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Consumer Reports


An atypical Japanese citizen tries to change his countrymen's views

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) CHITOSE, Japan There is nothing about American-born David Aldwinckle that seems Japanese, right down to his self-deprecating description that he is just a "loudmouth with an Internet connection." Being a loudmouth of any kind isn't typical in polite, group-oriented Japan.

Yet Aldwinckle is Japanese. He speaks the language, has taken a Japanese name and became a naturalized citizen in 2000 after living here more than a decade.

All this has given Arudou Debito, as he is now called, a unique perspective as outsider-turned-insider in an island nation known for not welcoming immigrants, refugees, foreign investors or anyone who aspires to be treated as an equal by the natives.

Some of Aldwinckle's experiences have frustrated him, made him indignant and yes, even turned him into a loudmouth. They also have transformed him into an unusual activist for the rights of non-native Japanese and other foreigner residents at a critical moment in this country's history.

Because of its falling birthrate and moribund economy, Japan is struggling to accept the idea that it must become more hospitable to outsiders because their numbers are growing and they represent an underutilized resource.

This transformation is not happening easily, as Aldwinckle has discovered.

The focal point of his mission is a legal case stemming from an incident of racial discrimination at its most unfathomable.

A traditional Japanese bathhouse near Aldwinckle's northern Japan home that had been troubled by rowdy Russian sailors put a sign on its door prohibiting all foreigners. The ban went unchallenged for eight years, until a group that included Aldwinckle, his Japanese wife and their two daughters tried to enter.

Aldwinckle was told by the management that he was not welcome, but his wife was. Their older daughter - with dark hair and dark almond eyes - would be allowed, the manager said. But not the younger daughter - the one with light-colored hair and green eyes.

"As a parent," Aldwinckle said, "I could not allow this to stand. These children are Japanese children."

He attempted to negotiate with the bathhouse owners, but they stood firm - even after Aldwinckle proved his citizenship. He tried to motivate local officials to act. They held several emergency meetings but never invited Aldwinckle, or any foreigner, to attend. Eventually they decided there was no law against what the bathhouse did, and they were not willing to enact one.

So Aldwinckle sued.

The bathhouse removed the sign as soon as it heard of Aldwinckle's intentions, but his court case continues on appeal, with the initial verdict late last year giving Aldwinckle less than a total victory. It also gave him more to chew on about why Japan seems to find it so difficult to give equal treatment to anyone not considered "Japanese."

The ruling, in effect, said that the bathhouse was wrong to discriminate against foreigners but that the city was not required to pass anti-discrimination laws. The decision meant that the next foreigner to be excluded from a Japanese bathhouse also would have to sue to get in, Aldwinckle said.

"This is why human rights here remain shallow: Because the mechanisms to enforce it are toothless," he said. "There is no mechanism to enforce article 14 of the constitution, which says equal protection for all citizens."

Being able to quote from Japan's constitution - in Japanese as well as English - is only the beginning of the 38-year-old Aldwinckle's lobbying ability. He is passionate, meticulous and media savvy, and has just written a book in Japanese that details his fight for justice on behalf of non-native Japanese and other foreigners. He also maintains a jam-packed Web site of his essays, court documents and campaigns against discrimination.

There is a lot to chronicle, though much of what Aldwinckle has come up against is not the kind of prejudice that destroys lives. He has a successful career as a university professor and lives contentedly with his family in a house he built.

Most of the inequalities Aldwinckle faces are the type he could ignore but refuses to because they offend his sense of justice and represent a parochial mindset that he believes is not just outdated but harmful to Japan's future.

Through Internet-based publicity campaigns fueled by his endless determination to speak, Aldwinckle can claim several victories, including convincing the country's largest cellular phone company that it was wrong to demand a $250 deposit from foreigners but not from citizens. They dropped the requirement for credit card holders.

He also persuaded several Tokyo banks to remove signs posted near 24-hour cash machines that warned the Japanese to beware of bad foreigners who snatch handbags. The Japanese commit crimes, too, he argued, and in much greater numbers than foreigners.

Aldwinckle does not argue that Japan is a racist society or outrageously xenophobic. At its worst, he believes, Japan is a rigidly structured, sheltered society that is poorly trained to address complex social questions like, "What is a Japanese person?"

"People terrified of the unpredictable and the unprecedented," he said. "They are afraid of what foreigners might do if you let them in. If you make them citizens, what would they become? They'd become weirdoes who don't toe the line, who raise the questions other people won't raise, who won't allow the system to stand as it stands."

Japan, which was closed to foreigners for centuries until the 1850s, has a long unresolved history of integrating outsiders. There remains a large community of ethnic Koreans who have lived in Japan for generations since being imported as slave laborers. Most are still not Japanese citizens.

There are about 1.8 million foreign residents - including the Koreans - in Japan today, and there is a growing recognition that the country must change its views. The trends toward more migrant workers, more international marriages with biracial children and more foreign-owned corporations all are intensifying.

That has made Aldwinckle's challenges a little bit easier, because even the bureaucrats who stymie him don't view him simply as a lone angry white man. Most people who come in contact with Aldwinckle accept the idea that he has become Japanese and that his perspective is interesting, if not indispensable.

"This is not a personal crusade because it touches upon a lot of larger issues," Aldwinckle said. "It's not just about my world. This must stop because it's unfair and it's untenable in Japan in the 21st Century."

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