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Countering Japan’s hate speech groups

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In Brief

What explains the emergence of xenophobic groups in Japan? And what can the government do to combat them? 


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Since 2007, the Civil Association against Privileges for Resident Koreans (Zainichi tokken o yurusanai shimin no kai or Zaitokukai) and similar groups have been staging intimidating demonstrations employing hate speech to target minorities. They claim that minorities, in particular resident Koreans, enjoy undue administrative privileges.

While these hate groups have consistently rejected physically violent tactics, their hate speech has shocked and dismayed minorities. Yet hate speech in Japan remains legal — the country has no dedicated law prohibiting ethnic or racial discrimination.

What’s behind the emergence of this xenophobic movement? Some observers of Japanese society have tried to explain the movement by emphasising the role of the Internet. Others have associated it with the regime of conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and some relate it to the ongoing geopolitical rivalry and ‘history war’ between Japan and its East Asian neighbours. I have offered another theory: that the current surge of discrimination and xenophobia is a revival of tensions that existed in the multiethnic pre-war Japanese empire.

After Japan was defeated in World War II, xenophobia declined because the prevailing discourse emphasised the homogeneity of Japanese society. This made the populace less cognisant of the social presence of minorities and foreigners. But this discourse has since been eroded by globalisation and attempts in Japanese society to embrace diversity. As the discourse of homogeneity faded, the existence of minorities and foreigners became cognitively visible again, fostering a resurgence of intolerance among some sections of the Japanese populace.

So how can the Japanese government best combat hate groups? Japanese legal experts have been divided over how to use the law to combat xenophobia. One camp advocates enacting criminal laws aimed at restricting hate speech. The other camp argues that enacting such laws could impair free speech. They associate the restriction of free speech with the repressive pre-war and wartime Japanese state.

Another approach would be to enact a human rights law and establish a human rights commission. But human rights protection bills have already been rejected twice by the Japanese Diet.

In this context, Japan’s civil society has played a considerable role in restraining hate groups and pushing for change. In 2009, anti-racism groups began to emerge in an effort to counter growing hate groups. When facing off against xenophobic demonstrations and protests, members of anti-racism groups — mostly ethnic Japanese — express anger against hate groups and solidarity with the minorities targeted by these groups. These counter-protesters often mobilise more participants than those of the hate groups themselves.

As clashes between hate groups and anti-racism groups in the Shin-Okubo area of Tokyo began to attract nationwide attention in 2013, some politicians led by Yoshifu Arita, a Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) member of the Diet’s upper chamber, took action. In April 2014, the non-partisan Parliamentary League for the Enactment of the Basic Law against Racial Discrimination was formed.

Politicians from the DPJ, the Social Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party, the Japan Innovation Party (JIP) and the Komeito Party — the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) junior coalition partner — have all participated in this league, which is warmly supported by civil society groups. In May 2015, the league submitted the bill they had drafted to the upper chamber. Deliberations on the bill started in mid-August 2015.

The proposed law entails only limited progress. It does not include possible sanctions for hate speech, such as fines or jail time, or clauses for the establishment of a human rights commission. But if enacted, it would give courts stronger grounds for issuing unfavourable rulings or imposing punishment on hate groups when their members are sued or charged under existing civil or criminal laws.

Although deliberations on the bill started in August 2015, it has not yet been passed due to opposition from the ruling LDP. Instead, the LDP and its coalition partner, the Komeito Party, have proposed their own draft of an anti-hate speech bill. In late April 2016, it was reported that the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party (a merger of the DPJ and JIP in March 2016), would support the LDP–Komeito draft provided there are some revisions.

Existing laws have had some success in penalising the activities of hate groups. Following a 2009 incident involving the harassment of a resident Korean primary school in the city of Kyoto, the school sued members of Zaitokukai and other hate groups for defamation in civil court and won. In October 2013, the local court ordered hate group defendants to pay the school 12 million yen (US$112,000) in compensation. The Supreme Court rejected the defendants’ appeal in December 2014.

The financial impact of this civil ruling on Zaitokukai and the activities of affiliated groups cannot be overlooked. Zaitokukai had to initiate a campaign to raise donations to cover the damages and legal fees of its individual members targeted by this ruling.

The case demonstrated that there is some recourse for hate speech victims in the existing legal framework. But a dedicated law prohibiting racial discrimination would offer far more comprehensive protection for Japan’s minorities.

Can the Diet act decisively to stem the tide of xenophobia and racism? The ongoing deliberations, whatever their outcome, will be revealing.

Dr Shibuichi Daiki is an assistant professor in political science at Centennial College HKU, Hong Kong.

3 responses to “Countering Japan’s hate speech groups”

  1. Thanks for an informative summary of where legal redress to hate speech stands at this point in the Diet and with the political parties. While laws against hate speech are significant and potential helpful, it is naive to believe that these will greatly reduce such activities. Mainstream ethnic or racial groups will always want to blame minorities/’others’ for the social and economic challenges they are struggling with. Such is human nature…at least until these ‘outsiders’ are more readily accepted into and assimilated by the mainstream majority culture/ethnic or racial groups.

    Japan has had Koreans living within its borders since the early 20th century when it colonized Korea. Even after 3-4 generations of their living in Japan it has never granted these people citizenship. Instead, discrimination against Koreans has been an ongoing and pretty much accepted practice by the vast majority of Japanese people. Unless/until these things change it will continue to happen.

    • Discrimination is a serious allegation and in case we make such allegation, I think it has to be based on facts. While Japan does have ethnic problems, that it has never granted resident Koreans citizenship is not a fact. Since 1967, each year 3,000 to 11,000 resident Koreans have gained full Japanese citizenship. This adds up to more than 350,000 over half a century.

    • What is behind the emergence of this anti-Korean xenophobic movement is the fact that South Korean government’s and people’s vitriolic anti-Japanese movements, based mostly on big lies, that have lasted about thirty years.

      “So few” South Korean residents have applied for Japanese citizenship is because it has been discouraged by the South Korean government. Read, for instance, Ronald Dore’s Genmets, 幻滅.

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