My Japanese passport expired last month, meaning I’ve been a citizen here for a full decade now. Hooray.
This should have occasioned thoughts on what’s changed in Japan for the better. Instead I got to see how inflexible Japan’s bureaucracy remains. Consider what happened when I visited Sapporo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs branch to get that passport renewed.
I walked in with all the necessary documentation and filled out the forms. The friendly clerk gave everything a once-over (very professionally; no double-takes at a Caucasian applicant), and all was going smoothly . . . until he got to the rendering of my name in Japanese.
Clerk: “Er, about your last name. You wrote ‘Arudou’ on the form. Officially we only accept Hepburn-style Romanization, so you have to write it as ‘Arudo’ or ‘Arudoh.’ ”
I sighed, and said, ” ‘Arudou’ is how it is spelled. My expiring Japanese passport also had it rendered as ‘Arudou.’ Clearly that was acceptable then and should be acceptable now.”
Clerk: “Yes, you can write ‘Arudou’ on the back of your application to indicate how you would like your name rendered on the passport itself. But for our bookkeeping purposes, you must render it as ‘Arudo’ on the front. We can only take Hepburn. Please remove that superfluous ‘U.’ “
I said I could do that, but then that person would not be me.
“The name is ‘Arudou.’ That is how I render it in my native language.”
We went back and forth for quite some time. Clerk cited precedent, I cited individual choice. By naturalizing, I had been given a rare opportunity to choose my own name and identity, and no damned “bookkeeping purposes” were going to change that.
Finally, Clerk patiently asked, “Why is this so important to you?”
“Well, um . . . it is my name, the most important thing a person can have. But I can think of three more reasons.
“First, my experience with a foreign name here before naturalization. Bureaucrats converted my former surname, Aldwinckle, from Roman letters to katakana at their whim. My name wound up in so many different versions that we had trouble tracking down my nenkin pension contributions from different jobs. This time, I want control over my public identity, including spelling.
“Second, the latent arrogance. On other official forms, I’ve even been admonished by bureaucrats how to write an Arabic number 5 ‘properly.’ ” (Straight line first, then cedilla as second stroke — as opposed to my education of writing it all as one stroke.)
“You want to tell me the stroke order of go (five) in kanji, fine. But you will not tell me how to write letters and numbers in my native language.
“The worst thing is your flawed version of Hepburn, without diacritics, which means — for your sacred ‘bookkeeping purposes’ — you are forcing Japanese names through a system that can make things less comprehensible to native readers.
“For example, names like Honma and Monma become the inaccurate ‘Homma’ and ‘Momma.’ What about a name like ‘Big Hill’ (Oka), which becomes ‘Ooka’ or ‘Ohoka’? Let’s have some sensitivity here, if not accuracy.”
Clerk nodded, and went to a back room for a long powwow with his bosses. He came back with a longer face.
“I regret to inform you that unless you cross that ‘U,’ I will have no choice but to refuse your passport application.”
I gave him an icy stare. “You would deny me my right to travel abroad because of a single letter? Who do you think you are?
“Look, how do you think I got ‘Arudou’ rendered as such on my expiring passport? Because I had this discussion with you in 2000 when I first applied, and again in 2006 when my name changed after a divorce. When your bosses realized I was not going to budge on this, they had me write out and sign a moshitatesho (a kind of affidavit) stating that if anything were to go wrong due to the spelling of my name, the responsibility would be mine alone.
“So check your records. If you find one document where I rendered my name as ‘Arudo’ before, then I will do it again. But you won’t. You accepted my application before — twice. Find that moshitatesho and abide by it.”
Some time later, Clerk came back, offered a deep bow, said he had found my moshitatesho, and that forthwith my application would be accepted with the “U” intact. It only took two hours in total this time.
“Thanks,” I said. “Now, will I have to go through this every 10 years?” Clerk said he didn’t know. “I’d put in a good word for you, but I think I’ll be retired by then. As you can see, my hair’s pretty gray.”
“Yes, and I’m sure people like me only make it grayer.”
We shared a laugh, and he said he would pass my case up through MOFA channels as feedback for reforms.
I appreciate that. But even after 10 years as a Japanese and two Mexican standoffs, I still had to face the same old bureaucratic idiosyncrasies — those that arise when our government decides that things within the domain of the individual are instead privileges granted at the whim of The State. To name a few: middle names and different last names after marriage (forbidden by the family registry system), minority names with alternate spellings (e.g., Ainu and Ryukyuan names) — and, in more extreme examples, parental rights to child access during marital breakdowns (Zeit Gist, Feb. 2) and even to the contents of a mother’s uterus (as the old saying goes, “The womb is a borrowed thing” (hara wa karimono)).
No matter how complicated and diverse Japanese society becomes, bureaucrats will still assert old prerogatives. In my case, they even threatened to take away my fundamental rights just for refusing to abide by a system designed basically for bureaucrats’ convenience.
Nertz to that. A name fundamentally defines a person’s identity. I will Romanize it as I please, thank you.
Time for Japan’s bureaucrats to allow for more diversity and learn to have more respect for individual dignity. MOFA, this means U.
Debito ArudoU coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments on this issue to email@example.com