For the sake of Japan's future, foreigners deserve a fair shake

by Debito Arudou

These past few columns have addressed fundamentally bad habits in Japanese society that impede positive social change. Last month I talked about public trust being eroded by social conventions that permit (even applaud) the systematic practice of lying in public.

This month, let’s discuss the lack of cultural value invested in “fairness.” Consider these touchstones:

•”When respondents (to a Cabinet survey) were asked, ‘Should foreigners have the same human rights protections as Japanese?’ 59.3 percent said yes. This is a rebound from the steady decline from 1995 (68.3 percent), 1999 (65.5 percent) and 2003 (54 percent).” (Zeit Gist, Oct. 23, 2007)

•”We were taught that . . . foreigners have no human rights.” (Hiroshi Ichikawa, Saga Prefecture public prosecutor, May 23, 2011 — see

•”(The Japanese Constitution) speaks of defining equality and ‘fundamental human rights’ as being conditioned on nationality rather than being human.” (Colin Jones, Zeit Gist, Nov. 1, 2011)

•”Now that you are a Japanese citizen, we (want to protect your human rights).” (“Japanese Only”)

I was told the last one on Oct. 11, 2000, the day I naturalized, by two representatives of Japan’s secretive Public Safety Commission, who now thought it appropriate to take action against the threats and harassment I had been getting during the Otaru onsens lawsuit. (Incidentally, they also asked if I knew of any illegal Chinese workers they could investigate.)

The point is, the authorities indicated that I had rights to protect when I became a citizen, not before.

This is how I’ve noticed, after two decades of arguing for equal rights and protections under the law, a clear presumption of unfairness in Japan.

To be sure, mention that something is “unfair” (fukōhei) and people do respond positively and emotively, not merely dismissing the situation with a blithe “Yeah, but life is unfair.”

But unfairness is systematic — even expected, particularly if (and because) you’re a foreigner in Japan. A few examples:

Want to live someplace or get a loan? Many landlords, realtors and credit agencies state up front that they will not rent or lend to foreigners; as long as there is no contract signed, there is generally nothing legally you can do about it.

Want to get a job as a tenured academic in Japan’s universities? Too bad; very often those jobs are explicitly not open to foreigners.

Want to become a volunteer firefighter, a public-sector food preparer, a family court mediator or a manager in the bureaucracy? Sorry, citizens only. The same goes for the many job opportunities at “Hello Work” with unofficial nationality clauses, simply because bosses presume no foreigner can speak Japanese.

Want a fair trial in the judiciary? As has been discussed here before (Zeit Gist, Mar. 24, 2009, and Aug. 14, 2007), there are different standards in both Japan’s civil and criminal courts if you’re not a citizen. As Colin Jones writes in the aforementioned article, a 2008 Supreme Court decision made it clear that citizenship is essential to enjoying constitutional and human rights in Japan.

Want to claim your rights as a foreigner in Japan as per United Nations treaty? The Japanese government has repeatedly claimed, through explicit exceptions and caveats (called “reservations”) made when signing, that noncitizens in Japan do not qualify for protection against racial discrimination, or for equal civil and political rights.

The point is, you are simply less human in Japan without Japanese nationality, and institutional practices back that up.

One reason these practices can be perpetuated is that the Japanese public tacitly (and not so tacitly) acquiesces to them, instead of reflexively helping foreigners fight against them. I believe the root cause is how little cultural value is generally assigned to “fairness.”

Allow me to illustrate by comparison: One of my students, after spending a year abroad in North America, remarked with great surprise how much the word “fair” was used, and what kind of effect that had.

“It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a citizen,” he said. “People said that as a person I had the same rights as everyone else. ‘It just wouldn’t be fair’ otherwise.” Complain that something was “unfair” and people would either seek to rectify it or exert themselves excusing it.

Not here. The common excuse given glibly, as if it were self-evident, is that you’re a foreigner, thus naturally treated differently. The more eloquent or legally versed proponents of unequal treatment will even argue that if foreigners want equal rights, they should naturalize.

The thing is, some of us have actually naturalized. And although some barriers do disappear, I can attest from personal experience after more than a decade as a citizen that not all do, meaning that you’re still stuck on a lower rung in a caste system.

Moreover, even after giving dozens of awareness-raising speeches in Japanese, I have discovered that appealing to public sensitivity is largely ineffectual.

I have to keep reminding listeners that foreigners are in fact humans with human rights. That sinks in, but people eventually reset to the default mind-set that “foreigners are not the same as Japanese,” and that recognizing difference (kubetsu) does not necessarily equal willful discrimination (sabetsu).

Except that it does. An unquestioned acceptance of difference between peoples in a society ultimately leads to inequality in practice (recall the machinations of segregation’s “separate but equal”).

Only an ironclad guarantee of “fairness,” a cornerstone of liberal societies and held in as high regard as “Do unto others . . .” will ensure equal opportunity and essential civil, political and human rights. One has to believe this, and have it promoted constantly in the public arena to raise awareness, until it too becomes an unquestioned given.

Consider what my student saw as cultural memes overseas: Everyone deserves a “fair deal,” enjoys a “fair playing field,” earns a “fair income” after doing their “fair share,” gets a “fair decision” after a “fair fight” by winning “fair and square.” “Fair is fair,” after all. Fair enough, you get the idea.

That’s simply not the expectation in a society as rigidly hierarchical as Japan’s, hard-wired to see shades of superior and subordinate in just about every possible interaction (down to the linguistics).

Thus anyone who’s not seen as belonging to Japanese society, deserving equality and a fair shake just as a human being, is at an insurmountable disadvantage.

This is but one more fundamental issue that must be dealt with if Japan hopes to provide more opportunities for its people and brighten its future. Thanks for giving me a fair hearing.

Debito Arudou’s novel “In Appropriate” is now on sale ( Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Twitter @arudoudebito. Send comments on this issue to