'WITH RESPECT' - 2 October 1999
Mainichi Daily News
By Peter Hadfield

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Or so a group of resident aliens discovered when they went to investigate claims that onsen (hot spring baths) around Otaru, Hokkaido were banning foreigners.

We often hear anecdotal tales of these exclusionary places, but hats off to Dave Aldwinckle in Sapporo for checking the facts in a well-organized, methodical way. Dave got together a mottley bunch of foreigners and took them round to these establishments on the clear understanding that they would collect facts dispassionately and listen to explanations curteously. They would not raise their voices or argue or become aggressive.

The venture was so well executed that I thought I would give you some details.

The group consisted of nine adults and eight children. Their first stop was Yuunohana, an 'enormous sparkling family-oriented onsen' according to Dave. A sign on the double doors at the entrance said clearly 'JAPANESE ONLY' in English, Japanese and what looked like Russian.

"I had never seen such a brazen example of xenophobia on such an earnest-looking establishment," writes Dave. The Asian members of the party went in first, with no trouble. But when the caucasians tried to enter they were told by a youth at the front desk, "I'm sorry, but we have a policy of not admitting foreigners to this onsen." When it was clear these foreigners weren't going to go away the manage arrived. What follows is Aldwinckle's transcript:

Manager: "I'm sorry, but our rules say that you foreigners cannot come in."

Olaf (one of the foreigners): "But look how kawai-sou (pitiful) it is for the children."

Manager: "Yes, it is, but [turns to my wife] you must understand that we can only allow Japanese in here. It causes too much trouble to allow foreigners. We lose Japanese customers that way."

Morgan: "But you let in a Chinese woman. You took her ticket. Why are you stopping the Whites and not the Asians?"

Manager: "That was our mistake. I'm sorry. We will provide you all with a full refund."

The manager explained, quite reasonably, that a lot of Russian sailors use - or rather abuse - the onsen, ignoring customs and scaring away other customers. Then the manager said, clearly unaware of the irony: "But we can't just ban Russians in particular, so we ban all foreigners out of fairness."

The group asked if it was fair that the children should have to leave because their fathers are not allowed in.

Manager: "No, of course I don't want to exclude them. They should be let in because they are Japanese citizens."

Dave: "Yes, but you are excluding us based on looks, not nationality. That is the problem with this rule."

A number of onlookers expressed sympathy for the group, either directly or in hushed conversation. "Thus our point was made," writes Dave.

The group visited a number of other onsen, some of them welcoming, others downright hostile to foreigners. "On the exclusionary extreme," writes Dave, "we have Ossupa, which considers foreigners to be a form of contamination and disease, and it will hardly even talk to foreigners, let alone consider a change of policy. On the welcoming extreme, we have Freizeit, which takes anybody and has systems in place to make sure people follow the rules." In the middle were variations of these two extremes.

A clear pattern emerged. Russian sailors had been abusing the rules and the onsen had found a simple solution - ban all foreigners. That means, of course, all 'foreign'-looking foreigners.

In my view the real solution is equally simple but much fairer. Display a poster of onsen-etiquette in different languages. Anyone - Russian, Japanese or Martian - who does not obey the rules has to leave the sento. Anyone who is drunk is not allowed in.


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