Antiforeigner discrimination is a right for Japanese people

by Gregory Clark

“Japan girai” — dislike of Japan — is an allergy that seems to afflict many Westerners here. If someone handing out Japanese-language flyers assumes they cannot read Japanese and ignores them, they cry racial discrimination. If they are left sitting alone in a train, they assume that is because the racist Japanese do not want to sit next to foreigners. If someone does sit next to them and tries to speak to them in English, they claim more discrimination, this time because it is assumed they cannot speak Japanese.

Normally these people do little harm. In their gaijin ghettoes they complain about everything from landlords reluctant to rent to foreigners (ignoring justified landlord fear of the damage foreigners can cause) to use of the word “gaijin” (forgetting the way some English speakers use the shorter and sometimes discriminatory word “foreigner” rather than “foreign national.”). A favorite complaint is that Japanese universities discriminate against foreigners. How many Western universities would employ, even as simple language teachers, foreigners who could not speak, write and read the national language?

Recently they have revived the story of how they bravely abolished antiforeigner discrimination from bathhouses in the port town of Otaru in Hokkaido. Since I was closely involved, allow me to throw some extra light on that affair.

An onsen manager who allegedly had earlier been driven to near bankruptcy by badly behaved Russian sailors had decided this time to bar all foreigners from his new enterprise. The activist then filed a suit for mental distress and won ¥3 million in damages. In the Zeit Gist and letter pages of this newspaper, some have criticized these excessively zealous moves by the activists. These critics in turn have been labeled as favoring Nazi-style discrimination and mob rule. Maybe it is time to bring some reality to this debate.

Otaru had been playing host to well over 20,000 Russian sailors a year, most arriving in small rust-bucket ships to deliver timber and pick up secondhand cars. I visited the wharves there, and as proof I harbor no anti-Russian feeling let me add that I speak Russian and enjoyed talking to these earthy, rough-hewn people in their own language. Even so, the idea of them demanding freedom to walk into any onsen bathhouse of their choice, especially to a high-class onsen like Yunohana, is absurd.

The antidiscrimination activists say bathhouse managers can solve all problems by barring drunken sailors. But how do you apply a drunk test? And how do you throw out a drunk who has his foot in the door? Besides, drunken behavior is not the only bathhouse problem with these Otaru sailors. I can understand well why regular Japanese customers seeking the quiet Japanese-style camaraderie of the traditional Japanese bathhouse would want to flee an invasion of noisy, bathhouse-ignorant foreigners. And since it is not possible to bar only Russians, barring all foreigners is the only answer.

The antidiscrimination people point to Japan’s acceptance of a U.N. edict banning discrimination on the basis of race. But that edict is broken every time any U.S. organization obeys the affirmative action law demanding preference for blacks and other minorities. Without it, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama would probably not be where he is today.

Malaysia has also ignored it, with its Bumiputra policy of favoring Malays over Chinese and other minorities. There are dozens more examples of societies deciding to favor one group of people over others in order to preserve solidarity or prevent injustices. A large chain of barbershops in Japan has signs saying service is denied to those who do not speak Japanese. Non-Japanese speakers probably cause much less harm to a business than delinquent Russians. But we do not see our activists in action there.

The activists say there should be action to educate Russian sailors in bathhouse behavior. But do we see any of the activists in the friendship societies where worthy Japanese citizens try to ease problems for foreigners living here? Not as far as I know. Presumably close contact with these citizens would also upset their Japan-girai feelings.

In Otaru the obvious answer from the beginning was to create a seamen’s club similar to those that exist in many major ports. But here too the activists were very silent. It seems they prefer to move against weak targets where they can gain publicity with a minimum of effort. One result, either of the intensity of their beliefs or of their self-aggrandizement urges, is the vitriol they pour on those who have criticized their actions.

Sometimes their activism goes beyond even the absurd. Japan has long had a real problem of clever Chinese and Korean criminals taking advantage of Japan’s lack of theft awareness to pick the locks and pockets of unsuspecting citizens. But when the authorities try to raise this problem, they too are accused of antiforeigner discrimination. Even companies advertising pick-proof locks are labeled as discriminators if they mention the Chinese lock-picking problem.

Obviously Japan needs precautions against these theft experts. Many, myself included, dislike the fingerprinting of foreigners at airports. But this too is needed to stop criminally minded foreigners from re-entering Japan after they have been caught and expelled. If anything the authorities are too lenient with these people. (Let me add that I also have no anti-China feeling; I speak Chinese too.)

It is time we admitted that at times the Japanese have the right to discriminate against some foreigners. If they do not, and Japan ends up like our padlocked, mutually suspicious Western societies, we will all be the losers.

Gregory Clark is vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.