Date: Wed, 5 Jan 2000 01:00:23 +0900
From: Dave Aldwinckle <>
Subject: Otaru Onsens Update Jan 5 2000


(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,)

The two remaining exclusionary onsens, despite rumors of a change with the new millennium, retain their signs and closed-door policies towards non-Japanese indefinitely.

(a roundup of the past three months, so skip the next five paragraphs if you have kept abreast):

Off and on over the past few years, some bathing establishments (onsen) in
Otaru City, Hokkaido, have enforced policies which limit entry and patronage
to Japanese only. In September 1999, when word of this reached NGO Issho
, a task force named BENCI was formed to investigate. On September
19, a BENCI-sponsored confirmation contingent with seventeen members,
including two Americans, one German, one Chinese, three Japanese, and ten
international children, peacefully visited and confirmed this exclusionary policy
accompanied by a Japanese reporter.

Confirmed: The first onsen, Yunohana, displayed signs saying "JAPANESE
ONLY" in English, Japanese, and Russian. Moreover, the policy was enforced:
only the Caucasians were denied entry (the Chinese parent was allowed
in--and then shown the door only when her extranationality was revealed),
whereas the Japanese and the children were permitted entry if they wished.
BENCI made its discontentment known to the management, asked for the repeal
of the policy, and left to have a bath at a different establishment.
Afterwards, the contingent went with the reporter to confirm two more
reputed onsens, Osupa and Panorama, and yes, they too had exclusionary
policies. Panorama, however, would allow foreigners if the Japanese escorts
would take responsibility.

The onsen's reason for banning all foreigners? Russian sailors, frequent
callers to Otaru seaport, were responsible for all manner of bad manners:
noise, splashing, washing clothes, soap and shorts in the tub, drunken and
lewd behavior, and reputedly (but never medically confirmed) contagious
diseases. But as the management could not ban all Russians, they banned all
foreigners as a courtesy to their Japanese clientele, which make up the bulk
of their business and allegedly avoid Russian-frequented establishments.
"This is a life-or-death situation", the onsens said in an article which
came out in the Hokkaido Shinbun on September 21. Media coverage then
expanded to other major Japanese dailies, English-language Japanese dailies,
television including NHK, and ultimately even a mention in a NY Times cover
story of Nov 15. Several more articles have come out in Japanese since, and
this issue, lying dormant for years, soon became hot.

Not everyone was convinced by the onsen's argument, i.e. business solvency
supersedes issues of discrimination. After a landmark court case, where a
Japanese district court ruled against a Hamamatsu jewelry store which
ejected a Brazilian woman because of her nationality, several interest
groups began contacting the government and the onsens, saying that the
exclusionary onsen policies likewise violated the cited Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (which Japan adopted in 1996).
Moreover, the German Embassy, the Otaru City Hall, and the Ministry of
Justice also demanded the signs go down and policies change. The City then
convened two meetings with international groups to discuss solutions to the
problem, also resolving that the doors must be opened. Ultimately the local
government issued a standardized set of bathing rules regulations, signed by
Otaru Mayor Yamada Katsumaro, as a template for the onsens to enforce.

On November 6, Panorama, as part of the Shin Nihonkai Ferry Group, became
the first of the three to repeal their exclusionary rules--replacing them
with an illustrated sign depicting bathing do's-and-dont's in several
languages. All of this background information, including articles in
English and Japanese, photos, and previous reports, may be found here.



In the last few weeks of December, sources negotiating with the onsens indicated that Osupa and Yunohana were carrying out surveys and internal policy powwows, with the intention of removing their signs and policies by January 1, 2000. However, last week those were overshadowed by rumors to the contrary. On January 3, 2000, the original BENCI confirmation contingent, Olaf Karthaus and Dave Aldwinckle, reprised the September 19, 1999 expedition with a Nenshi Aisatsu at the three onsen in question.


Stopping the car in front of the genkan and rolling down our windows, we looked at the front door which usually bore a very photographable sign saying JAPANESE ONLY in red English.

We were surprised to see a new, grey one in its place. Until we read it:

Nao, kongou ni tsukimashite wa kentouchuu de gozaimasu


It was only in Japanese. Translating:

Further, we are considering what to do from now on [policywise]


It was, thus, the same exclusionary policy in more polite and less photogenic language.

We pulled the car round to the parking lot and got our camera ready. To prove that this policy had entered the new millennium, we had stopped by a convenience store (avoiding all Lawsons) and bought today's paper--Jan 3's Doshin and Mainichi Shinbun choukans--with me highlighting "1/3/00" in red marker. Holding a copy to the sign, there would be no doubt of the date when we snapped them. (Those photos are already up here for your reference.)

By now standing next to us and smiling in a gold jacket was a very thin fellow who looked a lot like Ric Ocasek. He was Mr Kobayashi Katsuyuki, one of Yunohana's general managers, who had been in close negotiations with our fellow interest group Welcome House. We explained our intentions and he looked unsurprised.

Kobayashi: "I understand, but we need more time. We really are thinking hard about what to do, but can't seem to reach a solution that will please everybody."

The weather was foul that day and we asked if we could step in. Mr Kobayashi said sure and we soon spent an hour warming our heels in a karaoke room.

Mr Kobayashi brought out a folder with a number of documents and study papers for this issue. "We are in a difficult position. You, our customers, even the City all wanting different things. We received word from the Otaru Mayor that we should be enforcing these very policies:"

(NB: Translated by Dave Aldwinckle from the Japanese photocopy. This is not the official Otaru City English translation, although I have seen it and a Russian version.)

WELCOME TO OTARU. When using the Otaru bathing facilities, please observe
the following items:




Due to differences in customs and lifestyles, there have been problems between onsens and some foreigners who will not follow the above rules. Consequently, some of these onsens have had to refuse entry to foreigners. So at all times, for a pleasant bathing experience for everyone, please follow the above rules.


End of Notice. I thought it looked good on paper, until Kobayashi continued:

"But it's not that simple. Our group had another bathhouse over by the Otaru Grand Hotel which allowed Russians in. Most of the sailors followed rules like these, but some didn't, and pretty soon the only customers we got were Russian. Japanese avoided us, so we went bankrupt a couple of years ago. We don't want to let that happen to Yunohana. So we came up with our own alternative plan which I can show you but cannot give you as a photocopy:"

(NB: Translation from Aldwinckle's memory:)
1) Admission for long-term (chouki taizai) foreigners
2) Admission for foreigners who can understand Japanese (after administering speaking, reading, and writing tests, register passers with membership cards)
3) Admission for foreigners who know bathing manners (after guidance)
4) Admission for foreigners who have Japanese escorts or establishments (such as exchange students' schools) who will take responsibility for them.


I shuddered. "Mr Kobayashi, how does one determine 'long-term'? A month? A year? Ten years before we can take a a bath? And..." we were about to give the song and dance about discrimination all over again (literacy tests sounding like voting hurdles in the Postbellum US South, etc.), but Kobayashi stopped us:

"Yes, we know all that, and we know that these policy propositions are just as discriminatory as the present one. That is why we are not adopting them. We simply don't know what to do. Of course we really want to let you in--let everybody in and enjoy our baths. But the problem does not really lie with you. It lies with our customers."


"They are the ones who are so unforgiving. One sign of a problem and they don't say, 'Well, that's just one isolated incident, so what the hey, forget it!' They get all ticked off and never come back. They are the ones making us do what we are doing. If there is any need for kokusaika, it is within our customer base."

That touched a nerve with all of us, so I said: "Yes, if there is a place that needs more communication, it is of our standpoints to John Q Citizen. That is the City's job--telling them what problems we face, raising awareness, and getting the general public to understand the pars for the course. But I have repeatedly told the Otaru Shi Kokusai Kouryuu Tantou Takeuchi and Miura that we need a public forum, a roundtable for us all--consumer, producer, and administrator--to brainstorm until we find a good policy. But at every turn, the City has refused to entertain any of my suggestions--to allow a single foreigner, for example, to attend the Oct 28 or Nov 5 Kokusai Kouryuu group policy roundtable summits you had. Nor does the City show any interest in sponsoring a forum where anyone can attend. They've turned every single one of my proposals down. It is them who is not doing enough of a job to resolve this situation."

We sat back and sighed in relief. We had found somebody to rag on, lifting us both briefly above the labyrinth of public policy. It was a moment of unity we thought we would never have.

Says I: "We want to sponsor a public forum on this. Would you be willing to attend?"

Kobayashi: "I'd be glad to."



At Osupa, unlike Yunohana, nothing had changed. One driveby confirmed that--the sign "JAPANESE ONLY" was still up and waiting to be photographed with a newspaper like Frank Sinatra with a Made Guy. Olaf and I soon accomplished that snap in a snap, and as we were heading back to the car, I said, "Nah, wait a minute. Let's go inside. I'm going to ask them something."

Waiting in the genkan was a short, stocky man with a friendly disposition but an authoritative air. He seemed to know exactly what we were doing here. "May I help you with something?"

Aldwinckle: "Yes, I would like to know if you have the results of that survey you took from your customers last month. On whether they wanted foreigners with their bath."

"Yes, the results are in. It doesn't look good. Most said they don't want foreigners in."

"Do you have a copy of that survey so we can talk about it?"

He procured one. It turns out that this gentleman was Mr Ohkoshi, the general manager, which was fortunate because he was just the person I wanted to see. Says I: "Yes, sir, there are lots of problems with this. This question overweighs negative responses... this one doesn't allow for the possibility of respondents to say they are NOT worried about foreigners..."

Mr Ohkoshi was not defensive but he did defend the survey. "Well, this is only a trial run. We aren't used to making surveys, so some mistakes inevitably get made."

"Yes, but this is the survey you are going to use as evidence to justify keeping that sign up, right?"

"Well, this survey is only a guide. It's not definitive."

"But it's no wonder most of your respondents voted negatively. This survey can hardly produce anything but a negative result, it's so skewed."

"Would you care to come in and sit down?"

We did. Ohkoshi: "We know what we are doing is discriminatory. We have had to turn away good foreigners too. Like just last month, some 30-year Canadian resident of Japan who keeps bees came up here specially to try our onsen." I couldn't understand who this beekeeper might be, but he continued: "We had to turn him away. But that's because we don't know him. But we do let in a couple of foreigners secretly if we know who they are."

This was confusing the hell out of me--creating a policy that they have to become accomplices against. Kinda like the SS hiding the Von Trapps. "Then if this policy is so wrong, why don't you have a timetable to remove it? We were told you were going to do it by January 1."

Ohkoshi: "There was no promise of that, sorry. We need more time. A gradual relaxation of the rules."

"You have had over six years."

"I know. It's not easy."

"I'm sure it's not. But this policy cannot stand. Panorama has taken down its signs and is doing just fine. And you are just making things worse by doing skewed surveys."

"But you see, it's not all that skewed. We have had plenty of respondents who say they don't mind having foreigners here. We have also had plenty who do mind, in several degrees. And about fifty respondents said that under no circumstances will they get into a bath with a foreigner."

"That many, huh?"

"But we are telephoning those who felt so strongly negative, asking them if they would consider a naturalized foreigner okay, if a ten-year resident is okay, whatever. We are trying to find out what the degrees of tolerance are out there so we can let some of you in. You see, some of those customers have been with us for decades. We have to listen to them."

Aldwinckle: "We don't want to bankrupt you either or drive away your customers, trust us. But we want to spend our money here too just like anyone else. What you are doing here is not the solution."

This was an opportune moment, so I brought up the possibility of an awareness-raising public forum. "Yunohana will be there. Would you attend?"

He said he would.



Olaf and I were finally soaking, and in a place that not two months ago would have erected barriers to our entry. Panorama, always the most liberal of the three excluders, now lets in non-Japanese without qualm. "Any problems with foreign rulebreakers so far?" I asked at the counter. "Not one," came the answer.

And as our fingers got all stewed and brainy we got to pointing things out.

Olaf: "That was strange, wasn't it?"


"How the bosses were right there in the genkan both times, waiting for us. They knew exactly who we were and they took us in to talk to us. Far better treatment this time. You think they knew we were coming?"

Dave: "It would make sense. I think they knew that we knew they would be stalling for time by giving themselves a deadline of December 31, and that we would be checking. After all, I am sure that word of our January 13 Otaru Press Conference is slowly leaking out, and if they got wind, they knew another fact-finding mission from us is inevitable. January 3 is the first date after the real New Years' Holiday and the last before everyone starts work in earnest, so it's the most convenient and comfortable day.

"Still, I am surprised how eagle-eyed they were, but you in yellow and me in red photographing their signs all over again kinda gives us away. And I think the newspaper was a nice touch."

Olaf: "Yeah, but this time we went straight to the top, where they were nice and friendly. Much better. I think they know now that the writing is on the wall and they have to talk."

And talk we will.

World, we will keep you posted.

Maintaining Momentum into the Millennium.

Dave Aldwinckle


(return to the lawsuit background page)