Hate Speech in Japan
The State Secrets Protection Bill (2013)
The Economist, Sep 27th 2014, TOKYO
Hate speech in Japan - Spin and substance
A troubling rise in xenophobic vitriol
IN OSAKA’s strongly Korean Tsuruhashi district, a 14-year-old Japanese girl went out into the streets last year calling through a loudspeaker for a massacre of Koreans. In Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo neighbourhood, home to one of the largest concentrations of Koreans in Japan, many people say the level of anti-foreigner vitriol—on the streets and on the internet—is without modern precedent. Racists chant slogans such as “Get out of our country”, and “Kill, kill, kill Koreans”.
Perhaps for the first time, this is becoming a problem for Japan’s politicians and spin doctors (to say nothing of the poor Koreans). The clock is counting down to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, and lawmakers are coming under pressure to rein in the verbal abuse and outright hate speech directed at non-Japanese people, chiefly Koreans.
Japan has about 500,000 non-naturalised Koreans, some of whom have come in the past couple of decades but many of whose families were part of a diaspora that arrived during Japan’s imperial era in the first half of the 20th century. They have long been targets of hostility. After the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, Tokyo residents launched a pogrom against ethnic Koreans, claiming that they had poisoned the water supply.
So far the abuse has stopped short of violence. There have also been counter-demonstrations by Japanese citizens in defence of those attacked. But the police have been passive in the face of verbal assaults. And there is clearly a danger that one day the attacks will turn violent.
So the government is under pressure to act. In July, the UN’s human-rights committee demanded that Japan add hate speech to legislation banning racial discrimination. Tokyo’s governor, Yoichi Masuzoe, has pressed the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to pass a law well before the games.
The courts, too, are beginning to move. In July Osaka’s high court upheld an earlier ruling over racial discrimination that ordered Zaitokukai, an ultra-right group that leads hate-speech rallies across the country, to pay ¥12m ($111,000) for its tirades against a pro-North Korean elementary school in Kyoto. At least one right-wing group, Issuikai, which is anti-American and nostalgic for the imperial past, abhors the anti-Korean racism. Its founder, Kunio Suzuki, says he has never seen such anti-foreign sentiment.
The backdrop to a sharp rise in hate-filled rallies is Japan’s strained relations with South Korea (over the wartime issue of Korean women forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese army) and North Korea (which abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s). But, says Mr Suzuki of Issuikai, the return of Mr Abe to office in 2012 also has something to do with it. The nationalist prime minister and his allies have been mealy-mouthed in condemning hate speech.
Even if Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) bows to the need to improve Japan’s image overseas, the message is likely to remain mixed. Earlier in September a photograph emerged of Eriko Yamatani, the new minister for national public safety and the overseer of Japan’s police, posing in 2009 for a photograph with members of Zaitokukai. The government says she did not know that the people she met were connected to the noxious group. Yet Ms Yamatani has form when it comes to disputing the historical basis of the practice of wartime sex slavery.
Many reasonable people worry that a new hate-speech law, improperly drafted, could harm freedom of expression. But one revisionist politician, Sanae Takaichi, said, shortly before she joined the cabinet in September, that if there were to be a hate-speech law, it should be used to stop those annoying people (invariably well-behaved and often elderly) demonstrating against the government outside the Diet: lawmakers, she added, needed to work “without any fear of criticism”. Ms Takaichi’s office has since been obliged to explain why, with Tomomi Inada, another of Mr Abe’s close allies, she appeared in photographs alongside a leading neo-Nazi. Some of the hate, it seems, may be inspired from the top.