In 1993, an onsen (hotspring) in the city of
Excluded people complained about this situation for years, but the Otaru city government ignored the situation. Although they admitted that this activity was discrimination, they maintained that they had no power to stop it. This was, after all, not specifically illegal in
Emboldened, other local onsens around town put up their own “Japanese Only” signs. Then other businesses, including bars, restaurants, ramen shacks, even a barber and a sports shop, in other towns began copycatting. (See a photo archive at http://www.debito.org/roguesgallery.html)
In September 1999, we came on the scene. Several multinational families (German, American, and Chinese, all with Japanese spouses) and I dropped by as customers at the original exclusionary Otaru onsens. The managers only refused entry to the Caucasians in our contingent. Reason given? “Russian sailors disobey our bathing rules. They drive away our Japanese customers.”
“But we are not Russian sailors,” we replied. “Also, we have lived here for more than a decade each. We have Japanese families. 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. Quick to admit their “mistake”, they 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: “Asian-looking kids can come in. But we will have to refuse foreign-looking ones.”
Thus racial discrimination — accept no substitute — was afoot. Managers would permit foreigners who look Japanese, but bar Japanese who look foreign. We decided from that moment on to fight this policy. Over the next year and a bit, we appealed to every possible avenue for its abolition (read all about it in my book, JAPANESE ONLY). However, press coverage from the case, as well as a concurrent police campaign against an alleged rise in foreign crime, prompted businesses nationwide to adopt their own exclusionary policies.
In October 2000 (for reasons 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. Their reason this time? “Even if you have citizenship, you still don’t look Japanese. Our customers will misunderstand. Goodbye.”
That made the evidence incontrovertible. There was nothing left but for my friends and me to sue the proprietor for racial discrimination. We also sued the Otaru City Government, the epicenter of signposted discrimination in
Fast-forward a few years. The
However, we lost against Otaru. Even though the United Nations Convention on Racial Discrimination (a treaty
No other developed country has made as ludicrous an argument to escape these treaty obligations, and thus
The case against the
As I discuss in my book, there are three cultural canards in
Um, okay, so maybe not “unique,” but
Never mind that ill-mannered Japanese also exist, and that foreigners could be taught how to bathe. That’s covered by the second canard:
2. “Nihongo wa muzukashii.” (Japanese is a difficult language.) How many times have we heard, despite copious counter-evidence, that Japanese is impossible for the non-native to learn? After all, Japanese is allegedly one of the world’s toughest tongues. So, since foreigners axiomatically will not know the rules, the monolingual onsen manager cannot possibly communicate with them.
Never mind that free multilingual bathing rules exist on bathhouses around the country. Foreigners shouldn’t be in here anyway, you see, if there’s the possibility of trouble. That leads us to the third canard, where arguments veer from comical to sinister:
3. “You can tell a foreigner on sight.” Wrong. Especially nowadays, with record numbers of international marriages, multicultural children, and Asian and nikkei extra-nationals making up the majority of registered foreigners in
This is a situation my friends and I are trying to rectify by promoting the passage of anti-discrimination laws and challenging blatantly discriminatory actions in the courts. Like it or not, laws are the only way to stop the bigots (who exist in every society) from having their way.
We have pushed for more than five years now, and will continue for as 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 Arudou Debito‘s website at http://www.debito.org/otarulawsuit.html
Arudou Debito is a sixteen-year resident of