UPDATE OCT 12, 2000

(sent to Friends, Issho, UMJ, Shakai, and others Thurs Oct 12, 2000)

In Hokkaido, northern Japan, there have been recorded instances of enterprises refusing service to all foreigners in major seaport towns: Otaru, Rumoi, Wakkanai, Monbetsu, and Nemuro. As justification, those businesses claim that Russian sailors (who, for the record, have indeed been rough and/or lewd on occasion when patronizing some businesses) cause damage and drive domestic customers away. However, the businesses' logic has gone, refusing only Russians would be unfair or difficult to enforce, so excluding all foreigners, regardless of Japan residency or acculturation, is the only answer.

However, one example of an international port with few problems with foreigners--in fact not a single recorded case of blanket exclusionary practices--is Tomakomai, Hokkaido's largest seaport. Located on the southern underbelly of the island 70 kms from Sapporo, the port is the gateway for most of Hokkaido's imported products, including value-added raw materials for local industry (wood chips, paper pulp, or Siberian logs for plywood), and almost all of its merchant marine shipping container traffic. It also has, like other Hokkaido seaports, a noticable amount of foreign sailors cooling their heels at dockside for a day or two with a little spending money and a lot of land-leg energy. Thus the same circumstances for trouble and exclusionary policies exist, but Tomakomai has one major institution in its favor:


This post is organized thus:



The official name of the organization is "The Missions to Seamen, TOMAKOMAI", located at Futaba-chou 2-10-16, Tomakomai, phone (0144) 72-3408 (daytimes) or 34-8890 (evenings), website http://communities.msn.com/MissiontoSeafarers/home.htm, email: mts@ains.tomakomai.or.jp Open from 6pm to 9pm Monday through Saturday for the past fourteen years, it has provided services to on average 25 sailors per day, around 7000 sailors per year, for a total of more than 75,000 seamen from 76 countries.

But its origins go deeper than that. The Mission is affiliated with the International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA), currently headquartered in Holland, and unless you are connected with waterborne trade, you might be oblivious (as I was) to the extensive networks available specifically for souls on the sea. Crash course: In 1835, John Ashley, a man of the cloth in Bristol, England, saw that sailors had pretty nasty lives; the girl-in-every-port image of seafarers notwithstanding, a crew was often kept prisoner onboard; some having been pressganged, sailors were denied shore leave at ports of call for fear they might escape. Meanwhile they lived in penury--most were paid at the end of the journey after the cargo was sold. As a salve for this destitute life, Ashley and other clerics in the Bristol Channel area visited ships in port and at sea (a tradition that continues to this day; see below), offering scripture, salvation, or at least a means to sanity. Expanding from a one-man operation to a Missions to Seamen in 1858, the organization by then had a constitution, sponsorship of the Church of England, and a wider organizational perview. Today it has grown into the ICMA, with the affiliation of around 20 religious organizations with missions in seaports worldwide (in Japan: Kobe, Yokohama, and Tomakomai). Hokkaido's Mission is affiliated with the Anglican Mission to Seafarers (otherwise known as Flying Angel), HQ London, and the Catholic Apostleship of the Sea (or Stella Maris), HQ Rome. Hence the network is well established and, from what I could see on the day I attended functions at Tomakomai, doing an amazing job making the world's most itinerant of laborers feel closer to home.

Let me take you there. At 6pm on September 14, 2000, around 40 or so Filipinos and Chinese from four ships disembarked from the Mission bus and filed in, running a gauntlet of handshakes from volunteers who were mostly elderly Japanese ladies nihau-ing away (no kidding--and for all the allegations about an indigenous fear of sailors or foreign languages, the baachan undauntedly did their best with hand signals and scraps of English). The first sight greeting visitors is a doorway table full of free donated used clothing, kitty corner to a side room full of raiment for 50 to 500 yen. A little farther in is a window selling condiments, telephone cards, and other knicknacks, leading to a seated counter selling beer. Walk in farther still to a TV room, a computer with internet and email access, a sitting room with guitars, and a billiards room with illustrated rules and manners tacked to the wall. All told, the Mission contains seven big public rooms, each 16 to 30-jou in size, offering plenty to keep the sailors busy until the 9pm closing time.

Here a sailor may: 1) receive free bus transport (after pastoral visitation and arrangement with the ship's captain) to and from portside, 2) change currencies (the most frequently-used service--most sailors Japanize their pocket money and then go outside to shop), buy 1000 yen telephone cards and phone home (NB: KDD or NTT telephone cards only offered about 5 minutes to, say, The Philippines, as opposed to cards from rival companies at about 30 minutes; but instead of making the prices competitive, KDD removed all of its phones from the Mission, making for one remaining long-queue NTT phone. Go figure.), 3) exchange or buy books or videos, 4) shoot pool or sing karaoke, 5) buy postage and send letters, 6) buy canned or draft beer (nothing stronger permitted on the premises), 7) strum a few tunes, 8) use exercise machines donated by the Nippon Foundation (hardly anybody bothers--most sailors are buff enough from spending the day unloading their cargo), 9) get some map information on what shopping facilties are available, 10) use an interfaith "Meditation" room for counsel or heart-to-heart talks (don't scoff--some sailors requested my guide that day, Welcome House's Rev James Mylet, lead them in thanksgiving prayer after a rough crossing), or 11) just chat with the ministry or other friendly folk sitting around (I became fast friends with a Sri Lankan-born Tomakomai resident, wife of a ship's captain, and her two Japanese kids). This last activity particularly matters, for after I heard about life offshore with the same faces 7-24, I realized a sailor's job isn't much of a cruise.


"Important here is the human touch, for these people have pretty rough lives", said Rev George Magee, who with his wife, Rev Joyce, and Kanribuchou Mr Akutagawa, helps manage the Mission. "Let me tell you what merchant marining is like:"

And he did. Most of the sailors working the major international cargo routes are from less-developed countries (like The Philippines, where the majority of merchant seamen come from, thanks to good domestic training and indigenous English language ability), hired because they will work for low wages. Many are family men, away from their homes for years on end, because with economic conditions they could not make ends meet. A seafarer's salary is calibrated on country of origin, and almost all of it is directly wired back home for funding the kids' education, building a house, putting food on the table, what have you. The crew gets a little spending money once entering port, but not much--one Japan taxi ride to and from town nearly uses it up. And given the economics and timing of port stays, they don't see much land anyway.

George: "Think distance. From Tomakomai it's two weeks or so to the southern US West Coast. It's a full month to South Africa through the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. Which means that the crew, usually about 22 to 25 people, are on rotating shifts with the same faces all the time. They soon run out of things to talk about, and have no way to communicate with home or even the outside world unless they are moored. Asail, they don't get so much as a fresh newspaper or television in international waters. But even when in port, docking time is as short as possible. Think overhead. Here in Tomakomai it costs $10,000 per day just for a berth, plus labor if local stevedores and workers pitch in. So the crew just runs ashore, mans the port cranes, and unloads like mad. The average ship is probably docked for one to three days; if incliment weather threatens to damage a perishable cargo like grain, a week tops. But since a container ship can have its cargo off and new on within a few hours, they can be asea again without out so much as an evening's shore leave. A night out is important, because sailors--especially, say, Russians whose bankrupt shipping agencies aren't paying them anyways--want to go ashore and buy things. If they don't supplement their income with durable goods bought here for sale back home, inflation or salary default will void any fruits of their labor. There is no rest for a sailor once the hawsers are cast ashore.

"And there is no rest on the open water either. Think crime. Pirates in disguised fishing boats are more plentiful these days, particularly in the South East Asian straits, and if even one brigand with a grappling hook manages to shimmy aboard with a machine gun, it's all over. I mean it. Pirates once took only cash and personal effects, leaving the crew behind alive. Nowadays the economy is sophisticated enough to want the ship, cargo, hold, and all. So they sling the crew overboard as fish food, sail the ship to a designated secret cove--of which there are plenty in The Philippines, China, and Indonesia--and repaint the ship for sale on the black market. For the very sake of survival, there's got to be a crew member on watch at all times, manning a fire hose, keeping an eye out for skiffs darting about their illuminated hull. So you can see, merchant marining is a low-paying, lonely, dangerous job. Generally only the captains or chief engineers are from the richer countries--its the poor who are Legion and taking the risks.

"And how long does a stint last? Contracts are for one year. Interested?"

Nope. But I was interested in having a look aboard ships docking in Tomakomai. So a few days later, September 18, 2000, I visited ships with the Seamen's Club's Rev Joyce from 9:30 am to 12pm. Believe it or not, I brought my wife and two young daughters (while Joyce brought her two sisters), making a family trip out of it. The Japanese Customs authorities issued us Pastoral Passes without hesitation, and in a well-oiled procedure we scaled in turn four greasy, rickety, increasingly steep (the ship rose as the cargo was unloaded) metal gangplanks to four decks, where we asked to be taken to the mess and meet with the Captain. Our message? The shuttle bus to the Mission would be arriving around 6pm that day and would people like a ride?

Our receptions aboard were invariably pleasant--all someone had to say was "Seamen's Club" and we were waved on deck. Joyce: "We've only had a nasty welcome from one ship--a North Korean--and everyone including the North Koreans advised us against going in the first place." Our first crew, Filipino, were happy to see the kids, giving them juice and crackers and playing with them a little; the captain took us up to the bridge specially to see radar and sonar machines, a majestic view of the port, and even the ship's steering wheel (that's what it looked like; it wasn't knobby, darn it). Next, when we visited one shipshape Chinese tub and another rusted-out Russian junk, the crew said their captains were indisposed ("Might be busy, or with a bottle or a woman."). We left them Mission materials and city maps, donated a few newspapers, sold a few telephone cards, and briefly made conversation about past and future cargoes and ports of call. Our last boat, a Japanese one making round trips between NZ and Tomakomai, had only four Japanese in the whole crew, and they were sitting down to a fish lunch that looked appetizing to everyone except Joyce's sisters. "They eat well on the bigger boats," I was told by a sea captain later, but now the kids were clamoring for McDonalds so off we disembarked to part ways. Thus ended yet another day of visitations, which Seamen's Club volunteers do whenever ships are docked, six days a week, rain, snow, or shine.

As George said, it really is the human touch that matters. And consequently I believe it helps to steer both sailor and shopkeep out of icy waters. So what about this as a prescription for the rest of Hokkaido's trouble-spot seaports? Alas, it's of course not that simple.


I asked George about transplantation procedures. "Not likely. It's not the same situation. You get a different kind of sailor in Tomakomai."

Get out your maps and find out why. The ports of contention are Otaru, Rumoi, Wakkanai, Monbetsu, and Nemuro. They are all on the Japan Sea side or are easily accessible via the Sea of Okhotsk. Tomakomai is a lot farther sail around a misaki or two, and even if a trawler bothered to make the trip, it wouldn't find the market for what the average Russian hulk (and a hulk it is--most of what is left of Russia's mighty fleet are ancient, smaller-hulled boats built for river travel) wants to sell (seafood), buy (cars and household appliances), or barter (you name it). If Tomakomai piers are rich enough to be compared to airports--with all its higher-class clientele shelling out higher usage fees--the other Hokkaido seaports would be American bus stations.

The simile becomes even more apt when looking at the mariners themselves: Most alighting in Tomakomai are trained professionals (over half of the 75,000 sailors served by the Seamen's Club are from The Philippines alone, as opposed to only 2700 Russians--meaning more sailors hail from Taiwan, China, Korea, and Myanmar!); according to George, they are family people who stay out of trouble in order to keep secure their monthly salaries from trustworthy shipping agencies. Russian sailors, in contrast, usually don't enjoy that luxury. With the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian Far East economy has collapsed for a good chunk of the population, making fly-by-night crews on dreadful rust-buckets a reality and suitable only for the rough-and-ready. If sailors in general are seen as "salty dogs", the Russians in Hokkaido's flashports are in a salience class of their own. Thus it is not all that clear whether establishing a Seamen's Club in exclusionary port towns would be the elixir.

Moreover, there is that pesky business of economics again. The Tomakomai Seamen's Club happens to be on land owned by a church, giving it a permanent base, a reputation, and an organizational structure through which essentials like fundraising can occur. Add in local volunteers to keep overheads down, and you have the elements of a living, breathing communication center with community support. The closest thing to this in, say, Otaru and Nemuro, are small information desks established by the city governments, giving out information packets and sightseeing chits, only open regular business hours if they are staffed at all (Nemuro's is, Otaru's is not); Rumoi has a small private company trading in used tyres, providing important but hardly sufficient information (like what places don't welcome seamen).

The result is that of all Hokkaido's port towns, only Tomakomai has anything close to a well-funded, well-tended, focal point for Japanese-Russian communication on a basal, everyday level (not a single person in Otaru's city employ even speaks Russian!). Obviously that will not ameliorate potential miscommunication. Couple that with an institutional-memory dislike of the USSR (many Dosanko, particularly in Otaru, were residents of Siberia or the Northern Territories before the Russians took them at the end of WWII, some spending years in Russian concentration camps), and the fact that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces still will not permit the higher echelon of the Russian economy (such as Aeroflot) to land at any Hokkaido airport except Hakodate, and we see contacts being held at an artifically low and rougher-economy-specific level.

It's a pity that local logic has allowed a few Russian bad apples to set private-sector policy, excluding all Russians, in effect all foreign-looking Japanese residents. Which is why we must look deeper into this case for possible prescriptions nevertheless.


There is undeniable fact about the Seamen's Club: it works. Even though Tomakomai is technically the city with the highest turnover of foreigners in Hokkaido, not one business there blanket-excludes people by nationality. What is being done right? IMHO, four things:


Communication, or at least an attempt at it, is essential to maintaining the oft-touted-as-inviolable Japanese "wa". For example, the Seamen's Club has notices in at least two languages (English and Chinese, some Russian) on how to make phone calls, how to get around town, how to use facilities (such as the Meditation Room) conscionably, even how to play a game of pool politely! If there aren't signs, somebody is there to explain or caution. The lesson: A little more explanation from management, instead of working on the presumption that the behavior of a few rulebreakers applies to anyone who looks similar, would go a long way.

(BTW, Otaru City has in fact made the attempt, providing free multilingual notices on how to take a Japanese bath, but the two onsen in question have continuously refused to post them. Instead, as in the Wakkanai and Monbetsu establishments, the only signs up exclude instead of explain. This suggests less a problem of communication and more a lack of will to communcate.)


Social-assistance groups don't happen by themselves or for no good reason. Over a century ago, remember, John Ashley saw a local problem and worked on it as an individual. The same happened in Tomakomai during the Magee's 35-year residency there. Somebody must take the lead, which is not impossible, but few people (outside of the missionary communities in a few scattered Japan port towns) have bothered. One reason why could be sustainability--it may be hard to make a living from. The other is a language barrier to a degree that John Ashley may not have faced. In Tomakomai, however:


Tomakomai has the advantage of having the majority of its seamen addressable in English or Chinese. The other ports can (and have tried) to resolve things in Russian and English: Otaru proposed a 24-hour hotline for business-oriented complaints, which may help once they hire a Russian speaker. But up to now, when the Japanese authorities stepped forward to help, they did a half-assed job.

Let's lay blame where I think it is due. The government holds the social "sticks" (i.e. legal enforcement of social mores and codes) and the "carrots" (say, tax-funded tourist information in 9am-to-6pm booths), moreover is hidebound to step in when called upon and act as negotiators, recorders of miscreants, and expellers of frequent offenders. However, a frequent complaint from aggreived business communities is that local and port (Kouan) police did not appear when contacted. Why? Perhaps due to the reason why crime in general is underreported in Japan; keeping records of all altercations and arrests can cause potential embarrassment, even a possible scolding from above, if crime appears to be rising in a district. It also may be for the sake of avoiding international incidents--embassies have said they can intervene only if there is an arrest, and so far they have had no business-related arrests. The Kouan in particular has been guilty of not taking down names or stoppping recurring troublemakers from entering port (it has, however, made the point of publicizing how potentially dangerous foreigners are). The result? Public confidence in the local government has been undermined, the businesses become vigilantes--taking the law into their own hands with exclusionary signs.

However, Tomakomai's public confidence has never sunk this low. I think this is due to the virtuous circle of civic participation and concrete results. Because:


Generally speaking, I believe that Japan has a relative dearth of charitable/volunteer/Samaritan organizations and followers, moreover a cultural indisposition towards non-governmental social intervention in crisis situations (as I witnessed in natural disasters such as 1995's Kansai earthquake). This impedes the spirit of volunteerism on a personal level.

So who else is motivated enough to help? The government? Again, assistance has been tepid at best: A few translations here and there, more unfulfilled promises of assistance or enforcement, and practically no official services that fit an unloading sailor's hours or help/coax him out of trouble. Moreover, involving other governments (after all, this is an international issue) has been futile: calling upon embassies or sister cities, the designated avenues for international and diplomatic contact, have yielded no results whatsoever. Who else? The market and the profit motive? Local businesses offer very limited assistance in guiding or watching over sailors after deals are done. Indeed, why deal with anything without business incentives or bureaucratic obligation? Well, how about because it is the right thing to do from a social standpoint? Few individuals, save those in some human rights groups, seem to be buying into this.

This is why Tomakomai has the aces. It has the economic incentives. Trade built Tomakomai up from a backwater into a minor international seaport in a generation; Tomakomai knows it needs peace within its port society a lot more than the other exclusionary ports do. It has locals who are willing to volunteer to deal with the international transient community. It also has been going on for long enough to become fearlessly pro forma.

So ultimately, it may just be a matter of time before excluders realize how much they need the fruits of their port trade. Then the bureaucrats or businesspeople will create better mechanisms for processing, enforcing, and welcoming outsiders, right? Problem is this will not come soon enough by any measure. Waiting for sense or a Seamen's Club to materialize is scant relief for those being affected by the situation now--the non-Japanese residents of Japan, who are unconnected with the maritime miscreants in any way except by extranationality or phenotype.

This will not do. Until the government legally recognizes and properly enforces its obligations of policing both citizen and foreigner, discrimination by nationality in the form of vigilantism will continue to spread throughout Japan.

Dave Aldwinckle/Arudou Debito

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