Date: Tue, 21 Sep 1999
From: Dave Aldwinckle <>
Subject: REPORT: Exclusionary Onsen in Otaru

By Dave Aldwinckle

(The original forum for this information was Issho Kikaku. Please note that Issho Kikaku is NOT A PARTY to this lawsuit, and reference herein to Issho Kikaku should not be construed to assume that Issho Kikaku has any stance in these matters. Disclaimer here,)


A surprising number responded to the call. Aside from my wife and two children, and Olaf with his wife and three children, we had: 1) a Chinese woman who was a wife of an academic friend of mine and her two daughters, 2) a Hokkaido JET named Morgan all the way from Hiroo (south of Obihiro, 250 kms away) with his wife and infant daughter, 3) an elderly Mr Ohno, married to an American in the Association of Foreign Wives in Japan and all the way up from Yokohama, and, completing the action team, was Mr Nishimura from Hokkaido Shinbun. All told we had seventeen people, eight of them little kids, and we sat down to discuss strategies for addressing the problem: Otaru bathing establishments which exclude any and all foreigners from their premises.

In a half-hour briefing in the lobby, I outlined our goals:

1) THIS IS A MISSION TO CONFIRM FACTS OF THE CASE. There are to be no demonstrations, no angry words, no push-and-shove or even a sit-in. Does this onsen hot spring have a "Japanese Only" policy or doesn't it? We would get the official word from the management witnessed by a professional journalist, who would be along for the ride until he decided to step in and introduce himself after our group had finished talking with the management. Afterwards, we would be taking pictures of the signs or other public indications of exclusionary policy for the public record, later accessible through the internet.

2) THIS IS A MISSION TO ESTABLISH COMMUNICATION. By definition, communication is a two-way activity. So after being refused entry we would ask the management to explain the reasons why. We would then, one by one, logically take apart those reasons and show them exactly why we felt this policy was not a good idea. Then we would ask them nicely to consider rescinding this policy for the good of Otaru and Japanese society.

I also suggested some DOs and DON'Ts:

1) DON'T GET ANGRY (may be interpreted against us later as being "threatening") OR SMILE (may show that we're here for a lark, having fun harassing private companies). DO KEEP A STRAIGHT POKER FACE (sumashita kao), and if you show any emotion, make it sadness and disappointment. Appealing to pity works better here, in my experience. Especially since we would be going to an establishment rumored to be run by the yakuza--anger or undue jollity could be answered by oneupmanship.

2) DON'T EVER TOUCH ANYBODY. As in America, lay a finger on anybody and it's assault. If they block your entry, do not push. Do not plan to enter by any means (I was worried that if these managers were really smart, they would deflate us by just letting us in). DO JUST STAND THERE AND TALK ONE-BY-ONE (take turns because it is less threatening than a flurry of comments all at once). We are not here to cause trouble. Just to make our point.

3) DO BUY A TICKET from the vending machines, because by law once they have our money they are by duty-bound to either provide service or give us a refund. If they do neither, it's theft and thus a punishable offense. Moreover, having to refund all that money will make it clear just how much cash they are losing by turning us away.

4) DO NOT IDENTIFY YOURSELVES by a tracable name. This has been a touchy subject for people contributing thoughts to our movement--for are we an official protest group or just a buncha sweaty families? If the former, what's our group name? If the latter, than why are we so well-organized with a reporter in tow? We had lined up the official support of Tokyo-based intercultural communication group ISSHO KIKAKU just in case the onsen or the newspaper wanted formal identification. But in the end, the journalist said that as far as the newspaper was concerned, Dave and Olaf could be identified by first name and generic occupation in the article. Plus the onsen owners never bothered to ask for formal ID since we were trying to be paying customers, not picketers. We tightroped the fine line.

Finally, 5) DO LET ME HAVE THE FINAL WORD if there is any negotiations to be had. Everybody is welcome to say their opinion in a calm manner (and everybody did in the end). But when it comes to having the motivation, the language ability, a foreign face, and all the arguments at my fingertips, it would be better in the long run if Olaf said his piece and then I gave the concluding arguments. Having one foreign face to focus on (instead of them trying to emote a sympathy vote from our wives) was far more cricket in the end.

These were pretty rough ideas when I sat down the night before and strategized. How they worked, we shall see:

YUUNOHANA ONSEN (Address: Otaru-shi Temiya 1-5-20, near Otaru Aquarium, phone (0134) 31-4444), 1:45 pm

My preconceived image of this place (I heard through the grapevine that this is Yakuza-affiliated) was of some dinky run-down, corrugated-sheet metal hovel with flashing lights and spray-painted trucks out front. However, we found ourselves in the huge parking lot of an enormous sparkling family-oriented onsen just like those all-purpose "health-centers" where people can relax any way they want. I've been to dozens of places like these all over Japan; imagine our surprise when we saw a sign next to sliding double doors, saying, in Cyrillic, English, and Japanese:


That was fact number one confirmed.

My wife and the Chinese mom went in to buy tickets with our kids while we idled outside and gawped at the sign. I had never seen such a brazen example of xenophobia on such an earnest-looking establishment, and while it was just a novel shock to me, to Olaf, who had been turned away once before at an Onsen in Wakkanai (a place called Yuuransen), it was the rekindling of a very furious memory. "I can feel my blood pressure rising," said he. Says I: "Keep it cool for now, okay? Let's see what happens when we go inside." We filed in slowly (so as to not look like we were storming the Bastille), my wife and the Chinese lady had had their tickets taken by the youth at the counter when the kid, wondering exactly how he was going to deal with this, said to Olaf and me:

"I'm sorry, but we have a policy of not admitting foreigners to this onsen."

When Olaf asked why, he said, "That's our policy. I'm sorry."

We asked why again. When the kid realized that just saying "the sign out front says so" wasn't going to do, the clerk asked us to wait a few minutes while he called the manager.

The manager emerged a few minutes later, and he was a balding tired-looking ojisan nearing fifty with eyes that would rarely meet any of ours. We stood in the lobby, shoes left off in the genkan and right in full view of about twenty customers and families sitting in the main lounge watching TV, and began the tete-a-tete.

When he gave the boilerplate about this being policy and he was sorry and all that, we had a word [some of the comments below have been incorporated from other, later conversations to save space, but I'll paraphrase]:

Olaf: "Why can't we come in? Look at our kids. They're already inside, running around. They want to take a bath, and you are stopping them because you are stopping their daddies."

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

Olaf: "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." By now he was getting very nervous and probably itching to find a way out of this.

Dave: [putting his hand on the manager's shoulder softly to calm him down] "Sir, I don't know your name [he didn't take the bait and give me it], but we are not here to attack (semeru) you. We just want to know the reasons why you have this policy. What sort of troubles have you had with foreigners?"

Manager: "Well, foreigners, especially Russian sailors, have bad manners. They come in here and jump into the baths and splash water everywhere. They don't wash the soap off before they get into the hot water and sometimes even get in with their underpants on. They swim hand in hand and talk in loud voices. Sometimes they're drunk or carrying vodka bottles, and because their bodies are big and they don't understand Japanese it can be hard to reason with them or get them to leave. They are frightening to our customers and they often complain to the management that if there are Russians here they won't come back. But we can't just ban Russians in particular, so we ban all foreigners out of fairness. We have a business to run, and we can't let people in which will spoil the atmosphere of our onsen."

So runs Japanese logic on discrimination: "discriminating against everybody, as long as they are not Japanese, is fair"--confounding, but one has to avoid getting annoyed if any calm, constructive action is to take place.

Dave: "Look, sir, I understand you have a problem. I was in an Otaru restaurant a few weeks ago [Victoria Station] that was half-full of Russian sailors, and I found them pretty frightening too. But that was because they were sailors, not because they were Russians. Sailors of any nationality can be rough people--look at Popeye. I'm an American, and I would be afraid of American sailors in Okinawa too. But not all Russian sailors are rough, and not all foreigners are Russian sailors. Some of us live here permanently in Japan and have families. Look at all our children--they want to take a bath. But because of this policy you are hurting them, not just us. I must ask you to reconsider this policy. It is too easily abusable (ranyou shiyasui). As you saw, only the people who don't look Asian get excluded. So what about our children when they get older--they don't look entirely Asian, either. Are you going to exclude them too?"

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. Terrible things happen because of it."

Manager: "I see what you mean. This is a funny rule. But it is our rule, and I cannot change it right now--I'm not the main boss. Actually, the boss is thinking about this rule and whether we should say 'Japanese Only' or not. But many places in Otaru are now doing so. The Otaru Sentou [bathhouse] Association has decided that all Sentou that are not onsen will bar foreigners. And many other places, even Freizeit [Otaru's huge multiplex onsen, pool, and sports club complex, in Otaru Mycal], are debating whether or not to do it."

Olaf: "What? So who will exclude foreigners next in Otaru? Restaurants? Private schools and hospitals? This is what Hitler did to the Jews step by step in my country, and who knows where this will stop? Also, Otaru gets most of its revenue from tourism and if people see this racist policy is spreading, it will drive tourists away. I now do not want to buy anything associated with Otaru, and I will make sure that no academic conferences ever have any connection with this town. This is not good business."

Manager: "Yes, I see what you mean. This policy is not very fair. But again, I can't change it. I wish I could."

Dave: "Okay, so please tell your bosses this: We understand you have a problem, but this policy is not the way to fix it. Put up signs with rules on how to use the baths, stop people at the door because they are drunk or carrying vodka, and throw them out if they don't have good manners. But please, please don't bar people because they are foreign. Onsen bar people with tattoos because they are probably yakuza. But those people chose to put on those tattoos or to join the yakuza. We cannot choose our skin color, or take it off. So make the basis for exclusion a matter of case-by-case, based upon the behavior of the individual, not by associating the actions of a few people with the actions of everybody who looks the same. We will find ways to help you, so please call upon us and we will work together to make a policy which is better for all."

Manager: "I will tell them that. Again, I'm very sorry."

Dave (so the whole room could hear): "Okay kids. Amy, Anna, we've been ejected from the premises. For reasons that we were born with." (ami, anna, wareware tsuihou sareta yo, umari tsuki no riyuu de).

There were eddies of nervous laughter from everyone in the room (now about thirty people, mostly middle-to -older ojisan and obasan, watching the exchange intently from their sofas). A number of them were saying in stage whispers, "They oughta let them in," "How sad," One even came up to Morgan's wife and expressed regret that this was happening and it should not be. Thus our point was made.

As we were on our way out, Mr Nishimura came up to the manager here and identified himself as a journalist, and that he was coming along to survey what was happening for a news article. He asked the manager if he would like to give the onsen's side of the story, which he did. Meanwhile, we lined up outside for a group photo in front of the exclusionary sign.

A little while later, as it started to rain and it was clear that the Mr Nishimura's interview was going to take a while, we decided to split up and head to Freizeit for a bath and a meal instead of going on to Trouble Spot Number Two. Morgan was due back in Hiroo that night, the Chinese mom had her parents-in-law waiting at Mycal to go home, and Mr Ohno wanted to find accommodation for the night and would rejoin us later. Most importantly, the kids were far more disappointed than the adults were about not being let in, so we decided that taking them someplace which would let us all in was better now than later. It would turn out that this onsen would provide the most information for Mr Nishimura anyway, so we decided to recharge our batteries before continuing the mission.

As we drove to MyCal in the driving rain, the children in the back of my car started singing, "Namida, Namida" to the windshield wipers. "Teardrops, Teardrops." It was very appropriate.

OTARU MYCAL SHOPPING CENTER, FREIZEIT (Otaru Chikkou 11-2, Phone (0134) 24-7777), 5 pm

Olaf, his son Daniel, and I had just had a much-needed soak, and we were sitting in Freizeit's restaurant "Jiyuutei" getting some beverages and waiting for our wives and daughters to emerge from the swimming pool. I had gone moments before to the main lobby counter and asked if I could speak to the manager. What about? The "gaikokujin-okotowari" problem, and how we had heard that Freizeit was considering enforcing it too. We wanted to touch base and encourage him to keep the doors open to people like us. The youth at the counter seemed to understand exactly where I was coming from, and ten minutes later we had Mr Kakibayashi, general manager (shihainin) of Freizeit, sitting at our table for the next half hour, meeting our wives and children, and receiving congratulations from us for being so open-minded as to let us in despite being refused at Yuunohana. We didn't mention that for this "largesse" we would be spending about 20,000 yen at a struggling MyCal. But I'm sure that Mr Kakibayashi knew that, and he accepted the kudos with glee:

"Yes, we have no exclusionary policies. Never have, never will. As a matter of fact, the general manager of the Hilton Hotel is a Swiss gentleman. So as you can see, MyCal is a very open place and we will continue being so."

Dave: "But we heard that Freizeit was considering exclusion. After all, the Otaru Sentou Association has made it official policy. Isn't there any danger that you will change your mind?"

Kakibayashi: "No there is not. We are not a member of any of the local bathing associations, and will not join them because we like foreigners here. We will not even consider such a terrible policy here. How would those onsen managers like it if they went overseas and found themselves being kicked out because they were Japanese?"

Music to our ears. But I was still going to introduce factors until I was satisfied with the sincerity: "But what about your Japanese customers? Yuunohana said that if foreigners come the Japanese will stay away. Won't that happen here?"

Kakibayashi: "We have never heard of that here. Yes, there have been some bad-mannered foreigners, but there are also bad-mannered Japanese too. We give both them a warning and they shape up. No problem. And do Japanese people stay away? Of course not. We make the rules clear with pamphlets in several languages, and consequently everybody enjoys our baths. I don't believe onsen owners when they cite this is as an economic reason."

Olaf: "Yes, but it seems to be convincing them. Wakkanai is now justifying excluding foreigners because of decisions made in Otaru. Ohtaki-Mura's 'Kawasemi' onsen is turning our friends down. Ohtaki-Mura [in the middle of the mountains] is not exactly a place where Russians go. So this problem is getting worse. We need your help."

Kakibayashi gave me his meishi to pass on to Mr Nishimura: "I'll be happy to cooperate with your article. We hope you will come back here again."

Olaf: "We will keep coming back as long as you will keep letting us in."

OTARU ONSEN "OSUPA" (Near Otaru MyCal, Address: Otaru Chikkou 7-12, Phone (0134) 25-5959), 7:15 pm.

Olaf and I parted company with our wives and kids (they went back to Sapporo) and it was just as well. We met Mr Nishimura and Mr Ohno in the parking lot of a simply dreadful-looking establishment very close to MyCal in the Otaru Port area. This time it WAS a filthy run-down corrugated-sheet metal place with flashing lights and BIG ECHO karaoke sounding off at triple-digit decibels. We ran through the rain and entered what would turn out to be a side entrance (it had no exclusionary sign), and, after passing countless UFO-catchers and unused video-games, found the counter manager, a dour looking denizen in his fifties, glaring at us. After a momentary look of revulsion, he said, "Japanese only" and looked down at his books, pretending we weren't there.

Olaf was not in the mood to talk to a man as condescending as this, and we knew that we were not going to get the time of day like we did at Yuunohana. So I began shouting through the music just to get the same basic answer.

"Japanese only."


"Because it's the rules."

"Why do you have this rule? It's not a good rule."

"Too bad. We have a business to run. You foreigners only cause trouble."

"You know us personally? How do you know we will cause trouble?"

"Look, it's our rule. Japanese only. Didn't you see the sign?" There it was. Above the counter and outside the main door.

"Why don't you tell us why this rule is in place?" We eventually got him to sit down with us over in a corner and have a brief tete-a-tete. But he would give us few insights as to methods behind the madness. A few minutes later, another night manager at the karaoke counter, even older, came and said, "He's only been here a year, and came after this rule was in place. He doesn't know why. You are welcome to talk to our manager, Ohkoshi-buchou, tomorrow, if you call and make an appointment. Here's the number."

Our group looked at each other and understood that this is as far as we were going to get. We left the joint feeling grimy as the cold rain intensified.

TENBOU ONSEN PANORAMA (reachable through Shin Nihonkai Ferry, Address: Otaru Chikkou 7-2, Phone: (0134) 22-6191), 7:45 pm

This onsen is within the Shin Nihonkai Ferry Terminal, right where the ships connecting Otaru with Maizuru, Tsuruga, and Niigata dock. A Russian ship was parked right next to it, and there would be no place more convenient for a sailor, who apparently gets only cold showers on a Russian tub, to beg for a good hot bath for a change. It was in a nice new building on the fifth floor with no exclusionary signs outside or in the elevator (except one barring tattoos and yakuza). We took the ride up to see the final permutation of bathhouse rules enforcement.

We four men walked in and the matron of the establishment, a woman in her late forties, took a sideways look at us and prepared her tongue to lash. She turned to the Japanese men and said:

"Are these two [foreigners] with you?"

Mr Ohno, who had stayed in the background with Mr Nishimura all day watching things with a smile, said, "Yes they are. Does it matter?"

"Yes it does. We have a policy of excluding foreigners. See the sign?"

It was on the wall kitty-corner to the elevator out, and not readily visible. It read in English under the Cyrillic:




And in Japanese:


記 7月18日(日曜日)から実施  支配人

Easy to tell this had not been proofread by a native speaker. Who would want to translate this?

Ohno: "So you mean that these two can't enter?"

Matron: "Are you going to take responsibility for them?"

Ohno: "What do you mean, 'responsibility'? What could these two people do?"

Matron: "Not follow manners. Disturb our Japanese customers."

Ohno: "Look, these two have lived in Sapporo for ten years. They speak Japanese. They are Permanent Residents. They have families. They are members of this society."

Matron: "Well, that's different then. Okay, you want to go in, you can go."

Well, I thought, that called our bluff. Olaf, Ohno, and I were prepared to go in if necessary. But Nishimura didn't want a bath, so he said, "Actually, we are here on a surveying mission." And he gave the Matron the information about his reporter qualifications and asked if we could speak to the manager on duty. One phone call later, we were on the second floor of Shin Nihonkai Ferry in a conference room, sipping coffee with a Mr Nishizawa, mid-thirties, who was giving us a very friendly, heart-to-heart talk on the situation. Twenty minutes into the conversation, in between all our tailor-made speeches about unfairness and abuse of bad rules, he said:

"Actually, Shin Nihonkai Ferry is of two minds about this policy. When we first opened five years ago, we allowed anyone in. But because we are not only close to the Port--we ARE the Port--lots of Russian sailors came in. Their manners were so bad the Japanese clientele actually stopped coming. There's also the problem of disease. So we instituted this rule last year in July--"

Dave: "Excuse me. 'Disease'? Are you saying there was a contagious disease (kansen byou) involved here?"

Nishizawa: "No, not in our establishment. Over at Osupa [the place we were last]. They said that some kind of disease was brought in by the Russians."

Dave: "What kind of disease? Of the skin? Of the lungs? What are the symptoms?"

Nishizawa: "I don't know exactly."

Dave: "How many people were infected? Is there any medical proof of this? Any doctor's report?"

Nishizawa: "Osupa didn't give details because they didn't want to lose business. This was just something circulated amongst bathing establishments."

Dave: [flabbergasted] "So on the basis of a RUMOR of disease with no factual basis and no proof of a connection with the Russians, you and every sentou in Otaru went and banned foreign bathing in your establishments!?"

Ohno: [scoffing] "Yes, Japanese are very weak about fears of disease. Nobody wants to take any chances. One word, and everybody closes their doors out of fear."

Dave: "Not just fear. Superstition and supposition completely unsupported by science. Reminds me of 1986, when AIDS was big news over here and people started making cracks about how any contact with foreigners would infect them. The old 'foreigners are unclean' (gaikokujin wa fuketsu) sentiment. What century is this, people?"

Nishizawa: "But listen, we are not banning foreigners entirely. It's case-by-case. We have no exclusionary sign up downstairs, and if the matron sees foreigners, she usually phones down and checks with us. If they are not drunk or if they have been here before, we let them in. If they show us their Gaijin Cards, we know that they are not just sailors and we let them in. If they look like troublemakers, the matron turns them away. The thing is the rules are not absolute. We choose on the spot whether or not to enforce them."

Ohno: "Yes, but look at the way you decide to phrase those rules. 'Difference of the Life Custom to the Japanese' (Seikatsu Shuukan no Chigai)? What does that mean, exactly? If they don't speak the language, if they don't wear kimono, if they don't eat sushi, you can bar them? Also, this asks for trouble because any Japanese who reads this is going to say, if he finds you let somebody in, 'Hey, kick this foreigner out! What about that sign?' Nobody is clear at all what the lines are and it makes nobody happy."

Nishizawa: "That's why we are really having trouble finding consensus on this rule. Half the company wants a complete ban because otherwise Japanese customers stay away [the Matron downstairs later confirmed this]. The other half, including myself, wants complete opening because we can't stomach this discrimination."

Nishimura (the reporter): "I did an article on this place last year, and I'll be doing one this year. Do let me know if you change the rules."


"We had a really good day, today," said Olaf. "Learned a lot. What do you think about what we saw?"

Well, to me it was a glimpse of the enforcement spectrum. On the exclusionary extreme, we have Osupa, 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.

Then we have the softer middles. The exclusionary softie, Yuunohana, our first stop, was firm about kicking us out, no exceptions. But the manager was a very professional hotelier about doing it. Even my wife said, "Gosh, you know, I'm not angry at all at the manager--he said everything the right way and made us feel more sorry for him for not being able to change the rules than for ourselves having to obey them."

"Yeah," said I, "I found that very emotionally confusing as well--this way of telling people to get lost without actually hurting their feelings. Seems exceptionally Japanese."

Yet Panorama, the last stop, was willing to make exceptions. Problem was that it was ideologically gagging on its own rules.

And that is what Olaf and I would derive strength from. Japanese may often be exclusionary, even racist, in their approach to social problems. But once notified of it, many begin to tie themselves up into the same mental knots as Americans and Europeans. Many are not ignoring the discrimination. They just don't know what to do about it.

"There's hope for this movement yet," said I. "All it takes is somebody to stand up and say, 'this is wrong'. Because Japanese too, in their hearts, know it is. However, the thing is that we, as The Community, have to realize is that it must be us who says it. We can't wait for people to wake up to it. We have to nudge them. That is our job in the Japan of the future. To stand up for our own rights."

"And who is 'we'?"

"It might as well be us."

Dave Aldwinckle

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