Osaka – Alfred Weinzierl is well-known to police in Osaka: A middle-aged rakish German wearing a puppet shark and an oversized chicken hat tends to stand out.
Sometimes Weinzierl even sets Kingyo, his beloved shark hand puppet, on police officers he hasn’t encountered before.
While this is done in jest, and to break the ice, Weinzierl’s bigger point is that “people deserve respect because of what they do. They don’t reserve respect because they wear a uniform or because they are a police lieutenant or a judge or whatever.”
Weinzierl doesn’t have the kind of job that you could easily parse into a resume. He does a lot of things. Having spent more than three decades in Kansai, he has worked as an activist, a fixer, an interpreter and a general go-between for the police. The common element in these gigs is that the German mostly works in the service of others, especially those in a tight spot — or worse.
He says he has helped an American mother find her missing son, who he eventually located at a psychiatric hospital; assisted countless people navigate the immigration process; and he recalls being called on by the cops when they were at a loss with an inebriated Australian who was found with his pants around his ankles outside a bar.
He never asks for money, and often doesn’t get it — or have it — but he’s driven by a sense of compassion and fearlessness. If anything, he’s rich with stories.
Weinzierl has also had his own run-ins with the law, which he is frank about. He has been detained for overstaying his visa twice — the first time by 20 years — and, following an altercation with a police officer, he was given a one-year prison sentence, suspended for three years. However, he finally received permanent residency status in 2018, 25 years after landing in Osaka fresh off a 27-hour journey from Munich, where he comes from.
“I think my family were happy to be rid of me,” Weinzierl says, completely straight-faced.
Disaster can sometimes bring out the best in people, and Weinzierl’s path to activism came following the Great Hanshin Earthquake that wreaked havoc on Kobe and the surrounding areas in the early hours of Jan. 17, 1995.
Along with other volunteers in Kobe, he set about helping those afflicted. It’s also where he developed most of his opinions on the bureaucratic arts of Japan. His verdict on the red tape is brutal: “They have 10,000 meetings to decide who’s going to blow up a burst tire.”
In 30 years of volunteering as a fixer, interpreter and a navigator in Japan’s legal system, Weinzierl has consulted on some remarkable cases. Often, he says he is busy fielding calls from foreign workers in Japan who are on the receiving end of bullying.
“Japan has to remember that it is not just importing workers, it is importing people who have hopes,” he says. “People that want to make a better future for themselves.”
When we first met, Carlos Ghosn was dominating news headlines after his daring escape from Japan. Weinzierl’s own criticisms of the judicial system in many ways echo what the former Nissan head calls a system of “hostage justice.”
Weinzierl adds, however, that unlike Ghosn, most non-Japanese who are arrested here can’t afford bail. As critics have repeatedly pointed out, the extensive period of detention — up to 23 days — as well as being able to question suspects without lawyers present is markedly different from judicial systems in other wealthy democratic nations.
“I mean you crack, you sign anything,” Weinzierl says.
In his role as an activist, he also works with parents struggling to see their children after separating from a Japanese spouse.
“Japan abducts children,” he says bluntly. “Japan talks so much about how the North Koreans abducted Japanese people, but they conveniently forget that some Japanese parents in foreign countries have done the same, taking their children back to Japan.”
While his delivery may be direct, his argument has at least been acknowledged by the European Union (not the North Korea comparison). The European Parliament, last month, adopted a resolution urging Japan to improve its child custody rules. It said that members of the parliament are “concerned over the high number of parental child abduction cases due to the reluctance of Japanese authorities to comply with international law.”
Like many a person who puts their job or vocation or calling before everything else, his personal life has suffered. His marriage ended in divorce.
“I wasn’t a very good husband as I was never at home, which I really, really, really regret,” he says. “But people treat me nice and I’m proud of that. And people talk to me and they share their innermost secrets and I’m so grateful for their trust. It’s like, ‘Why do you trust a guy with fish puppet?’”
While Weinzierl can be a thorn in the side to some in official Japan, he says he still has a deep appreciation for the country and is always impressed by the people he encounters.
“I’m grateful to Japan, really,” Weinzierl says. “This is my home.”
“Why do I do this?” Weinzierl says beating me to the question. “I do it because I can. I don’t help people because I want something from them. I want them to be free.”