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541: Developmentally challenged

By Debito Arudou


The Otaru Onsens Case exposes Japan’s half-measured approach to eliminating discrimination

Many readers have no doubt heard snippets about the Otaru Onsens Case, where customers were refused entry to Hokkaido bathhouses expressly because they were “foreign.” But let me, as one of the plaintiffs in the consequent lawsuit, give you more background:

In September 1999, some friends and I heard about several large “super-sento” onsen that were barring entry to local foreign residents. For good measure, these baths displayed “JAPANESE ONLY” signs on their front doors. So several multinational families and I then dropped by as customers.

Debito Arudou is the author of JAPANESE ONLY (Akashi Shoten Inc., 2004)

Tellingly, the managers only refused entry to the Caucasians in our contingent. Their reason? “Russian sailors disobey our bathing rules. They drive away our Japanese customers.” “But we are not Russian sailors,” we replied. “We are long-term residents, and we know how to take a bath.”

“Doesn’t matter,” they retorted. “Refusing only Russians would be blatant discrimination. So we refuse all foreigners equally.”

“Including our Chinese friend you just unwittingly let in?” we asked. They then admitted their “mistake” and tossed her out too. So, as they were judging “foreign” by appearance, we asked what would happen to our children. Born and raised here, they are full Japanese citizens. Answer: “The Asian-looking kid can come in. But the foreign-looking one we will have to refuse.”

Thus racial discrimination—accept no substitute—was afoot. Managers would permit foreigners who look Japanese, but bar Japanese who look foreign. We swore from that moment to fight this policy, and appeal to every possible avenue for its abolition. And over the next year and a bit, we did just that (read all about it in my book, JAPANESE ONLY). Nevertheless, emboldened copycats all over Japan put up exclusionary signs of their own.

In October 2000 (for reasons, mind you, unrelated to the onsen case), I received Japanese citizenship. Proof of naturalization in hand, I returned to Otaru for a bathhouse baptism. Guess what? One exclusionary onsen named Yunohana still refused me. The reason? “Even if you have citizenship, you still don’t look Japanese. Our foreigner-phobic customers will misunderstand. Begone.”

That made the evidence incontrovertible. There was nothing left but for my friends and me to sue these people for racial discrimination. And to sue the Otaru City Government, the epicenter of signposted discrimination in Japan, for turning a blind eye to it since 1993.
Fast-forward a few years. The Sapporo lower and high courts handed down the following decisions in 2002 and 2004: Yunohana Onsen was to pay each plaintiff ¥1 million, as it’s actions not only constituted racial discrimination, but also “transcended the boundaries of socially acceptable rational discrimination,” whatever that means. Anyway, we won.

However, we lost against Otaru. Even though a United Nations treaty (which Japan signed in 1995) requires immediate and effective measures (including legislation) by all levels of government to eliminate racial discrimination, the courts ruled otherwise. “The treaty says nothing concrete on how legislation is to be created. We interpret this to mean that there is no absolute duty to establish anti-discrimination laws in specific, and the government cannot be held culpable for neglecting to do so.”

No other developed country has made as ludicrous an argument to escape these treaty obligations, and thus Japan remains the only one without any form of law against racial discrimination. The case against the Otaru City government is now in the Supreme Court, so while we’re waiting, let’s ruminate: Why did the Otaru Onsens Case get so big?
As I discuss in my book, there are three cultural canards in Japan that evoke public sympathy and give license to the xenophobe:

1. “Japan is unique.” Of course, this applies to Japanese baths too. After all, no other country has a bathing culture. Except Italy, Turkey, Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, and most of Scandinavia.

Um, okay, so maybe not “unique,” but Japan is always different, as things foreign by definition are things not Japanese. Therefore, you see, foreigners will naturally be ignorant of Japanese customs, and will inevitably cause trouble when they walk into a bathhouse.
Never mind that foreigners could be taught how to bathe. That’s resolved by the second canard:

2. “Nihongo wa muzukashii.” How many times have we heard, despite copious counter-evidence, that Japanese is impossible for the non-native to learn? After all, English seems pretty hard to master, and Japanese is allegedly one of the world’s toughest languages. So, since a foreigner axiomatically will not know the rules, the monolingual onsen manager cannot possibly communicate with them. Finally, things veer from comical to sinister under the third canard:

3. “You can tell a foreigner on sight.” Wrong. Especially nowadays, with international marriages, multicultural children, and Asian and nikkei extra-nationals making up the majority of registered foreigners in Japan. But given the average image of a “foreigner” as a Caucasian eikaiwa teacher, people often conflate nationality with race. This, in practice, will inexorably lead to racial discrimination.

This is a situation my friends and I are trying to rectify by getting anti-discrimination laws passed. Like it or not, laws are the only way to stop the willful bigots (which exist in every society) from having their way. We have tried for more than five years now, and will continue the push for however long it takes. If not, a lot of innocent international children, including Japanese, are going to get hurt. We hope you will support us.

For more information about the Otaru Onsens Case, see Debito Arudou’s website at www.debito.org

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.