New Flophouse Address:

You will find all the posts, comments, and reading lists (old and some new ones I just published) here:

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Flophouse Over the River Kwai

It's Golden Week in Japan and we are getting out of town

The Flophouse is spending this vacation-filled week in Thailand - a place we always wanted to visit but didn't the last time we lived in Japan.

We fly into Bangkok on a China Eastern Airlines flight, spend two days and nights in the city and then we get in a car and head for the countryside.  We have signed up for a guided tour with a very enticing program:  national parks, floating markets, temples, tigers, and the bridge over the River Kwai.

Yes, I saw the movie.  More than once.  I will take pictures of the railway and share them with you when we get back.

In the meantime, you might enjoy this documentary about the war, the building of the railway - the tracks, the trestles and bridges - and the lives that were lost.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Hill: Tax Justice for Americans Abroad

In response to those articles touting FATCA as "Tax Justice", the incomparable Lynne Swanson of Maple Sandbox and I wrote an op-ed that has just been published in The Hill's Congress Blog.

Tormented Americans Abroad Need Tax Justice Too

If you have been following the fight against FATCA and CBT at the Isaac Brock Society, on Facebook or here at the Flophouse, the arguments in our article will not be new to you.  But we need to keep making them in as many places as we can - especially in Washington, D.C. - so that our side of the matter is heard loud and clear.

Please add your thoughts by commenting on the article.  And please pass the link along to other Americans abroad who might be interested in reading and commenting as well.

We may live abroad but we are just as much the "American People" as any homelander.  7 million strong, we are larger than many US states.  Time to  assert and use what is rightfully ours:  a voice.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Another Glorious Day at Minoo Park

Apart from my personal (un)dress fiasco, Sunday was another wonderful day at what I think is Osaka's most beautiful park.

Last time I was there it was the middle of winter and I still enjoyed every minute of it.  With better weather, it was a nearly perfect experience.

The trail is about 2.5 kilometers with a gentle gradient going up to the waterfall and in summer 90% of it is under the trees and in the shade.  There is something on the trail for everyone:  the culture vultures can admire the temples and shrines, the foodies can eat at one of the many restaurants and cafes, and the nature lovers can concentrate on the stunning scenery and malicious monkeys.  Just a little downstream from the waterfall, the river is calm and shallow and there were children happily splashing around in the water and climbing over the rocks under the eyes of their parents and grandparents.

Minoo Park is a perfect outing for families, couples, lovers, seniors - it's a park that is accessible to - and has something for - just about everyone. (And it's free.)

So, if any of you folks ever show up to visit the Flophouse here in Osaka, guess where we will be going?  A trip to this park is not optional; it's required of all guests.  I hope that expresses just how much I love it and want to share it with visitors.

Here are a few pictures from Sunday.  Enjoy.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Dress Codes

We went back to Minoo Park north of Osaka this weekend and walked the trail up to the waterfall and back.  It was a beautiful 25 degree day and not too humid.  Still, halfway up the hill I bought a bottle of Evian water and took off my jean jacket.  My pale Norwegian skin started soaking up the sun and I could feel a slight breeze around my sweaty neck.  My shoulders were bare and the straps of my tank top were so thin they couldn't hide the green and indigo bluebell tattoo on the left side.

It was such a relief to be relieved of the extra clothing that it took me a few minutes to realize that I was the only person on that trail showing that much skin.

Most of the women wore shirts with sleeves covering their elbows, which looked both uncomfortable and poorly adapted to the heat.  A few (very few) women wore t-shirts with sleeves.  All of us wore jeans, pants or skirts that covered our knees.

Culture is more implicit than explicit.  It's not so much about what people say - the should's and ought to's - it about what people do.  There was a cultural dress code on that slope and I was in violation of it.  Not that anyone said anything - they didn't need to.  It was all in the looks and the looking away.

Now at this point a woman like me, forged in the fires of Western individualism tempered by feminism, and provoked by the feeling of discomfort that comes when one senses judgement, lets her mind off its leash.  The first feeling is defiance and the first thought is:  I can wear whatever I damn well want.

And that simply isn't true.  Wherever I have lived or travelled there are dress codes for men and women.  Even countries that are fairly liberal about appropriate attire have some hard limits. A Frenchman in Paris doesn't wear a thong to work at the bank and an American in Seattle doesn't wear a miniskirt to a corporate job interview.  A woman can go topless on vacation on the beach in Brittany, but she's expected to have something covering the area below her navel and above her upper thighs.

In France, Canada and other Western countries there are actually moves to ban certain forms of dress for women.  This is societal disapproval so strong that they want to make explicit rules and laws with the means to punish people for their deviant dress, and that says that citizens no longer trust their own cultural forces to do this important work for them.

So the reality is that I don't get to wear whatever I want, wherever I am, unless I am willing to accept the consequences.  It is not really about the Japanese dress code for women - it is about my trying to import a French dress code to Japan, and then masking the attempt under appeals to Western individualism and feminist principles.     What I damn well want is to not change, and I resent the new cultural forces around me that are ever so gently trying to nudge me in that direction.

 There is a great question that one can use to get though these moments of angst and anger when swimming in new cultural seas:  Do I want to be defiant and angry, or do I want to be happy?

That's easy to answer:  I want to be happy.

Time to go shopping....

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rivers of Experience

"Nothing has changed, but it feels so strange. I can't quite put my finger on it. Everything looks the same, but it feels different."

Chris Brinlee, Jr.

That is exactly what I was feeling last week about Tokyo. Everything about it was familiar - the shops, the streets, the subway - and at the same time everything was off.

Because Tokyo had changed in eight years and so had I. When I left Japan nearly a decade ago I pulled myself out of one moving river and dived into another halfway across the world. And while I was gone the city and the people I knew moved on and became a different city and different people.

And part of me was not happy about it. At all.

This is not the first time I've felt this eerie combination of familiar mixed with strange. Returning to Seattle a few years after I had moved to France,  I flew in from Paris to the local airport and my brother drove me into town. When I saw that they had torn down a large sports stadium that had been a prominent part of the city skyline since I was a small child, I was filled with such rage. "How dare they do that," I thought, as though Seattle were a part of my personal patrimoine and the denizens needed my permission before they so much as clipped a hedge or painted a wall. Even now, as irrational as it sounds, I deeply resent any changes to my hometown.

But life is a moving river of experience and the harder you try to make things stand still, the more they slip through your fingers. The moment you trap the water in your mind, it ceases to be the real river and becomes still water in a plastic jug.

Nothing that lives and breathes is static, not even our own insignificant precious little selves. Not only do we live in moving rivers, but the "I" itself is one. Next time I head for Tokyo, I resolve to accept it as the city it is in 2015, and not resent it for ceasing to be the city it was in 2007. And I will try to accept as well that I am not the person I was eight years ago.

Clearly, I need the practice because while I am dipping my toes in the waters of another dynamic city, Osaka, another place - the city of Versailles where I have my home and my beloved garden - is moving merrily along without me. And when we return in a few years, the things and people I knew will be as off to me then as Tokyo was just last week.

Flophouse Garden, Versailles, France. April 2015
Photo by Michael Staubes

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Trotting Off to Tokyo

Tomorrow, I am hopping on a shinkansen and heading for Tokyo - one of my favorite cities.

I will be there for a few days and staying in the Ginza area.

So if there are any Flophouse readers who would like to get together Thursday or Friday, just let me know at

Doing Something about FATCA: Same Country Exception, Repeal, and Legal Action

Stephen Mopsick has reposted an article by Charles Bruce of American Citizens Abroad (ACA) proposing that the US "Treasury Department should promulgate rules permitting individuals to elect, if they wish, to have their local financial accounts, in effect, exempted from FATCA."

This proposal is not new and is known under different names: "Same Country Exception" or "Safe Harbour Exemption." Here is what the different Americans abroad organizations have to say about it:
American Citizens Abroad
"ACA, Inc. proposes a FATCA Same-Country Exception for accounts of US taxpayers resident abroad. If implemented, this would help alleviate the problem of financial services lock-out currently being experienced by Americans resident overseas. In a letter to the Treasury Department (Oct. 2013), ACA, Inc. has asked that this rule be applied for bank accounts held by American citizens in their country of residence."
Association of Americans Resident Overseas-Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas
"Short of repeal, the same country exception, also called “safe harbor” in Washington, has been AARO’s position concerning FATCA. The idea is that we are bona fide residents of another country than the US and the accounts in that country are our domestic accounts. We would like the US to consider them as domestic accounts and not foreign accounts. To do this would require regulatory change in Washington, which, given the frigid relationship alluded to before, will not happen without congressional mandate. It would also require the banks where we live to agree to it.
Democrats Abroad:
"When a safe harbor exemption is applied to FATCA, the law would treat the financial accounts of Americans abroad in their country of residence the same way as it treats the US accounts of Americans residing in the US. In brief, foreign financial institutions would be exempt from filing FATCA reports on the accounts of US-tax compliant Americans residing legally in the same country. A FATCA safe harbor exemption would only exempt accounts held in the country in which the account holder is legally resident."
All of the Americans abroad organizations (with one exception) support it as the solution most likely to be accepted and implemented by the US government.  As much as Americans abroad would like to see FATCA disappear, these organizations argue that this is not realistic and that FATCA won't be going away any time soon.   That is the consensus and, separately or together, all of them have lobbied Washington for several years now in support of this idea.  

There is one organization that is taking a different stance and that is Republicans Overseas.  They want to repeal FATCA and the Republican National Committee passed a resolution in 2014 to that effect.  
"RESOLVED, The Republican National Committee hereby presents this Resolution to each Member of Congress and urges the U.S. Congress to repeal FATCA, to defend the livelihood and increase the competitiveness of Americans overseas, to remove inappropriate invasions of Americans citizens’ privacy, and to allow those U.S. citizens who renounced their citizenship due to FATCA to regain their U.S. citizenship..."
The Republicans have also launched a lawsuit - FATCA Legal Action - against FATCA (Flophouse post here).  They say that FATCA is not only detrimental to Americans abroad but it also violates their consitutional rights.   

US citizens living outside the United States, these are the proposals, actions, initiatives on the table right now. This is what these organizations are asking (or fighting) the US government for on your behalf and in your name -  "We represent the interests of the 7 million Americans abroad...."  That means YOU and YOUR interests.

I urge you to take a few minutes to follow the links above with an open mind - please don't let preconceived notions about "women's clubs",  "Republicans', or "Democrats" get in the way.  

Read each organization's proposal carefully so that you understand what they mean by "Same Country Exception", "Safe Harbor", "Repeal FATCA" and "FATCA Legal Action". If there is something you don't understand, ask.  If there is something you don't agree with, say so.     

And once you have done your due diligence and made up your mind, there is one last question to ask:  
What can I do to help?

Monday, April 20, 2015

A New American Emigrant Tells His Story

Colm Fitzgerald's article Why I left the US to Seek My American Dream in Hungary is a look into the mind of a recent US emigrant.

It's a thoughtful piece with no bitterness or anger that I could detect.  Nor was leaving the US something that he decided to do one day on a whim.  He and his spouse weighed the pros and cons and made their decision.  And he's very honest about his ambivalence now: "Every day since arriving here in Hungary I’ve questioned my decision."

Why did Fitzgerald and his wife leave the United States for Hungary?  To find the American Dream, he says.  And what does he mean by that?

Property:  He and wife dream of owning a home and land but it’s expensive in California and they are not willing to go into debt to finance that dream. “However, the idea of working for 30 years to pay thousands of dollars a month for a home sounded like a prison sentence to me. I’ve seen firsthand how a family’s whole world falls apart when someone can no longer pay that crippling mortgage.”

Independence:  Owning property outright (no debt) means taking back some control over their lives.  It is protection against larger impersonal forces moving in the world.   Having a piece of land, he says, means having “ a place we could grow our own food, raise animals and try our best to lead a more grounded lifestyle. To be independent of worldwide financial markets, politics and a system that fails us in favor of corporate profits at every turn.”

These are two dreams with a long and noble pedigree in North American history.  How were my French ancestors enticed into going to Canada in the 17th century?  Land.   They were given land they could own outright and farm.  As for self-sufficiency, that ideal runs through American literature from the books of  Laura Ingalls Wilder to the essays of  Henry David Thoreau.

Fitzgerald is not saying that he can't have these things in the United States;  he's saying that the price he is being asked to pay is too high, and the risks are too great.  Working for a corporation to reimburse the expensive mortgage on a piece of land isn't freedom, it's just another form of slavery.

Hungary, however, just might be a place where flexible work, affordable land, and independence can be had on better terms.  Fitzgerald has cast himself on that distant shore with the one thing all migrants all over the world share:  hope.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Nakanoshima Park

It was sunny and warm and not too humid today in Osaka. It would have been a crime against nature to stay inside.

So forget the pile of dirty laundry, ignore the crumbs on the living room floor, and pay no mind whatsoever to the dirty bathtub.  Any guilt I might have felt was cast off as I recalled the immortal words of Ed Ricketts:
We must remember three things: 
Number one and first in importance, we must have as much fun as we can with what we have. 
Number two, we must eat as well as we can, because if we don't we won't have the health and strength to have as much fun as we might. 
And number three and third in importance, we must keep the house reasonably in order, wash the dishes and such things.  But we will not let the last interfere with the other two. 
Once I had my priorities in the right order, we walked up to Nakanoshima Park-  one of the most pleasant urban parks I have ever had the pleasure to see.  I strolled through it a month or so ago when the weather was ugly, the trees had no leaves, and the rose canes were cut down to mere stubs.

What a difference a few short weeks makes. Here is the park in all its exuberant post-sakura spring glory.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Bi-cultural Couples: Conflict, Culture and Character

One of the hardest parts of a bi-cultural marriage is determining if a conflict is rooted in culture or character. 

Culture is simply one variable among others that make up a person’s behavior, beliefs, and personality; and yet, it’s the part of our identity that informs to a very large extent how we see the world.  The cultural seas that we swam in in our formative years taught us what it meant to be a Good Spouse, a Good Parent, and an upstanding member of the community.  For all of the multi-cultural training we may have had as part of our education, many of us still didn’t truly understand that there were other grasshoppers in other fields.  It was only after we went out into the world that we learned the hard way that our way is just one of many ways of being all those things.

Or we can learn this when the grasshopper comes down the stairs in the morning and pours us a cup of coffee.    Some bi-cultural couples are hyperconscious of cultural difference and are quick to pull the culture card to explain just about every conflict.  It’s because he’s French or she’s Japanese and that’s just what they’re like.  In others there is a deliberate attempt at indifference:  a refusal to see the person as anything other than a unique individual whose cultural origins are simply irrelevant in the context of the marriage.
Both of these strategies are dangerous.  Treating a spouse as if he or she were an Exotic Beast is to turn that person into a caricature of Frenchness or Japaneseness and makes him both a stereotype and a second-class citizen in his own home.  But going to the other extreme, treating differences as irrelevant and unimportant, is not necessarily the neutral, egalitarian act it is purported to be.  On the contrary, it can be an insidious indirect way of imposing the one spouse’s culture (usually the native citizen’s) in the family and keeping one spouse comfortable at the expense of the other.  It can mean never allowing the other culture to be alive and present in a person in the very place (home) where both spouses should have an equal right to express who they are.

Avoiding both extremes is very difficult, especially when there is a serious conflict over something that matters so much that it provokes strong emotions and visceral judgements.  How could you do that?  What’s wrong with you? That’s not the way a Good Spouse or a Good Parent behaves.    

 A very good portrait of a bi-cultural couple in conflict can be found in the novel Native Speaker by Chang Rae Mae.  In the book Henry (Korean/American) and Lelia (American) come very close to divorce, and one reason is cultural difference.

In the book there is one particular conflict that illustrates these strategies for dealing with cultural difference in a marriage.  It begins when Lelia asks Henry to tell her about the Korean housekeeper who raised him.    Lelia is very upset to find out that her spouse knows nothing whatsoever about this woman; not even her name. 

Listen to Henry’s interior monologue:   “I don’t blame her.  Americans live on a first-name basis.  She didn’t understand that there weren’t moments in our language – the rigorous regimental one of family and servants-when the woman’s name could have naturally come out.  Or why it wasn’t important.” 

Henry excuses his wife’s reaction by generalizing about her culture and turning her into a living stereotype.  It’s not her fault – it’s is her culture and her ignorance which explain her behavior and feelings.   Both of these things may be true to some extent, and yet the generalization - It’s because she is an American - is condescending.   Furthermore, Henry has an explanation which he does not share with her.

Lelia tries to express why it bothers her, and it is not at all what Henry thinks it is. 

“I just wonder, that’s all.  This woman has given twenty years of her life to you and your father and it still seems like she could be anyone to you.  It doesn’t seem to matter who she is.  Right?”
“And it scares me,” she said.  “I just think about you and me.  What I am…”

On her side, Lelia is oblivious to her spouse’s home culture.  Even though she has met his father and the housekeeper, and knows that Henry is bi-lingual/bi-cultural, it does not occur to her at all that culture may have something to do with why Henry doesn’t know the housekeeper’s name.  Instead, the issue is one of individual character - the kind of man her husband is.  And a man who does not know the name of the woman who cared for him as a child is not a Good Person, and is potentially not a Good Spouse.

Is there a middle road a bi-cultural couple can take that avoids being hyperconscious of culture on one hand and dismissing it as irrelevant on the other?  I’ve thought about this for years and I haven’t come up with a satisfactory solution for myself, much less one I can offer to you.  Something tells me that we have all been “culture is everything/culture is nothing” at one time or another in our bi-cultural marriages. Especially those of us who have been living with our grasshoppers for many years and assume that, through years of trial and error, we’ve got them – their characters, cultures and languages - all figured out.

Maybe an answer, or at least another strategy, can be found in examining more attentively our assumptions about ourselves and the men and women with whom we share our lives.  Why do I think doing this makes me a Good Parent or a Good Spouse?  Why do I get so angry or disturbed when my spouse says or does something that does not conform to my standards for what is Good?

We could do worse, and learn something at the same time, if we stopped assuming and started asking.  Even after 20 years of marriage, we might be genuinely surprised by the answers.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Flophouse Citizenship and International Migration Reading List

Time for another update of the Flophouse citizenship/migration reading list. New books are in green. I highly recommend the titles below - read them and you will never look at citizenship or migration the same way again. All the underlined titles take you directly to the book on Amazon (US). I would really appreciate suggestions for other titles that might be of interest. I promise to read and add them to the list if I think they are good.

Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR Country (2012) by Vron Ware.  In the first decade of the 21st century the British army, faced with deployments in Irak and Afghanistan, could not recruit enough soldiers locally.  So they turned to the young men and women of Commonwealth countries like Fiji and South Africa.  While these soldier/migrants served with UK citizens and swore the same oath to the Queen, they were still immigrants; not citizens.  A fascinating story that raises questions about the link between citizenship and service to a country. I highly recommend this one.

Return:  Nationalizing Transnational Mobility in Asia (2013) edited by Xiang Biao, Brenda S.A. Yeoh and Mika Toyota.  Some excellent essays in this collection about  Japanese Brazilians, the Korean Chinese and their relationship to South Korea, Cambodians and the US deportation machine, and the regulation of circular migration between Malaysia and Indonesia.

If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? (2010) by J. Edward Chamberlin.  This is a hard book to describe.  It's about stories - the ones we tell about ourselves, our people, and how we came to be here in this land (and not someplace else).   And the central question for me in this book is: how do we work through our differences when we have different myths, histories, narratives and memories about the very same place?

Global Marriage: Cross-Border Marriage Migration in Global Context (2010) by Dr. Lucy Williams.  Outstanding look at cross-border marriages from a global perspective.  Williams takes on the myths, stereotypes about foreign brides (and grooms) and counters them with solid research. A refreshing antidote to the many silly things said about those "marriage migrants."

The Scramble for Citizens: Dual Nationality and State Competition for Immigrants (2013) by David Cook-Martin.  A fine book that looks at migration from Spain and Italy to Argentina in one era and the reverse migration from Argentina back to Spain and Italy of those immigrants' descendants in another.  The author does a fine job of showing how it is almost impossible for a state to make (and make stick) immigration/emigration and citizenship law unilaterally.  There is a larger context with sending and receiving states competing for the productive power and loyalty of immigants and emigrants.

Democracy and the Foreigner (2003) by Bonnie Honig.  Great read.  Honig takes the idea of "the foreigner" as a vexing issue to be solved through assimilation or rejection and turns it around.  Are there circumstances when the stranger is not a problem at all, but rather a solution to what ails a community?

Migration and the Great Recession:  the Transatlantic Experience (2011) edited by Demetrios Papademetriou et al.  If you were wondering how the economic crisis in the first decade of the 21st century had an impact on migration, this book of essays from the Migration Policy Institute is good place to begin.  Data from the U.S., U.K., Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Sweden and Germany.

Anthropology and Migration: Essays on Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and Identity (2003) by Caroline Brettell. An anthropologist looks at migration, transnationalism, and assimilation/integration through a population she knows well: the Portuguese diaspora. (Flophouse review here.)

Moving Matters: Paths of Serial Migration (2013) by Susan Ossman. .A look into the minds of "serial migrants." Those who immigrate once (like all other migrants) and then do something that shatters the standard immigrant tale - they move on. (Flophouse review here.)

International Migration in the Age of Crisis and Globalization (2010) by Andres Solimano. The author is ambitious and confronts some of the most difficult topics around migration:  Why is International Migration Such a Contentious Issue?  Are Goods and Capital More Important than People?  Don't Always 'Blame' the North, and so on.

The Citizen and the Alien:  Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership (2006) by Linda Bosniak. Refreshing take on the dilemmas of citizenship and democratic ideals.  Who is included/excluded and on what basis?  The problem of democracy and the legal permanent resident. Complex questions with no easy answers.

A Nation of Emigrants:  How Mexico Manages Its Migration by David Fitzgerald (2009)  The internal American battle over immigration from Latin America is a very public debate but it's only half the story.  Mexico, the U.S.'s southern neighbor and a major sending country, has made and is still making policy to manage its emigration and its emigrants.  This is an extraordinary book and there is much to be learned from Mexico's efforts and policies - even when they have failed.

The Sovereign Citizen:  Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic (2013) by Patrick Weil  Really superb book.  Excellent research into the un-making of American citizens in the 20th century.  

Citizenship and Those Who Leave:  The Politics of Emigration and Expatriation by Nancy L. Green and Francois Weil (2007)  I contend that you cannot talk about immigration without also discussing emigration.  A fine work - excellent chapters on how states (UK, Holland, U.S., France and others) have tried to manage emigration.

Citizenship and Immigration by Christian Joppke (2010) This one covers a wide variety of old and new ideas about citizenship.  A good place to begin for someone who is just delving into how immigration/emigration and citizenship are entwined. Joppke refutes the idea of the decline of citizenship - an argument worth reading..

International Migration and the Globalization of Domestic Politics edited by Rey Koslowski.  Some very good insights into how international migration and diaspora politics affect politics back in the home country.

Immigration and Citizenship in Japan by Erin Aeran Chung (2010) Excellent book about Japan as a country of immigration. "Japan is currently the only advanced industrial democracy with a fourth-generation immigrant problem." Chung tells the story of how this came about and the impact this has had on modern Japanese citizenship law.

Rights and Duties of Dual Nationals:  Evolution and Prospects edited by David A. Martin and Kay Hailbronner (2003)  Fine set of articles on dual citizenship and such things as military service, extradition, political rights (Peter Spiro), denationalization and many others.  Pricey but worth every penny.

International Migration and Citizenship Today by Niklaus Steiner (2009).  A very fine book on the political, economic and cultural impact of immigration.  He frames the discussion around two essential questions:  What Criteria to Admit Migrants?  and What Criteria to Grant Citizenship?

Citizenship Today: Global Perspectives and Practices edited by T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Douglas Klusmeyer (2001).  This was one of the best books I read on the topic of citizenship with essays by Patrick Weil, Karen Knop and Richard T. Ford, among many others.   I particularly enjoyed Ford's contribution called "City-States and Citizenship" which was, for me, a real revelation.

States without Nations:  Citizenship for Mortals by Jacqueline Stevens (2009) A strong critique of birthright citizenship in all forms and a call for citizenship based on residency.  

The Perils of Belonging: Authochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe by Peter Geschier (2009).  Outstanding read.  States make citizens and states can also "unmake" them.  Nativism and the never-ending debate over who really "belongs."

The Politics of Citizenship in Europe by Marc Morje Howard (2009).  A really fine study of the citizenship policies of the oldest member-states of the EU.  Read this book to grasp how citizenship laws have changed over time and the reasons why.

The Future Governance of Citizenship by Dora Kostakopoulou ((2008).  Good overview of the current citizenship models and a proposal for an "anational" citizenship framework.

Beyond Citizenship:  American Identity After Globalization by Peter Spiro (2008).  Excellent book that examines how globalization has changed the value of citizenship overall and American citizenship in particular.  Very thoughtful.  Very well-written.

Qu'est-ce qu'un Français? by Patrick Weil (2002).  Mr. Weil spent over 8 years in the archives researching this book and it is fascinating.  France has been something of a test lab for just about every combination of jus soli and jus sanguinis citizenship possible.  Everything has been tried and tried again.  I read the book in French but it is also available in the usual places in English.

Gender and International Migration in Europe by Eleonore Kofman, Annie Phizacklea, Parvati Raghuram and Rosemary Sales (2000).  If you are looking for some empirical evidence (as I was) for how migration, immigration policy and citizenship rights have different outcomes and impacts for women, this is a good place to start.

The Birthright Lottery:  Citizenship and Global Inequality by Ayelet Shacher (2009) An attack on both jus soli and jus sanguinis methods of transmitting citizenship.  Fascinating argument.

Aliens in Medieval Law:  the Origins of Modern Citizenship by Keechang Kim ((2000).  I've been meaning to write a post about this book since it has a very original take on the historical roots of modern citizenship.  I recommend it highly. 

Human Rights or Citizenship? by Paulina Tambakaki (2010)  Interesting ideas about how traditional models of citizenship and  human rights legislation are in conflict.

Let Them In:  the Case for Open Borders by Jason L. Riley (2008)  The author makes a very radical argument for simply opening the doors and letting people move where they wish.

For info I have created a Citizenship and Migration book list on Goodread's Listopia here.  Good place to read reviews and find quotations from the above books.

Friday, April 10, 2015

FATCA/CRS: Promises, Promises

These days countries all around the world are agreeing to Automatic Information Exchange systems to share taxpayer information with each other.   The United States kick-started the trend with FATCA (the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act), and early last year the OECD unveiled the CRS (Common Reporting Standard).  

No nation-state gives up sovereignty unless there is a perceived gain. The larger context, and the way Automatic Information Exchange has been sold to electorates, is the worldwide War on Tax Evasion.
It's a simple message that resonates with voters everywhere:  If we sign up for these systems, politicians promise, we will catch the traitorous tax-evading 1% ,  Not only will that bring in lots and lots of cash, but we will have struck a mighty blow on behalf of justice and fairness.  Who could possibly argue with that? (Citizens who have something to hide is the usual response.)

People should know better than to believe the promises of politicians.  George Orwell put it beautifully when he said,  "Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

So where is the wind?  The fact that the information to be exchanged under FATCA and the CRS is not about taxes owed, it's about chunks of money sitting out there in the world with names and nationalities attached to them.  If X has 50,000 Euros sitting in an account in Y country, it does not automatically mean that he or she owes taxes on that money, or that the account was not reported to the relevant authorities.

The CRS asks for the following information:  Name, address, taxpayer identification number, date and place of birth, account numbers, account balances, the total gross amount of interest, dividends or other income, and mortgage payments.

There is no field in CRS (or FATCA) that says, "Tax compliant/Not tax compliant."  From these raw data it is simply not possible to draw a straight line from an existing account to a tax evader.  The information provided must be checked against tax records, and double-checked with the individual's citizenship and residency records to determine if the person really is eligible for an audit by a country's tax authorities.

The exchange of information by itself is no guarantee that tax money will be flowing like water into a country's coffers from abroad. It is perfectly possible that a country will receive information from another country, and, after investigation,  discover that most of the high-value accounts have (with the help of international tax attorneys) been reported and all taxes paid, and the only accounts left on the table are ones that are low-value and won't yield much revenue.

Everyone should understand this:  countries have no idea right now how many reportable accounts are out there, how much money is in them, and how much of that money is taxable.   They are making promises based on guesses.

But there other ways that this information exchange systems can be used that have nothing to do with tax evasion in a globalized world.   Two that come to mind are:

Tracking migrants and controlling global mobility:  In principle, with a unique international identification number, people become trackable wherever they or their money go in the world.  A US Person moves from Sacramento, California to Shanghai, China to  Paris, France and every time he opens a bank account, there he is with a local address.  That's not a bug; it's a feature.

Many countries like the US do not have a reliable means of tracking where their citizens go, and what they do, when they leave the home country.  FATCA/CRS serves as a kind of extraterritorial census and a way for governments to track emigrants.  Or where they suspect that some homeland citizens have connections to other countries (not always ones they like), these agreements give governments yet another way to keep an eye on them.  With that in mind, it might be very interesting for the French government to know that someone in France has a house and a mortgage in  Algeria.  Or that a citizen has authority over the accounts of an NGO in Latin America or Africa.

Taxing the diaspora:  Most countries in the world have residence-based tax systems.  What that means is that only residents of their country get chased for taxes either in that country itself,or passive or active income earned abroad.  The US is unique in that it has a citizenship-based tax system which means a US citizen is taxed on his income wherever he lives. If he lives in Japan, he must file tax returns locally and with the United States on whatever he made in both countries.

There are countries that dream of doing the same thing.  Imagine all those French in California.  Or all the Chinese in Canada.  Or the Japanese communities in France. So far, citizenship-based taxation US-style has been something of a bust because there has never been a reliable system for tracking Americans abroad, much less what they were doing or earning.

So we could look at FATCA/CRS as an experiment:  Has the US finally found an efficient enforcement mechanism for their citizenship-based tax system?

International migrants everywhere should be very concerned if the answer turns out to be "yes".  Because if CBT works, then there is every incentive for states to say to their diasporas, "You may have emigrated, but as long as we claim you, you will share your fortune by paying taxes to the home country in addition to the ones you pay locally."

Everyone is shouting so loudly about tax evasion that it's hard to think clearly over the din.  So many vague promises on one hand, and so little evidence on the other.  One way to cut through the self-righteous rhetoric is to ask some simple questions:   What are the success criteria for an Automatic Information Exchange system?  How much tax money will each country recover if FATCA and CRS "work"?  Not back-of-the-envelope guesstimates, but hard data and real numbers backed by serious studies.

So, is it the money or the information that make FATCA and CRS attractive?


Politicians' promises of  money, money, money may be so much hot air; but the information itself is solid gold.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Lummis and Lumberjacks
I've been reading Annie Dillard's The Living this week.  This is a novel set in the 19th century in a place I know well - the Pacific Northwest.

In this book Dillard tells stories about the first European and Asian settlers who came to eke out a living in and around Bellingham, a city that sits north of Seattle and is only 27 kilometers from the Canadian border.

It's been something of a strange read for me. I am awed by Dillard's writing, which is clear and flows so beautifully.  And yet, I'm also aware that I am reading about the region where I was born and where I lived for the first 24 years of my life.

The events she wrote about happened long ago - a century or so before I was born in Seattle in 1965. The stories begin in the Civil War era when the region was not even a part of the United States - Washington didn't become a state until 1889.  That distance meant I could read them as if I were a foreigner or an anthropologist encountering a strange new tribe, marveling at their exotic old ways.

But I didn't need to rely on her descriptions of rain forests, lousy weather, and rocky beaches because I already had memories of these things in my mind.  Nor did I need definitions for the local words Dillard used - words that I learned as a child:  Lummi, potlatch, Salish.

I could read the book with a combination of cool distance, flashes of recognition, and mild pleasure at my inside knowledge.

All that was working for me until I arrived at Book Five, Chapters LIX/LX.   I was reading and my chest got tight and I felt such a longing for 'home'.  There went the distance.  Instead, I keenly felt that connection to "the vanished times and places and people" I was reading about - things that were closer to me than I wanted to admit.

In that part of the world, my family logged and fished and built dams.  They cleared forest and farmed.  They ate salmon and picked oysters off the beach for dinner. When I was a child, my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents taught me how to keep a fire burning in a woodstove, how to make pie, how to make quilts, how to catch a geoduck. All things that are not much use to this woman sitting in an Ikea chair on the 14th floor of a modern apartment building in Osaka, Japan.

A few years ago I would have packed those stories and feelings up and stuffed them into a dark little compartment in my mind.  Why?   Partly because I assumed that the French would not find any of this interesting  - who wants to listen to an immigrant with boring stories of the rustic Old Country? But mostly because when I thought about it, I grieved, and, at the time, that seemed to me to be both a waste of time and an impediment to integrating in my adopted country.

But this time I didn't reject the memories, I embraced them.  I looked up one of the songs the settlers were singing in the book and I listened to it.   Something in me settled, and I smiled and tapped my foot to the music.

Living in the present doesn't preclude loving where you're from. It's a false choice and anyone who asks it of any immigrant anywhere in  the world will find no friend in me.  Because if I can (and I do) love my Pacific Northwest world of lumberjacks, flapjacks, mossy green forests, fiddle music, plaid shirts, jeans from Tweedy & Popp, dogfish, killer whales, barbecued oysters, Olympia oysters, wood houses, wooden boats, earthquakes, and volcanoes that erupt from time to time, then so can they love whatever world once harbored them.

And may we, like the original settlers in the Pacific Northwest,  come to love the places we land every bit as much as the place we left.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Cherry Blossoms on the Bottom of my Shoe

Japan was not my chosen destination.  The Flophouse landed here purely because one of its inhabitants had something career-ish to do in Osaka.  As for me, I'm just along for the ride.

Encapsulated in that statement is a world of pissiness and self-pity.  Believe me, I recognize it and I find it pretty boring too.  You know you are in trouble when your own inner monologues are putting you to sleep.

Truth is, I stopped being grumpy about the time I got over the jet-lag.  The worst country in the world is the la la land in your head. So I took a train out of there and found myself in a much better place:  the Real World, which can be dark and dangerous but is also seductive and sublime.  Or at least it can be all that when approached with passion and purpose.

Yesterday was one of the most magical days I've had so far in Japan.  The intention was to "play tourist" and so we walked out the door with an itinerary and a fixed idea of what we wanted to see. In short, we had a Program.

I've been told that the gods find it funny when human beings "plan".  And frankly we should laugh more at ourselves because we really are ridiculous when we try.  Think of all the things that have to go exactly as we assume they should in order for our grand agendas to be realized.  Contemplate for a moment just how few of these things are actually under our control.  And then marvel at how well things turn out when we let go of the Plan.

That is what happened yesterday.  Yes, we saw the things on the list but everything in between was pure serendipity - a series of happy accidents and good fortune that had us wondering if we should have bought a lottery ticket.

We started our day at the Fushimi Inaari Shrine - a very popular tourist area.  It was indeed impressive and we dutifully trudged up the mountain under the torii with hundreds of other people, most of whom were just as irritated by us as we were with them.  For a sacred place, it was surprisingly hard to feel any sense of peace at all.  I didn't have anything invested in reaching the top and neither did my companion, so, halfway up the mountain, we gave up and took a side trail back down the hill.  I was feeling jittery and was looking around for a place to sit and have a smoke, when we turned a corner and there it was:  a quiet area with a table, a bench to sit on, and an ashtray.  So we sat and watched the water drip from a stone frog's mouth into a pool of still water.

Refreshed, we got up, continued down the mountain, and with a sigh of relief walked out the exit on to the street.  At that point we had a choice:  look for a train that would take us to Fushimi Castle, or walk it.  Feeling frisky, we decided to walk it -  4.5 kilometers (about 3 miles).

On the surface the neighborhood didn't look very exciting.  But a few minutes into our walk, we saw a small shop with interesting art and we decided to go in.  We ended up talking at length with the store owner.  The art in the shop was a family affair:  his wife made the small flower pins that went perfectly with jean jackets;  he and his parents painted the beautiful postcards; and his son made the small whimsical clay figurines that drew us into the shop in the first place.  I bought one I loved:  a frog playing a violin.  Just before we left, the shop owner/artist told us to take three postcards (our choice) as a gift.  Now it just so happened that it was my traveling companion's birthday and she had been looking for something small for herself.  And there it was, exactly what she wanted:  a birthday card.

A bit farther down the road, we looked to the left and there was, of all things, a Catholic church.  We noticed it because the architectural style was a bit out of place:  a California mission-style building complete with stucco and statues of Mary, Joseph and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  My companion, a Buddhist, had already prayed earlier in the day at one of the Shinto shrines and so we figured that it would be a fine idea to cover the Catholic side too.  A good dousing with holy water and four Hail Mary's later, we left feeling mighty serene.  And I felt  much better because I missed mass on Easter Sunday.

Nearing the end of the walk, our stomachs started to grumble and it seemed prudent to find a place to eat before continuing to the castle.  The pickings were slim but we found ourselves in front of a small restaurant.  The windows were dirty and opaque so we couldn't see inside and the photos of the food were faded so it was hard to tell what they served.  But we were hungry beggars and this looked like our only option.  We walked in with low expectations and felt the universe tilt as we gazed on the crisp, clean, modern, stylish interior decor.  It was lovely and the food was good, too:  hamburgers with curry sauce, french fries, and salad.

Fortified, we marched on, found the entrance to the park and walked up a long drive through a bamboo forest.  This was bamboo as trees with shoots as thick as my thighs, and I realized that the thin spindly stuff that I used to buy at Truffaut's in Versailles was a poor deprived cousin of this variety.

Past the parking lot and through the impressive and imposing gate and into a large park where we looked up, up, and up again at these massive, but graceful, structures looming over us.   And what a sight it was.  The description of Fushimi Castle (also known as Momoyama Castle) I had read on Daniel O'Grady's site did not do it justice.  Perhaps it was the word "reconstructed" that led me to believe that it was nothing special - made it sound like a Disneyesque attraction without Walt's budget.

 The original castle was built, burned, built again and finally abandoned in 1625.   This version was only constructed in 1964, and not even at the original site.  How inauthentic.  And yet, it had the power to mesmerize both of us.

In the park those magnificent cherries were losing their blossoms at a rate that made it seem like it was snowing when you walked under them. When I got home, little pink petals were stuck in the crevices on the bottom of my shoes.

Is the grand lesson of the day  Skip the Shrine and See the Castle?

Not at all.

For me (and this is just my take on it) it was about renewing my faith in a basically benevolent universe where you don't necessarily get what you want, but you always get what you need.

All of the good things (and there were many) that happened that day came when we took our hands off the rudder and let something or someone else steer for awhile.  And that led us to people and places in the Real World that I'm not sure we could have found any other way.

Magnalia Dei.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A US Immigration Tale

There is a good post up today on Open Borders in which Justin Merrill tells the tale of how he became an American abroad:  Our Wedding and Immigration Disaster.

Mr. Merrill, a US marine, served in Japan (Okinawa).  While he was there he struck up a friendship a young Japanese woman, and they stayed in touch after he went back home. They met again years later in the US while she was visiting the American family who hosted her when she was a student.   A happy ending (or beginning):   they fell in love and went back to Japan for the wedding ceremony, reception, and honeymoon.

Everything was going very well until they flew back to the US and his Japanese wife went through US immigration.  It did not go well:  she was taken into custody, questioned and deported back to Japan on a long flight through Holland.  Mr. Merill was then told that his wife was barred from the US permanently, though he hints that they did find a workaround.  With his wife in Japan and no possibility of her being allowed into the US, he packed up, sold everything, and moved to Japan.

In the last paragraph of his post I can hear his bitterness at how his wife was treated.
We were young and naïve and didn’t even know we were breaking the law. We thought that getting a spouse visa was as simple as applying after you entered on a tourist visa (turns out that’s exactly how I did it in Japan). It’s not like she was intending to overstay her visa. We were so busy planning and traveling that we didn’t properly research and the immigrants I did consult immigrated to the US before 9/11 and their information was out of date. I was shocked how they treated Eri like a criminal or terrorist, she was only twenty years old and didn’t fit the profile. I was also surprised at how the policy overrode common sense. It was actually harder for Eri to enter the country because she was married to me.
And as I read this I was amazed at how things had changed in just a few short years. Pre-911 my French husband got his Green Card in Seattle.  He had landed in the US on one kind of visa and it was just a matter of going down to immigration and filling out the paperwork to get residency status based on his marriage to me, l'américaine.  Very simple.  No one at immigration so much as blinked twice when we explained what we wanted. The final interview lasted less than 10 minutes.  That's all it took for the very pleasant official to decide that my husband merited a Green Card.

We were just as naive as Merrill and his wife.  We took for granted that because we were married, we could choose which country we wanted to live in.  And our assumptions proved true at that time.

In this story we can see how a vigorous and punctilious application of immigration law can hurt not only the immigrant but the native citizen as well.  Please note that the US not only lost an immigrant, but they forced one of their own into emigrating.  Merrill and his wife didn't get to choose where they wanted to live - they were forced in the direction of the country that would take both of them.

Interestingly enough, that turned out to be Japan - a country that many Americans consider to be unfriendly to immigrants.

Oh, the irony...

Saturday, April 4, 2015

On the Path to Citizenship in Japan

What motivates a resident to become a citizen?

This is a decision so personal that a man or woman may spend years sorting through his deepest feelings to answer questions like:

Where is “home”? Where do I belong? What will I lose? How will this change my life?

I did not write today’s post. It was penned by one of my fellow Americans here in Japan who has done that thinking and has made his decision.

May it be of benefit to all of us who struggle with questions about identity, attachments, and allegiance.


On the Path to Citizenship in Japan

I have been in Japan now for about 20 years. I have been a permanent resident for the last 14, and am comfortably settled. So why change from permanent resident status to full citizenship status?

A Full Member of Society with Rights: The biggest motivation for requesting Japanese citizenship is simply that I want to be a citizen in my own home. I want the right to vote and all the concrete and fuzzy meanings that attach to being a full citizen. To me this seems a natural progression for an immigrant: if one intends to live somewhere for the rest of one’s life, why would one go out of their way to remain a foreigner? Why hold back? If you don’t want to be a full member of the society you live in, then why are you still living there?

Stability: I’m tired of being a foreigner. I want to be a real person. Some people may enjoy the role of being a foreigner, to be seen as exotic or different. But that is not something that I think most people can tolerate for their entire lives. At some point, a desire for stability and a yearning to just be a plain old person will assert itself in most immigrants. This leads them to go back where they came from, or else go all the way and seek citizenship.

Home: Sooner or later, one has to decide where one is going to call “home”. For me, it has been a gradual process of setting roots down here. I was recently asked if I ever planned to “go back,” and all I could think was: Go back to what? If I ever returned to any of the places where I used to live, most of the people I knew would be gone, and the places themselves would have changed. So it would not really be going back, but more like going to a new place again.

A Good Life: Also, of course, my life is all here: I have a family, a house, and pets. I have a good job with stimulating work that I look forward to continuing until I retire. After retirement, I hope to spend time on outdoor activities in the mountains of Japan for as long as I am able, and perhaps do more volunteer work than I have time for now. I also want to visit many parts of the country that I have not yet had a chance to see.

Letting Go: Japan does not allow dual citizenship, so I will have to relinquish US citizenship. This is not a decision to be taken lightly – I can’t just take Japanese citizenship and hang onto the US one as a “spare”. I have to make the decision, from the start, that I am willing to give up my US citizenship.

What do I give up by relinquishing my US passport?
  • I am giving up the right to vote in US Federal elections and the right to go live in the US without the fear of deportation. For someone who plans on living in the US someday, these would indeed be very valuable rights. I find it more valuable to have those rights here in Japan. 

  • The other thing I give up is the requirement to file tax returns with the US. Trying to understand and keep up with the complex, ever-changing rules that apply to American citizens abroad is certainly a challenge that I can do without. It’s not the taxes that I mind; it’s the complexity and fear of unreasonable fines.
But, in the end, the most important factor is that I cannot be both a US citizen and a Japanese citizen. Even if, for example, the US changed its crazy tax system to be less hostile to Americans abroad, my choice would be the same.

 I have to pick one or the other, and the one I have come to choose for the remaining stages of my life is Japanese citizenship.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Himeji Castle

Blossoms grasp tightly
Their lifeline
Birds shoot by, black dashes
Solitary petals float to the ground
Holding on is illusory

Karen Ueda 

Today two friends - one of whom is the author of the poem above - and I went to see Himeji Castle.

Unfortunately, there was a one and a half hour wait just to buy tickets.  At the very back of the line was a man with a bullhorn issuing directives to the crowds converging on the castle grounds.  All along the queue, park staff stood with  signs saying how long the wait was.  Signs that dashed the hopes of those who had stood quietly in the rain, optimistic that maybe the line would start to move quickly.  It didn't.

So we decided to come back another day.  We walked a bit in the park and I took some pictures of the cherry trees.  The weather was terrible but the trees and the gardens were lovely.  And, of course, the company was grand.

Here are a few pictures.  The one at the end is for those of you who expressed an interest in my new haircut.  I love the picture and I think it's a good replacement for the old one up on the blog profile.  

Yes, that's me (and my bad habits).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

FATCA/CBT: Who Paid the Penalties?

This CNN Money article, You've never seen IRS penalties like these,  is enough to stop your heart if you are an immigrant in the US, or a US citizen living outside it.

Was it an April Fool's joke?  Only a homeland American could ask that.  US citizens abroad knew right away that it was dead serious.

But how is it possible, a homelander might ask, that someone working and living in London or Budapest could owe up to $240,000 in penalties on a $20,000 local bank account?  Especially if the person owed no tax to the United States and it was just a matter of paperwork he didn't know he had to file.  Doesn't that seem a bit, well, outrageous?

Good, we agree.

It's possible because it's the law of the land.  Yes, the IRS has the discretion to lower the penalties by taking the whole picture into consideration.  But asking for and getting mitigation usually requires costly legal assistance.  A taxpayer really is guilty until proven innocent here.

Furthermore, there is evidence from the past that the lower the income (or the amount in the account), the higher the penalties.  Don't take my word for this, take Nina Olson's.  She's the IRS National Taxpayer Advocate and she's been raising a red flag about this for several years now.  Here is what she said in her 2014 Report to Congress (Page 86, MSP #7):
"Under the 2009 OVD program, however, the median offshore penalty paid by those with the smallest accounts was nearly six times the median unreported tax, as compared to about three times the unreported tax for those with the largest accounts, as shown on the figure below. Moreover, unrepresented taxpayers paid proportionately more regardless of the size of their accounts, as shown below."
"Under the 2011 OVD program, the median offshore penalty for those with the smallest accounts rose to eight times the unreported tax, up from about six times the unreported tax under the 2009 program, as shown above and below. Unrepresented taxpayers continued to pay proportionately more except for those with the smallest accounts, as shown on the figure below. Moreover, for the middle 80 percent of taxpayers, the offshore penalty percentage increased by about 85 percent between the 2009 and 2011 programs (from 381 to 706 percent) while the median account balance declined by about 70 percent (from $607,875 to $183,993). Thus, the offshore penalty became increasingly more disproportionate for those with small accounts who were most likely to have been benign actors."
Thanks to Nina Olson, Americans abroad and immigrants in the US now have the Streamlined Program which is a much simpler process than OVD and meant for those "benign actors" - people who made an honest mistake and didn't know they were supposed to file.

Two comments about this program:

Lack of Trust:  Because outrageous and disproportionate penalties were applied in the recent past to middle and low income Americans abroad, people are afraid.  There were just too many horror stories and Americans abroad read them and panicked.  If there is even a hint that people are getting screwed in the Streamlined program, there will be a collective scream and, I think, skyrocketing renunciation rates.  

Communication Gap:   How is it that so many Americans abroad didn't know they had to file and report bank accounts in the first place?  This post on How We Got Here explains what happened. 

The IRS needs to do international outreach about Streamlined and they need to do it now.

Because there are still US Persons out there who don't know about the rules or who don't understand that these rules apply to them.  "I'm an English teacher/au pair/freelance programmer and I don't make much money.  All those filing and reporting requirements and amnesty programs  have nothing to do with me."  

Oh, my friends, how I wish that were true.