Final post in the series:
NATURALIZATION PART FIVE
TURNING JAPANESE (For Real)
(Sent to Friends, UMJ, Issho, Shakai, and other mailing lists Thu, 26 Oct 2000)
SEPT 27, 2000, 4PM
Despite being a dreadful carpenter, I was in my backyard cutting OSB to make
scrapwood shelves when my wife came outside with our cordless phone to say:
"Debito, it's the Ministry of Justice."
This is it, I realized, the result of my application for citizenship, which I filed
on Oct 23, 1999 with the attitude of, "Well, this will be a test case. With
my involvement in the Otaru Onsens etc issue becoming a press peg highlighting nationwide
discrimination towards foreigners, I am probably the last person the Japanese government
would grant citizenship to. Better to keep me foreign than to give one tentative
way of enfranchising me." Either way the decision went, my ultimate rationalization
was: "If they let me in, Japan is more tolerant than I thought. If not, ah
well--listen to the coda of the shimaguni shimmy once more and get on with life."
I took the phone and spoke my old name. The person on the other end had a surprisingly
"Sugawara-san, I am happy to inform you that the Minister of Justice granted
you Japanese citizenship on September 19, 2000. Would you please come down to our
office in due course to receive your paperwork?"
BECOMING A JAPANESE CITIZEN
THE WHITE BOY GETS A RED PASSPORT
This has been the longest running series on my website, and it comes to an end with
this essay. All back essays may be found at http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#naturalization,
with information on naturalization requirements for both the US and Japan (http://www.debito.org/naturalization.html),
my motives for taking citizenhip and preliminary steps (http://www.debito.org/naturalization1.html),
why Americans in particular may find losing US citizenship difficult (because Uncle
Sam wants to keep taxing them: http://www.debito.org/naturalization2.html),
amusing qualms I had with the prospects of Japanizing my surname (http://www.debito.org/kikaupdate3.html),
a glossy article I wrote for the NKK News on procedures (http://www.debito.org/NKKNews599.jpg),
culminating in a report on the actual filing of the papers last year (http://www.debito.org/kikaupdate4.html).
I also even have a five-year-old essay of mine up on the unlikeliness of my being
assimilated into Japanese society, which completely contradicts my current attitudes
That's the background. Now for the news. This post is organized thus:
1) N-DAY AND THE N-BUREAUCRATS
2) BECOMING A JAPANESE FOR REAL
3) A VISIT FROM JAPAN'S SECRET POLICE
4) A VISIT TO THE LESS-SECRET POLICE
5) THE IMPACT THIS DECISION HAS HAD ON ME PERSONALLY AND SOCIALLY
6) THE FUTURE?
1) N-DAY AND THE N-BUREAUCRATS
OCTOBER 10, 2000
was the day I officially received recognition as a naturalized Japanese (a ten-day
business trip delayed my appearance at MoJ). My new name? People who read the surname
change post above never got an update on my decision, so here it is: I wanted "Arudou
Debito" (kanji: 有道 出人), remember, because it was closest in sound to my
original katakanized name "Arudouinkuru Debito", and because the kanji
meaning ("A Person With A Road Departing") sounded distinctive yet poignant.
Aya, however, did not want to be surnamed "Arudou", thinking it easy enough
to misread and a phonetic mismatch with her first name (not to mention Amy and Anna,
our kids). The solution? One of my students suggested that we keep my wife's name,
"Sugawara", and then put "ArudouDebito" as one word afterwards
(one cannot have middle names in Japan, so many international children have doubled
first names, such as DanielTatsuo or YumiKatarina). Then in public, I could just
suppress the Sugawara last name and bifurcate the first. It flew. So on my application
went 菅原 有道出人, but for school and public I would be called "Arudou Sensei".
So now it was just a matter of paperwork. I called the national bureaucrats ahead
of time to ask what I should be bringing. "Not much," came the answer.
"Just your Gaijin Card as personal ID." What about my US Passport? "That
is not necessary," came the reply, and correctly so. The US passport, after
all, is the property of the US government, and it is not the Japanese government's
place to demand I surrender it (that should be done to the proper US authorities
at a later date). So off I went in an All-Blacks rugby shirt and jeans thinking
it would be a simple "here's your papyrus, now go get scrolled" sorta thing.
Nope. It was a formal ceremony, with the head of the Sapporo MoJ Kokusekika reading
off the cover of a three-page document (kikasha no mibun shoumeisho) with perfunctory
congratulations, while the rest of the office staff stood at their desks and bowed
on cue. I bowed back, apologized for my lack of dress code (I could almost imagine
somebody there thinking, "And we're granting citizenship to THIS?" I would
have.), and got escorted to a side room where the Kachou gave me a briefing on procedures
for socially finalizing the application.
Kachou: "Now take that documentation down to the ward office of your
choice and have them make you a Juuminhyou (a precious Residency Certificate, see
why the adjective at http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#juuminhyou)
and a Koseki Touhon (Family Registry, which every Japanese citizen must have to be).
Then surrender your Gaijin Card and that's it, you're a Japanese, with all the rights
and protections thereof."
Debito: "Great, but I have a question. You can see that I am a White
boy. How will I be able to prove in public that I am a Japanese? Regular Japanese
do not necessarily have to carry ID, but under the Gaitouhou, foreigners must carry
the Card at all times (jouji keitai) or face arrest. What guarantee do I have that
the police when Carding me will just take my word for it?"
Kachou: "Well, you should tell them that you are a Japanese and that
should do. But if there is a problem, you could always show them your driver licence,
which has your Honseki [Registry] listed on it. You do have a driver licence, right?
That should get you out of any trouble."
Debito (in a talkative mood): "But if I have the same legal rights as
a Japanese, I shouldn't have to. Under the Shokumu Shikkouhou (see http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#checkpoints),
unless there is a sufficient reason (utagau ni tariru soutou na riyuu) for suspecting
me of a crime, police cannot stop a citizen and demand an ID. This law now applies
to me, of course. So what do you think about this?"
Kachou (equally talkative--I somehow always luck out with bored bureaucrats):
"Yeah, that is an issue. But why not make things easier for everyone and just
show proof when requested? No need to create unnecessary problems."
I dropped this topic because my point was made. Kachou returned to thumbing through
his guidebook (about fifty pages thick) on procedures, and I asked him if I could
have a copy of that, for my reference.
Kachou: "Sorry, but this is an internal document. I'll just tell you
the procedures in brief."
Debito: "But don't you have a guidebook for naturalizers?"
Kachou (pondering): "Actually, no we don't. So few people actually
naturalize that I guess we haven't bothered."
Debito: "And how many would that be per year, approximately, up here
in Hokkaido and around Japan?"
Kachou: "That's not for me to say. You'd have to ask the Ministry of
Home Affairs, as processing is their fiefdom. You know how Japan's bureaucracy is
a very vertically-organized system. But I can tell you that for Hokkaido the number
of grantees might break two digits (ni keta) a year."
Debito: "Okay, thanks. Now about that guidebook. Don't you think it
would be a good idea to offer an information packet to get us coordinated with our
rights and privileges?"
Kachou: "Actually, no. As you know, naturalization isn't something
we promote in Japan. We just have it as an option, an avenue, for those who want
to take it. We don't discourage it, but we don't encourage it, either. Same as
other countries, right?" [Seriously, he said this.]
Debito: "Uh, actually, other countries like Australia, NZ, and the US
of course from time to time have had very prominent policies encouraging immigration."
Kachou: "Really? That's surprising. Anyway, Japan, as you know, is
different, being an island country and all that. Immigration isn't really something
Debito (unable to resist): "Even with the aging society and the declining
Kachou (making a look like "you got me there"): "Uh, yeah.
You're right. Something Japan has to think about." Kachou then returned to
the subject of making naturalization more user-friendly:
"I don't think grantees need a guidebook. Most people who naturalize are quite
familiar with Japan, with their own set lifestyles and mindsets. It is not our business
to tell them what they should or should not do. They already know what to do."
That was impressively open-minded and a good harbinger of the days to come, when
I would be trying on my new citizenship shoes for size.
2) BECOMING A JAPANESE FOR REAL
OCT 11, 2000, 1PM
The next day I went down to my local town hall to serve the papers. I asked
for several copies each of my Koseki and Juuminhyou, so that I could substantiate
my status change to my employer, moneylenders, and driver licencers. The last agency
in particular mattered, for again, without that licence, I would have no portable
My town, being small, had never handled a naturalization case before and would, predictably,
take hours to get all the katakana names of my family typed into the appropriate
columns. They asked me to come back the next day, but I said I could wait--I had
brought my computer and could work on my Tomakomai Seamen's Club essay. A couple
of the bureaucrats (with whom I had worked during the controversial 1999 Mayoral
the Dai-San Sector golf course corruption case (http://www.debito.org/d3s.html),
and our monthly Chihou Bunken Town Meetings) knew me well, and seemed (overly) concerned
about keeping me waiting. They invited me in for tea and abura-uri, but forty-five
minutes of oily hobnobbing later I excused myself and started writing. I didn't
get very far because I had another big distraction...
3) A VISIT FROM JAPAN'S SECRET POLICE
My keitai sounded. Aya: "We've got some police over at our front door. They
want to talk to you."
"Huh? What about?" Aya wasn't sure. "Okay, don't let them in.
They want to talk, they can come to the Chouyakuba and meet me here in the lobby.
I've got nothing better to do than write essays."
Five minutes later two cops, one heavy-set, the other slat thin (the same as in the
Haneda Airport Gaijin Card Check brouhaha (http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#checkpoints)--there
must be an internal rule that cops in the same weight class can never be paired together)
were sitting down next to me for a chat.
Heavy: "Sugawara-san, we read in the papers that you have become a Japanese
Debito: "Papers? You mean newspapers? My name has been in the press?"
Heavy: "Actually, what we mean is that we saw your name in internal
documents and have been reading about your activities in the press. Otaru Onsens
and all that."
Debito: "Do you guys have a meishi so that I may understand to whom
I am speaking?"
They quickly brought out ID. They were the Houmushou Hokkaido Kouan Chousa Kyoku
(kanji: 法務省北海道公安調査局, MoJ Hokkaido "Public Safety" Survey Bureau).
Which means? Not sure. The Kouan, according to friends, are a part of the police
force with secret budgets (which neither has to be revealed, explained, or justified
to the public), secret duties (people aren't really sure exactly what they do), and
powers to spy on potential troublemakers (such as Aum or the Russians). Sound far-fetched?
Voice of experience: When we at the Hokkaido International Business Association
the Sapporo Russian Federation Consul as a guest speaker last year, the Kouan paid
us a visit shortly beforehand to ask how we knew the Russians, why we contacted them,
what the meeting was about, and if they could have a copy of the proceedings. We
said yes if they became paid-up HIBA Members, which they did on the spot. Your tax
dollars at work. Also, when I had tea with the Russian Consul General last spring
in a cafe and he offered me a ride to my next appointment, I discovered later that
the Kouan were following us in another car; they hung around until I emerged from
my appointment and waved to them sitting in the parking lot (they then beat a hasty
retreat; himaaa!). The point is the Kouan keep tabs on suspects who still retain
freedom of movement. (And if readers out there have more information on them it
Debito: "So, what do you want from me?"
Heavy: "Two things. First, we have been told that you have received
menacing phone calls at home. People calling in the middle of the night and hanging
up, repeated redialings, people punching phone buttons for several minutes at the
other end, etc., right?"
Debito (wondering how they knew all that): "Yes, that's right. Sometimes
every day for a couple of weeks. They've tapered off a bit, but I expect them to
pick up again sooner or later."
Heavy: "Well, now that you are a Japanese citizen, we want this harassment
to stop. We would like more details if possible."
I said they should speak to my wife, as she usually picks up the phone. I gave my
keitai over to Slat and he went off to get the lowdown from Aya while Heavy and I
Debito: "And the other thing?"
Heavy: "We would also like to know about illegal aliens (fuhou gaikokujin).
As you know, their numbers have been increasing recently thanks to overstayers and
smuggling organizations like Snake Head, and it is our job to keep them under administrative
guidance. Would you happen to know the whereabouts of any?"
And that was just about it. Heavy and I had some light conversation about naturalizing
motivations, and eventually Slat finished his call and joined us for some wrap-up.
Slat: "It's probably somebody in the neighborhood making the calls.
They seem to know exactly when Sugawara-san is active even before it hits the press."
Debito: "Now, I have some suggestions for you, if you would be open to
Debito: "Now, you have said that the Kouan handles foreigner issues,
right? Does that include Customs and Immigration in port towns?"
Slat: "Yes. We live in Ebetsu and cover this territory, but MoJ also
polices the ports as the Kouan. We happen to be above the Customs officials."
Debito: "Perfect. So let me talk to you about that something that needs
your thorough and immediate attention. As you know, there have been altercations
with Russian sailors all around Hokkaido and businesses have been putting up signs
excluding not only them, but all foreign-looking people in Japan. Right?"
Slat: "That we know quite well from your newspaper articles."
Debito: "But you, the Kouan cops, are the keystone. When troublemakers
did their deeds, the police have not always responded to calls for help. Nor has
the Kouan been taking down names of frequent offenders and denying them future entry
into Japan, right?"
Heavy: "Administrating all that is quite difficult. It is an international
Debito: "But that is your job. And you have been doing your job quite
thoroughly when informing the public about the threat to public safety foreigners
pose. Warnings are even in our inaka police reports--'watch out for illegal foreigners'--when
there's hardly more than a few dozen foreigners of any status out here. And calling
alleged Chinese groups 'Foreign Robber Gangs' (gaikokujin settoudan, see http://www.debito.org/TheCommunity/communityissues.html#gaijinimages)
blurs any distinctions and makes all foreigners suspect for the actions of a few.
If you can administrate public fear of foreigners, I think you should also administrate
enforcement of public safety when you have a clear case of repeated offense after
warning. Without it, as you can see, public confidence gets compromised and people
become vigilantes enforcing their own laws with exclusionary signs. [Okay, so the
last two sentences aren't something I could have said in perfect Japanese--but I
got the same point across.] Please help us resolve the Hokkaido foreigner exclusion
Slat: "Hey, that's quite a point you have there. It's good for us to
talk to the public and hear their views in a fresh, raw voice (nama no koe)."
Heavy: "We will have to put this into our report." [Seriously,
they said this.]
Slat: "It's also good for us to get a perspective from a person with
Japanese as good as yours."
Debito: "It's gotta be good. I'm a Japanese now."
Shortly afterwards I was called to the counter to receive my Juuminhyou (and on that
cue, the Kouan said friendly goodbyes and requested I contact them if harassing calls
continue). I was asked to hand over my Gaijin Card (surrendered with a kiss) and
that was it--I was now officially and provably a Japanese. The Koseki, however,
would take longer to complete. The person in charge had dug up some rule in some
book (which she showed me, knowing I wouldn't be convinced otherwise) stating that
for new citizens, all family members must be listed on the same Koseki--and my wife
had forgotten to move everyone over from her Sapporo register! But the bureaucrats
were very helpful, stating that they would contact Sapporo, get the paperwork sent
over, and finish up everything by sometime next week. Meanwhile, the Juuminhyou
would do for the next hurdle: the traffic cops.
4) A VISIT TO THE LESS-SECRET POLICE
OCT 11, 2000, 4PM
I drove to the neighboring town, where the local traffic safety division was headquartered,
and, presenting my Juuminhyou, stated that I was a naturalized Japanese and would
like my driver licence to reflect that.
The cop there looked at my licence and said, "Okay we'll put your new name and
Honseki [address of Registry] on the back of the licence as an amendment."
"B-but wait. I need the front of the licence to say my Japanese Honseki. Right
now it says 'America' and nothing else. It has to be very clear on the front or
else I will still appear to be a foreigner."
"The amendment on the back will take care of that."
"But can't you just reissue me a licence?"
"Until this old one expires, we cannot reissue." And when would that be?
More than two years from now! Darn these licence validity extensions for newly-reformed
safe drivers. (http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#speeding)
Me: "But listen, without this licence properly reissued, I will not have wallet-size
proof that I am a Japanese, clear, present, and up front. I don't have a Gaijin
Card anymore and I am not going to carry my Juuminhyou with me all the time. This
is a special case, a naturalization. I need an exception made or else I'm in trouble."
"Oh come now," the cop said, "you're exaggerating. The amendment
on the back will suffice. It will have the proper inkans et cetera and anyone who
needs proof can just look on the back."
"I don't think you understand my position. Japanese police nowadays do stop
foreign-looking people at random for Gaijin Card checks, because we are seen as a
source of rising crime. And if I do not have persuasive proof that I am not a foreigner
anymore, under the Gaitouhou Jouji Keitai rule I could be arrested. Seriously.
Any cop having a bad donut day could just say that I forged the back and give me
"Oh, we police wouldn't do that."
"That's easy for you to say. You are not in my position. So I want the appropriate
ID done in the most official-looking way possible."
"Sorry. Can't do it until your current one expires."
I stood there like Tom Cruise in A FEW GOOD MEN, facing down Jack Nicholson in the
courtroom, sweat on his upper lip and wondering what to do next. Then I said:
"But what if I mislaid my licence? What would happen then?"
"We would have to reissue you another one. It would take two to three weeks
and cost you 3350 yen."
"Well, um, guess what," dropping my licence to the floor in the best Hollywood
dramatic tradition, "I just lost my licence. Could you please reissue me another
The cop smiled, asked me if I was willing to fill out the forms, pay the fee, and
bring in a photo. One quick round trip home and I got the stuff in before the 5PM
Cop: "Okay, all set. Just wait a couple of weeks. We'll call you when it
"Great. Thanks very much for your understanding."
"Oh, and Sugawara-san." He handed back my old licence. "Don't forget
this. You have to drive in the interim."
5) THE IMPACT THIS DECISION HAS HAD ON ME PERSONALLY AND SOCIALLY
"So how does it feel to be a seven-year-old?" People are in the habit
of asking others, say on a momentous birthday or some other rite of passage, whether
they feel any differently now than 24 hours ago. Usually the answer is no. But
in my case, things really have changed in, so far, surprisingly positive ways.
Honestly, from a few months ago, if someone would make a provocative observation
about my foreign appearance (such as a bookseller barging into my office, offering
to exchange his wares for my money, then mysteriously wondering what books he could
sell me as a foreigner), I might say, "Knock it off. I'm a Japanese,"
just to try it on for size. (Mind you, I resorted to this only on rare occasions,
as I didn't want to get my hopes up.) It felt good, and the reactions I got were,
believe it or not, apologetic.
Now that Japanese nationality is a reality I'm glowing--proud of my status and willing
to use it for a good end. However, there are a couple of philosophical fault lines
that bear discussion here.
One is that many people are not going to be understanding or even accepting of my
Japanese status, so how do I deal with that. Simply. I have never once expected
interpersonal acquiescence and, frankly, I don't need it. Becoming Japanese was
never a matter of other people's opinion anyway--it was solely a personal decision
to better reflect my life status in Japan. Regardless of passport, I yam what I
yam. But there are ways to dodge potential pedantry in a uyoku crowd, such as avoiding
calling myself a "Nihonjin" (Japanese), and instead using "Nihon Kokusekisha"
or "Nihon Kokumin" (Japanese national)--undeniable from a legal standpoint.
Even if the pedants decide to say, "Well, you're not Japanese because you don't
look like us or don't have the Japanese spirit" (yamato damashi, keiko, whatever),
I have the boilerplate back: "Look, I had a difficult test for my nationality.
I passed the Sokou Chousa (Good Behavior Survey), which eliminates candidates even
for speeding offenses--meaning many Japanese themselves couldn't become Japanese.
Plus, even though Mof said it would take one to three years to receive results,
I passed after only 11 months. If anything, it's quite possible I'm more suitable
for Japanese citizenship than you are." To be sure, the Sokou Chousa wasn't
as bad as MoJ said it would be--judges did not in fact come to our house and inspect
our refrigerator, thank goodness. But I still passed and have the right to proudly
claim and proclaim that I am a Japanese.
Anyway, those inevitable pedants have thus far not emerged. Every single time, be
it on an airplane with the stewardess thinking that she has to speak English to the
only White Boy aboard, be it to a person in a convenience store who is wondering
why I am writing my name on a delivery form in Kanji, be it to a bunch of police
in a Kouban a few days ago (unusually, they did not demand to see my Gaijin Card,
and once it came out that I naturalized they said nothing out of the ordinary except
to eventually, in friendly conversation, query why), be it to professors in my university
(when I announced in a Kyouin Kaigi that I had naturalized, I made sure to request
people call me by my "Arudou" pseudo-surname, not by "Sugawara"
or "Debito" (as the former is just not me, the latter encourages yobi-sute
address, meaning rudely without a -san attached), and people afterwards actually
applauded) be it to my students in class (some also applauded, but most just looked
the same perplexed way they usually do in class), the reaction has been surprisingly
cooperative. Not one person has appeared in denial, or made any derisive or disqualifying
comments. And if in a customer-client relationship, everyone has apologized and
switched into normal Japanese. This just may be due to the general social openness
of Hokkaido (yes--the onsens etc are real outright outliers), or even due to an acceptance
of legal notarization of acculturation, but whatever the cause it is very, very hopeful
for the future.
6) THE FUTURE?
Of course, there will be those who say, "White Boys Can't Jump", er, "...Can't
Japanize". I pay them no heed. Of course there will be those who will say,
"Hey, naturalization or not, we don't allow foreign-looking people into these
premises." Those I will pay the proper heed when it is time. Both are immaterial
and unindicative. There will always be intolerance and thick-mindedness wherever
one goes, regardless of country, society, or political economy. But that does not
stop the changes. History dictates that it is the exceptional cases which confound
established common knowledge, and start people thinking about how to resolve inner
contradictions--such as how someone who doesn't look it can be it. Of course, Japanese
society has a remarkable knack of living with unresolved contradictions. But it
is also very sensitive to public opinion, and if enough people switch their public
expressions from, say, "ainoko, iyada" ("I hate 'mutt-children'",
the derogatory term for cross-bred animals and mixed-blood progeny found in postwar
GI-occupied Japan), to "yappari haafu ga kawaii ne" ("yessiree, half-breeds
are particularly cute"), as seems to be the case over the past couple of decades,
there is positive (albeit a bit half-measured) progress and an increase in tolerance.
On the other hand, we who confound should not just sit back and swallow, as public
awareness not a passive activity of waiting for Good-oh. It is also important that
we who are nationals yet visibly different from the norm claim what is ours--our
rights and recognition as bonafide Japanese. That might sound like an awfully American
sentiment in the end, but Japanese minorities (Burakumin, Ainu, and now this Caucasian
Japanese) have done it with positive results. Anyway, regardless of the possible
origin of the spirit behind it, the idea of fighting for one's rights is a good one
in itself and I will continue to adopt it as such.
Perhaps that is what the Ministry of Justice had in mind all along when they granted
a polecat like me (it's not as if they don't know who I am--I saw their thick file
on me) the right to vote. Somebody has got to stand up and give the contrary view
just to keep the debate going and push the envelope. Eliminating one possible barrier,
one's legal disenfrancisement as a non-citizen, may have been just the ticket.
We shall see. Ganbarimasu.
NATURALILIZATION ESSAYS 1995-2000 END
Copyright 1995-2005, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan