Quiet after Otaru onsen storm

Hokkaido public forum finds birthplace no bar to a bath


OTARU, Hokkaido — Otaru Onsen Osupa is not a natural setting for the airing of great issues. It is a faded child’s-birthday-cake of a building on a windswept highway skirting the Sea of Japan, some 5 km from the center of town. In the lobby are game machines and a fruit stall. Upstairs, last Thursday morning, about 100 mostly elderly customers fresh from the baths sat on the floor around low tables, sushi, beer and other refreshments at the ready. If the foreign-looking man quietly awaiting their attention at the microphone up front aroused their curiosity, they did not it show.

Arudou Debito is, as his name suggests, something of an anomaly. His American birth and upbringing give him a decidedly Western appearance, and yet, should a public bath attempt to exclude him on the grounds that only Japanese are admitted, he can whip out his passport and say quite truthfully, “I am as Japanese as you are.” He acquired Japanese citizenship in October 2000. What would the Osupa’s customers make of him?

The lawsuit Arudou, a 37-year-old university lecturer, filed with two others at Sapporo District Court in February 2001 has nothing to do with Osupa. The defendants are another Otaru bathing facility and the Otaru municipal government. In September 1999, when Arudou was an American named David Aldwinkle, he and a party of friends were denied entry to Yunohana Onsen — in violation, says the suit, of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Japan signed in 1995. A judgment is expected this summer.

Yunohana was at the time one of three local public baths barring foreigners. Osupa was another. There were reasons, explains Osupa manager Hidekatsu Okoshi. Regular customers complained of rowdy behavior by the Russian sailors for whom Otaru is a frequent port of call. “There were rumors also that the Russians were infected with crab lice,” Okoshi says. “That can ruin the business. You can’t very well stop foreigners at the door and ask them, ‘Are you Russian?’ So we adapted a Japanese-only policy.”

That was in 1996. The policy was dropped in 2000 — despite an Osupa survey in 1999 showing that the majority of its customers preferred not to bathe with foreigners. The friendship Arudou and Okoshi struck up in the course of the controversy accounts for the “public forum” Osupa hosted last Thursday morning.

We return to Arudou, the guest speaker, at the mike. “This is an important topic,” he said, addressing his audience in fluent Japanese. “It is not for the sake of foreigners only. It is for all our sakes. We have a problem here, and I want to hear what people have to say. . . . No? Won’t someone take the mike?”

This was not going to be easy.

“I am not here to criticize you. I want to know more about how you feel. Please, speak freely.” They did — but to each other, and generally not on the subject under discussion. “What do you think,” Arudou exhorted — “about Russians? About foreigners in general? About me? Does sharing a bath with foreigners bother you? Have any of you ever had any bad experiences with foreigners?”

Only when he passed out written questionnaires did responses begin to trickle in. No, no one had had any bad experiences with foreigners. No, they did not favor barring foreigners. Rules, however, wrote one, must be respected.

“Absolutely!” agreed Arudou. “Anyone not obeying the rules — Russian, American, Japanese — out! The problem is not cultural, it’s individual. It’s not ‘Russians don’t follow the rules’; it’s ‘this particular Russian didn’t follow the rules.’ ” There was a murmur of assent.

“No, it was not a waste of time,” Arudou said after the meeting. “You’ll notice no one walked out. Sure, they were talking among themselves, but lots were listening. Rather than express opinions themselves, they prefer to listen. Especially older people. Oh, people do listen — and,” he added, “they appreciate sincerity.”

Arudou is nothing if not sincere. “Who,” he asked his audience, resigned at last to making something like a speech, “is Japanese and who is not?” He himself is a prime illustration of that ambiguity. Besides, “30,000 Japanese a year marry foreigners. Are their children Japanese? Foreigners? Wait, let me show you something.” From a briefcase he removed an album containing two enlarged photographs. His daughters, aged 8 and 6, in kimono. “Are these children Japanese, or . . . ?”

Suddenly the audience was engaged. They surged forward, craning their necks. Okoshi began passing the photos around. “Kawaii, adorable!” The admiration was unanimous.

It was not quite the blow Arudou had intended to strike for racial harmony, but one blow can be as good as another. The meeting concluded with rousing applause.