City off hook over bathhouse barring of foreigners

The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an appeal by a naturalized Japanese seeking damages from a city government in Hokkaido in connection with a bathhouse’s policy of barring foreigners from the facility.

The top court upheld district and high court rulings that found the Otaru Municipal Government had no obligation to pay damages sought by David Aldwinckle, a university associate professor and local resident, and two foreign nationals.

The two lower courts said a treaty Japan signed against racial discrimination does not oblige local-level authorities to enact specific ordinances. The Otaru government, for its part, had instructed the bathhouse to stop rejecting foreigners.

The three, including Aldwinckle, filed suit on Feb. 1, 2001, seeking a combined 6 million yen in damages from the city government and the bathhouse operator. Aldwinckle is now a naturalized Japanese who goes by the name of Debito Arudou.

In November 2002, the Sapporo District Court dismissed the suit for compensation against the city but ordered the bathhouse operator to pay 1 million yen each to the three plaintiffs.

Taking the case to the Sapporo High Court, the plaintiffs argued that the city had a duty to meet the requirements of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Japan signed in December 1995, by introducing an ordinance to ban racial discrimination.

The high court upheld the lower court ruling, calling the bathhouse’s refusal to admit non-Japanese “unreasonable discrimination.”

But it added, “The convention has only general, abstract provisions recommending appropriate measures to eliminate racial discrimination, and the Otaru government does not have any obligation to institute ordinances to ban such discrimination.”

The court also said the city did instruct the bathhouse to stop its policy of barring foreigners.

In September 1999, Arudou, then still a U.S. citizen, and German Olaf Karthaus visited the Yunohana Onsen bathhouse in the port city and were refused entry because they were foreigners. Ken Sutherland, another American, was denied admission there in December 2000, according to the high court.

The bathhouse had put up a multilingual sign that in English said “Japanese only.” It gave as a reason that trouble with drunken Russian sailors at similar facilities in the area had caused Japanese customers to stay away.

Arudou filed the complaint with the district court after the bathhouse again barred him from entry in October 2000, after he had become a Japanese citizen. He even presented his driver’s license as proof of citizenship, to no avail.

Arudou lives in Nanporo, Hokkaido, with his Japanese wife and two daughters.