On Language and Nationality

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					               On Language and Nationality:
 "Who Owns Language?", Perspectives of a Naturalized Japanese
                      By ARUDOU Debito, Associate Professor
                            Hokkaido Information University
                 Linguapax Asia 2006 Third International Symposium
         Tokyo University, Saturday, October 7, 2006, 2:00-2:30PM Draft Eight

ABSTRACT: In Japan, a society where considerations of "nationality" and "language possession" seem to be
closely intertwined, the author finds from his personal experience that having Japanese citizenship is an asset to
communicating in Japanese to native Japanese. More indicative is the author's survey of over two hundred
Japanese college students on "What is a Japanese?" over the course of ten years. His findings are that people
who have Japanese language ability are more likely to be viewed as "Japanese" than if they do not--even if the
fluent do not have citizenship. The author feels this non-racially-based construct for determining inclusion in a
society is a very hopeful sign for Japan's future as a multicultural, multiethnic country.

"He won't comprehend our words or feelings." (「言葉も気持ちも通じない」)
         --Yaeyama Shoukou High School coach Ishimine Yoshimori, regarding Lotte baseball
coach Bobby Valentine, after Valentine's high school draft pick coup disrupted the process of
letting star player Ohmine Yuuta go to his preferred team, the Softbank Hawks. On these
grounds, Coach Ishimine refused to meet Valentine on September 26, on the grounds of his
foreignness, citing an inevitable language barrier as an excuse. (Courtesy Sports Houchi
September 27, 2006,

"...charenji... toppu riidaa... riidaashippu... inobeishon... terewaaku...
contentsu... paatonaashippu... zero beisu... puraimarii baransu... gurando
dezain... seifutii netto... receputo... furendorii... meido in japan... kantorii

--Prime Minister Abe's opening speech (所信表明演説) September 29, 2006 (Courtesy

"This is Japan. Speak in a language we can understand."
       --DPJ Dietmember October 2, 2006 in Diet session, making political hay of the
language, ignoring the fact that several of the Japanese kanji words in Abe's speech(真摯(し
were also incomprehensible to many people without a dictionary.
                                                  (Courtesy Toku Da Ne TV show October 3, 2006)


Recall how it was when we first started studying Japanese, stumbling our way to
fluency in practice through trial and error? How many times have we heard the
expression from native speakers, as we stumbled our way towards fluency, that what
we said or wrote "isn't Japanese" (それは日本語じゃない)?

I always felt that to be an interesting turn of phrase. It was not a matter of it being
"incorrect Japanese" (日本語は正しくない). Instead, it was a declaration, a flat-out
denial of our statement's very existence--as even a message that could possibly get
through to people in this language medium.

It was probably also one of the reasons why, when I started studying Japanese
under Eleanor Jorden's newly-inaugurated JSL program at Cornell University, my

ARUDOU Debito Linguapax Asia 2006 Symposium Oct 7, 2006 pg 1 of 8
instructors (non-natives themselves) kept stressing the need for linguistic perfection:
"If your Japanese is not perfect, Japanese people are not going to accept it."

I disagreed with that statement then, and continue to do so now. There is some
tolerance of foreign accent (as popular TV show "Koko ga Hen Da Yo, Nihonjin"
demonstrated--although subtitles were always appended to foreign panelists'
statements). There are enough regional dialects, age-based variations, and
linguistic subgroups within Japan to bring into question whether there is "one 'perfect'
Japanese" (even taking into account Tokyo-standard hyoujungo). And Japanese,
like any vibrant, breathing language, is constantly obsolescing, mutating, and minting
words from within and without, filling fat dictionaries of new words (such as Imidas)
every year, and injecting Prime Ministerial speeches with apparently new concepts
and innovations. In my view, it is not so easy to dismiss a word or sentiment as "not
Japanese", when in fact the listener may just be ignorant or behind the times.

However, whenever you paint a society in broad strokes, as my teachers were doing
at Cornell, there is very often an element of truth. I do admit there is a lack of
receptiveness in Japanese society to linguistic variations. Particularly if it comes
from somebody who shouldn't necessarily be "in possession" of the language: the

Let me illustrate what I mean by "language possession" with an instructive sample
from my life:

Almost on a daily basis, whenever my interactions with strangers lead to small talk,
many curious people ask me what country I'm from (お国はどちらですか). (I
reiterate for the record that we are communicating in Japanese.) I always answer--of
course in Japanese--"Nippon". This invariably causes some confusion, for as
listeners can see, I am Caucasian. Then the strangers often ask where I was born,
to which I answer "America". Then they generally ask some sort of question to
square the two, to which I answer, "I'm a Japanese citizen. I naturalized." (日本国籍
を取りました。帰化した日本人です。). That's where we get the "ah's" of
understanding, and sometimes people saying, "Oh, so that's why your Japanese is
so good." (だから日本語がうまいですね!)

Let's deconstruct some presumptions behind this exchange:

   1. We were clearly communicating in Japanese, therefore my language fit
      an accepted paradigm.
   2. Speakers were curious how I slotted into this paradigm, asking
      questions beyond the regular small talk about country of origin, and into
      how I could claim to be Japanese.
   3. Once I established that I am a naturalized Japanese, all fell into place. I
      must be good at Japanese because I am Japanese. QED. I had now
      established a form of "possession" of the language: A form of
      "entitlement" to the language thanks to my Japanese citizenship.

Now, this may seem less surprising if you knew that there is a language requirement
to receive Japanese citizenship (3rd-grader level, or 小学校3年生). But I have
found that very few people actually know this (and the level required is pretty low

ARUDOU Debito Linguapax Asia 2006 Symposium Oct 7, 2006 pg 2 of 8
anyway). So just saying that I underwent the rigorous procedure to receive
citizenship is probably not what is "entitling" me.

Whatever it is, this "entitlement to possess the language" then suddenly opens doors.
Once established that we both "possess" Japanese, off we go. Our conversation, if it
continues, very rarely goes into realms that I had to endure when a neophyte
speaker (food, chopsticks, how difficult the language is, etc.) It goes in entirely
unpredictable directions, partially because I want it to (I find pat conversations
tedious), and partially I believe because speakers realize that we are no longer
restricted to neophyte topics.1

The point: Even after studying the language for two decades (for all intents and
purposes becoming fluent), living here for eighteen years and counting, and
becoming assimilated to the point of taking Japanese citizenship, I still recognize a
fundamental requirement: If I didn't have this high level of Japanese language ability,
I would not be so accepted as a Japanese, with all the "entitlements" thereof.

The question can of course be raised whether people actually "accept" me as such.
My evidence for saying so is imperfect, but let me give it anyway:

Go back to that exchange we just had. Country? Japan. Huh? Yes, Japan. How's
that? Because I naturalized.

The reaction after that is what matters. How many people do you think said, "Yes,
but you're not really 'Japanese'..."? I naturalized in October 2000, almost six years
to the day of this conference--plenty of time to see patterns. Total number of
"deniers" who were native speakers of Japanese? So far: six. Yes, six. Granted,
they may be being merely avoiding saying something impolite (and probably racist)
to my face. But the rapidity at which conversation in Japanese automatically eases
after that disclosure is to me indicative. (And I will cite a startling counterfigure--how
many non-Japanese surveyed--speaking with me in English or Japanese--have
denied my "true" Japaneseness? About half. The reception is significantly different.)

Either Japanese are far more polite than non-Japanese to give frank direct
assessments (manners which do not seem to extend to, say, discussing a person's
cooking or weight gain). Or else, in my view, Japanese are more accepting of
people speaking Japanese once it becomes natural, granting "language possession
and entitlement" more readily than one would expect.


Japan has interesting attitudes towards who is entitled to possess Japanese.
Nationality is a factor even to an unconscious degree. Consider these examples:

1) When Japanese study the Japanese language in schools, it is called
"kokugo", the national language. But when non-Japanese study it, it becomes
"nihongo". I have never heard of foreigners studying "kokugo"--perhaps because it
would be difficult to determine which "country" we would be talking about. But also
because it can be argued that Japanese possess their own language--as an entire
 An added bonus is that rarely, if ever, is my language ability called "jouzu" anymore--I think we both
understand how belittling that sounds with this degree of language possession.
ARUDOU Debito Linguapax Asia 2006 Symposium Oct 7, 2006 pg 3 of 8
country. Contrast that with overseas classes in "English", "Francais", "Deutsch",
"Italiano", "Nederlands", "Sinhala", "Hindi" etc. in many countries--where the title of
the course of study is the same regardless of the nationality of the student2. In
Japan, however, technically only nationals can study the national language.

2) When registering inkan stamps (印鑑登録) in Japan, for use in official
documents, foreigners who are not Chinese or Korean are usually not allowed
to register inkan in kanji or hiragana. They are told they must choose katakana or
Romaji. The reason given is usually one of linguistics, but ultimately it is a matter of
nationality. Only people of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese extraction can "possess"
Chinese characters, therefore only they can officially use them in Japan.3
(Interestingly, Japanese can conversely render and register their inkan in Romaji.
Perhaps this is because as nationals they are more "in possession" of all the bells
and whistles of the language, somehow including even the Occidental alphabet.)

3) For those Chinese and Koreans in Japan, they can use (and register) kanji
as written in their overseas registers, whether or not they have Japanese
citizenship. But once they take Japanese citizenship, they are required to use
kanji which conform both to Japanese legally-sanctioned kanji (登用漢字) and
readings. The most common name in Korean, for example, 金, cannot be read as
"Kim" or キム. It must be read as "Kin" or "Kane". Thus this newfangled
"entitlement" has its price--sacrificing a degree of identity.

I do not mean to speak for other ethnic minorities in Japan, but this is one reason
why many Zainichi Chinese and Korean generational foreigners take "Japanese
public names" (通称名)4. It (a) masks their foreignness (as most Zainichi are native
speakers of Japanese anyway, and virtually indistinguishable otherwise from
Japanese citizens), and (b) increases their chances of their not being "disentitled" by
the society and language in general. In other words, being treated like a foreigner, a
non-national. Nationality is a factor in language entitlement and possession.

A quick digression for my case, and how my name changed for the enfranchisement:
My name was once David Aldwinckle, or in katakana アルドウィンクル デビット.
When I naturalized, I deliberately took a kanji name--Arudou Debito 有道 出人.
This is ateji, working backwards to fit kanji to readings of my name. It passed the
test of proper Japanese kanji and readings5. But people still ask why I took kanji

  Similar to Japan, China and Korea also divide language study by nationality. Chinese and Taiwanese natives
study yuwen 語文 and guo yu 国語 respectively, while non-natives study zhongwen 中文. Koreans study kugo 国
語, while non-natives study hanguk mal.
  An anecdote: "At the Kumamoto shiyakusho I once used my inkan, in kanji (老禅), presented to me by a
venerable Japanese professor when I'd first arrived. The shiyakusho man said, "You can't use this inkan because
you're a foreigner. Go make a katakana inkan." I replied, "You don't own kanji. Japanese can write their names in
Romaji; why can't I use kanji, like Chinese or Koreans? Japanese got kanji from the Chinese anyway. This is
discrimination." He refused, and I ended up filing a moshitatesho explaining that it would be inconvenient to be
disallowed from using the kanji name that I had been using in daily life for years (to get my salary, open a bank
account, etc.). So I was allowed to include the kanji name (in parentheses) on my Alien Registration card. Then
they would accept the inkan. Not exactly the victory I was hoping for, but maybe a little something." --Professor
Alan Rosen, Kumamoto University (
  When you see names including "Hayashi" 林, "Oh" 王, or "Kane..." 金 plus compound, there is a chance that the
person is a Zainichi or a naturalized citizen.
  Note how the orthography affected the rendering of my name. My first name has become DebiTO, not DebiDO-
-because 人 is officially read "hito/bito", not "hido/bido". DebiDO would not have been allowed under Japanese
reading rules.
ARUDOU Debito Linguapax Asia 2006 Symposium Oct 7, 2006 pg 4 of 8
when I could have used hiragana, katakana, or even Romaji for my official Japanese
name. The reason was very personal. I (a) am a kanji maniac, and (b) did not want
to remained "dispossessed" by dint of my name. I worked very hard to become a
Japanese citizen, and I have had a katakana name all my life. Now that I am a
Japanese, I wanted my name to reflect it.

I did, however, preserve my individuality by using an unusual reading combination
for my kanji. I did not choose "Arimichi", which would be the way most natives would
naturally read it. I chose "Arudou", which is the アルドウ in アルドウィンクル. I
have never found another Japanese with that name, which I find very satisfying in its
uniqueness. The kanji for "Debito" 出人 just makes people smile, as it comes out
sounding cute. Many people, especially Chinese, comment on how much they like
the four characters put together: "A man with a specific road going out on it".

The point is, I chose to reflect my nationality by making sure that even my name
would allow me to claim possession of the language. I did not want to look foreign
anymore on the records, even if I can do nothing about my race.


As I argued above, whether or not I am legally a Japanese citizen seems to make a
difference on how easily I can communicate and be accepted as a Japanese
language speaker. Now let me turn this paper away from anecdote, and towards
something approaching social science. What exactly is a "Japanese"? And how
does one "qualify" for becoming a Japanese?

Over the past decade or so, I have carried out in-class surveys of my students at
Hokkaido Information University, and at senmon gakkou linked to my university
nationwide. These surveys were taken towards the end of my year-long Debate
class, or towards the end of my 3-day mensetsu jugyou intensive courses. Students
in schools across the country, including Sapporo, Niigata, Nagoya, Hiroshima, and
Kokura, are reflected as data below. Results in schools in Sendai, Osaka, Fukuoka,
and Oita, as well as private adult classes, were not recorded, but were in any case
not significantly different from the data below.

Students surveyed were overwhelmingly male, aged between 18 and 24 (average
around 21), of a lower-income bracket (most likely working-class). The survey
covers several hundred pupils over a ten-year period (1995-2005), with little
significant change in attitude over time.

When asked for what is "a Japanese", answers given orally were (inclusive
composite, in no particular order of preference or importance):

        A person who has lived in Japan 日本に住んだことがある人
        A person who considers him/herself "Japanese" 自分が「日本人だ」と思う人
        A person who has Japanese citizenship 日本国籍を有する人
        A person who has assimilated into Japan 日本に溶け込んでいる人
        A person born in Japan 日本で生まれた人
        A person who has spent the majority of his/her life in Japan 人生の大半を日本
ARUDOU Debito Linguapax Asia 2006 Symposium Oct 7, 2006 pg 5 of 8
        A person who likes Japan 日本が好きな人
        A person who has Japanese blood 日本の血がある人
        A person who knows a lot about Japan 日本について詳しい人
        A person who uses Japanese in everyday conversation 日常会話で日本語を
        A person with parents/grandparents who are Japanese 両親・祖父母が日本人
        A person who is proud of Japan 日本について誇りを持つ人

The values here are quite diverse, and not all of them, as you can see, based upon
language ability. Some deal with issues of blood, soil, legal status, personal identity,
and acculturation as well. So to test their theories, I asked them to evaluate the
following people, all people known to the students in some capacity:

Person                       Is Japanese            Is NOT             Cannot            Total       Highest
                                                   Japanese              say/            Votes        Vote's
                                                                        Don't                        Percent
                                                                        know                         of Total
Wada Akikoa                 135 students          31 students        39 students          205         65.9%
Miyazawa Rieb                      207                   4                  8             219          94.5%
Umemiya Annab                      184                   7                 18             209          88.0%
Kinugasa Sachiob                   47                    4                 22              73          64.4%
Oh Sadaharua                       138                  47                 34             219          63.0%
Alberto Fujimoric                  69                   78                 41             188          41.5%
Konishikic 小錦                      117                  12                 17             146          80.1%
Akebonoc 曙                         131                  35                 35             201          65.2%
Ramos Ruic                         174                  22                 23             219          79.5%
Daughter Amyb                      200                   3                 18             221          90.5%
Daughter Annab                     194                   5                 18             217          89.4%
Arudou Debitoc                     176                  16                 29             221          79.6%
a) Zainichi without Japanese citizenship
b) Mixed-blood person with Japanese citizenship, born in Japan.

  Most students did not know at first that Wada Akiko (or Kitano "Beat" Takeshi) are Zainichi until I told them.
Once they knew, some students did change their vote to the "non-Japanese" column, as reported above. Most
people knew that Oh Sadaharu was non-Japanese (due to the name and his fame as a successful Zainichi
Taiwanese), but some thought he had naturalized until advised by me later; however, even after being told, most
students did not change their votes.
ARUDOU Debito Linguapax Asia 2006 Symposium Oct 7, 2006 pg 6 of 8
c) Naturalized Japanese citizen
d) Daughters Amy and Anna were included because of their equal status as born in Japan, raised in
Japan, native speakers of Japanese, same parents, but with different phenotypes. They were shown
this photo before voting:

                          (Amy, the more Asian-looking child, is on the left.
                        Anna, the more Western-looking child, is on the right.)

NB: Number of responses differ because I changed inclusion of certain people (such as substituting
Oh Sadaharu for Kinugasa Sachio, and including former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori after he
sought asylum and was awarded Japanese citizenship) due to the change in students' general
awareness about that person.
NB: This survey reflects the results after students were advised of the citizenship and birth status of
each person. Students were polled both before and after being advised. Votes did not change
significantly for anyone except Wada Akiko (general confusion) and Alberto Fujimori (strong shift to
say he was not Japanese).


The people who were overwhelmingly voted "Japanese" (i.e. registering more than
85% of the percent of total votes) were the "mixed children", with birth, citizenship,
and native language skills: Miyazawa Rie (95%), Daughter Amy (91%), Daughter
Anna (89%), and Umemiya Anna (88%). In after-polling discussions, it came out that
physical appearance did affect votes by a few percents. As reflected in the sliding
poll, the more "non-Japanese" you looked, the less Japanese (but not significantly)
you were tended to be perceived. No real surprises there.

The surprise was the degree of acceptance. Note that almost every person on the
survey were voted to be "Japanese"--even though not everyone had citizenship.
Reasons given by the students in after-poll discussion were, again, that they were
born and raised in Japan, or had proven Japanese language skills.

This is consistent, as the only one not judged "Japanese" (despite his blood and
citizenship) was Alberto Fujimori. Reasons given were that he had not earned his
citizenship (it was given to him through political exigency), or, more importantly, his
language skills were insufficient. Fujimori speaks (or spoke at that time) rudimentary
Japanese at best, and never in public. So it seems that if you want to be claim
Japaneseness, that you had better speak out for it.
ARUDOU Debito Linguapax Asia 2006 Symposium Oct 7, 2006 pg 7 of 8
The lesson of this data, as pertains to this paper, is that the litmus test of
"Japaneseness", at least as far as these hundreds of young students were
concerned, were in descending order: a) language, b) citizenship, and c)
contribution to society.

Thus, I will assert that language skills entitle one to "Japaneseness", as well as vice
versa. Those who have Japanese nationality are expected to speak Japanese, and
will not be considered as such unless they do. The fact that a majority of students
considered even me, a Caucasian, to be a Japanese (far more so than the Asian-
looking Zainichis, and about the same as the naturalized sportsmen), is also
evidential. Students asked why they voted "yes" for me almost always indicated that
it was because I conducted my class in Japanese (and thus had proven myself).
They would not have done so had they just met me or just seen a picture of me.
Thus "entitlement"--either for nationality status or to communicate--again, seems
from this data to be a linguistic matter.


I find this data very promising for Japan's future. If "entitlement" to be or to
"possess" Japanese is something which can be earned through language ability and
legal status (ie. citizenship), it demonstrates that "Japaneseness" might not be that
strong a racially-based construct. Race and/or physical appearance does seem to
continue to play a part in perception of "Japaneseness". However, if you "possess"
the language, you are more likely to be seen to "possess" the nationality.

Thus "Japaneseness" is apparently something immigrants and newcomers can earn,
and apparently a barrier that can be overcome with enough perseverance on the part
of both the speaker and the listener. The onus, unsurprisingly, falls upon the
speaker, who had better claim his or her "entitlement": become fluent in Japanese if
he or she wishes to assimilate. However, it seems it can be done, as the emerging
multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual society in Japan is demonstrating.

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                                         AUTHOR BIO
ARUDOU Debito (BA Cornell, 1987; MPIA UC San Diego, 1991) is an Associate Professor at
Hokkaido Information University. A human rights activist, he has authored two books,「『 ジャパニー
ズ・オンリー』小樽温泉入浴拒否問題と人種差別」and its English version, JAPANESE ONLY--The
Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan (Akashi Shoten Inc. 2003 and 2004,
updated 2006), and has just finished coauthoring a bilingual guidebook for immigrants to assimilate
into Japan. He also puts out a regular newsletter and columns for The Japan Times. His extensive
bilingual website on human rights issues and living in Japan is available at

ARUDOU Debito Linguapax Asia 2006 Symposium Oct 7, 2006 pg 8 of 8