Open for Business, but not for All Discrimination in Japan reveals a need for greater awareness of human rights.

Julian Chapple
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

The old saying "When in Rome do as the Romans do" is still so often heard today that it is almost a cliche. Yet another saying which may be more applicable to Japan's foreign resident population might be "When in Rome BE ALLOWED to do as the Romans do" because this is not always the case.

Of late there have been a number of publicly reported incidents regarding foreign residents in Japan being banned from various private-sector businesses. At that heart of this problem lies a lack of understanding of the basic concept of human rights and a reflection of the long path Japan still has to tread to reach its stated goal of 'internationalisation'.

In November last year in this same newsletter, an article appeared about Ms Ana Bortz, a Brazilian journalist, who had been asked to leave a jewelry store in Hamamatsu because she was not Japanese. Ms Bortz later won compensation through the courts with the judge stating that the banning of someone from a store because they are different is not appropriate behavior and as Japan is a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) that treaty is as effective as a domestic law.

However, unfortunately this case was not a one-off incident and the judges' comments in this landmark ruling not only need to be given more focus but also should send a clear message to Japan's lawmakers that internationalisation is truly a complicated and difficult process.

Of other similar incidents in Japan by far the most widespread seems to be the exclusionary practices instigated in some onsen baths in Otaru, Hokkaido. After first being reported in 1999 by a local foreign resident who had been refused entry to an onsen, several local members of Issho Kikaku (an NGO advocating coexistence and multiculturalism in Japan) investigated only to find that the problem was quite widespread. ISSHO set up a team - the BENCI [Businesses Excluding Non-Japanese Customers, Issho] project team - which has since been highlighting the various incidents of non-Japanese exclusion from private-sector establishments.

In Otaru, the bans have been imposed after Russian sailors reportedly drank alcohol while using the baths and saunas and ignored other aspects of bathing etiquette. One of the bath houses claimed that rather than simply restricting Russians - which it claimed would be considered outward racial discrimination - they decided to ban ALL foreigners. Unfortunately this blanket-ban causes far more pain than it prevents.

Long-term foreign residents in Hokkaido who wish to use these facilities with their families now find that their families are allowed to enter but they themselves (and any non-Japanese looking children) are forced to remain outside. Admission is therefore being granted on the basis of appearance. Some of the Japanese press reports have focused solely on the issue of Russian sailors and Japanese customs and thus failed to see the real issue: that this is discrimination based on nationality and is totally unacceptable in a modern, developed nation.

By definition, discrimination occurs when a person is treated less favourably than another in the same or similar circumstances. Thus the action taken by the onsen proprietors is clearly discrimination. In a recent survey of Japan's main political parties conducted by Issho's Hokkaido branch members all of them called the situation in Otaru "discrimination" (sabetsu). (However, the Jiyuutou and Koumeitou did not elaborate much or offer suggestions as to what they are going to do about it, and unfortunately, the LDP was the coolest towards new legislation to protect the rights of non-Japanese saying incredibly, that there are times when it (discrimination) is unavoidable).

So despite the consensus that this is discrimination why has nothing been done ? Why are these establishments still allowed to continue such behavior ? The answer is simply that presently in Japan there is no law preventing such behavior, nor any noticeable social push to see one enacted.

There are some critics who claim that a law is not necessary as this whole matter is nothing but a minor controversy that has been blown out of proportion and will solve itself. However, this is neither a minor issue to the people affected nor something that will clear itself up. Legislation alone can't solve the problem but without it there is little hope of letting perpetrators know that such behavior is unacceptable.

There are also some that claim that these people have a right to protect their businesses from disruptive behavior. These critics are however misguided in their thinking. Of course the owners have the right to operate their business free of such disruptions. Yet the way they are going about exercising that right shows a clear lack of any understanding of basic human rights and respect for others.

Surely foreign nationals in Japan should be afforded the same rights as Japanese nationals? Certainly we should be free to decide where we spend our money.

Japan, as a signatory nation of CERD has an obligation to ensure that all residents - whether Japanese passport holders or not - be granted the same freedoms. As a part of this obligation the government is required to create the framework making such discrimination illegal and an effective means of recourse if it occurs.

Yet despite the overwhelming majority of people agreeing that the situation in Otaru is clearly discrimination and a breach of CERD, there is still considerable work to be done to convince the reluctant government to introduce legislation.

What Has Been Done

In April this year the BENCI project team hosted a seminar at Japan's Parliamentary Upper House and followed it with a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club to highlight these problems on a national level and urge Japan's politicians to enact a law banning discrimination on racial grounds.

As a result of Issho's activities one of the establishments has replaced its 'Japanese Only' sign with a 'Members Only' sign. Foreigners can become members but strict rules apply. While the removal of the 'Japanese Only' sign is a positive move, it can hardly be called progress. The heart of the problem - that human rights are not fully understood and Japanese society has yet to embrace multi-culturalism and become more accepting - remains.

More Education is Needed

Japan needs to realize that a part of the process of internationalisation and becoming a full member of the international community is opening up and sharing ones country with others who wish to live there and sincerely become full, contributing members of the society. This is often a very difficult task but an essential one nevertheless.

More education is needed to eliminate the lack of understanding of what exactly is entailed by human rights. To be sure Japan does have a less visible number of different minorities. Yet, the fact that most Japanese believe they don't even exist (or should be treated somehow differently) is thanks in large part to the Japanese government's lack of recognition of past events or clear policy of what to do from now.

Further, there is a need for an independent watchdog organization - like exists in other countries - which could hear claims and mediate or take action in such cases of discrimination. This organization could conduct education programmes too independent of the Ministry of Education's dubious attempts.

The government needs to spell out what exactly foreign residents' rights are in Japan and educate its citizens so as to eliminate these and other discriminatory practices. Japan has traditionally been referred to as an isolated country and certainly these exclusionary practices do nothing to dispel that image.

I consider it a privilege to live in Japan and contribute in some small way to this society and I don't expect, or desire, to be treated any differently to anyone else. Thus I continue to strive for greater understanding and hope that in the future my son is not denied any course of activity solely on the grounds that he is not 100% Japanese.

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