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Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2006

Man loses racial discrimination suit against shop


Staff writer

OSAKA -- In a case that human rights lawyers and activists worry could condone racial discrimination against foreigners by Japanese businesses, the Osaka District Court rejected a lawsuit Monday that was filed by a black American man who was denied entry to a store apparently due to his color.

Steve McGowan, 41, a resident of Kyoto Prefecture, filed the 1.5 million yen suit after he was denied entry in September 2004 to a store in Osaka Prefecture that sells eyeglasses. He claimed the owner shouted at him to leave and told him he hated black people.

But presiding Judge Yoshifumi Saga ruled that, while it was inappropriate for McGowan to have been asked to leave, there was no evidence the store owner had made discriminating remarks against blacks and said it was questionable whether McGowan had understood what the owner had said.

The court noted that the plaintiff claimed he was told to get out and not to touch the door or show window, but added that neither the plaintiff nor his friend were in the shop at the time, so there was no reason they would have been told to "get out."

"There are doubts about the plaintiff's Japanese ability. . . . and the defendant himself has said he recognizes he has limited freedom in Japanese," the court said. "Therefore, testimony from the plaintiff about what the defendant said can't be trusted."

In a news conference immediately following the ruling, a visibly shocked McGowan warned that a dangerous precedent was being set.

"Today I felt as if I was not in Japan, but in the Alabama of the 1950s. I've been made to feel less than human, like an animal," said McGowan, choking back tears. "This case was not just about me. With this ruling, the judge has given store owners the right to discriminate based on color."

Masao Niwa, a human rights attorney and lead lawyer for McGowan's legal team, expressed disbelief that the court failed to address the most basic issue of all.

"Nowhere does the ruling attempt to answer the question of why he was refused," Niwa said. "This decision is extremely unfair."

That question was also on the minds of rights activists who warned the ruling was tantamount to condoning "commercial apartheid" against foreigners.

"The judge missed the point," Sapporo-based activist Debito Arudou said after the ruling. "The issue is not, 'Did Steve understand properly why he was being refused?' The issue is, 'Why did the shop refuse Steve entry?' "

"Now public-space shops can act like private clubs, refusing anyone they don't like, especially foreigners," Arudou said. "Shops can just claim, 'There was a misunderstanding -- because of his Japanese abilities.' "

McGowan said he will decide whether to appeal in a few days.



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