Japan Times Zeit Gist column on Otaru Onsens Case (not by me) (Now UPDATED with comment)


Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan
Hi Blog. Here’s an article that came out in the Japan Times this morning about the Otaru Onsens Case, critical of what happened. I’ll refrain from comment (readers, go first), as I’m in transit. What do you think? Arudou Debito, returning from Iwate
(UPDATE: See my commentary in Comment #32 below)

News photo

Back to the baths: Otaru revisited

Paul de Vries sees worrying precedent for Japan in 2002 landmark court ruling

The Japan Times Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008

The story is familiar to regular readers of Zeit Gist. Debito Arudou, a naturalized Japanese citizen, originally from America, was living in Sapporo, Hokkaido, and had heard of the Yunohana public bath’s policy of denying entry to foreigners. In 1999, media in tow, he decided to put that onsen’s policy to the test. Sure enough, entry was denied, with the accompanying explanation that foreigners often “cause trouble” and, as such, the regulars “dislike sharing the facilities with them.”

The origin of this controversy is the behavior of Russian sailors. The Yunohana “onsen” is located in Otaru, the main port between Japan and the Russian Far East. Otaru attracts over a thousand Russian vessels and more than 25,000 sailors a year on stays of varying lengths. In the mid-1990s, Russian sailors were frequently showing up drunk at the city’s various onsen and jumping into the tubs with soap on their bodies, thus rendering the facilities unusable.

Prior to taking on the Yunohana onsen, Earth Cure, the management company against whom Arudou’s court action was taken, was running one of the city’s other onsen facilities. It had been pushed to the brink of ruin after its regular clientele had been driven away by the behavior of Russian sailors. When that problem reappeared at Yunohana, Earth Cure opted for an uncompromising stance: Anyone who did not immediately appear to be Japanese was turned away at the door.

To give Arudou his due, he didn’t rush to the courts. In accordance with the accepted customs of his adopted Japan, he attempted to reach an accord by working with Otaru city officials, and through consultations with the Yunohana onsen and a couple of other like-minded facilities. These efforts were successful with all but Yunohana, and it was that particular onsen against which Arudou and two other plaintiffs made a claim for ¥6 million for the “mental distress” that the self-inflicted ordeal had put them through. The case was won in November 2002 with a judgment awarding the plaintiffs half of what they had sought.

A responsible individual was barred from a facility to which the general public is entitled to enter upon presentation of an entry fee. His rights were upheld by the courts. The facility was forced to back down. So what’s the problem with that? The problem is that the case was fought and won on the issue of racial discrimination when the policy being employed by the Yunohana onsen could more accurately be described as the racial application of “group accountability.”

Group accountability is a process within which all of the members of a group are punished for the indiscretion of one of that group’s members. It is a process that seeks to take the onus of policing away from law enforcement professionals and place it in the hands of society at large. The upside of group accountability is high levels of public safety and the scarcity of rogue individuals. A downside occurs when the innocent are prejudiced or punished for behavior and deeds they did not commit.

There is nothing particularly Japanese about this process. It is commonly used in the West by parents and in schools, and is most notably employed in the battle against soccer hooliganism. In “adult” Western society, however, group accountability is incompatible with the cherished Western ideal of individual rights. Officially, in the West, group accountability is not to be employed. But is it?

In the West, are people prejudged by the actions of others from the same race, color, neighborhood or region? In the West, are preconceptions based on a history of behavior of others from the same sex or religion? The answer to both of these questions is an emphatic “Yes.” The reality for the West is that it gets the worst of both worlds: Individuals are still prejudged on the basis of group association, yet society does not benefit from the restraining force that peer pressure can provide.

While the most controversial applications of group accountability for foreigners within Japan are those that are based on race, it is a mistake to think that group accountability is not applied by the Japanese with an even hand. Consider, for example, the designation of women-only train carriages.

The women-only carriage initiative was first carried out on certain commuter lines during 2002, but was confined to late-night services. The stated rationale was to provide protection against lewd behavior by drunken male passengers — a rationale against which few could object. The ante was upped in 2005 when the service was extended to morning commuter trains, thus effectively conceding for the first time that “chikan” (gropers) and not alcohol was the primary cause of the problem.

In the weeks after the women-only carriages were introduced on morning services, there was a certain amount of guttural male rumbling, yet the measure has been widely accepted. This is clear proof that the Japanese are not above applying group-based discrimination within their own ranks.

It is also quite notable that the foreign male population of Japan does not appear to be particularly upset about being excluded from these train carriages. There has been no mention of any discontent in columns such as Zeit Gist, not a single word from Debito Arudou, and the silence in Readers in Council from non-Japanese has been deafening.

A subject on which the foreign (but most vociferously, Western) population did manage to find its voice was the regimen of photographic registering and fingerprinting that was introduced in November 2007. Under the justification of countering terrorism, the Japanese government decided to require that visitors to its shores be photographed and have their fingerprints scanned at immigration — a policy with both precedent and reasonable justification in that it was also being carried out by the U.S. and was in the process of being set up in Britain. But what a reaction followed! Online petitions, protests, letter after letter to The Japan Times, U.N.-sponsored seminars. It was unbelievable!

Women-only train carriages and fingerprinting/photographing are both applications of group accountability. On both of these issues, a section of society (men and foreigners) is being asked to undergo a measure of inconvenience in order to counter a threat that comes from within their ranks (chikan and al-Qaida). The attitude of the Japanese toward these two issues is consistent. The attitude of the Western population is not. The Western population of Japan clearly draws a distinction between racial and nonracial applications of group accountability. Or perhaps more accurately, between applications that are primarily directed toward Westerners and those that are not.

The use of group accountability as an instrument of social control in Japan has not historically been racial in application.

It became an accepted societal tool during a time when this nation was — for all practical purposes — a mono-racial society. It has therefore been traditionally applied on a basis of criteria other than race.

This contrasts sharply with the history of group-based discrimination in Arudou’s America. “White America” has always been racial to the core, with “the other” always being a member of another race (the same being largely true for Australia, New Zealand, Canada or any of the other landmasses that “whites” succeeded in colonizing). As such, group accountability is a far touchier subject in the West than it is in Japan and much of Asia.

But surely that’s the West’s problem. Why should the social benefits of group accountability be denied to the Japanese simply because of the history of entrenched Western racism, especially given that the Japanese employ it with an even hand? The concept enjoys a broad level of acceptance within Asia as a whole, and the majority of non-Japanese residing on Japanese shores are Asian nationals. It makes little sense for the Western attitude to prevail.

It is more than appropriate that Debito Arudou ultimately got to take his bath at the Yunohana facility, but the ruling that was handed down was misguided. In truth, the case should not have even gone to court. At a pre-trial hearing the judge should have addressed Earth Cure with something like the following:

“Look, I understand your concerns. You have clearly suffered from the behavior of Russian customers, and as you were driven out of business at a former facility, it is not unnatural that you are the final remaining holdout. But enough is enough! Considerable efforts have been made in good faith to resolve this problem at a multitude of levels. It is time for you to give some ground.”

And if that didn’t work, the judge should have either asked Arudou to come to him with something other than a racial discrimination claim, or have issued a judgment that addressed the issue of group accountability directly. But that was not to be. The judgment that was made placed negligible weight on the preamble to the claim, thereby laying the legal groundwork for the demise of group accountability as a social conditioner within Japan.

Debito Arudou has embraced the precedent set in the Yunohana onsen case and sought to make the “right of entry” something of an “inalienable human right.” Precedent in hand, he has spent much of the past few years confronting unwelcoming Japanese “businesses” — the vast majority of which no self-respecting person should want to be seen anywhere near. This crusade is essentially geared toward having Japan conform with American (as distinct from Western) standards.

I am no regular rider on the anti-American bandwagon. America is a truly wonderful country with some particularly obvious virtues, but these do not include its level of safety and social cohesion. While the rights of the individual are certainly more strongly upheld in America than in Japan, the presence of rogue individuals within America is disproportionately high. America is unquestionably a more dangerous place than Japan.

And this brings us to the point that Arudou ignores or simply fails to see. Group accountability is not employed in Japan simply for the sake of pushing people around. It is employed for the purpose of making Japan cohesive and safe. It is a major reason why Japan, unlike the U.S., is a nation in which the fear of random violence is relatively low. If Arudou succeeds in his quest, Japan will become one more nation in which the individual is to be feared. That is an outrageously high price to pay for the occasional racial, national, generational or gender-driven slight.

Paul de Vries is putting the finishing touches to a book about what the world can learn from Japan. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp

33 comments on “Japan Times Zeit Gist column on Otaru Onsens Case (not by me) (Now UPDATED with comment)

  • Kakui Kujira says:

    Calling racial discrimination ‘group accountability’ doesn’t make it right. It is wrong to discriminate against anyone for the group they belong to. Nothing in the above article convinces me otherwise.

  • According to the logic of the writer of this article, the United States would be a safer place like Japan if they only practiced group accountability such as allowing people to ban African-Americans or Latinos from certain places such as malls and stores. Brilliant.

  • Paul de Vries seems uninformed about the rich and nuanced jurisprudence that has evolved in America with respect to which personal characteristics can serve as the basis for discriminatory laws and policies, and under which circumstances.

    In a nutshell, American constitutional law is much more tolerant of gender-based discriminatory policies than it is of race-based discriminatory policies. This distinction is in recognition of the fact that while there are biological differences between men and women that sometimes make specific gender-based policies sensible, there are no comparable distinctions between races that necessitate everyday laws privileging one race over another. And it probably explains why there was no mass outrage among Western (and certainly American) expats over Japan’s adoption of women-only train cars.

  • The article refers to other countries, or to vaguely “western” standards, as either examples to follow (fingerprinting of foreigners at the border) or as examples not to follow (enforecement of individual rights). This is quite simply cherrypicking the data and creates a muddle of an argument. Which is it to be? Which culture presents the best model Mr. de Vries?

    The answer, of course, is to look beyond countries/cultures. The answer lies in asking fundamental questions such as: Is it wrong to refuse service to a customer because of the color of their skin? If you say no, then you stand on one side of the fence, and live with the consequences. If you say yes, then you stand on the other and deal with a different set of consequences.

    Lumping in the separate train carriages issue here was odd. No, we didn’t complain about it because it’s a public safety issue. It’s also a measure that is applied evenly across the board, without making distinctions between race or nationality. We can talk about gender inequality in Japan Mr. de Vries, if you like, but I think if we dive into that pool, your arguments about the “benefits of group acountability” are going to take somewhat of a beating.

    More thoughts later.

  • Having a tattoo may effectively mean being barred from obtaining a health club membership. Designed not to foil gaijin but to avoid potential trouble with gangsters, it means that I omitted the truth on my application and that I may never be able to use the pool or the showers for fear of being ousted from my local gym. Blond-haired, blue-eyed yakuza? No. Tattooed undesirable? That’s me. It is discriminating but even I would not desire to be confronted by the local mob (or at least certain elements of it) every time I went to work out so I can sympathize with the position the clubs find themselves in. That being said, I’d like to be able to freely use my expensive gym membership to its fullest without fear of repercussions. I’m not quite sure how I became accountable for the group of chimpira, leg-breakers, and toughs that might otherwise wish to join an aerobics class or two though.

  • I must say that Paul De Vries has put up a distinct thought on Group Accountability as a probable reason behind a typical Japanese behavior, what most NJ think as xenophobia. His examples of Ladies-Only Train-Coaches versus finger-printing case, was another good thought for him to prove his point.

    Still, this does not mean that activists like Debito should stop their work and stop to Stand-Up against something (certain virtues) which either the Japanese do not know or even if they know, they willingly try to overpower under Group Mentality or so called Ghetto-Behavior.

    I would like to ask how does the “Group Accountability” apply to following cases of discrimination the NJ face in Japan and what Paul would like to say about these ?
    1. Japanese people seldom sit next to NJ people on train despite vacant seats are there in a fully packed train.
    2. Japanese children bully NJ children in schools and that is why most dont go to schools, those who cant afford high cost of international schools where such bullying does not happen, have to leave the country and go home.
    3. Japanese house owners simply refuse to let out places to NJ.
    4. Japanese only, says tacit ADs for jobs in Japan. Tacit, I use, as even if you apply, you are seldom short-listed.
    5. Banks have been given guidelines NOT to allow NJ to open a bank account till they complete 180 days of work-visa in a stretch. They are forced to keep cash at homes, in another words.

    If all the above examples are not xenophobic and can be viewed by Paul’s theory, it simply means all NJ, including Paul, to better stay in home country and NEVER enter Japan. (There can be 100 more examples like these).

    If Debito has done his efforts, he can not simply be labeled as one mistaken American who wants to destroy Japan. I know many Japanese think of him like that, but again perhaps, its group accountability to which Paul should not belong. Reason why, he has to undergo some problem somewhere…! If he has not, he is one Damn too lucky NJ !

  • “Group accountability is … a major reason why Japan, unlike the U.S., is a nation in which the fear of random violence is relatively low.”

    Post hoc ergo propter hoc
    The author hasn’t demonstrated any causal link between public safety and “group accountability”. In fact, Japan is probably about as “safe” from violence as any other western country that doesn’t have a marked gun culture. And “safety” is a multi-faceted notion in itself. If we’re talking about the chances of getting randomly assaulted on the street, yes Japan may be considered relatively safe, but if we are talking about safetly from being exploited, Japan is not so safe.

    “In truth, the case should not have even gone to court. At a pre-trial hearing the judge should have addressed Earth Cure with something like the following:”

    You rail against persons such as Debito who “crusade … toward having Japan conform with American … standards” but have no problem with telling a Japanese court how they should have handled the case. Why do so many westerners who admonish Japanese for not staying true to their Japanese cultural ideals, always fail to see the irony in what they are doing? In the end, they’re just as bossy as the westerners who tell Japan to be more western.

  • The problem is that the case was fought and won on the issue of racial discrimination when the policy being employed by the Yunohana onsen could more accurately be described as the racial application of “group accountability.”

    What a bunch of BS! How is Mr. de Vries suppose to be privy to the private mind of the individual who made this decision. Oh, I get it, the man that instituted the policy of no foreingers was … get this … Japanese. And … get this … Mr. de Vries understands them nihonjin. Heck, he’s probably a specialist about them nihonjin. Phew, get Mr. De Vries in a bar, and boy what he’ll tell you about them nihonjin. He knows all about them. He’s even going to right a book about them.

    I mean can we call a spade, a spade. What do we call a person who presumes to know all about another person just because of their ethnicity. Do we have a name for that?

    Foul ball! Take this man off the field. He reeks.

    Of course, being probably fairly liberal, Mr. de Vries is probably shocked, just shocked, I tell you, at any possible insinuation.

  • He (intentionally) glosses over the whole important, “racism” part of this: like the hot springs keeping Debito out because he ISN’T Japanese, or Japanese businesses keeping out non-ethnic Japanese (“the vast majority of which no self-respecting person should want to be seen anywhere near.” = we shouldn’t be worrying about it). What do you do when a long-term resident and/or legal Japanese citizen is denied a basic right or service because of his race AND you’ve tried the “Japanese way” of quiet negotiations and that’s failed? It (his piece) is disturbingly apologetic for racism.

    I think I would actually respect the writer more–though still disagree with him–if he actually came out and said, “Look, my strategy may permit racism to exist in Japan or actually increase it as more Japanese people will simply think nothing is wrong as non-ethnic Japanese remain silent, but at least it will help keep the societal cohesion we have that much of the West and America don’t.” Instead he glosses over the elements of racism to help drive his point home, which simply comes off as conspiratorial and creepy.

  • Mr. Paul de Vries,
    While I may agree with what you say about the “West” and “America”,
    your article talks too much of “GROUP ACCOUNTABILITY”…..it sounds too much
    detached, and in my opinion, it is detached from reality and common sense.
    It sounds like something written by a “professor” on a sociology matter, cold and
    scientific…. You are talking about people and feelings here not aabout “data”.

    It is much simpler than how you put it, I think:
    going in the next train carriage because one is reserved to women doesn’t hurt
    anybody feelings,
    go to a public space (restaurant, onsen, whatever), for example with your family, with your children
    and be denied entry because you are an “alien”, well that hurts feelings.
    Not only mine, believe me, even yours (???).
    You compare apples and potatoes……….yes they are both fruits, wait no….

    the West may be bad BUT at least we have LAWS that are upheld, not just laws on paper,
    and I’m proud for that.
    I often read on the foreign newspapers about people being arrested, judged because they
    discriminated against other people (sex, race etc.)…..
    Here ? Almost ZERO ? Discrimination = ok.

    Bravo Arudou, sometimes I may disagree on something but you do a good job.

    There is a price to pay for everything but I prefer to live in a country that respects
    the individual, be that a woman, an elder, a foreigner, a disable….even a dog.

  • im surprised this ridiculous nonsense was published in a respectable newspaper.
    this article is so offensive i dont know where to begin.its just idiotic-debito is a member of the same group as russian sailors?????
    he or anyone have nothing to do with russian sailors and should not be punished for their actions.
    to suggest that i and my family are a threat to the japanese when we go to the onsen leaves me flabbergasted.who is this joker?hes comparing me to a member of al quaeda?

    is he really saying its ok for the japanese to be racist because they have been a mono cultural society for so long?(which is not the case anyway).
    he goes on about racism in the west-so its ok to treat other races discriminately when they come to the west then?i think youll find the so-called consistent attitude of the japanese changing when they are confronted with this so-called group accountability.
    the systematic racism pervasive in japanese society has been summed up as an occasional racial slight .
    next time you get rejected from somewhere,cantget someone to show you an apartment,etc.etc.
    remember that its for the good of the group(which you can never be part of).

    how did this crap get published?

  • sorry i missed this bit-there havent been any foreigners in japan so therefore japanese cant be racist.
    go figure..

    from what i can understand then this guy belives that the hansens disease sufferers should have just sucked it up as well.get it up you as well burakumin.
    or is that different cos theyre not from the evil west???
    he seems also to be suggesting that cos they are asian the zainichi enjoy and understand the discriminatory treatment they are subjected to.
    again,how did this stuff get published??if a japanese had written this -this would not have been allowed in print.shame on you japan times.

  • Hi Debito:

    My synopsis of the article is that the author believes that the price of using group accountability based on discriminators (i.e. race, nationality, age, gender, etc) is worth paying since it makes Japan cohesive and safe, even if it comes at the expense of an “occasional racial, national, generational or gender-driven slight.”

    That being said, my view (which is strongly influenced by Benjamin Franklin) is that if the author is willing to give up his rights (as listed in Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution) in order to obtain cohesion and safety, he deserves neither his rights nor cohesion nor safety.


  • One student cheated on the exam, and the teacher can’t pinpoint the identity of the cheater. Hence, the teacher decided to panelize everyone on the class, unless the cheaters surrendered himself. Now everyone is panicky. In response, each draws up a list of possible cheaters, which then subsequently reported to the teacher. The teacher summed the number up and compiled a list of most possible cheaters. With this list, the number one on the list is punished on the ground that you are likely to be a cheater than anyone else, despite NO EVIDENCE is present.

  • The problem with PdV’s argument is that he fears the effects of banning all “group accountability” — which is certainly valid in limited situations — without fearing the effects of letting heavy-handed discrimination run unchecked, an equally frightening scenario (as the imperialists, Nazis and Stalinists have so graphically taught us over the years).

    No matter. He’s going to get a lot of attention by writing this, which might help him sell his book.

  • The author presents a barrel and fills it with fish.

    1. Drunk Russian sailors causing trouble yielding a no non-Asian gaijin-origin policy [that’s what it was, as Chinese were permitted, while white Japanese citizens were not]
    If it were true “group accountability” the policy should either ban only Russian sailors, or ban all men of any race. But the onsen chooses to only ban non-Asians. Racism plain and simple. BLAM! one dead fish.

    2. Women-only carriages? Uh, sorry but men are still allowed to ride the train. Apples and oranges. If men were banned from all trains, you could compare this to the onsen case. BLAM! two dead fish.

    3. Fingerprinting. Sorry again. If Japan went back to the Edo period rules and just banned all agijin from entering the country, you could compare this to banning hakujin from an onsen. BLAM! Three dead fish.

    4. You know you’ve been in Japan too long when you think courts should not enforce constitutional rights, nor laws be made, nor enforced, to guarantee basic human rights, prefering rather, that things be setteld quietly between parties, and if the side in power or majority refuses to budge, then the smaller/weaker party should just give up, as the group “wa” trumps any and all individual rights, even the when those rights encompass millions of individuals, whose “wa” has very much been disturbed. But then, gaijin can’t possibly understand true harmony. 😉 Japan is special.

    Way too long.

  • “Japanese people seldom sit next to NJ people on train despite vacant seats are there in a fully packed train.”

    I wish — and nothing against Japanese people, I just like to stretch out a bit.

    But, no, as my morning commutes have proven, it is rather that Japanese people frequently sit next to non-Japanese people on trains, even when they have the option of sitting next to other Japanese folks instead.

    I see many here simply roiling at the notion, proposed by Mr de Vries, that perhaps racial animosity was not the inspiration for the barring of foreigners, excuse me, “NJ people” from the onsen. Mr de Vries in fact agreed that Yunohana was wrong to bar gaikokojin, I mean “NJ people” from the premises. Looks to me like the author just had enough of the simultaneously overheated and half-baked claims of cries bigotry that I have long ago learned to pretend I didn’t hear (like the enduring but ridiculous train seat canard, that reliable bit of gaijin, oops, “NJ-people” urban mythology).

    I did get a kick out of his reference to “unwelcoming Japanese ‘businesses’ — the vast majority of which no self-respecting person should want to be seen anywhere near,” presumably meaning soaplands, “ladies bars,” and the like. My only experience of direct “racial discrimination” by any retail outlet in Japan, that I noticed anyhow, occurred on my first night in the country, when i was vigorously blocked in my unwitting approach toward some silly strumpet den in the dreary little red-light district near Gotanda station by some pipsqueak wearing a cheap suit, arms forming the famous brittle “X” across his chest.

  • I’m very surprised that this was published; It’s simply incoherent. I found myself wondering if this was a left over from the April Fool’s Day issue or if there was some sort of piss take going on.

  • Author makes an interesting point relating group accountability to public safety in the country. But the first thing that came to mind while I compared author’s stance and examples to my own feelings about discrimination is the extent to which group accountability is enforced and the grounds it’s based upon.

    Barring men entry to certain train carriages is reasonable, because (1) gropers were men, and it is hard to narrow this characteristic down, and even you do–e.g. to middle-aged men–you can’t possible enforce age check at the carriage entrance; and (2) men can board any other carriage, at no extra charge or anything.

    Yunohana’s approach was unreasonable in its extent, because if their problem was drunk Russian sailors, how come they excluded all foreigners? How come NJ-looking women and children are lumped into the same group? How about men who aren’t drunk and aren’t sailors?

    Fingerprinting foreigners is unreasonable in both extent and lack of ground, because (1) there was no cases of foreign terrorism in Japan, therefore no reason to enforce any “accountability”, and (2) dump the whole world, including permanent residents of Japan, about whom GOJ knows everything they need, into the al-Quaeda likes’ group is clearly an overkill.

    So the concept advocated by the author may be a useful instrument, but it is not a panacea. It can and will take nasty shapes if not adequately limited it its usage.

  • Charles Laing says:

    How big does a ‘group’ have to be for ‘group accountability’ and who decides? ‘Foreign’ or ‘white’ is surely too big a group. I can’t be ‘accountable’ for drunk white Russian sailors because only one of those categories (occasionally two) applies to me.
    Any sensible Onsen would have just banned Russians. Or drunk people. Or sailors. Or white drunk people. Or white sailors. Or loud whites. Or whites in groups…I’m starting to see a problem here, says the Onsen owner – let’s just ban all foreign-looking types.

    — And of course, that meant banning Japanese who looked foreign, and I’m not only referring to myself…

  • What I honestly think about this? Wapanese syndrome. He was affected by it.

    Debito, you could also share with us what you think about his article. Not that you must share, but it would be interesting (you get my point).

    — I do. The reason I haven’t so far is because it’s a case of, “There are so many things wrong in this piece, where do I even begin…?” Plus I’ve been Iwate for several days, no time really to sit down and compose.

  • I just submitted this to the ‘letter to the editor’ at the Japan Times. Wait and see if it will get published. Before writing, I didn’t read any of the other comments, so some of the arguments come up again. I like especially that so many of you criticize the ‘group accountability’ blunder.

    Discrimination is hotly debated. There are so many seemingly good arguments to justify it, if one wants to.
    But I am afraid that Mr. de Vries has not done his homework. Furthermore he is comparing apples with oranges in order to find arguments.

    1. He does not show the whole picture when claiming that ‘visitors’ have to give their fingerprints when entering Japan. Not only visitors, but also decade-long residents, like me. I have been through a thorough screening process before I got my permanent residency. Out of the sudden, I am a terrorist suspect. (If the Japanese government is really serious about catching terrorists, they should start fingerprinting their own nationals, since all terrorist attacks in this country’s recent past have been done by Japanese.)
    He is wrong in that the plaintiffs had an American background. One of them is German. I am he.

    2. Labeling women-only cars as acceptable discrimination, and trying to justify xenophobic actions cannot be compared. Molesting women is a crime. Relating the number of available police officers to the number of trains and commuters, one must see that it is impossible to protect all women from becoming crime victims in packed mixed train cars. The vulnerable need to be protected, and thus roughly half of the commuters need to be slightly inconvenienced, if at all. It is not that men are punished by being refused to board trains!
    In the onsen issue, there is no crime involved. Second, the police are in close proximity and can always be called in case there is. Third, groupers know that they commit a crime, but unruly bathers just don’t know the customs. They need to be told, not banned.

    But de Vries’ biggest blunder is the ‘group accountability’ as a reason for discrimination. As I wrote before, trains and bathes cannot be compared. Also, fingerprinting is not a punishment per se (even though it has it’s risks, for example when data is leaked or misused by government, leading to unjustified punishment), but denying service is punishment. So in this context, group accountability looks more like ‘Sippenhaft’ to me (this German can be translated as ‘kin liability’, or ‘kin imprisonment’). People of a group are punished for what other members did. There is a good reason that this is banned by the Geneva Convention in war situations. Too many atrocities have been committed and too many people have suffered under totalitarian regimes. I have heard in school more than once that this is a bud that cannot be nipped too soon. Modern civil code deleted this mediaeval concept of ‘revenge’ and ‘paying off a dept’. Even in the pretense of preventing crime it is questionable (see Tokyo governor Ishihara’s idea to arrest all foreigners in Tokyo after a big earthquake).
    And even though Mr. de Vries may find arguments to hold his concept up, he cannot explain why a Japanese-speaking German university professor with a Japanese wife and kids should be grouped together with Russian sailors.
    Our spheres of influence do not overlap; we have nothing in common but the color of our faces. And with this, the onsen refusal stays what it is: racism.

  • Group accountability is an excellent concept.
    Everywhere such concept is used it promotes a higher level of safety.
    But how do we choose it’s members?

    If we choose the member of this group based upon the respect, and how much they are known in the society, it can only lead to a safer society, and everyone can be a member of it.

    If we choose upon the individual’s somatic features and the place of birth, thinking that these are the qualifications for safety, this is called “racism”

    Don’t you think?

    In short, nice article, but… shortsighted.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    The idea of “group accountability” is nonsense when one of the “groups” consists of over 98% of all the people in the world, and all of the variety that that contains.

    You might as well excuse all the murderers who, seeing themselves as having been wronged by the world, grab a knife or get in a truck and set out to kill whomever they come across. These self-centered misanthropes classify the world into two groups, “Me” and “Not Me”, and since a member of “Not Me” once did wrong to “Me”, group accountablity permits retribution against other members of “Not Me”.

  • I have to agree that the way the “group accountability” concept was just thrown out there, as if it were a living, breathing, thing, applicable to Japan, and the cause of all joy, kind of made me pause. This is newby-‘discovers’-Japan type territory.

    Unfortunately he gave no real-life examples of the concept, so we don’t have any concrete examples to shoot down. All we can do is just speculate on what he might mean. It’s not very interesting.

    On the other hand, some of his other statements, and terminology, like “Asian Nationals” are downright inflamatory. Has JT started trolling?

    Like others have said, there is so much wrong, it’s hard to know where to start.

    I searched around a bit for this guy’s credentials, but didn’t find much other than a possible facebook hit. Is this guy for real?

    — I did the same. Aside from the sparse facebook profile, all I could find was a letter to the JT (talking about airline fuel surcharges being a contributor to Japan’s falling birthrate) and something about a professional ski bum. When you get someone taking on an issue this fundamental, even bringing attention to an upcoming book, it’d be nice to know more about him.

  • obviously the article is complete nonsense though very offensive nonsense.
    what im more interested in why was this published?
    im presuming that there must be people at japan times who agree with this guys views thus allowing it to be published.obviously a japanese couldnt put such inflammatory,racist comments in print so someone has got a foreigner to do it.
    if this guy is a complete unknown,then why is he afforded an article?

    what is the JT agenda in this?

    — I don’t think there is one. The disclaimer has always been that opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the view of the JT. If anything, it’s to stimulate discussion. That it has, indeed.

  • Yet another article banging on about “the West”, “westerners”
    and so-called “western values”. Seriously, WTF does “the West” mean ?
    Or is it just convenient shorthand for “everyone else” and
    therefore lumping hundreds of millions of people together
    who have nothing in common ?

    This is the reason why I stopped reading the Japan Times.

    By the way, was the “western population” of Japan really more
    vociferous in complaining about airport fingerprinting ? I can
    remember many other people weren’t best pleased.

  • ok debito maybe JT doesnt have an agenda but why does
    this self styled ski bum someone who doesnt seem to live in japan most of the time has an article pontificating about racism being acceptable group accountability?

    — Er, because he has a keyboard…?

  • AdamW — read the article a little more carefully. The author makes no claim that “racism is acceptable group accountability.”

    Maybe it’s tough… to catch (maybe the whole “subtlety” thing [doesn’t work]), but he essentially sides with Arudou while making a (wrong-headed in my view) argument that “racial discrimination” and “racial application group accountability” are two different things. They are obviously not. The one point I took away from the piece is that this racial discrimination was quite possibly just a ham-fisted and inept reaction to a business problem, and not inspired by any racial animosity or racism. But to me it doesn’t matter, racial discrimination is still what occurred.

    But the reaction here has been nothing short of clownish, with post after post again and again misrepresenting his argument, and slathering more than a little Jr High level invective over it all.

    Really now — he’s a “newby”? Nope — he’s been in Japan for about as long as Mr Arudou. A “Wapanese”? Hardly the case. [following aspersions snipped]

    — If you have more on who Mr de Vries is (you mention how long he’s been in Japan, for example), please feel free to share it — although it would be helpful if that had been available from the author himself. And please stick to the arguments with fewer aspersions on the commenters, thanks.

  • I go frequently to “onsen” down here in Aichi and once I saw a “Japanese-looking” citizen socking his towel in the bath…
    I was about to leave the place but I looked at him and said ” – Kore wa dame desu”…He looked at me with eyes wide opened and said nothing and DID NOT CHANGE HIS BAD BEHAVIOUR…What is necessary is that Non-Japanese begin POLICING Anti-Japanese behaviour by Japanese-looking folks…If things are about “JAPANESENESS”, things MUST be RADICALLY in lines with “JAPANESENESS”…This is a “GAME” which we, foreigners, should be ready to play along.

    — One argument I’ve made all along is that bad behavior and nationality/culture are unrelated. Rules are rules, and the will to follow them are based upon the individual. But the “group accountability” line is blind to viewing and punishing behavior by the individual, by definition.

  • forrest,

    thanks for your comments but you are right i cannot see the difference between racial discrimination and racial group accountability.you say you cant either so i wonder what your comments are about.
    you need to find out a bit more about the onsen case before commenting in this manner-this was just the tip of the iceberg and not a case in isolation -and to claim that this was just an inept reaction and not at all racially motivated is an incredibly misguided claim to make.
    [snip] the fact that things of this nature have a highly detrimental effect on me and my japanese children now and in the future is why people are reacting in the way they have.

  • Hi Blog. Sorry to keep you waiting. A few opinions in addition to the analysis offered above (thanks to everyone for commenting):

    I’ll start with my conclusion. Look, as Ken said above, this article is basically incoherent. We have a flawed academic theory (which somehow groups people into two rigid ideological categories — 2.5 categories if you slice this into “American standards” as well) regarding social sanction and control, and proceeds on faith that this pseudo-dichotomy actually exists. As evidence, we have citations of women-only train carriages and border fingerprinting — both fundamentally dissimilar in content, origin, and enforcement to the onsens case. And presto, the conclusion is we must maintain this dichotomy (and condemn the Japanese judiciary for chipping away at it) for the sake of Japan’s safety and social cohesion.

    Get it? Sorry, I don’t. That’s why I’m not going to do a paragraph-by-paragraph commentary on what is essentially ideological nonsense.

    But I will mention some glaring errors and omissions in the article:

    1) “Pushed to the brink of ruin… by the behavior of Russian sailors”. Not quite. Earth Cure KK’s original sauna did go bankrupt (shortly after it opened Yunohana in 1998), but it’s not as if the Russian sailors descended on the former. The sauna in fact courted Russian business, and according to sources in Otaru offered information to them at portside. The sauna’s location was, quite simply, bad, being on the higher floor of a bar district, and went bankrupt like plenty of other decrepit bathhouses are around Japan. And as other bathhouses around Otaru noted, “Why did Yunohana [which never let in any foreigners and thus never, despite the claims of the article, suffered any damage] feel so special as to need signs up? We didn’t put up signs and still stayed in business.” Because it’s easier to blame the foreigner for one’s own business problems; as was the fashion for some at the time.

    Proof in hindsight: Now the signs are down, Yunohana as a franchise has profited enough to open three more branches around this part of Hokkaido, so nuts to the idea the company was ever in any danger of going bankrupt due to rampaging NJ. There are simply some people who do not like foreigners in this world, and some of them just happen to be running businesses. That’s why other developed countries have actual laws to stop them, unlike Japan. It had nothing to do with grandiloquent theories like “group accountability”.

    2) This theory assumes the “group” being held accountable has clearly-defined dichotomous borders that are easily enforced. The article neglects to make clear that other members of the “group”, as in Japanese citizens, were also being turned away from places like Yunohana — and I’m not referring only to myself. I’m referring to other Japanese children (and not just one of mine). Hence given the overlap of internationalization, the theory, even if possibly correct, is in practice unenforceable.

    3) And it is moot anyway. There is no mention of international treaty (the ICERD) which Japan effected in 1996, where it promised to enforce standard UN-sanctioned international norms and rules to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. These are not “American” standards, as the article claims. These are world standards that the GOJ has acknowledged as the rules of play in this situation. The end.

    4) The court decisions (there were in fact two, plus a Supreme Court dismissal) in any case does a) admit there was racial discrimination, but b) that RD was not the illegal activity. It was c) “unrational discrimination” based upon the judges’ interpretation of Japanese Civil Law, not the ICERD per se. Thus the standards being applied are in fact Japanese. Read the court documents. Everything is online. And in book form. In two languages.

    There are more errors, but never mind. If the writer were to do a bit more homework about the facts of the case at hand, instead of trying to squash a landmark legal case into his own ideological framework, I think we might have had a more interesting discussion. But working backwards from a conclusion (especially when it’s a dogma) rarely results in good science, alas. Maybe his advertised book will offer something with better analytical power.

    Arudou Debito in Sapporo

  • Today’s JT has my comment on the issue: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/rc20081207a5.html

    Accountability must be narrowed


    Every mountain has more than one slippery slope. While Paul de Vries (“Back to the baths: Otaru revisited”) is concerned with the worrying precedent of Debito Arudou’s onsen lawsuit, de Vries sets an equally worrying precedent by implying that restrictions on “group accountability as a social conditioner” are inherently harmful. Group accountability can be employed fairly when it is narrow and rational.

    If the problem is drunken foreigners unaware of bathing rules, the rational solution is to ban drunks and those unable to follow the rules. It is not to ban people associated with the problem group by virtue of some immutable characteristic like ethnicity. Indeed, Arudou has pressed public businesses to change from a “No Foreigners” policy to a “No Troublemakers,” or even “Must Understand Japanese” policy, and many have happily obliged.

    Even women-only train carriages — a broad solution to a broad problem — have been limited in number and placed at one end of the train so as to cause minimal inconvenience to most male passengers. A man can simply walk a few meters and board the next carriage. It is hard to compare this to one’s exclusion from a public business that has few convenient alternatives.

    The other slippery slope — that of group accountability as an unchecked excuse — has led to some of the greatest atrocities in human history. De Vries and, for that matter, the Japanese government would be well advised to keep this snowball from falling down either slope. Narrow and rational accountability is the only sustainable way to maintain both liberty and security.


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