(click here to page down to February 9, 2004 Update)

(Russian: "Japanese Only Establishment".
In front of "Monbetsu Onsen Bijin no Yu", Nov 15, 2003. Photo by Arudou Debito)

Text by Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan

Monbetsu, a seaport city on the northeast Okhotsk Seacoast of Hokkaido, Japan, has since 1995 had "JAPANESE ONLY STORE" signs in displayed on as many as 100 bar and restaurant doors. Produced by the local Restaurateurs' Association, these signs, rendered in Russian only, have been used to exclude all "foreign" clientele, regardless of connection either to Russia or to Japan. Although the Ministry of Justice's Bureau of Human Rights demanded in July 2000 that this signposted discrimination cease immediately, a fact-finding mission, carried out Nov 15, 2003 by Olaf Karthaus and Arudou Debito, revealed that signs are still up more than three years later. In fact, other businesses, such as a restaurant, a karaoke parlor, and a public bath funded by tax monies (a "Dai-San Sector" enterprise), have put up new exclusionary signs of their own. However, enforcement is haphazard--foreigners (and foreign-looking Japanese) can be admitted if they speak Japanese, or are accompanied by a Japanese speaker. Nevertheless, our requests to have the signs taken down were rejected for the time being. Karthaus and Arudou will be returning in the winter months to resubmit a Petition (chinjou) to the Monbetsu City Government asking for the establishment of an anti-discrimination Ordinance (jourei), which if passed will make this activity, currently not unlawful in Japan, illegal in this municipality.



This is not the first time Olaf and I have visited Monbetsu. After hearing in the media of exclusionary signs in the area, we dropped by both in 2000 (http://www.debito.org/onsennyuuyokutimes041300.html) and 2001 (http://www.debito.org/wakmonbtsuprelimreport.html), to see what kind of reception we as residents or citizens of Japan would receive from businesses which have had a complicated relationship with visiting Russian sailors. Although a 2001 broadcast of TV show "Koko Ga Hendayo Nihonjin" showed Monbetsu bars refusing all foreigners on sight (http://www.debito.org/KokoGaHen1.html), we found back then that as long as we spoke Japanese, we were (after some initial refusals and character witnessing by our native Japanese counterparts) allowed in. However, the Russian "JAPANESE ONLY STORE" signs have been kept up in places for now close a decade, a situation we consider intolerable due to the potential for social misunderstandings (more on that below).

This time, the goals of our fact-finding mission were to:
a) Talk with the place with an exclusionary sign,
b) Hear their side of the story,
c) Tell them the problem with having that sign up, and
d) Ask them to take it down.

It probably goes without saying, but what's wrong with having an exclusionary sign up if you don't enforce it (i.e. "Japanese Only, unless you speak Japanese"), per se? After all, according to every place we visited, the the signs were only up to exclude Russian sailors (which was, naturally, why most of them were rendered in Russian only). However:

a) Enforcement becomes random. There are two unconfirmed reports of a Canadian and an American (who were government-employed JET language teachers, and have since left Japan) being refused last spring at both the abovementioned Dai-San Sector bathhouse and a Monbetsu karaoke parlor. And since they were refused despite being with Japanese friends, this means that Russian sailorism was certainly not an issue.

b) Having the sign up makes a clear, unsubtle statement to the public that you agree foreigners ought to be excluded. Intentionally, Russians only, perhaps, but application has shown time and time again in Monbetsu and elsewhere that many signposting businesses just refuse all foreigners anyway, judging "foreign" by appearance only. This leads to racial discrimination.

c) The very act of signposting exclusionism encourages copycatting. As the record demonstrates, Hokkaido's first known exclusionary signposting was from 1993 in Otaru. Left alone by the authorities, similar signs then proliferated throughout Hokkaido and Japan nationwide. They even popped up in places where no trouble with "foreigners" had ever happened; in a number of ludicrous cases (such as a Sapporo Susukino ramen shop during the 2002 World Cup: http://www.debito.org/ihtasahi112302.html), the establishment has been unaware of what their sign even says! Thus "Japanese Only" signs have become a quick-fix, knee-jerk reaction to situations fueled by public fear of foreign crime, or just by store management too lazy or nasty to communicate effectively with foreign clientele. (http://www.debito.org/roguesgallery.html)

d) Bottom line: Regardless of whether the signs are actually "strictly enforced", their very existence goes against the Japanese Constitution and the UN Convention on Racial Discrimination, and would be illegal in any other developed country in the world. The time is now to make it known that this situation will not stand without comment.


We gave these arguments to reporters at noon on November 15, 2003, preparing a two-page statement of goals and a proposal for fixing this situation. Japanese text of the handout available at http://www.debito.org/monbetsuhandout111503.html, but our proposals, in nutshell:

Done by Immigration and the Public Safety Commission (Kouan Iinkai). Not difficult. One already exists for visa overstayers who, when kicked out of the country, cannot return to Japan for ten years. Likewise for sailors arrested for disturbing the peace in Monbetsu.

"If you are arrested, you will be blacklisted indefinitely and unable to enter Japan on any pretext." Deterrent effect, especially for sailors making a living by international trade.

Give customers fair warning about what house rules are. Then give those who actually disturb the peace one warning. If that doesn't work, call the police. Police are crucial as a fallback enforcement mechanism.

In attendance were newspaper reporters from the Hokkaido, Yomiuri, Hokkai Min'yuu, and Okhotsk Shinbuns, as well as TV stations HBC, STV, and NHK present. Here's what happened:


ADDRESS: Monbetsu-shi Saiwai-chou 4-1-1, phone 01582-4-1726
EXCLUSIONARY SIGN: (Russian version) "Where, Dear Sirs, is your respect for our RULES? For the time being, our baths are FORBIDDEN to SAILORS FROM FOREIGN SHIPS" (emphasis in original). Japanese version similar but softer in tone.

(click on pictures to see larger image)

OUR RECEPTION UPON ENTERING: Three of us entered separately. Eleven-year Monbetsu resident James Eriksson was recognized at the counter and waved in. Olaf Karthaus was let in once it was established he knew Japanese and how to take a bath. Arudou Debito was likewise asked about his language ability and his knowledge of bathing customs (informing them he is a Japanese citizen made no difference). Arudou was shown a multilingual (Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, and Russian) sheet of bathing rules, asked if he would be willing to follow them, and was let in after answering correctly in the affirmative.
THEIR SIDE OF THE STORY: According to the newspapers (http://www.debito.org/doshin090803.jpg and http://www.debito.org/mainichi090803.jpg), this public-private sector hybrid, which opened April 2003, was the site of unruly Russian sailors smoking cigarettes in the bath and making a ruckus in the changing room, causing several complaints. In August, they put up the abovementioned sign. General Manager Mr Ohta confirmed this. However, he had no particular comment about the alleged refusal of a Canadian JET in May or June, long before the incident with the Russians.
TAKE DOWN THE SIGN? Considering doing so for the beginning of the new year, 2004.
APPRAISAL OF SITUATION BY AUTHOR: It is good that rules are being made clear. Now a mechanism for enforcement. Police were not called when Russians made trouble, for reasons left unclear by Mr Ohta.


ADDRESS: Monbetsu-shi Saiwai-chou 4-1-1, phone 01582-4-6651
EXCLUSIONARY SIGN: (in Russian only at their front door) "People who cannot speak Japanese or are unaccompanied by a Japanese speaker are refused". Put up on opening day April 2003.

(click on pictures to see larger image)

OUR RECEPTION: Olaf Karthaus was speedily served by a very friendly middle-aged waitress. So were Arudou, Eriksson, and a JET who was watching us from the sidelines (and joined us for a meal). Food there is very good, BTW.
THEIR SIDE OF THE STORY: According to the waitress and the Assistant Manager Mr Chino, JOY is run by a major restaurant and shop chain called "Kojinsha Life Creation", which manages no less than 18 different shops in the Shin-Chitose Airport complex, Hokkaido's largest air hub. The headquarters, hearing of potential problems with local Russians, told JOY to put the sign up, even though no incident had happened there. Waitress: "We offer all-you-can-eat and drink specials without time limits. Russians drink a lot. We don't speak Russian. So there will be problems."
TAKE DOWN THE SIGN? Under consideration. The waitress is not happy with the policy, and gave us the number of the head office in Chitose to inquire further. That is: KK Koujinsha, Chitose-shi Bibi, Shin Chitose Kuukounai Catering Bldg 2F, Phone 0123-46-5381.
APPRAISAL OF SITUATION: It is mysterious how the Chitose HQ feels it understands the situation in Monbetsu, more than 300 kms away, well enough to refuse all Russians. Ironic given Koujinsha's profiting from business at an international airport. Clearly fear and rumor won out over common sense.


ADDRESS: Monbetsu-shi Minato-chou 7, Phone 01582-3-7909
EXCLUSIONARY SIGN: (in Russian only) "This place for Japanese Only" up at least since 2000.

(click on pictures to see larger image)

OUR RECEPTION: Karthaus and Arudou admitted with no problems, except for the older lady at the counter asking us why there was a TV camera filming us walking in.
THEIR SIDE OF THE STORY: General Manager Mr Hayashi (who met Arudou in 2001 and remembered him) offered a magical mystery tour of logics: He wants the City of Monbetsu to demand he takes the sign down, so he can bargain with them for some financial support. Having lost half his business to the abovementioned new Tokkai no Yu bathhouse, he wants to know how it is that the latter can refuse foreigners yet receive public monies--while he gets criticized for excluding foreigners as a private-sector unsupported business. He wants financial support from the City too. His proposal to make his old bankrupt bathhouse (which he owned before Bijin no Yu) a specialty bathhouse for foreigners, has fallen on deaf ears. Inexplicably, he will soon have no choice but to knock down the old place at his own expense unless the City contacts him soon.
TAKE DOWN THE SIGN? Not unless the City comes forth and offers him a deal.
APPRAISAL OF SITUATION: Mr Hayashi is an interesting character. A lax enforcer of his own rules, he then blames others for taking advantage of him. For example, he readily admits that at his old place he let Russians walk in without paying, had trouble keeping order, etc., yet would not call police to keep order or avoid bankruptcy. A nice enough guy, Mr Hayashi lacks a certain horse sense in his business practices.


We found four signs (out of the hundred or so that were up in 2000) which are still displayed. Three bars, one yakitori place. Went to the only one of the bars open that day.

ADDRESS: Sunakku "Don", Hamanasu Doori
EXCLUSIONARY SIGN: (in Russian only) "This place only for Japanese" since 1995.

(click on pictures to see larger image)

OUR RECEPTION: Arudou Debito was alone, save for five reporters from the print and broadcast media. The mama of the place was quite adamant about refusing Arudou entry, saying it would be difficult to explain my presence to her customers (although the place was empty, as it was 7PM). It was not until one of the reporters intervened to vouch for Arudou's character, asking for some time to hear Arudou out and give all five reporters in attendance a beer. Mama relented and started serving:
THEIR SIDE OF THE STORY: The Sunakku system in Japan is a complex one, with service charges hard to explain in another language. Moreover, bars like these run by women, often alone at night, are a soft target. There have been many incidents (unquantifiable in number, but a guess by Mama and one of her hostesses was about 30 cases) over the past six years of Russians causing trouble, such as nonpayment due to a surprisingly high-priced system, no sexual payback despite all the flirtation and payout, and even one rumor of a gang rape (which did not make police reports or the newspapers, as the alleged victim apparently would not file a report out of personal shame). No, Mama's bar in particular had never had any problem, but the sign was sold to them by the Restaurateur's Association as a preventive measure.
TAKE DOWN THE SIGN? Under consideration, after Arudou gave his spiel about the public message signposting sends. Probably will not do it at this juncture--not until the feeling of public safety is restored, say, by hourly stop-by patrols by police.
APPRAISAL OF SITUATION: It was a good conversation on a serious problem. A bar is not in the same category as a restaurant or a bathhouse--i.e. it is a luxury service, not a necessity for personal health and hygiene, or food. It is also a purveyor of strong and copious intoxicants, which will wild-card any situation. Therefore the case for increased protection and more selection of clientele is warranted. Still, the sign, and the instant fear incurred by any foreign-looking client (such as myself) walking in, is something which needs to be resolved immediately by law enforcement.


ADDRESS: Monbetsu Honmachi 5-chome, Phone 01582-3-1010
EXCLUSIONARY SIGN: (in Russian only) "This place only for Japanese", up since 2001.

(click on pictures to see larger image)

OUR RECEPTION: Arudou was told he could rent a karaoke box with no problem because he speaks Japanese. Membership necessary for everyone regardless of nationality--proof of address required.
THEIR SIDE OF THE STORY: Manager Mr Ishikawa was worried about Russians getting trashed and trashing their expensive karaoke equipment. No, there has never been an incident of this, but their place is only two years old and the sign was up from the start. Had heard that there was an incident at another karaoke box in town, but was unable to answer why Russians would want to sing from a selection which did not include any Russian songs. Was not aware that their sign said "Japanese Only"--had thought it just refused all Russians--and expressed disquiet about that.
TAKE DOWN THE SIGN? Under consideration after our conversation, but unconfident that they would ever be able to explain complicated karaoke machinery and price systems multilingually. Arudou suggested they contact the head office of the karaoke company, a national chain, as it no doubt has multilingual instructions (their book of selections for foreign songs is an inch thick and includes about six countries outside the standard pop music genres). Will look into it, they said.
APPRAISAL OF SITUATION: Another situation where rumor and the Restaurateur's Association scared people into overcompensating. Still, their need for proof of a domestic address is well understood. This is not a mere meal or a bath--they are renting equipment out. A car rental agency or a video store likewise requires proof of a home address to keep their property secure. So requiring customers to have a tracable domestic address is perfectly reasonable. This does not, however, have to be signposted as a blanket refusal of all foreigners.


It is a common enough social phenomenon--fear motivating people into doing irrational and costly things. Michael Moore's movie BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE explores that very well, and I bet he'd have a ball carrying a camera around Monbetsu.

Fear was certainly a factor here. Monbetsu cityfolk put signs up they didn't understand to address a problem most of them had never experienced--only heard about in the classic style of the rumor mill. It's hardly an exclusively Japanese reaction--history shows that purges regularly occur against cults, witches, the privileged, Communists, terrorists, hooligans, and in this case smelly Russian sailors allegedly with language barriers, drinking problems, and sociopathic tendencies. Monbetsu is a textbook case of how people can overreact.

Still there are exceptions, even here. The biggest yakitori place in town, Heiseien, has a very clear sign up in Russian and Japanese:
"Trouble is forbidden. Cause trouble and we call the police."

(click on pictures to see larger image)

No bones about that. Another bar, "Banya", caters to Russians, and a staff member there whom Olaf befriended in the "Bijin no Yu" baths told him that in the seven months he has worked there, there has been not a single incident of trouble. Russians and trouble is not an equation.

Then there's the perpetual fear here of miscommunication and cultural conflict. Rongai. I've said this many times before, but the problem here is not one of language barrier or cultural difference, but of an individual's will to follow the rules. If the rules are clear, even a chimp may follow them. If not, throw the bum out, Japanese bums included.

More succinctly, the problem is one of public safety: that police are not called upon, or do not come when called (according to some exclusionary businesses I've interviewed). This may be due to the police's aversion to international incidents and the paperwork that arresting a foreigner would necessitate. Consequently, businesses feel the need to take the law into their own hands, like vigilantes, by signposting and enforcing their own rules.

Time for the police to restore the public's confidence in them as a fall-back measure in case of trouble. If they were to do their job properly when called upon, keeping a lid on social miscreants when they act up, I bet this problem would dry up overnight and signs would no longer be necessary.

In the end, let me stress that Olaf and I found Monbetsu to be a very friendly place. People were very chatty and not at all standoffish once you got past the fear factor. Pity the signs up around town don't reflect that.


Olaf and I will be returning to Monbetsu and Wakkanai in the winter months to resubmit a Petition (chinjou) to the Monbetsu City Government, asking for the passing of an anti-discrimination Ordinance (jourei), which will make signposted discrimination, currently not unlawful in a Japan, illegal in Monbetsu. We think it will attract a bit of fanfare. Will keep you posted. Thanks for reading.

Arudou Debito
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
November 18, 2003

: (February 9, 2004) SUCCESS! Thanks to all the press coverage and repeated entreaties to the management by Olaf Karthaus and Arudou Debito to take the signs down, both Karaoke Parlor O-edo and Restaurant "Joy" have taken their signs down (see photos below) and opened its doors to customers of all nationalities. (Photos taken by Arudou Debito and friends on February 6 and 7, 2004. Click on photos to see larger image.).

Restaurant "Joy" after removing its "Japanese Speakers Only" sign from its menu stand.
(February 6, 2004, Monbetsu, Hokkaido)

Karaoke Parlor "O-edo" has its "Japanese Only" sign in Russian taken down by Olaf Karthaus (left) and Arudou Debito.
(February 8, 2004, Monbetsu, Hokkaido)

However, the signs still remain up at Sunakku "Don" and Monbetsu Onsen, as well as 26 other places around Monbetsu, according to local sources which went from bar to bar on a sign hunt on January 30, 2004.

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Copyright 2003-2004, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan