The Otaru Onsen Case: Ten Years On

September 19th marked the tenth anniversary of human rights activist Debito Arudou’s first visit to the Yu-no-Hana Onsen in Otaru, Hokkaido and the first of three times he and some of his companions were turned away due to an explicit “Japanese Only” policy that turned out to be, according to the explanation offered by the management of the onsen, a “Japanese-looking” Only policy.

As most TPR readers or listeners know, after trying many other avenues of reconciliation, Arudou and two other plaintiffs filed and won a civil suit against Yu-no-Hana, as well as two appeals. The first and only decision against the plaintiffs was in a civil suit before the Supreme Court against the City of Otaru for negligence.

The case generated more publicity and hardship than Arudou or his co-plaintiffs had anticipated and wound up launching Arudou down a new path of human rights advocacy, on which he continues to this day.

Also as most TPR readers and listeners know, Debito Arudou has become a somewhat controversial name, at least among Western residents of Japan. To mark the anniversary, Arudou has submitted a piece on the case for the forthcoming issue of Japonesia Review (published by People’s Plan) and has been reflecting on the case on his own blog,

For those who are interested in a full, detailed account of the case, TPR recommends simply reading the book Japanese Only (available in both English and Japanese) as a starting point. For information on the book, or to order it, visit the Japanese Only book site.

For now, though, a very brief synopsis to bring everyone up to speed, in Arudou’s own words (from the preface to his article in Japonesia Review.)

On September 19, 1999, a group of seventeen people went to take a bath at a “super sento” (public bathhouse) named Yunohana Onsen in Otaru, Hokkaido. All seventeen were Japanese, except for three Caucasian males (including the author) from America and Germany, and one Chinese woman, from Shanghai. She, like the non-Japanese (NJ) men, was married to a Japanese and came to Yunohana as an international family. We had heard over the Internet that Yunohana, Otaru’s largest bathhouse, was not only refusing entry to NJ, they were even openly displaying a “JAPANESE ONLY” sign on their front door in three languages (Japanese, English, and Russian).

As soon as everyone had entered and bought tickets, we were told that the three Caucasian males in our group (your author included) were not allowed inside.

Consulting with the manager on duty, we heard Yunohana’s justification: Russian sailors (who at the time were frequent visitors to and traders with Otaru) had a history of not following bathhouse rules, therefore were not allowed in because they might cause trouble and inconvenience Japanese customers. When we made it clear that we were neither Russian sailors nor troublemakers, Yunohana said it did not matter: “Refusing only Russians would be discrimination. So we refuse all foreigners equally.”

All foreigners? All. “How about our Chinese friend you allowed in?” As soon as they realized their mistake, management showed her the door. We asked them further about their criteria for determining who was “Japanese”, since it was clear by this example that it was whether somebody looked “Asian” enough. So my wife at the time asked about our daughters, both of whom were born and raised in Japan, spoke Japanese as their first language, and have Japanese citizenship.

One looks more Asian, with black hair and brown eyes, while one looks more Western, with brown hair and bluish eyes. How would they be treated under Yunohana’s rules?

“The Japanese-looking one can come in. But the younger one who looks like a gaijin will be refused entry.”

This made it clear to everyone, nationwide, that “Japanese Only” signs and rules would affect Japanese citizens too.

In the ten years since the case, much has changed and debate over Arudou’s goal and tactics continues apace. As with any heated issue (and human rights issues are always heated), the disagreements range from perfectly legitimate concerns to objections that are, to put it nicely, based on misinformation or incorrect assumptions.

It is no secret that Arudou has many critics (in the interest of disclosure, it is worth it to point out that while we here at TPR pull no punches with the man and feel it necessary to play Devil’s Advocate at the least, we do know him sociably and will say that, politics aside, he’s a likable guy – just exercise caution before bringing up the topic of Duran Duran.) It is also no secret that, for a variety of reasons, his most vocal critics are almost entirely non-Japanese.

Among the most high profile of those critics is Gregory Clark, whose column in the Japan Times gives him perhaps a wider audience than most other writers on the topic. On January 15th of this year, Clark wrote a risible and deeply disingenuous column for the paper headlined “Antiforeigner discrimination is a right for Japanese people”.

In the column, Clark tries to paint a picture of a contemptible rabble-rousing jerk that he very clearly hints is Arudou (it’s not. As far as we can tell, there is no such person as the one Clark is writing about.) Wondering at Clark’s vitriol and some of his more outlandish statements, this observer settled on the following paragraph:

Recently [Westerners in Japan who hate Japan] have revived the story of how they bravely abolished antiforeigner discrimination from bathhouses in the port town of Otaru in Hokkaido. Since I was closely involved, allow me to throw some extra light on that affair.

Gregory Clark was closely involved in the case? Only one way to sort out this glaring discrepancy: ask the sources. After receiving no reply to an e-mail sent to the address listed on Clark’s site, TPR contacted Arudou and asked him to clarify Clark’s connection to the case in a telephone conversation, excerpts of which are printed here:

What was the name of the onsen in Otaru?

Yu-no-hana. Do note that in his most recent article decrying the “bathhouse fanatics”, “Antiforeigner discrimination is a right for Japanese people”, Clark even got the name of the onsen wrong. He rendered it as “Yunohara“. So much for the depth of his connection to the case. (It has since been corrected in the online version, but I have the print version if you’d like to verify.)

Were you a plaintiff? How many other plaintiffs were there, what were their names?

Yes, I was a plaintiff. There were three plaintiffs – Olaf Karthaus, Ken Sutherland, and myself.

Was Gregory Clark a plaintiff?


Was Gregory Clark a defendant?


Was Gregory Clark the attorney for either side?


Did either side seek legal or personal advice from Gregory Clark concerning the case before or during the trial?


Was Gregory Clark a judge or court officer in the case?


Was Gregory Clark a reporter assigned to the courtroom?


Was Gregory Clark present in the courtroom during the trial?


About how many people were in the room?

The courtroom was full to capacity, but I never saw Gregory Clark.

Was Gregory Clark a co-author of Japanese Only?

No. [Ed. note: On his site, Clark claims to have never read the book.]

Was Gregory Clark your editor?

No. We have never met.

Did you or your editor seek his counsel while writing or preparing the book?

No, of course not.

Has Gregory Clark ever discussed the case with you or with the owners of the Yu-no-Hana?

With me, no.I don’t know about the owners of Yu-no-Hana. He’s evasive on that point. He says he went to dockside, but never mentions going into the bathhouse or trying to get in.

When did you become a Japanese citizen?

October 10, 2000.

When were you turned away from the onsen?

The first time was September 19, 1999, the second time was January 3, 2000, and the third time was October 31, 2000.

So you were turned away when you were a Japanese citizen?


Was your daughter with you?

The first time, yes.

Was she turned away?

No. We were told one daughter will have to be turned away when she gets older because she looks more Caucasian. Olaf’s late son Daniel was effectively turned away as Olaf was the only male in the family and Daniel, being a child, couldn’t go in on his own. Daniel was 10, my daughters were 3 and 5.

Was the daughter who would have to be turned away in the future a natural born Japanese citizen?


What was the reason given for you and your daughter being turned away?

The first time, it was rules. Because of Russian sailors potentially causing problems. The bathhouse couldn’t just refuse Russians. They let a Chinese woman who was with us in, then asked her to leave when I asked about the kids and the owners realized they’d already let a foreign woman enter. The second time, they gave the same answer of rules and also said their customers didn’t want foreigners in, but the survey they said they’d taken was not shown to us, nor were the questions on it. I wanted to solve it amicably, so I went to negotiate. They acknowledged my citizenship, but would not allow me entry.

Had you, Olaf, Ken, or your daughter ever been ejected from a bathhouse for improper behavior?


Had you, Olaf, Ken, or your daughter ever been to an onsen or sento prior to going to Yu-no-Hana?

Yes, of course.

So you were familiar with the practice of bathing?


And you were familiar with the practice of not causing a ruckus in the baths?

Yes. We were all were permanent residents who’d been to many bathhouses in Japan.

How old was your daughter at the time?

Three years old.

Were either of you ever Russian sailors?


Did any of the plaintiffs speak Japanese at the time?


What was the court decision in the case?

In our favor vs. the onsen. The district court called it “irrational discrimination.” They ruled it was not illegal, but ordered the onsen to pay each plaintiff one million yen. Yu-no-Hana appealed, but the high court gave the same decision. The onsen lost all three times, all the way up to the Supreme Court case against city of Otaru.

How many court cases have you been involved in?


Has Greogry Clark been involved in any of your cases in any way?

No. He comments a lot, and I’ve tried to correct some of the factual errors and mistakes, but he avoids such conversations.

And just to clarify, do hate Japan or Japanese culture or are you seeking to destroy any part of Japanese culture?

No, of course not.

Without giving the impression that Arudou and Clark are in the midst of a personal feud (as far this observer can tell, it’s a one-way feud, if that), both men have written about the other – Clark mostly about Arudou and Arudou mostly pointing out Clark’s errors. As we were unable to speak to Clark (although, any reply from him would be most welcome:, sir), his motivations are unclear, especially as his writings on the topic and on Arudou have a decidedly ad hominem tilt and do contain relevant factual errors and rather substantial leaps in logic. Arudou, for his part, repeatedly stated that he is not in any sort of grudge match with Clark, although they do disagree on some rather substantial points (viz. whether or not racial discrimination is an acceptable way of maintaining certain cultural norms that are under a perceived threat from foreignness – Clark having explicitly said it is, Arudou having spent much time working in the opposite direction.)

Critics such as Clark aside (and there is really no need to get bogged down in one man’s vendetta against another here), Arudou, whom many you, dear readers, might know better as just Debito, has attracted a fair amount of support as well.

He can, and has, presented his own case, though, so TPR tossed a few more critical, but general questions at him.

What do you think would be different today had you simply accepted the policy of the Yunohana Onsen and grumbled about it to yourself, as most of us probably would have done? Would the landscape of rights for minorities be much different in Japan today?

Of course it would be. Back in the 1990’s, we had boosters up here in Hokkaido advertising this area as ripe for international investment because people here “are not racist”. Sorry to have spoiled the party by pointing out the truth, but we had “Japanese Only” signs up back then too, as far back as 1993 in Otaru. And as we documented in my book JAPANESE ONLY, people were not doing enough to have these signs taken down. So they spread across Hokkaido, then the nation.

Even then, however, we had the disclaimers: The media and various spokespeople trying to make out that it wasn’t “racism” per se, more a matter of “cultural misunderstandings” or even in some ways “just desserts”. It took a court case before we had a formal recognition that it was in fact “racial discrimination”. And that it was an illegal activity. With this, the apologists lost a leg to stand on when trying to deny the fundamental fact that “Japanese Only” behavior is racism. Without that, the landscape would of course have been much different — “culture” would have continued to hold sway to explain it all away. I think things would possibly be much worse, because people being discriminated against would not have had a clear avenue for some sort of redress without the Otaru Onsens Case.

2. Some of your critics would say that confrontational actions, such as filing lawsuits, naming and shaming, etc. cause friction and division rather than promote understanding. That your tactics, if not your message, might cause many people in Japan to simply be reconfirmed in their prejudices or to develop a prejudice where little or none had previously existed. In other words, that someone might not care one way or the other about issues of discrimination, but hear about lawsuits or protests and find those actions distasteful, then step into a mindset assuming that such confrontation was somehow anti-Japanese, either in terms of racial difference or in terms of violating Japanese social norms.

Do you think any harm is caused by your tactics? If not, why not? And if so, in what way and is there anything you’d either like to have done differently or are doing differently these days?

Look, one person’s “confrontation” is another person’s “standing up for oneself” and “doing the right thing”. To some, even so much as giving a funny look is “confrontational”, so the only way to avoid any charges of “confrontationalism” is to have done nothing. That is not tenable. The claim of “distasteful confrontationalism” is meaningless since it’s impossible to define a limit to it, short of outright violence — which of course we did not engage in.

As for lawsuits themselves, people engage in them plenty in this society too. As pointed out in JAPANESE ONLY page 280, according to the Ministry of Justice in 1998 alone there were 5,454,942 court cases (some with multiple plaintiffs) at all levels in Japan –nearly one per two dozen people if you want to get all shirty about it. Even if we narrow it down to civil suits, like the one we engaged in, there were still half a million cases that year. There’s nothing anti-normative about a lawsuit in Japan when it’s a perfectly legal and necessary activity. What’s the point of having a judiciary if you don’t use it to resolve disputes? People who say “Japanese don’t sue” are just ignorant, and if they find it distasteful, too bad. There’s no accounting for taste.

Did we cause harm? Of course not. Study the record in my book. We went through EVERY OTHER possible channel — administrative, legislative, even interpersonal, and all peaceful — for fifteen months before we even brought a courtroom into it. And yet “Japanese Only” signs and rules stayed up at Onsen Yunohana. We had no other choice but to take it to court. Just going through available channels.

As for the “developed a prejudice through our actions” crowd, that’s just blaming the victim. No matter what, there exist actual avowed racists in any society. We did not create them, although we certainly brought their practices to light. and you can’t let them make the rules for the rest of society. Especially since Japan promised it wouldn’t to the United Nations when it signed the treaties apposite to this situation. Ultimately, the lawsuit made it clear for everyone to see where the problem is — the lack of a law outlawing this practice. And this problem won’t go away until there is a law, enforceable with penalties for law enforcement to exercise.

3. If the GOJ were to pass a law prohibiting racial discrimination in line with the relevant human rights agreements and UN injunctions, would your work be done? Would such a law be both necessary and sufficient? If not, what is the ultimate end goal and when is good enough good enough?

If we get that law with enforceable penalties, I would have accomplished a life goal. The ultimate end goal, if at all reachable, is a society which not only recognizes any resident and contributor to a society as entitled to all its fruits and bound by its responsibilities as any other, but also seeks to make things better for anyone regardless of color, creed, yada yada yada, you get the idea. Of course, racial discrimination will not completely disappear – it exists in all societies even with laws against it. But the existence of potential lawbreakers is no excuse for not having a law. Especially when we know what good that law does – we have plenty of positive historical examples, even taking in account the hiccoughs and difficulties. Having one is is better than having an unequal society where people get shunted into castes from birth and can never reach their potential. No law means discrimination is not an illegal activity. By definition.

Case in point: What’s happening with “Japanese Only” rules is against the Japanese Constitution, Article 14. Yet there is no law in the civil code in specific to enforce to stop it. Hence it’s unconstitutional, yet not illegal. Why the half-assedness here? A law is necessary. Write it and enforce it well enough and it will be sufficient.

As always, we look forward to hearing what our readers think. Have at it.


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