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OTARU, Hokkaido — The controversy over some “onsen” (hot spring) bathhouses banning foreigners from their facilities in this northern port town, which is frequented by Russian ships, lingers on more than a year after the issue was first raised.

Russians return to their ship moored in snowbound Otaru port in Hokkaido after shopping in the city.

Local proprietors, including bathhouse operators, shopkeepers and restaurateurs, claim they need to maintain a Japanese-only policy to avoid disruption from “bad foreigners.”

But for Debito Arudo, a U.S.-born college lecturer who obtained Japanese citizenship, the practice reflects larger questions regarding Japan’s general tolerance of discrimination against outsiders.

Earlier this month, Arudo and two of his friends filed a 6 million yen damages suit against one of the bathhouses in the city, which repeatedly refused them entrance because of their race, and the Otaru Municipal Government for not taking appropriate measures to stop the discriminatory practice.

Despite an antidiscrimination campaign jointly waged by Arudo, his friends and members of nongovernmental organizations — including appeals to the municipal government, the Justice Ministry and foreign embassies as well as the domestic and international press — the Yunohana bathhouse until recently maintained a ban on all foreigners on the grounds that their presence upsets its Japanese customers.

Arudo, who has lived in the nearby suburbs of Sapporo for about 10 years with his Japanese wife, was once thrown out despite his Japanese citizenship because the bath operator said he “does not look Japanese.”

“My intention is not racial discrimination but to secure business for my family and for my employees,” said Katsuyuki Kobayashi, manager of the Yunohana bathhouse.

Kobayashi said some Japanese customers have told him they do not want to share the facility with foreign sailors because they bring alcohol into the baths and their unruly behavior is an affront to common etiquette.

While Arudo contends the bathhouse must simply specify the rules and kick out those who break them, Kobayashi said simply enforcing regulations will not satisfy some Japanese customers.

“It is the smell (of Russian sailors that some complain of),” he said.

To further support his stance, Kobayashi also cites unconfirmed rumors that lice were spread at another bathhouse in the city after foreign sailors started to frequent the place. “If you heard of disease breaking out, even though it may be just a rumor, would you still want to go there?” Kobayashi asked.

Soon after it became clear last month that the litigation was being prepared, Yunohana removed the “no-foreigners” sign at its entrance. The facility now grants membership to foreigners only when they meet conditions, including living in Japan for more than a year, being able to understand Japanese and not inconveniencing other customers.

While many citizens complain of the negative impact of the dispute on tourism, some local business owners express sympathy toward the bathhouse manager.

More than a few restaurants and bars in the downtown area have a similar policy against foreigners although they do not advertise the fact with signs.

“I know many of them are good people, but I cannot tell who is good and who is bad,” said a yakitori bar owner in the city’s Hanazono entertainment district. “I also ask people who obviously look like yakuza to leave,” he added.

Proprietors refusing service to foreigners said they indicate their intentions by making an X gesture with their arms. The foreign customers — mainly Russian sailors — usually leave without complaining upon seeing the gesture, they said.

Some taxi drivers also reportedly won’t pick up foreigners.

Natalia Parfynova, a Russian who provides information on the city to her compatriots at Otaru port’s information center, said she has not heard complaints of discrimination from sailors, but the situation makes her sad. “I don’t say all Russians are good people, but excluding all Russians or foreigners is not a good idea.”

Most businesses that exclude foreigners say they have experienced trouble, such as theft, in the past.

According to local police, 106 Russians were arrested in 109 criminal cases — mostly theft — in Hokkaido in 1999. But 9,300 Russian ships visited Hokkaido that year, making the number of crimes committed by Russians not necessarily large, a prefectural police spokesman said.

“It would be better if people looked at exceptions and saw them as exceptions,” Arudo said. “I can understand people feeling (that excluding foreigners is the only option), but believe excluding the innocent is not the correct answer.”

After his litigation plans were widely reported in the media last month, Arudo has received both harassing calls and encouraging ones.

A threatening letter was recently delivered to his mailbox at the local college where he lectures, saying “We will kill your kids.” Police are currently investigating the case.

Arudo said he is not labeling as racist the citizens of Otaru or of Japan, but stressed the country must have laws enforcing the Constitution, which stipulates: “There shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”

He also claimed that Japan, as a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, must take “all appropriate means, including legislation as requested by circumstances,” to prohibit racial discrimination “by any persons, group or organization” as stated in the treaty. Japan ratified the U.N. convention in 1996.

In October 1999, the Shizuoka District Court, citing provisions under the U.N. convention, awarded 1.5 million yen in damages to a Brazilian journalist who sued a jewelry store owner who refused her service on the grounds of her nationality.

“Every society has a problem like this and every society tries to do something about it,” Arudo said.

In suing Otaru as well, Arudo and his friends have filed the first high-profile lawsuit against a local government over racial discrimination under the treaty.

“Our case will make clear whether Japan is willing to keep its international treaty promises,” Arudo said.

Kazuho Takeuchi, manager of the city’s international affairs section, said municipal officials repeatedly asked operators of local bathhouses to stop discrimination and also produced and distributed Russian-language posters and flyers explaining Japanese manners at public baths.

He also said two of the three bathhouses that initially adopted a Japanese-only policy eventually accepted foreign customers thanks in part to the efforts of the municipal government.

But Arudo doubts the sincerity of the city office in tackling the problem, saying that while fliers for visiting Russian sailors were produced, little effort was made to distribute them.

“Once the media attention subsided, the city tried to let sleeping dogs lie and hoped the situation would resolve itself,” he said.

Arudo and his supporters have demanded the city establish a local ordinance banning discriminatory practices. But Takeuchi said, “It would be best if the central government were to establish such a law.”

Although nongovernmental organizations have lobbied the central government and Diet members for such legislation, only a handful of lawmakers have reacted.

Some local citizens agree with Arudo’s summary of the municipal government’s efforts. A local woman who regularly associates with Russian sailors said the municipal government should strive to promote understanding of foreigners, pointing out that Russian traders make a large contribution to the city’s economy. For example, 1,275 of the 1,534 foreign-flagged ships that visited Otaru in 1999 were Russian.

She also says the city office should provide opportunities for exchanges between local citizens and foreign visitors. The proprietress of a bar in the Hanazono district said she welcomes Russian customers but has had trouble with them on “dozens of occasions.”

The woman, who is in her 50s and asked not to be named, has also learned simple Russian conversation. “If you try to communicate with them in person, they are good people.”

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