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OVERSEAS EXECS TIRED OF REJECTION

Racism is bad business

Arudou Debito offers accounts of how "Japanese Only" policies are turning international business away from Japan

by Debito Arudou

The Community Page has commented at length on socially-sanctioned exclusionary practices in Japan. However, it has rarely touched upon their quantifiable, longer-term effects.

Exclusionism is bad for business. Why? Because non-Japanese residents are not the only ones affected by “no-foreigner” policies. So are visiting representatives of international corporations. This makes for unfavorable overseas impressions, not only of northern Japan (famous for its decade displaying “JAPANESE ONLY” signs), but also of the entire country.

“Most people coming to Japan nowadays are not here for big ‘bubble-era’ business, but rather as Japan fans. But after a few years and a lot of bad experiences, I often see them leaving as Japan detractors,” said Simon Jackson, president of Northpoint Network Inc. in Sapporo, Japan’s fifth-largest city, on the northern island of Hokkaido.

Jackson has extensive experience doing business here: A 13-year resident who created his own company from scratch, he has spent a third of his adult life building business contacts between Japan, China, Russia, America, Canada, and New Zealand and Australia, his countries of origin.

His biggest account, amounting to several million U.S. dollars, is between China, Japan, and Russia. The first two are interested in the third’s untapped oil and natural gas reserves on Sakhalin Island. An energy-hungry Japan has great interests in keeping good relations with their Russian neighbors.

However, Japan’s exclusionism is souring things.

“I have taken visiting Russian and Russia-based Western clients out on the town in Hokkaido. It’s become quite normal to get refused service at even regular bars,” Jackson said.

Particularly grievous is Susukino, Sapporo’s party district and the largest of its kind north of Tokyo.

“Susukino is now essentially closed to foreigners. I’m not talking about hidden-away brothels in obscure corners and down back streets,” said Jackson.

“I mean brightly-advertised shops on the main street, and even the bottle-keep ‘snacks’ where people go for nightcaps. We walk in, and before anyone even checks if we can speak Japanese, we get the crossed arms barring us entry.”

The result? “My clients walk out with very bad impressions, which last a long time. Often when I meet somebody for the first time and mention I’m from Hokkaido, the conversation soon turns to the time they got excluded somewhere. Without my even bringing it up.”

This affects their future business decisions.

“Some senior contacts at Western-run companies in Sakhalin have even told me that if they have any choice, they actively steer business away from Japan.”

Jackson’s most pathetic story is about a Japanese government-sponsored business trip to Sakhalin to promote tourism.

“The Japanese representative said to the Russians, ‘Come down south, take a break and enjoy Sapporo’s nightlife.’ ‘Not likely,’ they said. They knew they’d be refused somewhere all over again. The rep promised, ‘It won’t happen again. I’ll take you around the bars myself.’

“Guess what happened? They went to about 10 bars. Every single one of them refused them entry — regardless of the fact that the Russian businessmen were accompanied by a native speaker, and a government functionary at that.

“The representative then tried to take them to his favorite watering hole, where people knew him. But the Mama refused them there too! He finally took them to a garden-variety izakaya chain and drank himself into a cold silence.”

The reason for the Susukino Shutout?

“It’s a hangover of World Cup 2002,” said Jackson, recalling the famous England vs. Argentina game that anticipated alighting foreigners setting Sapporo alight.

According to two Susukino barkeepers, Japanese police took cops from Britain, Germany, and Italy from bar to bar, scaring shopkeepers with tales of soccer hooligans. “The police hinted we close down for the duration, missing out on one of the year’s biggest business opportunities!”

Not all did. Many instead put up “Members Only” signs — in several languages except Japanese — to block all foreign custom. As the International Herald Tribune newspaper reported on Nov. 23, 2002, even a ramen shop displayed it — on orders from the local restaurateurs’ association.

Two and a half years later, long after the threat of hooliganism that ultimately failed to materialize, these signs are still up around Susukino.

“It was just a good excuse to justify what they wanted to do all along,” sighed Jackson.

But the problem is not limited to Hokkaido.

“In Nagoya this year, I was invited to the Suzuka Formula One auto races as a guest of a Western company supporting this event for a long time,” Jackson recalled. “Walking down the street in Nagoya’s nightlife district with senior reps of this company, people on the street passing out flyers to their bars pulled their hands back when they saw us. We even got refused rides in taxis. That’s pretty stupid. What kind of an image is that supposed to create?”

Jackson said this company is considering changing its support to the Shanghai Formula One because of this and other ill-feelings incurred.

“And Nagoya is going to be hosting the 2005 Aichi World’s Fair? You’re joking. Just more people to come to Japan and leave with a sour taste,” he said.

Furthermore, it’s not only visitors or residents who feel the alienation. Japan spends millions annually bringing people over on Ministry of Education Scholarships, and through organizations like The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

These people receive funding for wages, room and board, training, and research. They also have access to domestic technologies to boost Japanese business opportunities overseas.

“These people should be going back home and becoming de facto spokespeople for Japan. But many — dare I say most? — remember being treated like second-class residents. Especially those brought over from countries in Asia, South America and Africa,” Jackson said.

“One of my Sri Lankan friends, who joined the Hokkaido cricket games I organized, told me cricket was the only enjoyable thing he experienced in his two years at Hokkaido University. I repeat: the only. What a counterproductive use of scholarship money bringing the poor guy over here.”

Just how long does the Japanese government think it can get away with no redresses for discrimination, including a law against racial discrimination? Can it merely coast along on half-measures while prejudicial policies spread nationwide?

As lawsuits rack up involving refusals at a jewelry store, bathhouses, a real estate broker, a bar, and now an optician, the problem is getting worse. As www.debito.org/roguesgallery.html catalogs, a confirmed 12 cities around Japan have been found to have had “JAPANESE ONLY” signs up.

“Japan puts all this effort into bringing people over here only to turn them off,” concludes Jackson. “It should also be safeguarding their right to spend money, do business, and live here like anyone else. All a foreign guest or businessperson has to do is walk outside and see what Japan really seems to think about them.”

Japan can do better than this. It must. As the world’s second-biggest economy, in a resource-hungry world, this is tragic. As Asian business prospects steadily shift to a growing China, this situation, if left as is, will only hurt Japan’s future global opportunities.