Unwelcome Mat
Bars in a Japanese port keep Russians outside

James Brooke, New York Times
Friday, April 23, 2004, International Herald Tribune, page one

A 'sister city' won't welcome outsiders

MONBETSU, Japan The bespectacled Western native braced himself for confrontation when he walked into Joy, a restaurant with a reputation here for not serving foreigners. Offering food and drink on an all-you-can-consume system, Joy's managers faced a universal challenge in this port on the Sea of Okhotsk: how to deal with Russian sailors? But rather than translate the restaurant rules into Russian, the manager took a path favored here, posting a large sign in Russian: "no Japanese, no service."

The sign was a more sophisticated version of signs posted outside 30 bars and bath houses here. In large Cyrillic letters, they warn: "Japanese Only."

In black and white, the signs spotlight Japan's often hidden reluctance to deal with foreigners. In a legacy of the Edo period from 1603 to 1868, when Japan sealed itself off from the outside world, Japan today ranks near the bottom among major economies for levels of foreign investment and numbers of foreign residents. In elections last autumn, one prefectural governor only grudgingly apologized after calling foreigners "sneaky thieves."

Globalization arrived here a decade ago, when Russian fishing boats started docking after the fall of communism. In the neon-lit entertainment district, bar owners and their patrons reacted like turtles.

"Before, when Russians were in here, Japanese customers would look in and then slam the door," Hiroaki Okamura, 25, owner of Bar Raum, said to explain why he posted his "Japanese Only" sign last August.

On a recent weekend, exclusionary signs were targets for a trio of activists for foreigners' rights in Japan: David Aldwinckle, born in America but now a Japanese citizen who goes by the name of Arudou Debito; Olaf Karthaus, a German chemistry professor, and James Eriksson, a Canadian English teacher.

"It's an aberration on the Japanese character - I have been well-treated here," said Eriksson, an Albertan who settled here 11 years ago, married, started a family and opened a school. Last May a local bathhouse refused to admit a Canadian friend. Eriksson recently walked downtown, counting 30 establishments in three blocks with "Japanese Only" signs.

Aldwinckle, 39, a debating professor, decided to test the Joy. First, he argued with the manager. Then he lost his temper, and stomped out to cool down. When he returned, the sign was gone. "If I had not gotten angry, that sign would still be there," he said, tucking into his second plate on the all-you-can-eat system. The waitress complained that the Russians eat and drink too much. But Aldwinckle, a 15-year resident of Japan, said there was more at play than money.

"Japan has an innate fear of the unpredictable and the unprecedented," he said. "You never know what the foreigners are going to do, or this has never happened before so we don't have a system for this."

In a society where consensus is prized, this city of 27,000 has drifted along for a decade with "Japanese Only" signs dotting commercial streets. Ironically, many excluded sailors hail from Korsakov, a port hailed at City Hall as Monbetsu's Russian sister city. Some bars that say "Japanese Only" employ hostesses from the Philippines, Romania and, yes, Russia.

"Perhaps Russian scientists would find this sort of thing unpleasant," Masahiro Kubota, the city planning manager, speculated, referring to international conferences held here. He had just received a petition for a city ordinance that would ban racial discrimination. In Wakkanai, another port, the activists found similarly cautious responses. Katsumi Ogawa, Wakkanai's director of general affairs, said of a nondiscrimination ordinance, "We would like to go through, examine and fully understand the content." A few blocks away, the Uransen bathhouse maintains facilities segregated by brick and stone. Japanese can take a bath for 370 yen, or $3.38. Large signs in English and Russian instruct foreign visitors to use a side entrance to separate facilities for a Russian-style sauna bath, costing $24.

"Separate, but unequal," said Karthaus, a soft-spoken, bearded man who does not look like an outside agitator. Minutes earlier, when a white man entered the Japanese entrance, a clerk frantically waved to a side entrance, which was locked. Later, a manager said the bathhouse had liberalized rules to allow Japanese-speaking foreigners and Chinese, "because they look like us." Bitter over memories of Russians smoking, drinking and carousing in her Japanese baths, she declined an offer to have Japanese bathing rules translated into Russian.

Nearby, at the "Russia Friendship House," Hiroshi Ito, the director, was mortified when the topic came up, saying, "I feel very sorry about that." Noting that he had translated menus at 10 restaurants and hotels into Russian, he conceded, "There are some Japanese who don't like sharing the bath with Russians."

In 1995, Japan ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. But since then, Japan's Parliament has not passed implementing laws.

In bars and baths here and in Wakkanai, managers said their signs are largely targeted at Russians. "I refuse to accept Russians because they make a lot of trouble," said Kazuko Sasaki, who owns the Torichiyo Bar here. Citing several cases of Russians walking out on bills, she said: "I end up covering the losses. I have called the police three times."

"At another bar along this street, a Russian suddenly jumped on one of the bar hostesses," said Sasaki, a woman in her 60s who tends the bar alone. "Four policemen came over, but this Russian was so massive, they had a hard time getting him in the police car. This Russian was so huge and powerful."

Two minutes by patrol car from the bar district, Yoshimasa Yamanaka, a police officer who tabulates crime statistics, said Russian crime here was "small."

Last year, about 8,500 Russians visited, and police received around 50 complaints about Russians. Last year, nine Russians were arrested for theft, compared with 263 Japanese.

Russians here grimace at the discrimination, but generally take it in stride. "It's O.K. - they look at us the way we look at the Chinese," Alexei Khalemin, a crab fisherman from Sakhalin, said, nursing a $5 beer in a Wakkanai bar filled with Russian men drinking quietly.

Vasily Saplin, Russia's consul general in Sapporo, said by telephone that the boisterous behavior of Russian sailors often provoked the restrictions. He added, "From the point of view of equal rights and discrimination, this is not a good thing."

Here in Monbetsu, where local officials say "Japanese Only" signs are not their problem, Aldwinckle says the only solution is direct action. On his visit, his fourth since 2000, he scored three for three. He persuaded the managers of a karaoke bar, of the Joy restaurant and of the Raum bar to take down their discriminatory signs.

"What is wrong about posting signs?" Aldwinckle asked, listing other cities where bars have posted exclusionary signs. "It gives a clear and overt signal to everybody that foreigners deserve discrimination."

Shinobu Miyajima, manager and hostess at the Holstein bar, said that she had taken down her "Japanese Only" sign five years ago.

Between pouring drinks and lighting cigarettes, she said: "Sometimes Japanese companies would come here with Russian clients. The sign got to be embarrassing."

The New York Times

COMMENT FROM ARUDOU DEBITO: A rare article which surveys the Russian and the international government-level reactions (Mr Brooke understands Russian, so his insights were most welcome).

About that bit where I lost my temper and stomped out :-)

We first went to Restaurant Joy in November 2003, where we asked the management very nicely (yes, Olaf will vouch for that) to take down their signs. They said that they would confer with their management in Chitose International Airport (!!!). Comes Feburary and the signs still aren't down. So I was less nice this time around--especially since management essentially stated that since we (Olaf and I) hadn't called Chitose ourselves, they couldn't be held responsible for the signs staying up. Do I smell any, "I was just following orders" style of self-absolution here...?

The first time I ask, I will be nice. If I have to ask a second time, I will be annoyed. And during a third (or fourth time, like in Misawa bars), I will reserve the right to be bullish in a china shop. It does have its results--the Joy signs came down, and the karaoke place (which replaced their November sign with a laminated, more durable version!) did too after I more clearly (in front of newspaper media) voiced my consternation. Fact is, being nice and patient, even logical, has its limitations when dealing with either the irresponsible or the bigoted in the background.

Thanks for reading! Arudou Debito in Sapporo

Referential links:
Report on February 2004 Wakkanai and Monbetsu Visit and assembly submissions


Report on November 2003 Monbetsu Visit

Gallery of "Japanese Only" signs on businesses nationwide:

What happens when you sue for redress:

The Japanese govt's position on racial discrimination in Japan
(essentially: it either doesn't exist, or it's a natural part of social interaction)


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