In Japan Alone

Is it possible that foreigners pose a special threat during a fire?

November 3, 2000

Is it possible that foreigners pose a special threat during a fire?

Richard Curtis is from Napa, California. But he has given himself to Kanazawa, best known for its old samurai quarter. He came to Japan twelve years ago, at the age of twenty-three. He is married to a Japanese woman. His four-year-old daughter is Japanese. He speaks Japanese. He works for a Japanese company. He can’t imagine living anywhere else. He loves Japan and its people.

I forgot to say that Curtis has a hobby. He belongs to a local volunteer fire-fighting company. The experience is intense. The volunteers practice marching in formation.

They perform the traditional Kaga Tobi, in which they do acrobatics on top of ladders. They conduct a winter ritual, in which they strip off their uniforms, plunge into the Sai River and shoot water hoses across the icy rapids.

Curtis joined the Bababundan fire company seven years ago. With the passing of time, the group came to trust him more. He helps hold the ladders during the acrobatic feats. He maintains fire hydrants. He helps to teach classes on fire prevention. He does everything every member of Bababundan does. Everything, that is, but fight fires.

Curtis wants to fight fires. He’s trained to fight fires. But he can’t. Japanese law bans foreigners from municipal activities that “exercise administrative authority” or provide a means “to influence public opinion.”

The wording seems vague enough to permit Richard to fight fires, but the government insists it must ban foreigners from fire fighting. What would happen, for instance, if in the middle of a conflagration Curtis’s Yankee patriotism kicked in and he decided to let a building burn simply to get even with Japan for World War II?

It’s an absurd possibility, but local fire companies say they must go along with the national law. Curtis’s Bababundan colleagues are torn. They inducted him six years ago without thinking anything was wrong in accepting a foreigner as long as he was willing to put up with the traditional Japanese way of fire fighting.

The restriction shocked the two dozen members of Bababundan. Richard wasn’t asking for any special accommodations. He was acting like them even if he didn’t look like them. “In our hearts [we feel] he’s one of us,” says one. Still, the meaning of the law is clear: no gaijin battling blazes.

“Bababundan has accepted me like no other organization I’ve been a part of in Japan,” Richard says. “And at the same time, joining has led to my worst experiences of prejudice here.”

What’s amazing, though, is that Curtis has gone as far as he has. He is believed to be the only foreigner ever to join a volunteer fire department in Japan.

Curtis could become a full-fledged firefighter if he became a Japanese citizen, for which he is eligible because of his marriage to a Japanese national. Japanese citizenship wouldn’t even jeopardize his U.S. status. But he refuses to play his marriage card, saying it’s ridiculous that someone should have to be a citizen in order to volunteer to fight fires.

He also cites another concern. “I won’t humor the Japanese government and change my nationality for philosophical reasons,” he says. “I think it should be a moot point anyway. I’d prefer to see the world going without borders. Changing your nationality verifies this notion of a world broken up by walls.”

But the walls are there, and Curtis must either scale them or tear them down. Neither is likely. His Bababundan members have given up trying to make him an official member so that he remains, perpetually, a “candidate.” Still, he stays with them. He has cried, at times, watching the company perform without him. The situation angers him, yet he’s pleased by the moral support he’s received from his community.

“Most people exhort me to never give up,” he says. Even the Bababundan’s outgoing chief, a few years back, told him that, despite the opposition to Curtis’s participation from other fire companies, he shouldn’t give up. “Don’t ever let them make you quit,” the chief said.

Curtis has been heartened by the local support, which he says “has shown me that a lot of the problems with racism in this country are not shared by its citizens and not as deeply ingrained in the national collective psyche as Japan’s officialdom would sometimes have us believe.” So he tilts against windmills.

Adapted from "The Global Me" by G. Pascal Zachary. Copyright © 2000 by G. Pascal Zachary. Used by permission of the author.