk to you. I don't care how old you are. If you are unsanitary in a public facility I will have words. You might as well pee in the pool. At least the gutter is closer than the toilet."

Eventually we talked this out: There is an outflow drain by the lane line hook, and he did in fact splash his backwash into it. I apologized, and we left mutually piece-of-minded.

Okay, two anecdotes, but what extrapolation?

In neither case, nor in any case I've yet encountered, has anyone denied I am Japanese.

Whenever I give my name over the phone and the listener wonders about the je ne sais quoi of it, my magic wand: "Kika shimashita no de..."

Whenever people couch "wareware Nipponjin" (We Japanese) to contrast me: "I am also part of that 'ware', so kindly rephrase that." And they do.

Whenever I see my name katakanized, I advise and they kanjify with no bullcrap.

This could not be done or be seen to be done without the passport. For many people here are plenty aware of the racial implications of verbally denying my status.

The only person with discriminating enough tastes to say, "You're not Japanese 'cos you don't act like one," was a non-Japanese on an internet mailing list. Nihonjinron switches languages sometimes.

Thus, when I start appealing to people further Right (or West), I will have to deal with the slippery stoneheadedness of nationality qualifications outside of legality.

But I still have the magic bullet:

"I'm officially sanctioned. I passed a 'Japaneseness' test even you'd have trouble with. So if anything, I am quite possibly more 'Japanese' than you."

Still, it can cut both ways. Last month, a prof in my university tried to force me to do his bidding by saying:

"You're a Japanese now. You must show the proper respect and consideration to your superiors."

However, I've been here before. I took this up with HIS superior, and the regret he expressed "for having such a congratulatory event used against me" I felt was genuine. The pressure from above disappeared.

In sum, the benefit of naturalizing for me has been the surprising acceptance and consequent legitimacy. Believe it or not, when I announced my new status in a faculty meeting, I got applause.

This acceptance may be due to the robber-baron history and shallow traditions of Hokkaido. Dwellers in more conservative parts of Japan need not apply?

But I doubt that. Don't forget: Hokkaido has those seaport towns with openly discriminating bathhouses and businesses, excluding customers by race.

I am proof of that. More on this in my next column.

Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle
January 5, 2001


(click here to see next columns)

Back to the Cover Page

"The Community" Page

Go to the "Residents Page"

Go to the "Activists Page"

Copyright 1999-2002, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan