Debito was born in the United States and became a Japanese citizen 17 years ago. As required by Japanese citizenship law, he renounced his American citizenship and today he travels on his Japanese passport - something that has raised eyebrows at immigration even in multicultural countries like Canada.
What makes this man so controversial? He is an immigrant to Japan, a naturalized Japanese citizen and renunciant of his former citizenship, who experienced racism in his adopted country and instead of staying silent began a very vocal, very public, fight against it.
In the 1990s, in the north of Japan, public baths (onsen) began posting signs that said "Japanese only." According to one of my sources, this was in response to the behavior of visiting Russians who were, shall we say, having a little too much fun. The response of the onsen owners in places like Otaru was to ban all foreigners. And how were these foreigners identified? By race. Ouch. Debito and other foreign residents went on to sue in Japanese courts. You can read the entire story in Japanese Only: The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan.
Since then Debito has been fighting to raise awareness about prejudice and discrimination against foreigners in Japan. His blog featured a blacklist of Japanese universities that he said treated foreign professor badly compared to their Japanese counterparts.
Debito has a column in The Japan Times, has been interviewed by National Public Radio and The New York Times (both US) and in 2015 he published Embedded Racism: Japan's Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination. An interesting read which I recommend to you.
The reactions of the foreign community here to Debito's efforts are, well, mixed.
Some find his very public fight to be offensive, embarassing, and counter-productive. He is making a mountain out of a molehill. Even if there is a grain of truth to what he says, he could find better ways of expressing himself. Loud public disclosures of racism by a naturalized Japanese citizen of American origin are not helpful because that's not the way things work in Japan. He should stop being so darn American. (Yes, someone said that to me.)
Others argue that his work gives voice to something that they have felt for years: prejudice, housing and job discrimination, being "othered" even though they speak Japanese and have lived in Japan for decades.
Most (in my experience) are ambivalent. They acknowledge the issues but they wish Debito would be less aggressive about it. Court cases? Interviews with the media outside Japan? "He goes too far" is something I have heard over and over again in my time here.
I can identify to a certain extent with all of these opinions. I am only a part-timer here in Japan but I am an immigrant in France and I can see the issues.
North Americans, Europeans and Oceanians living in Asia are minorities. Take a moment and look at the on-line statistics from the Japan Statistics Bureau. North Americans (Canada and US) comprise only 4.1% of the foreign population here and Europeans are only 2.2%. Asian and South Americans (most of whom are of Japanese descent) are the overwhelming majority. Furthermore, quite a lot of it is skilled workers or traditional assigned (sent by a company) expatriates. People from other Asian countries are the majority of intra-company transfers and investors/managers. And although much has been said and written about marriages between Western men to Japanese women, most international marriages in Japan are between Japanese men and foreign women from other parts of Asia.
Many (but not all) North Americans, Europeans and Oceanians are also visible minorities: people of European or African ancestry, for example. Some enjoy the attention, others don't. The Asian-Americans I have talked to in Japan all noted that being able to "pass" in Japan was a very welcome experience and one I could certainly relate to living in France.
Small numbers and visibility equal vulnerability. It is fear, I think, that drives the desire to be as low profile as possible. Things are OK right now and let's not rock the boat lest that change for the worse. We have seen how other migrants are treated and we don't want to be them. Americans, Canadians, British don't want to be the Koreans in Japan or the North Africans in France. These fears are, in my view, entirely justified. What sane individual would take on 60+ million French or 120+ million Japanese?
This internal conflict is something all minorities face: do we negotiate with the majority for better treatment? Or do we use other strategies - acceptance of marginalization within the larger society or withdrawal into ethnic and racial enclaves? That is a tough conversation because people are not situated in the same way and they don't necessarily agree on what (if anything) should be done or how to do it: quiet negotiation versus court cases and demonstrations. I have been told that the former would be more "Japanese." But I am not in a position to judge the truth or falseness of that claim.
What I do see within this foreign community are divisions based on class, nationality, and socioeconomic status (something I haven't seen Debito address but perhaps I haven't read enough of his work). The experiences of a long-term traditional expatriate living in a large city with a package that includes an apartment, a car, and international schools for the kids are not the same as those who teach English or work as translators in local companies.
No moral judgment here about either group, just an observation that migrants everywhere who have money and status and are "highly skilled" (and not just "skilled") live very different lives than those who don't have those things. For the former the status quo might be just fine; for the latter it can mean being a couple of paychecks away from not being able to support a family. Who has the better status? A Singaporean or British investment banker in Tokyo, or a Canadian teacher married to a Japanese national working as an ALT in a small town on a series of one year contracts? The latter, I would say, is more vulnerable if Westerners become persona non grata.
That fear and risk aversion, in my view, should be taken very seriously. Foreign residents in Japan have homes, families, and businesses that are at stake here and they are living in a country (like so many other countries) that is having intense debates over immigration. If you had asked me 20 years ago if France would ever consider controlling the immigration of foreign spouses and children, I would have laughed at you. Well, they are. The rhetoric coming from the French Right these days has me a bit nervous, and I'm not the only one. Things change.
That said, living in a society where you think your lot will be worse if you speak up about unfair treatment is, well, not a great situation either. These are the dilemmas of the minority which are greatly exacerbated by migrant status.
"Perfect," the Anglophones
My research and experiences in Japan have convinced me that there are indeed some issues here that concern all foreigners (and that should not be a surprise to anyone.) Pointing that out is not an attack on Japan; rather, I would argue, that it is the response of people who love Japan and want to integrate and be full members of society. If that is a fantasy (and many people I talked to say that it is), could we not agree that it is still a dream worth fighting for?
I appreciate that Debito has forced debate and discussion on topics that most of us (including me) would prefer not to think about at all. How the foreign community here deals with what he has to say is ultimately up to them. And I, on my distant shore, am paying close attention.