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Bathhouse pushes a foreigner into the doghouse

by Jeff Kingston

JAPANESE ONLY: The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan, by Debito Arudou. Tokyo: Akashi Shoten, 2004, 407 pp., 3,500 yen (paper).

Discrimination is an all too common experience for non-Japanese residents who study, work, marry and raise families here. Many of us have come to terms with this prejudice and deal with it in our own ways, often avoiding confrontation. There is evidence of improvement and some non-Japanese may experience little more than petty hassles, but as in other countries around the world, foreigners are too often an easy target.

Even though Japan effected the United Nations’ convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1996, it still has no law against racial discrimination; thus a treaty obligation exists without an effective means of carrying it out.

Debito Arudou (previously David Aldwinkle before he became a naturalized Japanese citizen) decided that confronting discrimination was important for his family, other foreigners and Japanese society. After reading this excellent account of his struggle against prejudice and racial discrimination, I think we are fortunate he did so.

“Japanese Only” tells us about the case of three bath houses in Hokkaido that excluded foreigners and naturalized Japanese citizens for six years before the author and two friends filed suit in 2001 against one of the establishments and the city of Otaru in which it operated. We learn of the struggle of some Japanese and non-Japanese residents to challenge discrimination and effect social change. This copious record of a social movement provides an illuminating window on how people and institutions can influence human-rights practices and is an important contribution to our understanding of contemporary Japan that deserves a wide audience.

Arudou was instrumental in stirring national and international interest in this case and taking it to the courts for redress. Readers get a personal and fascinating account of how this movement evolved, its consequences and how it affected those who participated in it. It is a very readable story that ranges from diary-like entries, to extensive quotes from the media, e-mails to his Internet site and court rulings.

Ironically, some of the harshest criticism directed against Arudou and his supporters has come from other resident foreigners. In this vein, some of Gregory Clark’s articles defending Japan from accusations of racial discrimination are reproduced here. With tortured logic, he asserts that foreigners like Arudou are in fact the ones acting in a discriminatory manner and engaging in a form of cultural imperialism. Arudou deflects such criticisms as so much pandering:

“Some will surely reiterate that I am foisting some American cultural values on the Japanese here. But it’s not ‘American.’ It’s just a good idea. Regardless of origin, the idea of fighting for one’s rights is objectively good.”

Chalmers Johnson, in a caustic e-mail, asserts that the U.S. ambassador at the time “couldn’t give a cold dog turd whether or not you, your wife and children get a bath at an onsen.”

Undeterred by this apparent official insouciance, and some hostility among foreign residents, Arudou pressed on. It seems to have been a painful learning experience, as conflicts developed with other activists concerning the best way to proceed.

Tony Laszlo, now famous as the humorous husband depicted in the best-selling manga series “Darling wa Gaikokujin (My Darling is a Foreigner),” was initially involved, but we learn of their growing estrangement. Eventually they parted ways and one can sense the despair and personal toll an increasingly lonely crusade exacted on Arudou. He even endured threats against his children.

The initial court ruling on the Otaru Onsen lawsuit ventured into Catch-22 territory; the judges ruled that the city of Otaru was indeed obliged to uphold the U.N. Convention on Racial Discrimination but not obliged to pass ordinances that would make this possible. As Arudou writes, “So this means that they have to enforce the treaty. But they don’t. Huh?”

Eventually the Japan Civil Liberties Union took up the case and provided a pro bono legal team to mount an appeal. The high court ruling in September 2004 against the appeal argued that the Japanese state and its local governments do indeed have an international treaty obligation to eliminate discrimination, but that the court cannot force the government to make laws. Furthermore, the state cannot be held culpable for not passing a law; inaction is not illegal. Thus “the judicial branch can only enforce what the legislative branch creates.”

Arudou fumes: “Hence, the government, which can take our taxes yet not be legally obligated to protect our rights, is exonerated from doing anything. Despite the U.N. treaty, which has the force of law, but alas is not binding because it is not properly codified. That argument has not held water in other signatory countries (all of which) . . . have codified laws to outlaw racial discrimination.”

The author is not optimistic that the government will pass such laws, but has decided to pursue his case to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Hokkaido Shimbun lent its support to the cause, arguing for antidiscrimination legislation with penalties.

One can only marvel along with Arudou’s friend who said, “Who’d thunk all those years ago that our actions one afternoon in Otaru would have resulted in a lawsuit of this magnitude?” What has been normal — exclusionary signs — is now a matter of public censure.

Arudou convincingly concludes that “raising your voice against social wrongs is the way to make life better for everyone in Japan. It is the way civil societies everywhere in the world develop. Japan is no exception.”