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Tuesday, March 1, 2011
HAVE YOUR SAY
Foreignness, nationality and naturalization: readers' views
A selection of responses to "Naturalized Japanese: foreigners no more" by Debito Arudou (Just Be Cause, Feb. 1):
Never mind the labels
After reading the paper for over 30 years, I believe I have an interesting perspective to contribute to your readers.
A question posed on the Business In Japan group on the LinkedIn website recently asked, "Do you feel offended by somebody calling you gaijin?"
When I look back over my own experiences — being at one point the only foreigner on the entire western side of Osaka in 1973, until today — it's a very curious metamorphosis you go through, both personally and as Japanese society reacts to you.
During my first few years, I heard "gaijin" a lot, and a few times, in some bars in Osaka, some other, less attractive expressions that roughly translate to "foreign devil that eats babies and rapes virgins."
Then it became more generally — and, I trust, more affectionately or at least acceptingly — "henna gaijin," as it was discovered that I spoke Japanese well (enough), something of course I always sincerely deny to this day.
In the past 15 to 20 years, people seem to have stopped calling me anything (at least when I am in hearing distance) except the name that most Japanese use: Edo-san.
In terms of personal accommodation, there is almost nothing left to do: My lovely wife of 35-plus years is Japanese, our children are Japanese and married to Japanese (one to a "half" and one to a "whole") and our two grandchildren are Japanese. My wife's mother of 95 years lives happily with us (and us with her).
I have been a permanent resident in Japan for over 20 years, lived here over 30 years, and the family temple head monk has agreed that when I pass on, my ashes can be buried in my wife's family burial plot. After all, where else would one go?
At this point, I guess I would be most accurately described as a first-generation (issei) "American Japanese" immigrant (to use an American-type equivalent that does not exist in Japanese). The only thing left in terms of my experience is to turn in my U.S. passport to the embassy in Tokyo (which is required) and become a Japanese national.
I have been very quietly thinking about this for a number of years. There are very complex tax and legal issues involved in this kind of exercise, but in the end that hardly matters — it's emotional, it's personal, it is about personal identity. And I will decide shortly what I want to do.
But despite all of this, and regardless of whether I turn in my U.S. passport and get a surprisingly similar blue (they used to be red) Japanese one, I know that I will always be a gaijin in some eyes (which really only means "not one of us," which is pretty much true unless you went through hazing in a Japanese elementary school), a henna gaijin in others (which is a cute way of saying, "We see you are making a real effort to fit in here, aren't you, gaijin-san?" which again is pretty accurate) and, for my family, friends and close business associates, probably just Edo-san. And that is what it is.
So at the risk of sounding too grandfatherly — after all, I am just getting used to this new status — my friendly advice is stop worrying about what people are referring to you as. Enjoy your Japan experience or hate it as you feel — make an effort or not to try and fit into Japanese society as you like. Remember it, and, if you can, treasure your experiences: the good, the bad and the ugly, as basically all of us have had our share of each.
Japan may not be as unique as some may think, but it is in my view unique in its unequivocal acceptance of those of us who come from abroad and make this our home, and give all of us the room to either love it, hate it or leave, still confused by it.
An endless list of societal problems and challenges are here in "our poor and narrow land," as they called it when I first arrived in 1973, but this is one of the safest and most peaceful countries in the world, and it has become my home.
With a bit of perspective and a little time, as I have been given the gift to enjoy, you might come to understand, as it admittedly took me quite a few years to do, that life is really far too short to sweat the little stuff. Especially in a place where the biggest real aggravation for "us foreigners" is that the expectations from society are too low!
I just thank God that if I do decide to apply for Japanese nationality, unlike some nationality tests — for example in the U.S. — I will not have to recite the last 10 Japanese prime ministers in order!
In Mr. Arudou's recent interviews with three other wise men, he makes this statement (about musicologist Peter Barakan, Diet member Marutei Tsurunen and sumo great Konishiki): "However, they are not really templates for others. Given the extraordinary hoops these gents had to jump through, they are the exceptions that prove the rule — that the barriers to success are too high for non-Japanese to get over."
This is a spectacularly defeatist attitude, and if he were, for instance, talking about Cabinet member Renho and astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, would he state that their breaking of the glass ceiling was no role model for others, so women should not bother trying to follow in their footsteps? I sincerely doubt it.
May I add my two cents' worth regarding the comments about Mr. Debito Arudou?
I do not find that he is a good writer. I don't subscribe to the love-it-or-leave attitude of some commentators. What I object to is his condescending attitude.
He writes as if he has been anointed by God to bring enlightenment to the unwashed masses. Only his opinions matter and any who disagree are unlettered barbarians.
I echo the question in previous comments posted regarding this article: Why do you continue to publish him?
More than a guesting system
I would like to commend Mr. Arudou for his thought-provoking article regarding the misuse of the word "foreigner." Far too many people in Japan misuse the word on a regular basis, and I feel that it only serves to reinforce the Japan-"rest of the world" binary mind-set that is such a considerable obstacle to effective internationalization.
However, I would like to object to the author's disparaging description of the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme as a "guesting system." Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) on the program provide valuable practical tutoring in English and other languages in classrooms all over Japan. Not only this, there are the lesser-known positions of Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) and Sports Exchange Advisor (SEA).
CIRs work in local government offices and international associations promoting international awareness and exchange through translation, interpreting and more grassroots efforts such as organizing events. SEAs promote international exchange through sports training.
While not flawless, the JET Programme has been promoting foreign language education in Japan and exchange between Japan and many other countries for over 20 years, and to reduce it to a "guesting system" is not only woefully inaccurate (a great number of JETs chose to make Japan their home after finishing their JET tenure) but takes away from the valuable contribution the wide variety of JET participants make to internationalization efforts in Japan.
Wake up, demand change
As you "speak from limited experience," perhaps you have a lot to learn. "No one is forcing Mr. Arudou to stay in Japan" is the standard ridiculous response offered by apologists like you.
If you love it here, and accept it for what it is, good for you, I guess.
Speaking from experience, I agree with Mr. Arudou. Things need to change from the top down. I want my kids to enjoy living here, if they choose to, without accepting or settling for things that are not right.
Most people who criticize the situation in Japan want a fairer system for everyone. Wake up and smell the coffee (or keep your head buried in the sand).