Japan 's foreigners fight back against widespread bias
They say they're denied access to loans, baths, bars
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
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
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 foreigners allowed."
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
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 in 1996.
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 famously conservative.
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 Asahi 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
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 last year.
"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
PHOTO, B/W, Naokazu Oinuma for USA TODAY; Caption: Feeling unwelcome: Steven
Herman, an American, at a branch of Asahi Bank in Tokyo. He is suing the bank
because it turned him down for a loan.