On Aug. 25, the Osaka District Court handed down a landmark ruling in a discrimination lawsuit.
Ibrahim Yener, a Turkish national and 14-year resident of Japan, was refused service last October by an Osaka used car dealer, which stated in an email (text at www.debito.org/?p=14743) that they would not serve foreign customers. The car company also stipulated that even if the customer legally holds Japanese citizenship, they would only sell to people who could “hold their own (sonshoku ga nai) against native speakers” in terms of Japanese language ability (as determined solely by the car company).
Yener felt this was discriminatory, filed suit and won. The presiding judge said that it “was based on prejudice that a foreigner would cause trouble and does not justify the discriminatory treatment.”
But what made this case particularly noteworthy is that Yener navigated Japan’s legal system all by himself — without a lawyer.
Thus this case offers potential lessons for other non-Japanese or international Japanese who face similar discrimination. JBC contacted Yener last week to find out more about the thinking behind bringing the case.
What motivated you to file the lawsuit? Were you trying to show the public that it could be done without a lawyer? Or were you just angry after all the other cases of discrimination you say you faced? What made you say “Enough is enough!”?
I faced so many discrimination issues during my 14 years in Japan. I will give you two examples:
About 11 years ago, I was seeking a job at Hello Work (the government unemployment office) and found one whose requirements were an exact fit to my skills. So, I asked Hello Work to contact them, but as soon as they mentioned to the company that I am a foreigner, the company refused to interview me.
Second, about four or five years ago, I needed to go to Tokyo and bought an overnight bus ticket. However, at the departure time the bus driver would not let me get on the bus. I called the cops, but they did nothing except let the driver drive away.
However, this time was different because I had hard evidence in writing that showed clear discrimination and intent: that email.
But I still talked to them. Even before taking this to trial, I clearly gave that company a chance to apologize. I called the company the next day and said to the owner that one of his employees must have sent me a weird email by mistake.
But the owner said it wasn’t a mistake. He told me on the phone, “Do whatever you want,” instead of apologizing. So, OK, I did whatever I want. I took him to court.
How did you know you had a winning case?
I knew I would win because I had physical evidence. But the defendant also showed up in court with a mask on his face to protect, he said, his “privacy,” because “There is a foreigner here.” He refused to take it off, even after the judge told him to do so. So the judge got angry and said: “I am not asking you to remove that mask. I am ordering you to take that mask off immediately or to leave the courtroom.”
At first I wanted to sue that company for ¥3 million, but later I dropped it to ¥1 million. I did that because I wanted to prevent him from getting a lawyer, and to force him to fight with me at my level of knowledge about law. This meant he had a much smaller chance to win. Still, I had already prepared myself to appeal to a higher court in case the Osaka District Court decided it was not discrimination.
Do you think this sort of outcome is repeatable? Or do you think the reckless behavior by the defendant significantly tipped the scales in your favor?
Honestly, I don’t think this kind of outcome is repeatable. As you know, my case was quite unique. Proving discrimination can be very hard, but in Japan even harder. Because most Japanese have no idea that what they are doing is discrimination. Worse is that they think it is normal.
For example, according to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, there were 615,105 racial discrimination cases filed in American courts between 1997 and 2016. How about Japan in the same period? We can count the discrimination cases on one or two hands by the plaintiffs’ names. The lower number of cases in Japan does not mean that there are fewer instances of actual discrimination happening. To me it means that something’s wrong.
The court ruling doesn’t address the issue of racial discrimination, only “foreigner discrimination.” Do you wish the judge had?
I think Japanese are not aware of the difference. If you are not Japanese then you are another race.
You were awarded ¥200,000 by the Osaka District Court. We’ve seen other court awards for this type of discrimination that were much larger. Ana Bortz in 1998 won ¥2 million. Each plaintiff in the Otaru onsen case in 2002 won ¥1 million. Steve McGowan won ¥350,000 on appeal in 2006. Each time the award is being whittled down to mere petty cash for a discriminatory business. It seems like there is less deterrent to discriminate due to a decreasing threat of punitive damages. Do you have any thoughts on this?
As you well said, reducing the award is providing more opportunities for discrimination. All of those things are systematically being allowed by the government.
Do you have any advice for others who face discrimination and might want to follow in your footsteps? What preparations do you need to make to ensure a case is watertight? What should victims of discrimination not do?
I strongly advise anyone who is facing discrimination and/or any other acts against their human rights to sue. Just collect as much evidence as possible. There is nothing much you can do without hard evidence.
If a person who is facing discrimination has good evidence, just go to the nearest district court, fill out one page of A4 paper about your case, and give it back to the information desk. That’s all. That’s what I did.
Japanese culture is very different than the rest of the world, for sure. A person who discriminates can easily slip away and escape responsibility by just saying “I didn’t mean that” in court.
So never try to negotiate with anyone. Just fill out the paper, attach all of the evidence, and wait for your day in court.
Is there anything else you’d like to say in closing?
One day, a person walking on a beach saw some guy picking up starfishes and throwing them back in the sea.
He told that guy that what he is doing is useless — nothing will change because there are thousands of starfish on the beach.
That guy slowly picked up another starfish and threw it back in the sea, and replied, “At least something changed for that one starfish.”
Standing up and fighting back might not change the entire country, but at least something will change for you.
Debito’s latest book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” is out now in paperback. Twitter: @arudoudebito
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