If you want to do research on the North American and European foreign communities in Japan, it is impossible to ignore Arudou Debito.  To my knowledge no one like him exists in the American communities I am most familiar with in Europe. And in Japan, the American, Canadians and British I have met all have an opinion about him.  I have talked to those who know him personally. He is at the center of many debates about the integration of Western migrants here.

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 French say, “is the enemy of good.”  I personally do not have the sense that Debito is looking for “perfect” in Japan.  I would defend his right to be critical of the society of which he is a member; something I think we all have the right to do.  I have strong opinions about the anti-immigrant rhetoric in France and I fully supported the Canadians who sued their government over FATCA saying that this was discrimination on the basis of national origin.

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.

A suivre….

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Born in Seattle, USA. Generation Xer. Lived on 3 continents (North America, Asia and Europe). Country agnostic. Mother of two Frenchlings. MA in International Migration

20 thoughts on “Debito”

  1. 'Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien'

    Better is the enemy of good, not 'perfect'.

    Otherwise decent read, even if you failed to address the fact that Debito lost all relevance. He consistently failed to demonstrate any serious discrimination happening in Japan on a regular basis. He's just a living meme now, and I'm surprised you found more than 10 people who actually take him seriously.


  2. > He is an immigrant to Japan

    He's no longer live in Japan though, as far as i'm aware he moved in Hawaii and live/work there since 2012.


  3. Yes, he teaches at different school in Hawaii. I think he's probably quite at home with the other 400,000 Japanese citizens living in the US (see the Japan statistics from 2013):-) I don't know if his move is permanent or not. Something to ask him over at his blog.


  4. I don't know if you deleted my comment or what, but your use of the French idiom is still incorrect.

    The correct one is “Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien” -> Better is the enemy of good.


  5. I heartily agree with that sentiment, Donna-Lane.

    Anonymous, Nope, no deletion by me. A “fausse manip” on your part perhaps. And yes you are correct about the French idiom. I am mixing my French and English these days – something I feared would happen in Japan. Thanks for the correction. 🙂


  6. …. he has a very few (if any) peer-reviewed publications and he is a researcher? He won't survive in the US academic job market, but definitely he is a “niche” scholar.


  7. Katsuya: there is a very easy way to know something about what he's published and where and who cites him: just run a search on his name in Google Scholar.

    I see his work in the light of two areas which are of interest. The first is work on racial discrimination in Japan which mostly talks about the Zainichi Koreans (Chung) or the Japanese-Brazilians (Tsuda) or other minorities like the Ainu (Weiner). The other is a growing interest in the experiences of the “Western” migrant/expat all over the the world in particular what is called “north-north” migration. Japan is an OECD country and has a huge economy and a high standard of living. When North Americans or Europeans move to Japan or Japanese move to North America or Europe that kinda confounds the notion that migration is always about poor people moving to rich countries. There is also the sterotype that “Western” migrants/expatriates are all rich and sipping gins and tonics by the pool (or champagne on the beach in France). So there is more research today about who these people are and why they choose to stay in Japan or France or Korea and what exactly happens to them when they settle. See Klekowski von Koppenfels or Bensen and O'Reilly, Nagatomo or Debnar. In fct I think I'll post a shortlist of some interesting reads.

    And, yeah, I would describe a lot of this work as “niche”. For many reasons there just isn't as much of this kind of work as there is on other migrant groups.


  8. I used to have a great deal of respect for Debito, so I will not say anything bad about him. However, the truth is that this article is at least 5 years too late; He has not lived in Japan for a while and is no longer relevant as an activist in Japan.


    1. Hi J and welcome to the Flophouse. Interestingly enought, he still comes up in conversation from time to time. Most of the folks I talked to were unaware that he was now a “Japanese abroad.” He still writes but it looks like his interests now are more academic – he got his PhD and published his book. It will be interesting to see how spending time abroad will change (or not) his view of Japan.


  9. I’d not heard of Debito but am interested in your observations on belonging to a social minority. This line amused me — “He (Debito) should stop being so darn American.” I am a White Anglo-Saxon American. In 1953, while a university student, I married Ravi, a student from India, and we continued on to school together. We intended to live in India but he could not find a job there and neither of us had family to help us financially, and we had two children. Ravi took American citizenship and became a professor. I taught at the university but no Ph.D. Ravi took American citizenship. The countries I lived and/or worked in are Somalia, Turkey, India, France, Indonesia. If we had lived in India, I would never have been considered Indian. Same for all the other countries. When we lived in Paris and Ravi worked as an American with an international organization there, for the Americans he was American. Other nationality people saw him as Indian. I was taken aback on learning that in Germany, children of Turkish immigrants who were born in Germany, spoke only German, knew no other country, where (I think) legally second-generation immigrants. What !! A Turk I knew in Ankara told me that he had moved to Paris as a young man, was educated in France, spoke fluent French, loved France and held a very good position in a French firm — but was not being promoted. He asked his boss why and was told that to be professionally successful he must changed his name to a French name and even change his religious identity to Christian. He left France and moved to Ankara.

    Ravi told me that America is a club one joins. Other countries are a tribe one is born into. America is built on an idea, on loyalty to the Constitution. Immigrants are expected to assimilate but not to totally deny their origins. The image I grew up with was the melting pot — a lumpy melting pot from past identities but assimilated by the third generation. (The Black-White situation is something else.) Other societies are mosaics, with the pieces being different identities and the whole making the society. Oh well, all this is over-simplified. But what your wrote reminded me of my own experience. And I wonder now what American society is becoming.


  10. Iris, Thank you so much for the very thoughtful comment and for sharing your experiences. I think that when he talk about integration we see that in some countries it is much harder, if not impossible (and I go back and forth on this about Japan.) In some places the way you look and speak and the fact that you have no ancestral claims means that you will never be fully accepted into society. You will always be “the American” (or the French or the Japanese.) In countries of immigration this is supposedly not the case but perhaps times are changing.

    What I think I saw was how difficult it is for someone from a country of immigration (where full integration is possible, though not always realized) to live in a country that has many fewer possibilities (if any) for becoming a full member of society. It is a source of enormous frustration to some that after 20 or 30 years they are still “foreign” no matter what they do. I certainly have felt it though, I must admit, it is also very exciting to be the “exotic beast.” In the US I am just one American among many. But in my neighborhood in France I am the only American and people find that interesting. When I garden in my front courtyard people stop and chat with me and tell me stories about their trips to the US. So perhaps the compensation for not being considered French is a kind of attention and opportunity for connection that I would not get as a French among French.


  11. innomin, Your comment violates the Flophouse policy on comments which you can read here:

    Specifically I seem that your comment was not meant to further a discussion. And it’s not interesting or fun for anyone to read and respond to.

    I do not do this lightly but am deleting it. You are more than welcome to submit another comment explaining why you don’t care for Debito. Passion and direct speech are welcome but please try to be interesting and not just obscene.


  12. Long term resident of Japan here (more than 20 years). Your blog entry is interesting and you make very good points about the fact one’s socio economic position makes a big difference in one’s impression of Japan. I have seen this after 2 decades of living here.

    As others have said, Debito has left Japan and he is no longer significant. His once great blog has devolved into a near constant bashing of Japan. In the past his blog was extraordinarily useful and dealt with some real issues in ways where people could exchange information.

    Around 2011/2012 things changed and after an online feud between him and some of his immature childish detractors (who made a website called “tepido”) things really seemed to go downhill.

    I think he did himself a disservice by allowing the readers and those commenting on his blog to hijack what was once a really, really good website and turn it into constant negativity.

    He had a very righteous cause against the onsen (the fact they would allow in one of his daughters because she looked Japanese and would not allow the other in because she did not was ludicrous). He won that case, as he should have, but for some reason things turned a bit dark.

    Personally I wish the man well in Hawaii and I would be really surprised if he ever returns to live in Japan.


    1. ReveringinJapan, Thank you so much for your thoughts and welcome to the Flophouse.

      You mention the movement against Debito about 5 or 6 years ago. I heard about it and went and read some of his detractors’ comments. I found this to be an nteresting example of a migrant group “self-policing” – something that happens quite a lot. Note that it wasn’t Japanese native citizens leading the charge but other migrants who felt that what he was doing was offensive and threatening and not representative of them. I would argue that he threatened their interests and not necessarily those of Japan or the Japanese. Lord knows that I have heard Japanese native citizens criticize Japan. But when a legal resident or naturalized citizen does so that presents a real problem for the migrant group the individual is perceived to belong to. It could potentially cause problems for everyone. That’s my thinking on this but feel free to disagree.

      You and others have noted that he no longer lives in Japan. Honestly I don’t think that’s terribly relevant. He is a Japanese citizen and has joined the Japanese diaspora abroad – a large population with communities all over the world. Like them, he is not any less Japanese for not being in Japan. Where he decided to go is also very significant. Hawaii is a special case for the Japanese. Not only is it a preferred destination for Japanese tourists, it has been a destination for Japanese migrants for a very long time. The Japanese community there has real political power and influence. I strongly suspect (and you can check this out with your Japanese friends and colleagues) that his move to Hawaii as a Japanese citizen would be regarded rather favorably since he will find many compatriots and an important Japanese community there. So his fellow citizens may not be at all surprised by where he landed (and may approve) but it has a completely different significance for his fellow MIGRANTS in Japan.

      Just a few thoughts for a Sunday morning….


  13. @Victoria – Thanks for your reply. Yes the movement against Debito was by other foreigners, a very immature group in my opinion who engaged in some very strange activities. I do not agree with Debito 100% and feel he became too negative, however these guys were way over the top.

    I have been here more than 20 years and I have plenty of criticisms about Japan and many good things to say as well. The good outweighs the bad in my mind and thus I am still here. I find it is more important how you present criticisms, especially in Japan, where much more importance is put on the group than in the west. Things are changing in Japan for the good and bad. It is easier as a foreigner living here than it was 10 or 20 years ago. This trend will continue out of necessity.

    Debito is still Japanese, yes, but he lost credibility with alot of people who are still here when he left. When someone engages in such a strong manner then withdraws it always raises eyebrows. If you look at his blog vs. 10 years ago you will see that a once very popular blog with active participants engaging each other and even disagreeing has turned into a couple of bitter old men posting (rather bashing or complaining) about Japan. I do not see this as a reflection of Debito himself just the people posting and it is a shame he allowed it to degrade to where it is.

    I lived in Hawaii and I understand about the Japanese population. Many Japanese dream of moving to Hawaii but cannot for various reasons so you are right many Japanese would “approve” but they also will have some interesting thoughts about someone who was so critical of Japan and then left.

    I can understand why he left Japan and I do wish him the very best, but I think he is most likely out of touch with current events inside of Japan and therefore does not see the changes occurring here, especially if he is relying on his commenters for insight.

    In the end if I were in his position I would have done the same, left the country. I would have also considered either closing the blog down or rooting out some of the extreme critics of Japan (i.e. those there to just bitch who obviously have no other reason for posting there than to bash Japan)


    1. ReveringinJapan, You make an excellent point that Japan is changing. I am very pleased to hear that you find it a good place to live and that you’re happy. I certainly enjoyed my time there though the second time aound was a mixed experience. I was able to do far more traveling around Japan and I was able to do research which led to my MA but it was no fun being unemployed.

      Migration is something of a crapshoot. You insert yourself in a country and a society that is always changing and you change as well over time. At some points in time it is a perfect match: at others it isn’t. I talked to Anglophones all over Japan and I have old friends here in France and in both places it’s a mix of people who are happy and fulfilled and others who are not very happy, wish they could leave, but feel that they can’t. A small percentage of the latter live in resentment and frustration. I feel for them. I would agree that their circumstances are not ideal, within limits I am fine listening to people who need to vent but I can’t see spending years seething with anger. Sometimes leaving is the best thing for yourself and for those around you. And that doesn’t necessarily mean heading back to the home country either. The world is filled with wonderful/interesting places. The trick, of course, is how to get in legally. As a friend pointed out the other day at lunch, it’s very hard now to migrate to France if you are not an EU citizen or married to one. Japan has the merit of being a pretty easy place to migrate to if you are an anglophone.

      I wish Debito well, too. Wherever he is I hope he’s happy. As for the criticism, who cares? The anglophone migrant community in Japan (as in France) is so small we are a minority of minorities. We have no political significance and precious little societal significance. The home countries are mostly unaware that there are communities of long-term residents living abroad. It is very humbling to go “home” and realize that very few people have any interest in us and our experiences. (Though they like the books.) If things get better for foreigners in Japan (and in France) then it will probably be due to those migrants who do have some political power and are organizing. Leaving the country of residence for a time gives us this perspective. I am very grateful that my migrant experience now has 4 sides: France, Japan, US and Belgium. And all that wandering confirmed one thing: how much I love France. 🙂


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