Korea Times: Naturalized Korean decries refusal of entry to sauna, parallels with Otaru Onsens Case


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Hi Blog.  I’ve been to South Korea a few times, and always thought it felt like I was visiting Japan in a different dimension.  No more so than right now.

According to the Korea Times article below, we have a naturalized citizen getting turned away from a bathhouse.  The management justifies it by saying that she, as a foreigner by appearance, is dirty or contagious.  She calls the police, but it turns out there is no domestic law to prevent this from happening.  The excluded person then claims racial discrimination, takes it up with the authorities, and we currently are at the point of seeing whether anything official will happen to stop this.

Reminds me, of course, of the Otaru Onsens Case (1993-2005, my friends and I getting involved from 1999) in Japan.  There we had exclusionary onsens in Otaru with signs up refusing all foreigners, refusing entry to not only foreign-looking people, but ultimately foreign-looking Japanese.  We also take it up with the authorities, only to have them tell us there’s nothing they can do — Japan has no domestic law against racial discrimination.  In Japan’s case, however, their MOJ’s Bureau of Human Rights not only tells us they have no enforcement power to stop this, but also interferes with the advancement of human rights — to the point of advising the Otaru City Government in writing (see my book JAPANESE ONLY, English version, pg. 347) that Otaru authorities legally need to do nothing to resolve the situation.  Whether or not the Korean bureaucracy will be this negligent remains to be seen, so let’s keep an eye on this case.  The parallels are that striking.  Arudou Debito


The Korea Times 10-13-2011 20:03, courtesy of NNH

Naturalized Korean decries refusal of entry to sauna 

Courtesy http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/10/117_96613.html

Ku Su-jin, an Uzbek native who was naturalized in Korea, shows her passport indicating Korean nationality during a media briefing at Gyeongnam Migrant Community Service Center in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, Thursday. Ku said she was prohibited from using a sauna in a case of racial discrimination. / Yonhap

Lack of law against racial discrimination leaves foreigners vulnerable

By Kim Rahn

An ethnic Uzbekistan woman has filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission after she was denied entrance to a sauna here.

A sauna employee refused to admit to the woman, a naturalized Korean, saying she was still a “foreigner” by appearance and foreign users may “make water in bathtub dirty” and “pass on AIDS.”

Such an action was possible because there is no law on discrimination by race, according to a support center for immigrants.

“Many foreigners face such discrimination often but mostly they remain silent because they don’t speak Korean well and don’t know where they can appeal,” said Ku Su-jin, whose Uzbek name is Karina Kurbanova.

Assisted by a civic group, she held a media briefing at Gyeongnam Migrant Community Service Center in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, Thursday.

“I’m filing the petition on behalf of other foreigners and especially our children including my seven-year-old boy, as I don’t want him to be discriminated against because of physically appearing different to Koreans,” she said.

Ku visited a sauna in Busan at around 3 p.m. on Sept. 25. But the employee denied her entry, saying foreigners are prohibited.

She reported this immediately to the police.

“The sauna worker told police that foreigners are not allowed there because they may make the water dirty. He also said Koreans customers don’t like using the facility with foreigners because in the town there are many foreign women working at bars and there were rumors that some have AIDS,” she said.

Ku is legally a Korean as she obtained citizenship in 2009 after marrying a Korean man. She told this to the owner, but he said she was a foreigner by appearance.

Police officers said there is no law to regulate such racist discrimination, advising her to go to another sauna, she said.

Officials at the center, who are supporting Ku’s petition, said the owner took advantage of a legal loophole regarding discrimination.

“There are laws banning discrimination by gender or by worker’s status. But there is none governing discrimination by race, not only do Koreans discriminate against foreigners but also Koreans discriminate against other Koreans like in Ku’s case,” a director of the center said.

The director said if the rights commission recommends the sauna to change, the group will help Ku file a civil suit against the sauna owner for the mental distress she sustained.

She said what Ku and the center ultimately call for is the establishment of a law banning discrimination by race, against both foreigners and naturalized Koreans.

“In these modern times when 1.3 million immigrants live here, it is shameful that they have their human rights infringed upon and are deprived of many entitled rights in daily life only because they look different or they came from other countries. Korea claims to stand for multiculturalism, but is far short of laws and systems for immigrants,” the director said.


8 comments on “Korea Times: Naturalized Korean decries refusal of entry to sauna, parallels with Otaru Onsens Case

  • Been to Korea a couple dozen times, have to admit they only let me in where the guys with big dragon tattoos can go. However in Pusan (I still call it that because I been there before the P~B thingy), there is an bathing/resting place near the bus main terminal, they checked my passport to see if I was Russian or not (so they said to me). However they greeted me openly when they saw the Japanese visa in my passport.

    Just last year I was in Pusan, casino this time (only non-Koreans can play in the casino) again asking if I was Russian when I sat down for a little blackjack. Pusan and Otaru are both port cities, not sure if this has anything to do with the story I am trying to tell. But I have at least couple dozen great stories about Korea for every-time I went, including leaving my wallet in a Seoul taxi with 50,000 yen, taxi drove up and down Itaewon for 1 hour looking for me to return it… speaking to the Yamamoto (don’t remember their Korean name) couple in their 80s running a wheely yakitori cart who never returned to Japan after the war. Korea is a great country and I would live there tomorrow if given the chance, however things move fast for some people and it takes time to catch-up to the globalization, I hope this turns out for the best for Ku, just raise awareness and let people think what’s going on.

    I am sure Ku is not the first person to be turned away, but the first to stand her ground. I am proud of her, just like the other person(s) who did the same in Otaru.


  • Loverilakkuma says:

    It’s not very surprising to me. South Korea is similar to Japan in many aspects of culture and society. I guess the Korean Times is equivalent to local version of the Japan Times. Does that mean the incident has been reported by other news media in local language, too? I wonder how Zainichi Koreans would respond if they got the news.

  • I had a Korean guide, a tout who worked out of the Sejong Hotel in Seoul. Even with him taking me around, couple of places refused us.

    Its partly anti-Caucasian, so I bullsh*tted him that I was ethnically part Japanese and we conversed in Japanese only, then he managed to get me into a couple of places that were allowing in Japanese, but not Caucasians, apparently.

    This was in 2004, and again in 2006.

  • It shows that, notwithstanding their painful shared history, Japan and Korea do indeed have a common set of values regarding xenophobia.

  • Mattholomew III, Esquire says:

    I spent eight months in Korea, traveling from Seoul all the way to Jeju, sleeping in bathhouses quite often, and was never once refused service. I don’t doubt that it happened, but it certainly isn’t normal in my experience.

    — Same thing was said during the Otaru Onsens Case. “Normal” or not does not matter when the fact is that it happens, and if not checked, the practice will spread as copycatting occurs.

  • I wonder if it was a sauna on the edge of Pusan’s Texas district, I think it;s called AquaBally, I’m visibly foreign and I once got turned away from there.

  • Update.

    THE KOREA TIMES 01-17-2012 18:14
    Sauna operator advised not to discriminate against foreign residents

    Ku Su-jin, a naturalized Korean from Uzbekistan, speaks at a news conference in this file photo taken on Oct. 13 in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. Ku said she was denied entrance to a sauna, just because she looked foreign by appearance. / Yonhap
    By Kim Rahn

    A sauna operator in Busan has been recommended to allow the entrance of foreigners.

    The National Human Rights Commission also called for local authorities to set up regulations to prevent discrimination against foreign residents and tourists at such facilities.

    The move comes after an ethnic Uzbek woman filed a petition with the commission in October after she was denied entrance to the sauna.

    The naturalized Korean, Ku Su-jin whose Uzbek name is Karina Kurbanova, told the sauna employee that she was a Korean, but the worker said she was still a “foreigner” by appearance and foreign users “make the water in the bathtub dirty” and “pass on AIDS.”

    According to police, the sauna operator also said Korean customers don’t like using facilities with foreigners because there were many foreign women working at bars in Busan and some were rumored to have AIDS.

    The commission said Korea is one of the countries that has signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the law should reflect this.

    “As an operator of a commercial facility, the sauna operator may have to take the majority of customers’ opinions into consideration. But customers’ demands do not justify racial discrimination,” the commission said.

    “Also, AIDS is passed on through sexual intercourse or blood contamination, not through sharing a sauna. But the operator banned foreigners from using the facility only because some foreign women in the town may have AIDS, and this is discrimination by race,” it added.

    The commission also recommended the Busan mayor and the head of the district office come up with measures to prevent such a thing from recurring.

    It said the state or local authorities should educate the public and take other necessary actions to prevent discrimination against foreign residents and their children.

    “We advised the local authorities to make guidelines so that people in the region will not be discriminated against according to their race or skin color,” an official said.

    “It is regrettable that the nation doesn’t have a law to ban racial discrimination while we have 1.3 million foreign residents. But some local authorities across the country have come up their own ordinances to fight discrimination,” he added.

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