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Hi Blog. My blog post from yesterday has become a full-blown column at the Shingetsu News Agency. Have a read, and lament for Japan’s future if horrible legal precedents like this are allowed to stand. Debito Arudou, Ph.D.
Visible Minorities: Judges Strip Equal Protection from Naturalized Citizens
Shingetsu News Agency, April 24, 2023 by DEBITO ARUDOU in COLUMN
The website archiving and substantiating all of the claims below is at
SNA (Tokyo) — It’s the next stage of evolution in Japan’s variant of racial discrimination: a naturalized Japanese citizen was last year denied membership at a golf course—explicitly for being a former foreigner. He sued. This month a district court in Mie Prefecture ruled that this was not an illegal act of discrimination.
You read that right: not illegal. Follow me down this rabbit hole.
Aigi Country Club in Kani city, Gifu Prefecture, refused a former Zainichi Korean with Japanese citizenship. Their justification, according to the Asahi Shinbun, was that “our club has a quota for foreign nationals and former foreign nationals who have become naturalized Japanese and restricts new memberships. We currently have no vacancies in that quota.”
In court, Aigi Country Club duplicitously denied outright racism by claiming that they refused him for more reasons than foreign roots. It didn’t matter. The judges acknowledged that the plaintiff was refused for being foreign and they still ruled against him. They accepted that this was an instance of discrimination, but it wasn’t enough discrimination.
The judges ruled that a golfing club by design is a “closed and private organization with strong personal ties among its members” and that Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees “freedom of association.” In their reading, private groups are free to decide their membership criteria and, at any rate, playing golf is “not indispensable for social life.”
In sum, it wasn’t an instance of discrimination “beyond socially acceptable limits.”
Exclusionism is rampant at Japan’s golf courses. Last May the Asahi Shinbun provided an excellent overview of how Japan’s country clubs routinely refuse not only membership but also entry to foreign golfers. Some have even refused women. According to interviews, they have “nationality clauses” (i.e. Japanese Only rules) because “the atmosphere slightly changes when there are foreigners around.”
To them, these are just their rules, established long ago. In its case, the Aigi Country Club started in 1964. They won’t change without outside pressure, such as when the International Olympic Committee forced changes in a few Japanese clubs before they were permitted to host international competitions. Without such international scrutiny, they are content to preserve their discrimination in amber.
This Aigi ruling clearly empowers golf bigots to stay the course.
Legal Logic of the Ruling
There are two elements of the logic behind the ruling that deserve to be highlighted.
First is the “beyond socially acceptable limits” reasoning, which has been circulating for generations within Japan’s jurisprudence. It holds that some discrimination is inevitable (for example, separating bathrooms by gender). So as long as institutions or individuals don’t go beyond the “socially acceptable level” of discrimination, there is no legal sanction.
A problem with this approach is that “social acceptance” is determined entirely by the subjective impressions of individual judges. There is no hard data or social science involved. It’s all in the eyes of the judges.
The United Nations has repeatedly criticized Japan for this kind of reasoning (especially its legal corollary of “rational discrimination”).
In this case, even prior Japanese court precedent disagrees. In a similar golf club suit brought in 1995 by a Zainichi Korean plaintiff, the Tokyo District Court ruled that a denial of membership on the grounds of nationality was unconstitutional under Article 14—all people are equal under the law. The Tokyo court also previously dismissed some other bits of the Aigi decision—ruling that golf is a leisure activity and thus a necessary place to socialize. It also noted that, since golf memberships can be purchased on the market, they aren’t really all that exclusive.
Unfortunately, a separate lawsuit in 2001 by another Zainichi Korean against a golf course ruled against him, affirming the primacy of private corporations to choose their members, even if that includes excluding foreigners.
This brings us to the second big issue: the plaintiff in the Aigi case was not a foreigner.
What’s even the point of naturalizing and taking Japanese nationality if the legal status conveyed offers no equal protections?
We’ve already seen this occur within the Japan Sumo Association, which also limits the number of foreign wrestlers in sumo stables. Even if they become Japanese citizens, they are still counted as “foreigners.” Nobody has yet challenged this practice as unconstitutional.
The plaintiff in the Aigi Country Club Case effectively did challenge it, and yet the Aigi judges accepted the argument that Japanese citizens with foreign roots are not equally protected under the law. They will forever remain “Japanese” with an asterisk.
Open Season on Foreign Roots
If the Mie ruling stands, there will be nothing preventing–at least at the formal legal level–almost any private enterprise from putting up a “Members Only” sign and enforcing “nationality clauses.” Many institutions could conceivably argue for keeping memberships exclusive in order to “preserve the atmosphere” at their venues.
It’s not even unprecedented. During the 2002 World Cup, coordinated “Members Only” signs went up on restaurants and bars throughout Sapporo’s party district; other “Members Only” places like public bathhouses can be found on the Debito.org Rogues’ Gallery of “Japanese Only” Exclusionary Establishments. What’s next? Sports clubs? Hotels? Hospitals? Schools? In fact, all of these kinds of institutions have been found to possess formal and informal “Japanese Only” rules.
Thanks to the Aigi Country Club case, bigots are being offered stronger legal grounds to maintain and extend discrimination.
Naturally, this means that not only first generation immigrants, but also those born in Japan may discover that they are not equal under the law.
With all of Japan’s international marriages, there are hundreds of thousands of Japanese children with a foreign parent or relative. The ruling of Aigi Country Club case means that if some children “look foreign” and due to their presence the “atmosphere slightly changes,” then they can be excluded by organizations because it is “socially acceptable” to do so.
Of course, it is remarkably easy in many cases to spot any mudblood whose kin or relative has a katakana or odd kanji name. Through this ruling, children can be regarded as biologically radioactive and refusable. Citizenship will not protect them.
The Signposts Along the Way
Finally, let’s put things in a larger context. This decision is actually part of a broader trend eroding all civil protections for “foreigners” (however defined) within the Japanese judiciary.
Consider this arc of precedents:
1) The Ana Bortz case of 1998-1999 found that foreigners in Japan were protected by the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) against being turned away by private enterprises open to the public (in this case a jewelry store). The court awarded Bortz ¥2 million.
2) The Otaru Hot Springs case of 1993-2005 found that two foreigners and one naturalized Japanese citizen (yours truly) were not allowed to be turned away from a private enterprise (in this case a public bathhouse). The courts eventually whittled the award down to ¥1 million yen each. However, the courts undermined the Bortz Case by ruling that, a) the CERD offered no actual protection against racial discrimination—it was merely a guideline without the force of law; and, b) racial discrimination did happen, but that was not necessarily illegal. Discrimination only becomes illegal when it goes “beyond socially acceptable limits.” Sound familiar? To cap things off, the Supreme Court also summarily dismissed the case as involving no constitutional protections—not even Article 14, which also explicitly forbids racial discrimination.
3) The Steve McGowan case of 2004-2006 undermined the Bortz and Otaru precedents further, finding no protection for his denial by a private enterprise (an eyeglass store). Instead, the ruling found that any discrimination that occurred was essentially due to a misunderstanding. McGowan, as a non-native speaker, allegedly didn’t understand enough Japanese to portray his case correctly. This ruling was handed down in spite of the fact that the defendant was caught on tape explicitly saying that he refused McGowan because he “hates black people.” The initial ruling was overturned on appeal, but McGowan’s court award was also whittled down to only ¥350,000, insufficient even to cover his legal fees.
4) The Aigi County Club case potentially drops rights down to near zero. It finds that: a) there are no inherent protections for foreigners; b) even if they have Japanese citizenship; c) and even if everyone admits that the discrimination was nationality or ethnicity-based. It’s not a legal problem to discriminate because golf clubs are designed to be exclusive, by whatever standards they choose to employ. This is “socially acceptable” and thus legally permissible.
I hope I’m not the first one telling you this, but Japan has no national law against racial discrimination, despite treaty promises back in 1995 to pass one “without delay” when it ratified the CERD.
At a UN hearing in 2000, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially claimed that “the Constitution of Japan stipulates not only guarantee of being equal as Japanese nationals under the law but also guarantee of equality of all rights as Japanese nationals. Therefore, there is no discrimination at all for civil, political, economic, and cultural rights under the legal system.”
The Aigi County Club case demonstrates openly that this was a lie.
The case is on appeal. I hope the plaintiff prevails.
(UPDATE: He does. Read the comments to this blog entry.)
The website archiving and substantiating all of the claims above is at
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