A decision last year by the Justice Ministry’s Kyoto bureau not to pursue a complaint against a landlord’s no-foreigners policy showed Japan was “utterly unprepared” to move on instances of discrimination, according to an expert.
The Kyoto case first flared in January 2013 when exchange student Victor Rosenhoj was moving from Ryukoku University’s Shiga campus to Kyoto and hunting for a new apartment.
Rosenhoj, a Belgian national, submitted a rental application through the university’s student co-op, which arranges apartments for its students. But he was told “matter-of-factly,” he said, that the apartment’s landlord had a no-foreigners policy and it was thus not available for him.
Angered by the move, Rosenhoj took his case to the ministry’s Kyoto bureau in June that year in the hope it would intervene. However, it was not until over a year later, in September 2014, that the bureau notified him by mail his case did not constitute a violation of his human rights.
Hiroshi Tanaka, a professor emeritus of sociology at Hitotsubashi University, says the case underlined the nation’s lukewarm attitude to clamping down on racial discrimination. He also believes Japan should follow other countries and set up a government institution dedicated to preventing human rights violations, as recommended by the United Nations.
“The nation is utterly unprepared to fulfill its responsibility not only to ban discrimination but to safeguard the victims,” Tanaka said.
Rosenhoj, who is no longer an exchange student, told The Japan Times that the bureau’s letter provided no explanation as to why his case had been dismissed. “I thought: ‘Wow, I can’t believe this. This has to be a joke, right?,’ ” he recalled.
Under Justice Ministry policy, its local bureaus can investigate complaints relating to human rights violations, and resolve the dispute through measures that include engaging the concerned parties in dialogue, providing recommendations, or educating people on the issue.
They don’t, however, have the authority to take punitive measures.
Rosenhoj said when he initially filed the complaint, an official at the bureau told him it had no legal authority to resolve the issue and nor could it give him any feedback on the progress of its investigation.
“I thought they were making a fool of me,” Rosenhoj said. “If they can’t tell us anything about their process, or if they don’t have the power to do anything from a legal standpoint, then it’s just a waste of time and resources.”
When contacted by The Japan Times, the Kyoto bureau refused to comment, saying it cannot talk about individual cases.
In Rosenhoj’s case, the bureau notified him in writing that while his claim had been dismissed, it had asked the student co-op to be more sensitive to human rights issues. The letter, however, did not mention the landlord.
Yuko Domen, executive director of Ryukoku University’s student co-op, said she did not recall the bureau talking to her organization about human rights, but acknowledged bureau officials had made some inquiries about Rosenhoj’s case.
The co-op, for its part, has since moved to improve the way it introduces accommodation to foreign students. Starting in fiscal 2014, it began to remove from its brochures details for apartments that have a no-foreigner policy.
Some landlords told the co-op that they were reluctant to take in foreigners because such tenants in the past had occasionally misbehaved or broken rules, such as appropriating a shared item in their apartments.
“If there are foreigners who have broken those rules in the past, they should absolutely be punished,” Rosenhoj said, “but that shouldn’t reflect on other foreigners.”