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Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008

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CHRIS MacKENZIE ILLUSTRATION

THE ZEIT GIST

Back to the baths: Otaru revisited

Paul de Vries sees worrying precedent for Japan in 2002 landmark court ruling


The story is familiar to regular readers of Zeit Gist. Debito Arudou, a naturalized Japanese citizen, originally from America, was living in Sapporo, Hokkaido, and had heard of the Yunohana public bath's policy of denying entry to foreigners. In 1999, media in tow, he decided to put that onsen's policy to the test. Sure enough, entry was denied, with the accompanying explanation that foreigners often "cause trouble" and, as such, the regulars "dislike sharing the facilities with them."

The origin of this controversy is the behavior of Russian sailors. The Yunohana "onsen" is located in Otaru, the main port between Japan and the Russian Far East. Otaru attracts over a thousand Russian vessels and more than 25,000 sailors a year on stays of varying lengths. In the mid-1990s, Russian sailors were frequently showing up drunk at the city's various onsen and jumping into the tubs with soap on their bodies, thus rendering the facilities unusable.

Prior to taking on the Yunohana onsen, Earth Cure, the management company against whom Arudou's court action was taken, was running one of the city's other onsen facilities. It had been pushed to the brink of ruin after its regular clientele had been driven away by the behavior of Russian sailors. When that problem reappeared at Yunohana, Earth Cure opted for an uncompromising stance: Anyone who did not immediately appear to be Japanese was turned away at the door.

To give Arudou his due, he didn't rush to the courts. In accordance with the accepted customs of his adopted Japan, he attempted to reach an accord by working with Otaru city officials, and through consultations with the Yunohana onsen and a couple of other like-minded facilities. These efforts were successful with all but Yunohana, and it was that particular onsen against which Arudou and two other plaintiffs made a claim for ¥6 million for the "mental distress" that the self-inflicted ordeal had put them through. The case was won in November 2002 with a judgment awarding the plaintiffs half of what they had sought.

A responsible individual was barred from a facility to which the general public is entitled to enter upon presentation of an entry fee. His rights were upheld by the courts. The facility was forced to back down. So what's the problem with that? The problem is that the case was fought and won on the issue of racial discrimination when the policy being employed by the Yunohana onsen could more accurately be described as the racial application of "group accountability."

Group accountability is a process within which all of the members of a group are punished for the indiscretion of one of that group's members. It is a process that seeks to take the onus of policing away from law enforcement professionals and place it in the hands of society at large. The upside of group accountability is high levels of public safety and the scarcity of rogue individuals. A downside occurs when the innocent are prejudiced or punished for behavior and deeds they did not commit.

There is nothing particularly Japanese about this process. It is commonly used in the West by parents and in schools, and is most notably employed in the battle against soccer hooliganism. In "adult" Western society, however, group accountability is incompatible with the cherished Western ideal of individual rights. Officially, in the West, group accountability is not to be employed. But is it?

In the West, are people prejudged by the actions of others from the same race, color, neighborhood or region? In the West, are preconceptions based on a history of behavior of others from the same sex or religion? The answer to both of these questions is an emphatic "Yes." The reality for the West is that it gets the worst of both worlds: Individuals are still prejudged on the basis of group association, yet society does not benefit from the restraining force that peer pressure can provide.

While the most controversial applications of group accountability for foreigners within Japan are those that are based on race, it is a mistake to think that group accountability is not applied by the Japanese with an even hand. Consider, for example, the designation of women-only train carriages.

The women-only carriage initiative was first carried out on certain commuter lines during 2002, but was confined to late-night services. The stated rationale was to provide protection against lewd behavior by drunken male passengers — a rationale against which few could object. The ante was upped in 2005 when the service was extended to morning commuter trains, thus effectively conceding for the first time that "chikan" (gropers) and not alcohol was the primary cause of the problem.

In the weeks after the women-only carriages were introduced on morning services, there was a certain amount of guttural male rumbling, yet the measure has been widely accepted. This is clear proof that the Japanese are not above applying group-based discrimination within their own ranks.

It is also quite notable that the foreign male population of Japan does not appear to be particularly upset about being excluded from these train carriages. There has been no mention of any discontent in columns such as Zeit Gist, not a single word from Debito Arudou, and the silence in Readers in Council from non-Japanese has been deafening.

A subject on which the foreign (but most vociferously, Western) population did manage to find its voice was the regimen of photographic registering and fingerprinting that was introduced in November 2007. Under the justification of countering terrorism, the Japanese government decided to require that visitors to its shores be photographed and have their fingerprints scanned at immigration — a policy with both precedent and reasonable justification in that it was also being carried out by the U.S. and was in the process of being set up in Britain. But what a reaction followed! Online petitions, protests, letter after letter to The Japan Times, U.N.-sponsored seminars. It was unbelievable!

Women-only train carriages and fingerprinting/photographing are both applications of group accountability. On both of these issues, a section of society (men and foreigners) is being asked to undergo a measure of inconvenience in order to counter a threat that comes from within their ranks (chikan and al-Qaida). The attitude of the Japanese toward these two issues is consistent. The attitude of the Western population is not. The Western population of Japan clearly draws a distinction between racial and nonracial applications of group accountability. Or perhaps more accurately, between applications that are primarily directed toward Westerners and those that are not.

The use of group accountability as an instrument of social control in Japan has not historically been racial in application.

It became an accepted societal tool during a time when this nation was — for all practical purposes — a mono-racial society. It has therefore been traditionally applied on a basis of criteria other than race.

This contrasts sharply with the history of group-based discrimination in Arudou's America. "White America" has always been racial to the core, with "the other" always being a member of another race (the same being largely true for Australia, New Zealand, Canada or any of the other landmasses that "whites" succeeded in colonizing). As such, group accountability is a far touchier subject in the West than it is in Japan and much of Asia.

But surely that's the West's problem. Why should the social benefits of group accountability be denied to the Japanese simply because of the history of entrenched Western racism, especially given that the Japanese employ it with an even hand? The concept enjoys a broad level of acceptance within Asia as a whole, and the majority of non-Japanese residing on Japanese shores are Asian nationals. It makes little sense for the Western attitude to prevail.

It is more than appropriate that Debito Arudou ultimately got to take his bath at the Yunohana facility, but the ruling that was handed down was misguided. In truth, the case should not have even gone to court. At a pre-trial hearing the judge should have addressed Earth Cure with something like the following:

"Look, I understand your concerns. You have clearly suffered from the behavior of Russian customers, and as you were driven out of business at a former facility, it is not unnatural that you are the final remaining holdout. But enough is enough! Considerable efforts have been made in good faith to resolve this problem at a multitude of levels. It is time for you to give some ground."

And if that didn't work, the judge should have either asked Arudou to come to him with something other than a racial discrimination claim, or have issued a judgment that addressed the issue of group accountability directly. But that was not to be. The judgment that was made placed negligible weight on the preamble to the claim, thereby laying the legal groundwork for the demise of group accountability as a social conditioner within Japan.

Debito Arudou has embraced the precedent set in the Yunohana onsen case and sought to make the "right of entry" something of an "inalienable human right." Precedent in hand, he has spent much of the past few years confronting unwelcoming Japanese "businesses" — the vast majority of which no self-respecting person should want to be seen anywhere near. This crusade is essentially geared toward having Japan conform with American (as distinct from Western) standards.

I am no regular rider on the anti-American bandwagon. America is a truly wonderful country with some particularly obvious virtues, but these do not include its level of safety and social cohesion. While the rights of the individual are certainly more strongly upheld in America than in Japan, the presence of rogue individuals within America is disproportionately high. America is unquestionably a more dangerous place than Japan.

And this brings us to the point that Arudou ignores or simply fails to see. Group accountability is not employed in Japan simply for the sake of pushing people around. It is employed for the purpose of making Japan cohesive and safe. It is a major reason why Japan, unlike the U.S., is a nation in which the fear of random violence is relatively low. If Arudou succeeds in his quest, Japan will become one more nation in which the individual is to be feared. That is an outrageously high price to pay for the occasional racial, national, generational or gender-driven slight.

Paul de Vries is putting the finishing touches to a book about what the world can learn from Japan. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp


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