Japan's Cultural Bias Against Foreigners Comes Under Attack
(amended version)

November 15, 1999
Front Page, Column One


OKYO -- After Ana Bortz arrived from Brazil six years ago, she -- like many foreigners who live here -- grew used to the countless means employed by the Japanese to enforce distinctions between themselves and others.

She endured the bureaucratic devices, like the re-entry permits foreigners need to return to Japan even when they already have a visa, and the fingerprinting that every outsider has to undergo to get a temporary resident's card.

She even became inured to the way Japanese avoid sitting next to foreigners on the subway. Or, worse for her, the almost daily stereotyping of Brazilians as criminals in the local press.

But what Ms. Bortz, 35, a reporter for a Brazilian satellite television network, said she had not been prepared for was being escorted out of a jewelry store in Hamamatsu City, where she lives, because the store's owners, as they stated adamantly, had a policy of refusing people of her nationality.

So, setting off what may one day be looked back upon as the Japanese equivalent of Rosa Parks' defiance of bus segregation in Montgomery, Ala., Ms. Bortz took on the discrimination against foreigners in Japan's courts, and to the surprise of many, including herself, she won.

"This sort of thing is a very big problem in Japan, but its discussion has remained taboo," Ms. Bortz said. "This country has signed international conventions against discrimination but has never wanted to deal with the subject domestically. For a country that talks about getting a chair on the Security Council, these kinds of attitudes are just shocking."

More than the victory of an individual, the Bortz case is already being seen by many foreigners grappling with the legal system here as an invaluable precedent in their antidiscrimination struggle.

In English, Japan's 1946 constitution, written largely by American officials during the military occupation, states that "all of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin."

In the Japanese version, however, all of the people is rendered "kokumin," essentially meaning all Japanese people.

In the absence of Japanese laws covering the treatment of foreigners, the judge in the Bortz case said that the country must abide by its international treaties. In 1996, 31 years after the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted by the United Nations, Japan finally signed it, becoming the 148th country to do so.

"This was an illegal act against an individual," ruled Tetsuro So, a Shizuoka district court judge, who cited Japan's treaty obligation last month in awarding Ms. Bortz $15,000 in damages. "Ejecting the plaintiff from the store merely because she was a Brazilian was unfair." Because the judgment was based on international law, it cannot be appealed under Japanese law.

Ms. Bortz's lawyer, Hideyo Ogawa, said: "Frankly speaking, this case's influence will be very big. Just as I didn't know of the existence of this treaty beforehand, neither did most other lawyers."

The store owner, Takahisa Suzuki, has not been giving interviews. In court he said that he had asked Ms. Bortz to leave because her behavior was "unnatural." He and his wife also said that fears of crime by Brazilians was justified, and hence did not constitute discrimination.

For years many foreigners living in Japan have suffered silently when landlords denied them housing. They have put up with employment contracts that treat them differently from Japanese, and have been turned away from public establishments like bars, restaurants and hot baths with signs in their windows reading "Japanese Only."

But if the Bortz case stands out as the lone breakthrough for now, it comes as a wave of challenges is being brought by foreigners who feel that if they can do nothing about the famous Japanese standoffishness toward outsiders, they can at least insist on equal treatment before the law.

Cynthia Worthington, an American, has been battling what she says is the disparate treatment of Japanese and foreign faculty almost from the day she was hired by Kumamoto Prefectural University as a professor of English in 1993.

Dr. Worthington was hired after responding to a job listing for a full-time position, and was subsequently told that as a foreigner, what she would be given was "special irregular" status.

"We were employed on a year-to-year basis, we were not entitled to prefectural housing, we couldn't join the credit union and we didn't get bonuses," she said. "They were calling us part-time workers, and yet they were giving us full-time responsibilities, in the classroom, on committees and with research. The only difference was that we were foreign."

Three years ago, Dr. Worthington, along with other foreign faculty members, formed a union to pressure the university into offering them the same treatment it accorded its Japanese staff. The movement held a strike, and drew support from the community, eventually earning the attention of a
parliamentary labor committee that got the university to back off, at least temporarily, from its bid to get rid of the troublesome foreigners altogether.

"Foreigners are discriminated against in Japan, period," Dr. Worthington said. "What has changed is that people are trying to do something about it."

In one victory, after years of complaints by foreign embassies, Japan will end the fingerprinting of foreign residents next April.

Japan has always stood out as a stubbornly, proudly near-monoethnic nation. This has meant that few concessions are made to foreigners.

Japan has the lowest percentages of immigrants and expatriate workers of any advanced industrialized nation -- about 1 percent of the population. Naturalization, even for Koreans who have lived here for generations and fought in wars for Japan, is extremely difficult. On average, fewer than 20 people are legally recognized as refugees each year.

Sadako Ogata, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, has been one of the rare Japanese voices for change.

"Japanese people are relatively monoethnic," she said in a speech in Tokyo recently, urging her country to consider globalization in terms of cultural openness. "We live under the illusion of one ethnic race, one culture. A monoethnic island of prosperity won't survive in the 21st century."

David Aldwinckle, an American who has lived in Japan for 12 years, has made the notion of bringing multiculturalism to the country something of a personal crusade. Living in the northern city of Sapporo, he has fought discrimination against foreigners for years, organizing quiet protests
against hot baths that deny access to non-Japanese, or insisting that he and his Japanese wife be listed in marriage records the same way any Japanese couple would be.

The challenge now for the 34-year-old university professor is obtaining Japanese citizenship. The process is kept so exclusive that more foreigners are naturalized each week in the United States than in Japan in an entire year. Indeed, rejections are known to occur over something as minor as a speeding ticket.

"I have often sat and wondered why things are this way in Japan," Aldwinckle said. "There is a real fear and misunderstanding of things that are different. They don't know how to deal with things that are abnormal to them, and they are afraid of what will happen if the differences are allowed to stand."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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More Information on the abovementioned Bortz and Otaru Onsens case at

More Information on the abovementioned Prefectural University of Kumamoto (Worthington et al) Case at