JPRI Critique Vol. XXI No. 12 (December 2015)
In the Land of the Brokenhearted
Sheila K. Johnson


Review of Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination
by Debito Arudou
Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, 349 pp.


In 1984, a young American freelance writer went to live in Japan for 5 years. Michael Shapiro was not a student of Japan but was accompanying his wife, Susan Chira (now an assistant managing editor of the New York Times), who was then the Times’s Tokyo Bureau Chief. Of course he got to know the city and some of its inhabitants, and he was by turns charmed and irritated. Most especially, he was baffled by the “Japan enthusiasts” he met. “They tried so hard. They did everything right. Japan smiled and looked away.”

And then one day he began to read the letters, journals, and short stories of Lafcadio Hearn and he understood. “No one, I would learn, loved Japan better. No one, I sensed, could have felt such bitter disappointment when he saw that Japan was not what he wanted it to be.” Shapiro went on to write a charming book, now unfortunately out-of-print, called Japan: In the Land of the Brokenhearted (Henry Holt, 1989). In it he interlaces the story of Hearn’s life in Japan, from 1890 until his death there in 1904, with the stories of five contemporary Americans: a black baseball player, a woman married to a Japanese man, a black businessman trying to set up an American subsidiary for a small Japanese company, and a couple of missionaries who had lived in Japan since shortly after the war, the wife also having been born and raised there by her missionary parents. All of them love Japan and yet at some point are made aware that they are outsiders and can never be truly Japanese. Hearn was given Japanese citizenship, married a Japanese woman, and had three children with her, yet he never felt fully accepted or part of the society. As Shapiro accurately perceives about himself: “All of this meant nothing more than my realization that I wanted the relationship on my terms. Japan, as always, would have it on its own.”

In 1987 another young American also arrived in Japan with much more enthusiasm and greater expectations than Shapiro. The previous summer David Aldwinckle had gone to Japan to meet a Japanese pen pal and fallen in love. He spent his last year at Cornell trying to learn the language and everything he could about the country he planned to make his own. He next spent a year in Hokkaido, where his girlfriend lived, learning the language (and teaching English). Then he returned to San Diego, where he took a course from my late husband, Chalmers Johnson. I recall my husband describing David to me as a young man in a hurry, ready to set the world, and more especially Japan, on fire. We both wondered how it would end.

David left San Diego after a year and returned to Hokkaido to get married. Then he came back once more to finish his M.A. degree. And then, from 1993 until 2011, he worked in Hokkaido at a small private university, teaching business English and debate. He fathered two children, and in 2006 was divorced. He also got more and more irritated with the way he was sometimes treated as a henna gaijin (strange foreigner), even though he was fluent in the language and presumably knew the rules of polite social behavior (though I would guess that David was a good deal more confrontational than most Japanese find acceptable). A defining moment came when he was refused entry to a public bath facility that was marked as being “for Japanese only.”

Now it has to be said that the bathhouse operator may have had a point. Hokkaido was and is also a place where Russian sailors make port and come ashore, and the bathhouse owner feared (and perhaps had experienced) drunken Russians who didn’t know the proper etiquette of washing first before jumping into the soaking tub, thereby driving away other customers. But David argued (in his fluent Japanese) that he was different and he was still refused entry. Out of this encounter (and no doubt others) grew his decision to test the signs that say “Japanese only” by becoming Japanese himself.

It is not easy to become a Japanese citizen, and one of the requirements is taking a Japanese surname. Thus David Aldwinckle became, in 2000, Arudoudebito Sugiwara (the latter being the family name of his then wife). More recently he is known in Japan (last name first) as Arudou Debito, or on the spine of his new book, Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) as Debito Arudou.

With his new Japanese passport in hand, he again approached the Hokkaido public spa and was again refused entry. He brought with him his wife and two daughters and discovered that his wife and one of his daughters, who has her mother’s hair and eye color, were permitted entry but he and the other daughter, who has his eye and hair color, were not. Arudou calls this fieldwork in his book, but he proved his point: even though he was now a naturalized Japanese citizen, speaking fluent Japanese, it was not about cultural differences but about racial discrimination. And that is what his long and passionately argued book is all about.

One of the fascinating things I learned from this book is that although people like to say the Japanese have always identified themselves and their country in terms of blood and race, it was not always so. During Japan’s run-up to World War II, when it was creating an empire and conquering Taiwan, Korea, and parts of Manchuria, it took an expansionist view of citizenship and argued that these subjects were also citizens of Japan. It was the American occupation that forced Japan to surrender its control over its colonies and their subjects. Koreans, Taiwanese, and other Chinese who were in Japan were either repatriated to their native countries, or—if they chose to remain in Japan—had to become naturalized citizens. For many Koreans this was a doubly difficult choice since they had to specify whether they wanted to be repatriated to North Korea or South Korea, and many on both sides of the political divide chose to stay in Japan. Those who stayed but did not become citizens are called Zainichi, and have the status of Special Permanent Residents. This status also applies to their children and grandchildren, who were born in Japan. They cannot vote, and cannot hold certain positions, such as teaching in public schools and in government offices.

Zainichi, along with Ainu (an ancient tribal group in northern Japan probably descended from Polynesians), and burakumin (native Japanese who used to work slaughtering animals or in the leather trade, and thus are considered unclean like the untouchables in India) have been written about by others as Japan’s “invisible minorities.” Ethnic Koreans and Chinese can often “pass” in ordinary daily life but they will be discriminated against in when it comes to marriage (and their family history is checked), or getting bank loans or certain jobs.

Another more recent group of “invisible” Japanese who are nonetheless discriminated against are the Brazilian Japanese who were encouraged to come to Japan during the great economic boom of the late 1990s. By 2007 there were about 370,000 of them living in Japan and they were the third largest non-citizen group. They have the equivalent of an American “green card,” and can apply for citizenship, although this would require them to give up their Brazilian passports. Their children are also permanent residents rather than citizens.

Arudou’s book describes all these convoluted problems very well and some of the ludicrous situations they produce. Oh Sadaharu, as a Zainichi Taiwanese schoolboy, was prevented from playing on a school team because he was not a native Japanese, even though he went on to become a baseball legend in Japan. In 2008 three Japanese scientists jointly won a Nobel Prize in Physics, but one—Yoichiro Nambu—had become an American citizen in 1970, and since the Japanese government does not allow dual citizenship, they could not really claim him under their own strict rules. Chapter 9 of Embedded Racism has some interesting diagrams in which the author tries to sort out the different permutations of Japanese citizenship and race.

There are two legal principles used by nation-states to decide who belongs and who doesn’t: according to the jus sanguinis principle, citizenship is determined by whether one or both of one’s parents are citizens, whereas in jus soli anyone who is born in the territory of the state has the right to citizenship. Many European countries adhere to the jus sanguinis principle, whereas the United States (and other countries such as Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Peru, and Argentina) adhere to jus soli or a mixture of the two.

Rights of citizenship and immigration law are complicated issues in many countries in our age of refugees and internationalization. I recently googled Dutch laws, since I was born in Holland and naturalized in the United States at the age of fifteen. The Dutch do not allow dual citizenship, but I could have reclaimed my Dutch citizenship when I turned 21. The Dutch still have colonies in the Dutch Antilles and Aruba and their citizens are Dutch, as are their children, but Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, who form about 4.6% of the Dutch population must become naturalized and surrender their previous nationality, as Koreans in Japan are asked to do.

So, on the face of it, Japan is not so different from other countries. In a final chapter, Arudou argues that Japan should alter its immigration laws and become less racist because it needs more immigrants. Japanese society is rapidly aging—the birthrate is well below replacement and especially farms are being abandoned, leaving the country more dependent on food imports. He also suggests that granting automatic citizenship to second- and third-generation Koreans born in Japan, as would be the case under jus soli (and as is the case of children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants) would lessen discrimination against them.

Arudou is pessimistic that Japan will change any time soon, but I have a friend living in Japan who is more optimistic: “You can’t turn the TV on or walk down the street without coming across ‘foreigners.’ Walk into a convenience store, supermarket, pass the cleaning lady, and you come across the more ‘invisible’ minorities. Turn on the TV and you’ll see a rainbow of ethnicities, models and actors and singers and prizefighters and athletes. The former richest man in Japan (now demoted to second or third) and head of SoftBank is Zainichi, there are young writers and directors and all kinds of people who are third or fourth generation Zainichi or part Chinese or Filipino.” She does not deny that there is racism in Japan, but she has an interesting take on Debito Arudou’s response to it: “In a lot of ways, I think privileged white men came to Japan and were shocked to actually face any kind of systematic discrimination at all, something they’ve never experienced before.”

As for Debito Arudou himself, he is now living in Hawaii as a foreign national. His book earned him a Ph.D. from Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, and he blogs about Japanese “racism” from a distance. He may no longer be living in the land of the brokenhearted, but I suspect the disorder is not so easily cured.


Sheila K. Johnson, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and the author of The Japanese through American Eyes (Stanford University Press) and Idle Haven: Community Building Among the Working-Class Retired (University of California Press), along with numerous articles and reviews. She is on the Board of Directors of JPRI, and the widow of its founder and first president, Chalmers Johnson.


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