Can Laws Control Japan's Hate Epidemic?

Politics Society

On May 24, the National Diet finally took action to stem Japan’s rising tide of racism and xenophobia with the nation’s first law targeting hate speech. Furuya Tsunehira assesses the impact and limitations of this legislation and the challenges that remain if Japan is to control the pestilence in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

On May 24 this year, the National Diet passed Japan’s first law to curb hate speech, and the legislation came into force on June 3. Recent developments have led some to conclude that the law has turned the tide against hate speech in Japan.

On May 30, less than a week after the law’s enactment, the city of Kawasaki denied an anti-Korean group permission to hold demonstrations on June 5 at two parks in the city. The decision took into account the provisions of the new law, which urges the central and local governments to implement measures curbing hate speech as racist actions, as well as the group’s history of hate speech against Japan’s community of permanent Korean residents, or Zainichi Koreans.

On June 2, the Kawasaki branch of the Yokohama District Court issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the group from demonstrating within a 500-meter radius of the headquarters of a predominantly Zainichi Korean organization called Seikyūsha, which seeks to improve relations with Japanese citizens in the community. The decision was a bid to shield the organization, a planned target of the demonstrators, from the kind of abusive and intimidating harangues that have marked such rallies in the past.

The Kawasaki-ku district is home to one of Japan’s largest Zainichi Korean communities. This Koreatown, concentrated along the waterfront, grew out of a pre–World War II settlement of Korean laborers brought to Japan to work in factories built by the Japanese zaibatsu conglomerates at a time when Korea was under Japanese colonial control. It is the only such community in eastern Japan. The neighborhood is the location of a Korean school, as well as a large number of  Korean restaurants, which are particularly plentiful along the area’s main east-west artery, popularly known as Sangyōdōro. Needless to say, it is no coincidence that the demonstrators planned to hold their anti-Korean hate rally in this district.

On June 5 (the day after the law came into force), the  right-wing group attempted to hold a “purify Japan” rally at a separate Kawasaki park outside the area declared off-limits by city and court officials. Determined to block the event, a group of anti–hate speech counter-demonstrators gathered at the site before it was scheduled to begin, joined by police and other public safety officials. Scuffles broke out, and eventually the anti-Korean demonstrators called off the protest.

Both the right-wing groups that support such demonstrations and the anti-hate groups that oppose them have attributed these developments to the recent passage of anti–hate speech legislation. But is this assessment correct? Is the law, which many believe was long overdue, truly an effective weapon against hate speech in Japan?

Too Little, Too Late

These public hate rallies, in which right-wing fanatics denounce the Zainichi Koreans and demand that their rights be curtailed, do appear to be in their death throes. But the fact is that they had entered a decline well before the belated passage of the anti–hate speech law in May. My impression is that the legislation was a delayed reaction that targeted an already moribund movement. Meanwhile, xenophobic hate speech is alive and well on the Internet.

Let me be clear:  I believe that passage of this law was a step in the right direction. But the wave of public hate rallies that crested a few years ago had already subsided by the time it came into force. The “purify Japan” demonstration planned in Kawasaki was expected to attract less than 100 participants. The demonstrators that showed up were badly outnumbered by members of the police and the media.

The truth is that the hate-rally phenomenon has been in a downward trajectory for some time now. Its heyday coincided roughly to the three-plus years of government by the Democratic Party of Japan, an amalgam of centrist, liberal, and leftist forces that managed to oust the long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party in 2009. This was a time when most of the nation’s right-wing conservatives were united against a common enemy: the DPJ.

Under ordinary circumstances, such unity is elusive. In Japan, the political Right encompasses a broad spectrum of views. Generally speaking, Japan’s right-wing conservatives agree on such signature issues as amendment of the postwar Constitution (for), official visits to Yasukuni Shrine by the prime minister and his cabinet (for), and the so-called “Tokyo Trial interpretation of history” that stresses remorse over Japan’s role as an aggressor before and during World War II (against). On other issues, however, they differ widely. Some stress the fundamental importance of the Japan-US security alliance, while others believe Japan should break free of American influence. Many older conservatives, steeped in the anti-communist ideology of the Cold War era, view South Korea with tolerance, while younger rightists are apt to view it with unalloyed hostility. There are captains of industry who wave the banner of conservatism mainly because they think it good for business, and there are out-and-out racists motivated by an irrational hostility toward the Korean and Chinese people. During the period from 2009 to 2012, these diverse groups put aside these differences in their common desire to thwart and topple the DPJ.

Rise and Fall of the Hate Rallies

Inevitably this anti-DPJ tent embraced a racist element driven largely by feelings of hostility toward the Korean community in Japan. Occupying the extreme right wing of this bloc is an organization called Zaitokukai (short for Zainichi Tokken o Yurusanai Shimin no Kai, or Association of Citizens Against the Special Privileges of the Zainichi). Buoyed by anti-Korean sentiment in the wake of such incidents as President Lee Myung-bak’s August 2012 landing on Takeshima (a group of islets disputed by Japan and South Korea), Zaitokukai and other groups staged a series of stridently anti-Korean demonstrations in Tokyo in 2012. A conservative estimate for the number of people taking part in those protests is 1,000–1,500. Similar events occurred during 2013 and 2014.

Since then, however, participation in anti-Korean hate rallies has fallen off rapidly—a trend predating passage of the anti–hate speech law.

A key factor behind the movement’s loss of momentum was the LDP’s return to power after its landslide victory in the December 2012 general election. With the fall of the DPJ and the inauguration of a new conservative cabinet headed by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, the Right no longer had a common cause to rally around.

During the years under DPJ rule, right-wing forces had fanned the flames of anti-DPJ, anti-Korean sentiment by styling the DPJ “the Koreans’ party,” claiming that several members of the cabinet were Zainichi or naturalized Koreans. Of course, Zainichi Koreans are not Japanese citizens and are thus ineligible by law to serve in the National Diet, but such distinctions were lost on the anti-DPJ rightist coalition.

With the advent of the second Abe cabinet—a government with strong conservative credentials—such nonsensical fear-mongering lost its potency. The shift in political ideology at the highest levels took much of the steam out of the anti-Korean hate groups.

Cracking Down

The growing extremism of the anti-Korean groups, and its consequences, also contributed to the drop in participation.

In 2010, several members of Zaitokukai were arrested, tried, and convicted on such charges as forcible obstruction of business and unlawful entry after storming the office of the Tokushima prefectural teachers’ union and threatening the union’s officers and members. A woman also sued the organization over mental suffering caused by the incident, and in April 2016 the Takamatsu High Court ordered Zaitokukai to pay more than ¥4 million in compensation.

Beginning in late 2009, Zaitokukai members held a series of raucous demonstrations in front of a Korean school in Kyoto, using bullhorns to call the students cockroaches and maggots. In August 2010, the Kyoto Prefectural Police launched an investigation of the organization’s officers in connection with the incidents. In December 2014, the Supreme Court finalized a high court ruling ordering the group to pay the school damages amounting to about ¥120 million. The Public Security Intelligence Agency, which has identified Zaitokukai as a right-wing anti-foreign group, has mentioned these activities in its annual report Kaiko to tenbō (Review and Prospect of Internal and External Situations).

In short, the police and the courts have been cracking down on the activities of these hate groups for some time now (even without the backing of anti–hate speech legislation), and this has had a chilling effect on outside support and participation. Even within Zaitokukai, a few members have expressed misgivings about the group’s extreme tactics, and we can assume that even more have quietly distanced themselves from its activities and are now members in name only.

The passage of an anti–hate speech law comes on the heels of these blows to the hate-rally movement, serving at most as a kind of coup de grace.

Cyber-Nationalism: Spawning Grounds for Hate

But of those Japanese sympathetic to the bigoted views of Zaitokukai and other anti-foreign hate groups, only a very small fraction ever took to the streets to participate in demonstrations or rallies. The movement’s “silent majority” is the so-called netto uyoku, an army of right-wing cyber-nationalists who persistently vent their hatred online via bulletin boards, social media, and especially video-sharing sites. The Japanese Internet is a haven for xenophobic hate speech and propaganda, including vicious rumors, fear-mongering, and misinformation—such as the baseless charges that Koreans slaughtered millions of Japanese after World War II and that Zainichi Koreans control the mainstream media. This sort of online activity is the “cradle of hatred” that spawned the rallies to begin with, and it is still going strong. The anti–hate speech law in no way addresses this problem.

Right-wing groups tirelessly upload their anti-Korean videos to services like YouTube. These inflammatory videos are building a reserve army to participate in the next wave of hate rallies and anti-Korean intimidation. To be sure, action has been taken at the private level to blunt the momentum of this movement. Dwango, which operates the video-sharing website Niconico, has shut down Zaitokukai’s account, and YouTube has taken steps to halt the sharing of advertising revenue with right-wing Youtubers specializing in anti-Korean hate videos. Thanks to these measures, the noose is gradually tightening. Still, much remains to be done.

The government has identified international tourism as a major component of its long-term plan for economic revitalization. In 2020, Japan will experience a huge influx of foreign visitors in connection with the Tokyo Olympics. Under the circumstances, it is no exaggeration to say that the epidemic of xenophobic hate speech is detrimental to Japan’s national interest. The government should take firm and decisive measures and whatever legislative action is necessary to halt the pestilence once and for all.

(Banner photo: Anti-Korean rightists clash with counter-demonstrators and police in Kawasaki on June 5, 2016. ©Jiji.)

racism hate speech cyber-nationalism Zainichi