Japanese commonly show anti-foreigner biases
U.S. military, Latin American settlers targeted

SEPTEMBER 18, 1998, Pg A15

By Willis Witter (reproduced with permission of the author)

Photo: The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun of Aug. 15, 1998, printed the sign barring foreigners from the pool with an English translation.

AZUMA, Japan - The "Closed to Foreigners'' sign at the entrance of a public swimming pool seemed out of place in a nation that aspires to global leadership.

Japan hosts international summits on everything from gun control to nuclear disarmament. It aspires to a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Its big cities exude a futuristic, if somewhat garish image with forests of cellular telephone antennas waving from the ears of the masses who pack shoulder to shoulder on ubiquitous commuter train platforms.

But a few miles outside of cosmopolitan Tokyo, modernity can quickly fade into prejudices that would seem better suited to America's Deep South a generation or more ago.

For a single sizzling month this summer, Azuma, a town of old farmhouses and lush rice paddies just 60 miles north of Tokyo, closed its swimming pool to "foreigners.''

Similar incidents are not uncommon. A hot spring in the northern island of Hokkaido prohibits bathing by white-skinned Russian merchants.

Bars in an outer suburb of Tokyo post "Japanese only'' signs to keep out U.S. Navy sailors who visit the neighborhood on shore leave. In Hamamatsu, a city 130 miles southwest of Tokyo, a Brazilian television reporter is suing the owner of a jewelry shop who refuses to allow non-Japanese inside.

In Azuma, the sign against foreign swimmers was undoubtedly directed at tens of thousands of Latin Americans, many of Japanese ancestry, who settled in the past decade to work in factories.

The jewelry store lawsuit was an exception. In most cases, discrimination is quietly tolerated.

American service personnel have the right to sue as individuals in Japanese courts, although none have done so in recent memory, said Master Sgt. Eudith Rodney, a spokesman for the U.S. Forces in Japan. They can also report discrimination to their immediate supervisor, who can arrange mediation with local officials.

But Sgt. Rodney, a U.S. Marine who has served on and off in Japan for the past 15 years, could not recall any case in which a sailor, airman or Marine had involved their commanding officers in a discrimination complaint against a Japanese merchant.

"Foreigners are generally seen as guests. Guests should not complain about their hosts and are expected to do as they are told,'' said David Aldwinckle, a professor in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's main islands.

Mr. Aldwinckle has lived in Japan for more than 10 years and speaks the language fluently. He even plans to become a Japanese citizen.

Unlike the West, Japan doesn't have well-developed networks of activists who are willing to protest outright discrimination or even racial or ethnic stereotyping, which is common in Japan, Mr. Aldwinckle said.

Instead, pressure often comes from abroad as with complaints from the United States several years ago against the racial stereotyping in comic books and magazines of blacks with wide noses and thick lips.

Likewise, an outcry, largely from the West, forced Japanese politician Seiroku Kajiyama to apologize for remarks he made as justice minister in 1990.

Mr. Kajiyama, best known for his unsuccessful bid to become Japan's prime minister two months ago, had likened Tokyo prostitutes to American blacks who "move into an area and whites are chased out.''

In Azuma, foreigners are now free to use the pool. Under pressure from the state government's legal affairs bureau, a few nasty letters from individuals, and trucks full of Japanese television crews, the town relented and reopened it to the area's Hispanic minority.

Still, on a scorching summer afternoon two weeks after the ban had been lifted, not a single foreigner had shown up until a Western reporter walked inside for an afternoon swim.

Local officials are still puzzled at all the fuss.

"This was not a case of discrimination against foreigners,'' said Tatsumi Onai, chief of Azuma's local board of education, which manages the pool and put up the sign. "We were trying to protect our children.''

Though few foreigners live in the village itself, tens of thousands of Hispanic immigrants live nearby, many with their Japanese parents and grandparents who left for South America earlier this century.

Most grew up in Brazil. Peruvians, drawn back to Japan partly by the connection of President Alberto Fujimori's Japanese ancestry, make up the second-largest group.

The town's rationale for closing its pool to foreigners seemed simple enough. One official at the pool characterized the perpetrators of two horseplay incidents as foreigners with "brown skin.''

That kind of talk angers immigrants in the area.

"I've been in Japan for four years and have never seen anything like it,'' said Regis Coutinho, a schoolteacher from Brazil who lives in the nearby city of Oizumi.

People in Azuma "didn't realize how stupid it was'' to put up that sign, said Mitsuo Takano, president of the Japan-Brazil Center, a translation service. ''The villagers are just not accustomed to foreigners."

The sign came down on Aug. 17, replaced by one with a blanket warning against horseplay. Despite the outrage, no one filed a lawsuit. No one protested and no one sued.

''Japan doesn't have experience dealing with many minority pressure groups like the U.S. does with the NAACP or anti-defamation leagues," Mr. Aldwinckle said. ''Few people here are organized enough to protest commonplace stereotyping such as language textbooks making all Westerners blond with big noses."

Officials from the state capital pointed out that Japan ratified a U.N. convention banning all forms of racial discrimination in 1995.

''We did what we had to based on this treaty," said Junichi Sato, of the prefecture's legal affairs bureau.

The prohibition against foreign swimmers was initially justified by lurid charges that a man who spoke little or no Japanese had sexually molested a fourth-grade girl at the pool. In a second incident, a group of foreigners grabbed a sixth-grade girl by the arms and threw her into the pool in what one press report called a near-drowning.

As it turns out, an unknown foreigner had patted the fourth-grader on the bottom.

''It was probably a case of mistaken identity," said a pool official, who declined to give his name. ''To foreigners, all Japanese look alike."

The so-called near drowning was more difficult to explain. Unlike American pools, Japanese pools generally are no deeper than 3 feet in any place.

Sumiko Iwao, a professor at Keio University and a member of a civilian anti-crime commission appointed by the prime minister, said incidents that appear like simple cases of prejudice to outsiders are not necessarily what they seem.

Cultural prejudice still exists but unlike in the past, Japanese no longer feel uneasy dealing with outsiders, Miss Iwao said. ''The country is open. Look around and there are foreigners everywhere." Miss Iwao said the ''overreactions" often stem from a fear of crime. The proprietors of more than one Japanese-only establishment near the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka say a drunken brawl by sailors prompted them to close their doors to non-Japanese.

A relative of the jewelry store owner told the Japan Times that Latin Americans were not allowed in because it had been robbed five years ago by a gang, presumably of foreigners.

In an recent article in the scholarly journal Japan Echo, Miss Iwao wrote that, in proportion to their populations, crime rates are nearly three times higher for immigrants than for native Japanese.

She said most of those crimes are committed by illegal aliens, not by those entitled to live and work in Japan.


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