Onishi seems to consider this distinction particularly problematic in the case of people of Japanese ancestry:
In the media, the names of George Bush and Saddam Hussein are written in the characters reserved for foreign names. But so are the names of people of Japanese ancestry, like Alberto Fujimori, Peru's deposed president, or Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of "Remains of the Day," who left Japan at the age of 5 and is a British citizen. Their names could be written in kanji, but are instead written in katakana, in an established custom indicating that they are not truly Japanese.Onishi points out that by contrast, the Chinese seem to consider overseas Chinese to "remain Chinese even after generations have passed."
. . . .
Are the criteria citizenship, blood, mastery of the Japanese language or customs? Or, in this island nation where leaving Japan has always meant leaving the village, does one start becoming non-Japanese the minute one steps off Japanese soil?
There is a strong argument to be made for that. Children of Japanese business families stationed overseas for a few years invariably encounter problems returning here. Schoolmates often pick on them and call them gaijin, meaning foreigner or outsider.
I suggest that while Onishi may be correct to some extent, other more mundane considerations may also come into play. Specifically, in Japanese, just because you know how someone's name is spelled in Roman letters doesn't mean that you know what kanji to associate with their name. Take Alberto Fujimori for example. According to the ENAMDICT dictionary of Japanese names (accessible through Jim Breen's WWWJDIC), there are at least ten ways to write "Fujimori" in Kanji. As for the British author Kazuo Ishiguro, there appear to be at least three ways to write "Ishiguro" in kanji, and no fewer than seventy-four ways to write "Kazuo."
Because our office exchanges e-mails and faxes in both Japanese and English, since coming to Japan I have often had to conduct a kanji-hunt in order track down the proper way to write a person's name in Japanese, even after having exchanged several messages with that person in English. The kanji-hunt usually involves asking one of our secretaries to call one of the other office's secretaries in order to make a discreet inquiry, without directly asking the person in question. I wonder whether Japanese news reporters, working on deadline, can really afford to take the time and trouble necessary to track down the correct kanji characters to use in writing the name of a person of Japanese descent. True, in the case of someone of such prominence as Fujimori, whose Japanese family register became public information when the issue of his latent Japanese citizenship arose, this might not be too difficult. However, for other people of Japanese descent, whose family registers (if they have them) are private information, the only really practical source of the information would be the person himself or herself.
But it appears that many second- and third-generation people of Japanese descent may no longer even know what kanji were once associated with their names. I recall in particular one foreign associate at a Japanese law firm I met several years ago. He was an American of Japanese descent, but I noted that on the Japanese side of his business card his name was written in katakana, not in kanji. I asked him about it, and he said that he didn't know what kanji his ancestors had used for their family name, and that in any event he felt it would be a conceit to use kanji on his business card because he couldn't write kanji himself anyway.
Because it appears from his name that Norimitsu Onishi is a person of Japanese descent, I wonder whether this issue might have in fact been galling for him on a personal level. Perhaps he has been quoted in the Japanese news media and has seen his name written in katakana rather than kanji, and this has disturbed him. If so, then I suggest that he should make it easier for third parties to figure out what those kanji are. After running several searches on Google and on Yahoo Japan, I was unable to find any reference to Onishi that might help me guess what kanji his name should be written with. And of course ENAMDICT wasn't any help -- it identifies four ways to write "Onishi," and nineteen ways to write "Norimitsu...."