FEB 19, 2000

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City Awash in Controversy Over Hot Springs' Ban on Foreigners

By MARK MAGNIER, Times Staff Writer

     OTARU, Japan--Until recently, Otaru's biggest blip on the world stage was the signing of sister city agreements with the Russian city of Nakhodka and New Zealand's Dunedin. Recently, however, this modest port city with a population of 153,000 has received international attention for a very different reason: a ban imposed by local hot spring operators against foreigners.
     City officials here on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's main islands, say the attention is unwanted and unwarranted as Tokyo bureaucrats descend, national and foreign news groups highlight the exclusion and foreign diplomats register protests. They say they just wish the media hubbub would die down so they could reach a solution without everyone getting so steamed up.
     The flak started in 1998 when a foreign family went to one of the city's three hot springs and was refused entry. In fact, the ban on foreigners had been in place for years, but no one had challenged it. Last fall, a civic group of foreigners in Japan picked up the gauntlet, was barred and mounted an Internet campaign to spread the word.
     Locals say the ban's main targets are Russians, particularly the 30,000 sailors who visit the picturesque town each year on vessels laden with crab and other delicacies. Hot spring owners say Russian sailors used soap in the communal bath--a major gaffe in a nation where hot spring etiquette is as important as good table manners--got raucously drunk and swam rather than lazed quietly in the scalding water.
     Japan, an island nation that for centuries would import foreign influence only on its own terms, has grappled with the balance between local ways and global pressures since Commodore Matthew Perry's "black ships" arrived in the 1850s.
     As locals scramble to explain their side of the broil, a host of other complaints have surfaced, ranging from Russian treatment of Japanese in neighboring Sakhalin Island during World War II to a recent rise in thefts of bicycles and auto parts just before Russian vessels depart.
     "Foreigners, mainly Russians, may not have the same idea about possessions as we do," said Takeuchi Kazuho, Otaru's international relations manager. "And the police can't very well find them once the ship leaves."
     Local and national officials say they have asked the spas to drop the ban but have no power to make them comply. Japan subscribes to United Nations anti-discrimination conventions--copies of which are prominently displayed in Otaru's City Hall--but has no binding laws of its own covering the issue.
     The hot spring owners, meanwhile, say their aim is not to exclude but to stay in business. They cite internal polls reportedly showing that a third of their customers would rather stay home than bathe with foreigners. Banning Russians alone is impractical, they add, because it's too difficult to distinguish among different nationalities. Furthermore, Otaru would lose face given its sister city link with Nakhodka.
     "That would be discriminatory," said Yoshiaki Hori, an employee at the O-Spa Onsen, shaking snow off his coat beside a "Japanese Only" sign at the entrance.
     Kudo Tadashi, a 58-year-old O-Spa customer, said he doesn't object to sharing the waters with outsiders as long as they follow the rules.
     Civic activists say they are pressing the point to expand the rights of the 1.8 million foreigners living in Japan. "Japan has more international citizens than ever before," said David Aldwinckle, a professor and member of the Issho Kikaku group fighting the ban. "This [thinking] is outdated."
     Solutions proposed by both sides include building separate baths for foreigners, creating a Russia Town with baths that Japanese could also frequent or posting instructions on bath etiquette in several languages with a warning that disruptive behavior won't be tolerated.
     All the attention has prompted one of the three spas to relent. The Shin Nihonkai Spa reopened its doors to foreigners in November after posting house rules, and it has not reported any problems since then. "Not only foreigners but some Japanese have bad manners," said Takanori Uemura, the assistant director.
     But the other two have vowed to keep their policy. In the meantime, local residents express concern that Otaru's reputation will be damaged by the ruckus.
     "I'm worried that Otaru's image will really be hurt," said Toshiko Tanaka, who has lived in Otaru all of her more than 70 years. "We should all be able to bathe together. It's so sad. Bathing is one of the most important things in life."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times