The Observer on World Cup 2002 and the Otaru Onsens Case

Cold War in Japan
A World Cup Odyssey

By James Davis
Sunday June 9, 2002
The Observer
Courtesy of,11031,730204,00.html

On first impressions, today's Group H match between Japan and Russia does not conjure up images of a local derby, but it very definitely is. Only 43 kilometres separate Japan and the large Russian island of Sakhalin, and on a clear day from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, it is even possible to see one of the Russian-administered Kuril Islands.

The Kuril Islands are a source of tension between the two nations. Japan maintains that these islands are Japanese sovereign territory. The two countries still technically remain at war, as no peace treaty has ever been signed from the Second World War. The words 'the day the four islands come back is the day of peace' are written above the entrance to the Hokkaido prefectural office in Sapporo.

Despite this, contact and trade between the Russian Far East and Hokkaido has been increasing year upon year since the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the port of Otaru, 30 minutes from Sapporo, Russian ships can be seen sitting dockside, unloading cargoes of timber and fish, while secondhand Japanese cars and electrical products wait for the return voyage.

This increase in the number of Russian seamen arriving in Japan has not been without problems - particualrly so in that most relaxing of Japanese traditions, onsen (hot spring baths). The 1990s saw a number of onsen in Otaru put up notices that forbade Russians and foreigners to enter. The exclusion of foreign bathers was seized upon by a number of foreign residents of Hokkaido, who seek to document instances of racial discrimination in Japan.

This fight against discrimination has resulted in a lawsuit being filed against one Otaru onsen and the City Government of Otaru for not upholding certain national treatises. Arudou Debito, a naturalised Japanese citizen, formerly David Aldwinckle of the USA, is one of the three people taking out this civil action. Arudou sees this discrimination as a legacy of the Second World War. 'A lot of people living in Otaru are veterans of Sakhalin. It used to be Japanese but was taken over by Russia in the closing days of war. They had to live under the Russians until the San Francisco Treaty, when they were repatriated.' Overall, it is estimated that up to 700,000 Japanese were taken prisoner of war by the Russians and it was not until 1958 that repatriation was practically completed.

Despite the removal of the signs, foreigners can still have problems, but it must be made clear that exclusion of foreigners and World Cup supporters is rare and isolated. The most common comment from foreign World Cup supporters about their experiences in Japan to date would have to be: 'The Japanese are so friendly and helpful.' Where shall I be watching the Japan-Russia match? It will be difficult to pass up the invitation from Anatoly, a Russian seaman, to join him and the 28 other Russian crew members onboard Chendensky, a Russian ship waiting to load a cargo of secondhand cars. Anatoly is good for the vodka, but I'm bringing the sushi.