Debito Arudou:  portrait

Multiculturalism in Japan

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David Aldwinckle
(Debito Arudou

Arudou Debito (né David Aldwinckle) is a controversial figure. Raised in upstate New York, Mr. Arudou has resided in Japan since 1986, naturalizing in October 2000.

A tenured instructor at Hokkaido Information University, as well as prolific essayist and activist, Mr. Arudou is perhaps best known for his lawsuit against Yunohana Hot Spring and the Otaru municipal government in Hokkaido on the grounds of "racial discrimination and violation of the UN Convention against Racial Discrimination"—a case that has attracted him worldwide media exposure.

Mr. Arudou holds a B.A. in government from Cornell University and an M.P.I.A. in international relations with a Japan concentration from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He also studied at Bristol University in England. He is fluent in Japanese.

Interview: November 17, 2001

You seem to have several causes. Can youpinpoint your main cause, in fact, or are you just trying to get your name out there?

"Just trying to get my name out"—it sounds like I'm trying to be self-aggrandizing... 

No. Not necessarily...

What I'm trying to do is have a point of view on certain issues and it is the issues that I'm trying to get out, or at the least, the ideas. Whether those ideas are attached to my name or not is circumstantial. 

There are certain problems in this society - in any society - that deserve some attention and my ability, will—if you want to call it a "cause," do so—that drives the efforts that I make to bring those ideas out. I consider it productive. "Causes" makes me sound like I'm the kind of person that wears a hair shirt all the time; or I am a person that has to strive to be heard in order to achieve some sort of self-fulfillment. 

I think every responsible citizen in society has the obligation, duty, and right to say what's on their mind about certain things. I'm not doing anything out of the ordinary, in my opinion.

But what are you really hoping to achieve? Are your actions measured by any results-oriented criteria? 

I hope to achieve a certain society where people can feel comfortable and satisfied with the way their life is. That they're able to pursue...if you want to use that, liberty and happiness in a way they see fit and in a way that is tenable. There are many ways in Japan that people cannot do that; I won't say that these obstacles are unfair, but they are certainly unreasonable. These things need to be pointed out so people can live much more enriched and fulfilling lives. What's so unusual about that?

Can you be more specific?

Take the Ninkisei issue, for example [JRN eds.—tenuring vs. contracting of non-Japanese in the university system]; People have been systematically discriminated against in the Japanese university system and in employment by being assigned contracts by virtue of their nationality. That has changed somewhat with recent revisions in the laws, but the point of the matter is that most foreigners employed in the Japanese university system are assigned contracts (1-3 years.) Some of these contracts are kept non-renewable. If they object, they are fired. How can anyone operating under these circumstances pursue a life that is the same as anyone else if they have temporary contracts that could be terminated at a moment's notice? That's one example. 

You have described yourself as a "human rights" activist. The term evokes images of previous activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu and Gandhi, to name a few—all disenfranchised that were born and raised as such. Isn't your descriptive taking it a bit far considering that you are an Ivy-educated , middle-class, white male from the United States who is only feeling a sliver of the discrimination today? 

What difference does it make that I am Ivy-educated? I just had an education. I am pleased that it was Ivy. I've had a certain number of principals instilled in me that say, "Hey look...everyone deserves a fair shake in society." Just because I happen to have a particular background that someone else didn't have doesn't make me any less able to speak out when I see unfairness in this particular society. I find that to be a rather silly way to de-legitimize my voice.

But are you trying to win a lawsuit, change the law or, more to the point, are you trying to change the mind of the Japanese people themselves?

Well, I can't exactly "change the mind of the Japanese people." What is the mind of the Japanese people to begin with? It's far too ephemeral.

"Am I trying to win the lawsuit?" Of course I'm trying to win the lawsuit! Who wouldn't sue if the they don't want to win—if they are not going to try to win? 

What was the third question...?

Are you trying to change the law?

I'm hoping that people will begin to understand that there is a social problem that falls between the laws. There is no anti-racial discrimination law in Japan. That is a situation that is untenable for a rapidly internationalizing society. It is something that needs to be addressed, not only because the country is obligated by international treaty to do so, but also because it is just a good idea. We've seen what happens in other societies when people are not treated the same due to race. It happened in the American example. It happened in the South African example. We can't allow this to continue to happen in modern societies.

Do think that your "human rights" have been violated? Or do you think that your "civil rights" have been violated? Or do you see a difference at all?

You give me the definition of the two...

It's up to you. I'm asking you. 


After all, you call yourself a "human rights" activist...

Other people have called me a "human rights" activist. I don't mind the label, but I don't think I'd go so far. It puts me on par with other extraordinary activists. I'm just an average guy with a bigger mouth than average. 

I will not go so far as to say that "I am a human rights activist." I will say that I am an activist, but the qualifying adjective "human rights" adds something to it that makes me sound a little hoity-toity. 

"Do I feel that my rights have been violated?"—yes, I do. I have the right to enter an "onsen" (hot spring) for a reasonable reason, or for no reason whatsoever. 

"Do I put this in terms of 'human' or 'civil' rights?"—that is something for the lawyers or legal scholars to decide. I will say that I don't think what happened to me (and continues to happen to me) is something that people - human beings—that expect to be treated with a modicum of dignity, should tolerate. 

But when you were raised in America, did you also resort to activism to resolve conflicts?


Could you give us a few examples?

When I was at Cornell University, the issue of South African divestment was quite popular— divestment meaning in this case the withdrawal of Cornell University funding and monies from the South African economy in all its forms. A lot of students said that Cornell University should not do business with South African companies because it simply helped to keep the Afrikaner government in power. I was involved in protests, sit-ins, and doing the regular "I'll-lend-my-mind-body-and-voice-to-it". I wasn't a leader per se, because I really didn't have a taste for that sort of thing yet; I didn't know what I was doing. It was just fashionable. But I was following the issue and that, in a sense, made me an activist.

Many commentators in the Japanese media have argued that the reason Japanese markets are not open is because of Japanese cultural sensibilities; that the reason the trade surplus is so high, for example, is not because of monopolies resistant to competition so much as Japanese consumer behavior focusing on the "Japanese" way of doing business—an "Asian way" or "System." As someone who is now a nationalized Japanese, do you think there is some truth to this generalized assessment of Japan?

If you assign anything to culture it is self-fulfilling prophecy, in my opinion. The reason "Japanese" don't do X because they are "Japanese," is a boiler-plate statement; it's an attribution that in many cases is false. 

So when you file a lawsuit on the hot spring owner are you also putting "Japan" on trial?

No. I will unequivocally say "no." My intention is to show that there are problems in this society that are affecting me and my family (and will inevitably affect others.) This is a problem that has to be resolved. I am not saying that Japan is a racist society, nor would I ever say that. It's not a reasonable thing to say. I will not say that Japan is inherently xenophobic; there might be cases like this in Japan, but also in many other societies as well. American society can be equally xenophobic in certain places and times. 

Have you specifically addressed the issue of this lawsuit being separated from a total indictment of Japan in your writings or in media interviews?

Yes. Take BBC News, for example. They tried to put me into a corner by asking, "Are you suing because Japan is a racist society?" 

I said, "I am suing, but not because Japan is a racist society. That's not even part of the equation. Why would you even say such a thing?" 

I don't think there should be any linkage between the two. It's like saying that just because "In God We Trust" is written on American currency, everyone believes in God. It is one particular phenomenon in society that is not indicative of everyone. Quite the opposite, in my opinion. 

But isn't one of the reason why you have been taken up because people want to use your case as part of their overall indictment of Japan?

That's their business and not something that I would argue. If other people want to take up this issue and say that there is a problem in Japan that needs addressing then yes, "I support it." However there are parameters and limits to how far you can take this. You cannot say that hot spring owners do it and therefore Japanese are inherently exclusive or tribal. 

The problem is one particular hot spring owner who has a grudge against foreigners. He was not open to entreaty. He was not open to reasoning, to bargaining so that's why we sued him. It was a simple case. If you want to say that Japan is this, that and other, okay and I will try to address that issue now. But I will not say that Japan is a racist society. I will not say that Otaru people are inherently unfriendly. There are certain people who do not like foreigners, just like any society. But there are no laws to protect us from people like that. People can do this to us, simply because they can. I don't think that they should be allowed to get away with it. That's all we are trying to say with this lawsuit. Does Japan's legal structure protect people like us? - people that are not only legally Japanese, but also by phenotype. That's the question. 

Isn't this partially your responsibility? You have to admit that a lot of the Western media has used you for their poster boy for whatever racial cause.

I'm not sure about that. Give me an example.

Why do you think you are so popular?

Am I so popular? I don't see it. 

Then why has it attracted so much attention vs. the Benghazi worker whose rights... 

Because it's jarring that a society that is as modern, educated and forward looking as Japan would still leave this particular stone unturned. 

Well, you are still in the media whereas Ana Bortz [JRN eds.—a Brazilian reporter who successfully sued a jewelry-shop owner in Hamamatsu for racial discrimination under U.N. law when he refused her entry on the basis of her race] was forgotten. 

Not at forgotten at all. She won her case. It wasn't appealed. That's why it hasn't been in the media anymore. It is a legal precedent that has come to a conclusion; anyone who knows anything about "human rights" in Japan knows the Ana Bortz case. 

So if you win this case, is that the end? 

"Is it the end of the problem?"—no. 

But is it the end of your particular involvement in the problem? 

"In this particular problem"? 

Would you find a new problem?

There are problems out there. I probably would.

What are you reading right now? What do you generally like to read?

I am currently reading A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I also enjoy reading James Michener, other books on court cases, particularly the US Supreme Court, activists, such as Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, and human rights issues—people keep sending me all sorts of stuff.

For leisure, I have a weekly subscription to British comic books, such As 2000 AD and Judge Dredd—which I have read since the former started in 1977. I also have had a subscription to The Economist (London) for well over ten years.

You said earlier that you did not believe that Japan is a racist country. This seems to belie the fact that you write "It's all about looks in this country" and allude to such a point a number of occasions in your writings. Isn't saying "it's all about looks" tantamount to saying "Japan is, however unintentionally, racist?"

I don't want to sound Clintonesque here, but it depends on how you define "racist." If one defines it as, "people looking at your phenotype and making decisions about your character and how to treat you legally and socially", then yes, Japan fits the bill. But so does every other society in the world to some degree. The human talent for finding patterns and narrowing the randomness of the world down by making generalizations is universal, after all.

What I said was "looks," remember, and that is not always a function of phenotype. The clothes you wear, the business card you present, the wine you order at dinner... The interpersonal calculations of character are pretty complicated here.

I guess the clarification I should make here is that Japan is as potentially racist as anywhere else, but for a developed country, the legal and social protections and recourses afforded to people of differences are lacking comparatively. Racial discrimination is still not illegal in Japan, and this is something the Japanese government promised to fix when it signed the UN Convention on it in 1995.

In short, Japan is not an outlier in terms of racism, but it is in terms of protections against it.

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