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Arudou: Angelic Activist or Devilish Demonstrator?

Hokkaido’s Arudou Debito is probably the most visible civil rights activist in Japan. Attaining a certain amount of fame—or notoriety, depending on your take—when he successfully sued an onsen in Otaru for discrimination in 2002, Arudou continues to expose discrimination against foreigners in Japan wherever he finds it.

Arudou was born David Aldwinckle in the United States. He moved to Japan in 1986, met and married a Japanese woman and started a family, going on to become a permanent resident in 1996 and a naturalized Japanese citizen in 2000. He teaches at a university in Hokkaido.

Because of the successful conclusion of the Otaru onsen case, he has become a focal figure in the movement for rights for foreigners, fighting over issues like tenure for foreign professors and unionization of foreign laborers. He attracts a lot of attention from the overseas press, and is frequently invited to speak about human rights in Japan.

He maintains a website, www.debito.org, that offers advice on a wide range of subjects: getting stopped by the police, dealing with daily discrimination, becoming a citizen, and even Arudou’s personal travelogues. An invaluable resource for foreign residents clueless about Japanese legal customs, his extensive writings make detailed information available about legal rights, and fill an important gap.

However, Arudou discards passivity like an unabashed ojisan discards his modesty towel at an onsen. His approach has stirred up controversy because of his aggressive methods. Arudou feels justified in doing this, insisting that he has exhausted all other diplomatic options at his disposal. In one speech, he advocated: “Be vocally angry at the impolite shopkeeper, demand the waitress speak to you if she turns to your Japanese friend.”

There are ample anecdotes suggesting that Arudou is combative and loathe to lose an argument. Indeed, he can be unforgiving to those who disagree with him. In his book, Japanese Only, Arudou demeans his more diplomatic activist counterpart, the Tokyo-based Tony Laszlo—who now happens to be the subject of the bestselling My Darling is a Foreigner book series—depicting him as a duplicitous control-freak. Arudou also lashes out against Akita University Vice-President and long-term resident Gregory Clark, who is made to look like a Japan-obsessed apologist.

Both Clark and Laszlo work for change, endorsing more pragmatic approaches to the problem of discrimination in Japan. The fear is that Arudou’s tactics may lead to an eventual backlash against foreigners, rather than expanding their rights.

There is a certain amount of irony in Arudou’s situation: in becoming a Japanese citizen, he embraced a society that values harmony and consensus above all, yet adopts a fairly confrontational posture. He insists on being treated like any other Japanese, but uses that quintessentially American method of dispute-resolution, the judicial system.

Long-term residents can rattle off endless stories about glass ceilings at Japanese companies for foreign workers or the trouble landing a dream apartment because of a skittish landlord. Laws can address the most obvious cases of discriminatory behavior, but one has to wonder if Arudou has merely nibbled at a much greater problem confronting the foreign community in Japan – the attitudes and beliefs among Japanese that cannot be rectified merely by passing laws.

Visionary or misguided soapbox prophet, Arudou is a quixotic figure tackling an important issue, even if his methods are suspect. Fighting discrimination at Japanese public baths may not make him the next Nelson Mandela, and lawsuits and diatribes may seem ill suited to the face-saving culture of Japan. But while blatant discrimination does persist, love him or hate him, this country benefits from having activists like Arudou
Japanese Only, by Arudou Debito
Akashi Shoten, ISBN: 4750320056

Japanese Only, the debut book of Arudou Debito (ex David Aldwinckle) may be an ominous preview of the 21st century non-fiction book. Consisting largely of emails and newspaper articles compiled and strung into a narrative, the format may make you cringe – but Arudou tackles the subject of discrimination through his personal experience.

The story starts when Arudou and two other foreigners sue the city of Otaru, Hokkaido and a group of hot springs because the bathhouses refused to admit them. The unlikely activists’ lawsuit eventually reached the Supreme Court of Japan, and aspects of the case persist even today.

The book remains a personal story even when it moves beyond the hot springs case, and we are subjected to Arudou’s own biased view when he describes other characters. People who support him, like co-plaintiff Olaf Karthaus, are depicted as saints, while those who disagree are inevitably vilified.

On the other hand, Arudou loses some of his righteousness when he apologizes for the situation in general, asserting that racism "in Japan… lacks much of the mean-spiritedness in intention and expression." Racism isn’t so bad here, but it is still racism nonetheless.

His rationale for change is more clear-cut. Japan is a signatory to the United Nations convention on racial discrimination, and thus should work to eliminate discrimination in all forms in which it arises. Yet the Japanese government has neglected to do this. The problem is that Arudou fails to spell out exactly what he is after, other than the ambiguous goal of ending discrimination. When an onsen opens its doors to foreigners accompanied by a Japanese, Arudou claims a victory. However, the book leaves the reader guessing if he is satisfied with this outcome, or sees it as a new battle to fight.

While Japanese Only presents a successful case study of one hard-fought battle for the rights of foreigners, the problems faced by zainichi Koreans, Philippine ‘entertainers’ or working Japanese women dwarf those tackled by Arudou. It is, however, worth a read for anyone who has encountered discrimination in Japan, as it offers hope that things are changing for the better—with the help of people like Arudou, who are willing to stand up for what is right.