STEVEN HERMAN VS ASAHI BANK LAWSUIT
Japan's foreigners fight back against widespread bias
They say they're denied access to loans, baths, bars
USA Today (March 8, 2000) Page 24A
By Peter Hadfield
Special for USA TODAY
TOKYO -- Americans living in Japan are hitting back at what they say
is the country's deeply embedded discrimination against foreigners.
Many are closely watching the case of Steven Herman, an American
broadcast journalist, who is suing Asahi Bank for turning him down
last year for a loan to buy a town house. Others have joined in an
effort to end discrimination against foreigners at some of the
hot-spring baths that Japanese cherish. If the challenges succeed,
it's likely there will be similar efforts made to open up the many
bars, restaurants and stores that try to keep out foreigners.
Herman is chairman of Foreign Press in Japan, which promotes freedom
of the foreign news media. He has lived in Japan for 10 years and says
he has a good credit record. At the time of his application, he was
engaged (now married) to a Japanese citizen. He declined to discuss
his salary but says he has a stable income that is ''comfortably
double'' that of a Japanese manager of his age. Such a manager would
earn the equivalent of about $100,000. That salary that doesn't go
nearly as far here, in one of the world's most expensive cities, as it
would in most U.S. cities.
''The bank wouldn't even accept the application,'' says Herman, 40, a
Nevadan. ''They say they have a secret manual that forbids them from
accepting an application from anyone who is not a citizen or a
resident of Japan.'' A bank spokesman declined to comment.
In the past, American residents -- who number around 100,000 of a
foreign population of about 1.2 million -- have accepted this kind of
discrimination as part of daily life. Many credit companies and real
estate agents have a policy of not dealing with gaijin, a term that
means ''outside person'' or non-Japanese.
University lecturers from abroad complain that their contracts offer
few of the benefits enjoyed by Japanese colleagues. Bars, hotels and
other establishments often post ''No foreigners'' signs on their
doors. In one humorous twist, a bar in Tokyo's nightlife district of
Shinjuku once had a sign that read: ''Club International -- No
Foreign residents say the government's attempts in the past decade to
encourage kokusaika, or internationalization, to integrate Japan with
the global community, is not backed up with laws. ''The Japanese
market decided to accept goods and investment from abroad,'' says
Yasushi Higashizawa, a human-rights lawyer who is handling Herman's
lawsuit. ''But I don't think Japan decided to accept people from
abroad. The system didn't adjust to living with them.''
Japan's Constitution, written in English with the help of American
occupying forces in 1946, is contradictory on the subject. The
English-language version says ''all of the people are equal under the
law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or
social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family
origin.'' However, the Japanese version renders ''people'' as kokumin,
or citizens. It implicitly excludes non-Japanese.
Now, Higashizawa says, the social and political system is under
pressure to open up to foreigners, just as Japan's markets were forced
to open wider in the 1980s. In November, a Japanese court ruled for
the first time that non-Japanese are protected by a 1965 United
Nations convention against racial discrimination, which Japan signed
The decision came in a case involving Ana Bortz, a Brazilian
journalist who was ejected from a jewelry store. The storeowner
claimed that Bortz had been acting suspiciously. A video from a
security camera supported Bortz's claim that she wasn't. The store
also had posted a sign banning foreigners.
Because the owner was acting legally under Japanese law, Bortz's
lawyer based her case on international law. Few legal experts expected
Bortz to win because previous court verdicts had ruled that Japan's
laws supersede international law. In addition, Japanese courts are
To the surprise of the legal community, Judge Tetsuro So, head of a
three-judge panel that took the case, followed the U.N. guidelines in
the absence of any domestic laws banning discrimination. Acting on
behalf of the panel, he ruled that Bortz had suffered under Japan's
anti-defamation laws, which apply to non-Japanese as well as citizens.
''This was an illegal act against an individual,'' So said. He added
that it was ''unfair'' to eject Bortz from the store simply because
she was Brazilian. He ordered the jewelry store owner to pay Bortz
damages of around $14,000.
Herman says Bortz's case inspired him to file his suit against Ashai
Bank because it indicated that the legal system ''was starting to look
at things differently.'' So far, though, his case has drawn little
attention from the Japanese media.
The Bortz case has also inspired other foreign residents to oppose
what many believe is legalized racism. A group called Issho Kikaku,
made up of expatriates promoting internationalization in Japan,
launched a campaign against hot-spring baths that exclude foreigners
in the northern port city of Otaru. A group of them toured the baths
''Some of the onsen (hot spring) managers were very apologetic . . .
that we weren't allowed in,'' says David Aldwinckle of New York, local
coordinator for the group. ''Others were downright rude.''
The owners say they are justified in barring foreigners because baths
are communal and Japanese customers dislike sharing them with
foreigners. They say some non-Japanese are not familiar with bathing
rituals, such as washing and rinsing before getting into the bath.
Aldwinckle says the answer to this is education, not discrimination.
After the campaign gained nationwide attention, three hot-spring bath
owners promised to change their policy, but only one did, Aldwinckle
says. Another merely changed the ''No Foreigners'' sign to one that
read: ''Due to various circumstances, we refrain from allowing
foreigners entry into the premises.''
Even so, Tony Laszlo, the founder of Issho Kikaku, says many foreign
residents now feel a shift in Japan against overt discrimination.
''Store owners and hotel managers will have to think twice before they
blatantly exclude foreigners because now they risk getting sued,''
Laszlo says. ''If Steven Herman wins his lawsuit, that will knock back
the barriers even further.''
USA TODAY ARTICLE ENDS