Japanese are increasingly waking up to find that their new neighbors are foreigners who have settled in this country. What should be done to build an affluent multicultural society in Japan? The Sapporo District Court recently handed down a ruling that makes us think about this question. Three foreigners had claimed that the refusal of a public bathhouse in Otaru to grant them admission amounted to a violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Japan has ratified. They filed a suit seeking 6 million yen in compensation from the operator of the bathhouse and from the Otaru city government.

The court ruled that the bathhouse’s refusal to grant them admission was an act of racial discrimination and ordered the operator to pay a total of 3 million yen, saying that the defendants had suffered a violation of their human rights as well as psychological injury. The court also ruled that the city government had taken measures to end the ban against foreigners and that it should not be held responsible for the actions of the bathhouse, since a local government is not obliged to perform duties under international law.

This trial is notable for three reasons. First, how should we strike a balance between business rights and human rights? Second, how should we distinguish between foreigners and Japanese? And, third, is Japan making sufficient efforts to eliminate racial discrimination?

Regarding the first point, bathhouse facilities in Otaru began putting up “no entry for foreigners” signs in the early 1990s, when the number of visits by Russian sailors suddenly increased following the end of the Cold War. Some of those Russians displayed extremely bad manners in the bathhouses, such as drinking and reveling noisily on the premises. Such behavior threatened to turn Japanese customers away; as a result, the bathhouses started to refuse entry to all foreigners.

According to one nongovernmental organization that is involved in the problem of discrimination against foreigners in Japan, as of 2000, the move by facilities to ban the entry of foreigners had spread from Hokkaido to Okinawa. The court decision in Sapporo sounds a warning to such business practices.

As for the second point, one of the defendants, a university lecturer named Debito Arudo, hails from the United States but actually has Japanese nationality. He is married to a Japanese woman and has two daughters. Arudo, though, was treated as a foreigner because of his appearance. This makes us wonder about the definition of a Japanese. Indeed, many Japanese seem to have a fixed idea of what a Japanese should look like. They have no trouble digesting the reality of a Japanese-Peruvian or Japanese-American, but reverse the words and they have a strong resistance to the notion of Peruvian-Japanese or American-Japanese.

However, we now live in an age in which more than 30,000 “international marriages” are reported in Japan each year. Eventually, terms like Chinese-Japanese and American-Japanese will probably become commonplace. It is time for the Japanese to recognize that the age of diversity has hit home.

The third point is related to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Following the spread of neo-Nazism in Europe, the convention was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1965. Japan eventually ratified the convention 30 years later in 1995 — the 146th country, and the last of the advanced countries, to do so. Even then, Japan was slow to establish related domestic legislation. In March 2001, in a final opinion paper on Japan, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination strongly urged Japan to enact legislation on the elimination of racial discrimination that carries penalties.

A U.N. study report issued in March 2000 notes that Japan’s low birthrate and the increasing average age of its population will force it in 50 years to accept about 310,000 immigrants a year to maintain its labor force. That’s the equivalent of the population of a medium-size city. When a relatively uniform society takes in large numbers of people with different cultural backgrounds, there will be some anxiety and friction.

According to the recently issued white paper on the police, as the number of foreigners entering Japan has increased over the past decade, the number of crimes involving foreigners has risen 2.3 times and the number of arrests has jumped 1.6 times. Such problems will not be solved by harboring a dislike of new neighbors and shutting them out. We must build a society that gently and kindly embraces different peoples and minorities. It is important for each of us to be prepared. That should be the lesson of the Sapporo District Court case.

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