Osaka’s move on hate speech should be just the first step

Ordinance officially 'Japanizes' the naming and shaming of haters, which is a good start


On Jan. 15 the Osaka Prefectural Assembly passed the first local ordinance against hate speech in Japan. JBC sees this as a step in the right direction.

Until now, there was no way to define what “hate speech” was, let alone take any measures against it. Defining a problem is fundamental to finding a solution.

Moreover, passing an ordinance makes a general statement to society that the existence of hate speech is not only undeniable but also impermissible. This matters, given Japan’s high tolerance for racist outbursts from public officials and clear cases of bullying and intimidation that have otherwise been protected under “freedom of speech” (genron no jiyū). Osaka has made it clearer that there is a limit to what you can say about groups of people in public.

However, this still isn’t quite at the stage where Osaka can kvell. There are no criminal or financial penalties for haters. An earlier version of the ordinance offered victims financial assistance to take their cases to court, but that was cut to get the measure passed. Also, an adjudicating committee (shinsa-kai) can basically only “name and shame” haters by warning and publicizing them on a government website — in other words, it can officially frown upon them.

Even the act of creating a law against hate speech has invited criticism for opening up potential avenues to policymaker abuse. They have a point: Tampering with freedom of speech invites fears, quite reasonably, about slippery slopes to censorship. So let’s address the big question right now: Should there ever be limits put on what you can say?

JBC argues yes. Freedom of speech is not an absolute. You cannot just say anything, anywhere, anytime. We already have the prototypical argument against shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and obviously freedom of speech does not allow people to perjure or defraud. The general consensus in legal circles is that people should in principle not be allowed to advocate harm against other people. In sum, when speech encourages panic, violence or a general breakdown in social order, the State generally steps in to quell it (if only for the State’s own preservation).

But even beyond the law school hypotheticals, laws against defamation, libel and slander — i.e., telling lies or generating harmful rumors about people — are quite normal and uncontroversial in any developed judiciary. Japan already has measures against meiyo kison (damage to honor), albeit not in its Criminal Code. This means you have to take whatever bothers you to civil court and convince a judge that a) your reputation has been provably damaged by the speech (just claiming emotional distress, or seishin kutsū, is insufficient) and b) this has affected you financially, so you can quantify the damages you should be awarded. I know. I’ve done it, successfully (see “2-Channel, the bullies’ forum,” JBC, Feb. 3, 2009).

Thus hate speech is an offshoot of libel and slander, in that the damage extends beyond the individual into the group. Are people allowed to publicly denigrate or advocate violence or discrimination towards entire segments of a society? In Japan until now, yes, they could. Japan essentially restricted defamatory tort claims to the individual.

However, after a number of embarrassing events that attracted international attention, including a famous anti-Korean demo in Osaka in 2013 where a schoolgirl advocated that Koreans be killed a la the Nanking Massacre, people began to see that a line had been crossed. Further, placards in Tokyo that same year advocating the killing of “all Koreans, good or bad” raised awareness that this public hatred was not an isolated incident.

A court decision, also in 2013, ruled that denigrating and vandalistic behavior towards a Korean school in Osaka by a hate group was legally punishable (as “illegal discrimination,” not hate speech per se). And the Justice Ministry issued its first ever official warning specifically for hate speech to the former leader of that hate group last December. Thus Osaka has merely converted court precedents into officially sanctioned social opprobrium.

It’s not as if Osaka is doing anything unique. Laws prohibiting advocating discrimination and inciting racially or ethnically based hatred exist in Australia, Brazil, Chile, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, Serbia, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland, to name a few. Some countries’ laws go even further, criminalizing specific incitements, such as genocide or Holocaust denial (Belgium, Canada and Finland).

You may not agree with the boundaries being set there (after all, each society has a different history it is reacting to), but they are indeed set.

And there is an international consensus backing them up: the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” Japan acceded to the ICCPR way back in 1979, so Osaka’s ordinance is in fact 37 years overdue.

Now that Osaka has done it, other municipalities are feeling emboldened. According to the Asahi Shimbun, on Jan. 18, 64 labor unions, local groups and assembly members announced the formation of the Kawasaki Citizens’ Network against Hate Speech, calling for official measures to be passed this year. Since Tottori Prefecture passed Japan’s first anti-racial discrimination law in 2005, only to have social pressure force it to be un-passed months later (see “How to kill a bill,” Zeit Gist, May 2, 2006), this is indeed progress.

As far as JBC is concerned, the most important outcome of the Osaka ordinance is the normalizing of “naming and shaming.” Activists in Japan who have publicized, for example, the existence of establishments with “Japanese only” signs, have often been accused of acting “un-Japanese,” as if exposing racists is somehow uncouth in stoic, passive-aggressive Japan. Now Osaka has officially “Japanized” the act of pointing fingers and stigmatizing haters.

That will probably put paid to most of them, at least in the Osaka area. For those who spout hatred as a way of life, whose sociopathy has switched off any possibility of feeling shame, we will need more potent laws later, and on a national level.

But for now, let us celebrate this step in the right direction, and let cases and precedents sharpen future legislation accordingly, as they have in civilized countries worldwide. Thank you, Osaka. Who’s next?

Debito Arudou’s latest book, “Embedded Racism,” is available from Amazon, or directly from the publisher with 30 percent off. See www.debito.org/embeddedracism.html. Twitter: @arudoudebito. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • tisho

    I am absolutely against hate speech law. Shaming the bigots – Yes. Naming and calling them out – Yes. Silencing them? Absolutely no. That’s what free society is all about. Hate speech law is different from slander because defamation only works if you can prove that a lie or an intentional misinformation by someone has caused you or your business to lose money, if you can’t prove that, then you don’t have a case, most of the time in the US defamation is a rich men game, people like Donald Trump sue others just to show off, even though in the process there is 99% chance that the case will be dropped. I don’t see how calling someone cockroach or some racial slur can cause the person to lose money, i don’t see how that is provable, certainly not in the US where these things are looked under a microscope.

    You’re not living in a free society if you don’t have the freedom to offend others. There is virtually nothing anyone can say that is not going to be offensive to some group. Furthermore, anti-discrimination laws hurt the minorities the most, so this is yet another case of – good intentions producing bad results.

    When you silence someone, you are not going to make him stop believing the things he believe, you will only make him be afraid to talk about these things and discuss them openly. Silencing discussions and debate is the worst thing you can do. Free speech is oppressed person’s strongest weapon. Driving certain ideas or thoughts underground does nothing to eliminate them, and preventing them from being expressed is an absence of opportunity to persuade them. Societal change is only possible through the power of persuasion, which in tern relies on a system in which ideas can be expressed and debated without official censorship. Its like a market place of ideas.

    Dispute is a function of free speech. Freedom of expression matters exactly because it allows us to hear unpopular and controversial views. When you allow an open expression of a hateful opinion, you create opportunity to publicly refute them. Allowing offensive speech promotes the progress of human understanding. When you silence dissenting or minority views, you create ignorance by design. There is a Japanese term called 反面教師 which helped persuade more people than any government law can ever do, 反面教師 can exist only in a market place of ideas, if people are not allowed to express their hateful thoughts, people will not be able to learn from them.

    Anti-Discrimination laws are much are the minimum wage law. It sounds good, but it does more harm than good, it is harmful and bad for the exact people it is designed to help.

    A famous economist and once said: ”If there are Nazis in the room, i wanna know who they are so i can keep an eye on them”.

    If you want to eliminate hateful speech, think in terms of media and educational system changes.

    • VoltronX

      Debito is just trying to get his editorial quota out by giving us 2 pages of nonsense. The Japan Times will pretty much give anyone a column here and they are all crap… Well atleast they show you how awful it is before you buy it.

    • fun_on_tv

      Sorry I don’t understand your point. You said you are against hate speech laws, but we should name and shame people who do hate speech. That is what the hate speech law does. No-one gets arrested or put in prison.
      In Japan it does feel like some politicians like baiting people. So no amount of re-education will change people’s mind. By the way, it’s the same with people who join a cult. Rather than face the reality of the truth/situation, they twist the facts in order to avoid such a situation. also re-education is a difficult one too. Part of the problem is that the Japanese education system has the idea of being Japanese. So it entrenches Japanese nationalism. I don’t see that going away any time soon.
      About 5 years ago the BBC invited the British Nation Party, a party that wants ‘non-whites’ out, on to a today debating show. Many politicians wouldn’t debate with him. Luckily some did. His views were aired and quickly dealt with by the panel and the audience. Soon after their popularity drop like a stone. People quickly realise the BNP were talking nonsense.
      Your link of the minimum wage and hate speech is a strange one. Even was an influx of 2 million Eastern European workers the UK we have seen the lowest employment for years. The minimum wage has stopped wage suspression. Or maybe I am missing your point.

    • R0ninX3ph

      I understand your point about letting people have the freedom to be able to say what they like, yet, people being able to say what they like then directly affects the people to whom they are saying it.

      When do the rights of the person being hated upon come into play? Does freedom of speech trump someone’s right to live without being denigrated by others or threatened with violence? At some point, you HAVE to say “Alright, you’ve gone too far”.

    • KenjiAd

      I think you are looking at the issue only from the point of free speech.

      While freedom of speech is important, people also have a right to live peacefully and pursue happiness. That’s called Fundamental Human Rights.

      If some people start advocating the genocide of your nationality under the protection of free speech, your human right is being violated.

      I don’t see how importance of freedom of speech could outweigh people’s fundamental human rights for living peacefully and pursuing happiness without fear.

  • LaughingBuddha

    Bring on the hate! it will come handy when war breaks out.

  • Jonathan Fields

    I’ve said it before, but I don’t like this bill. And I’ve been the victim of hate speech on several occasions. I’d be more comfortable with some kind of campaign to raise awareness about discrimination. Most people in Japan think it’s not a problem, and many even get very angry if you suggest that it is.

  • Kessek

    Does Debito get paid in Dollars or Yen?

  • 1derer

    As a Canadian, it boggles my mind how bills such as this are controversial. Hate-speech is a form of violence.

    • CrimsonTears

      Not only that, but it’s often escalated to physical violence as well.

    • Bob

      Hate-speech is not a form of violence.

    • http://batman-news.com Zetobelt

      Well, we have Donald Trump doing hate-speech about inmigrants.

    • Blair

      I guess you’ve never been to a hockey game

    • YoDude12

      Naive at best. I am certain you would be in jail by now if what you support and propose were implemented. Think about it.

    • YoDude12

      Naive at best. I am certain you would be in jail by now if what you support and propose were implemented. Think about it.

  • skillet

    Oh my oh my, western liberals love to preach. I hope the Japanese resist the importation of victim hierarchies. “Hate speech” and PC legislation in general have been so abused in the USA and Europe.

    For example, a gay person lambasting heteronormative bias is not considered hate speech. But a straight person who criticizes the media pandering to LGBT is called a hater. And gets establishment backing.

    Better just to have free speech. But if Japanese do pass hate speech laws and they are enforced equally, it will also be a crime for foreign people to say racist things against the Japanese majority.

    I really hope Japan does not become PC.

  • LaughingBuddha

    technically, if people who make hate speeches are punished afterwards, the speech itself is still ‘free’, albeit with consequences. Let’s just punish these people after they finish.

  • tomado

    I’ve had people insult me because of my ethnicity. Do I want them to be arrested? No. Do I want the government to publicly shame them? No, I don’t believe in it. Now, if they start encouraging violence against me, then I’d say, “lock them up.”

  • tomado

    I do think this girl in the picture should be charged with something. Isn’t incitement on the books? If not, it should be. That’s enough. Threatening violence is the right place to draw the line.

  • http://batman-news.com Zetobelt

    Debito Arudou makes a good living badmouthing Japan…. That’s also freedom of speech, isn’t it?

  • Alfonso

    That year (2013) was very peculiar because there was too much hate from Korea , China and even Taiwan towards Japan , I remember in China stupid riots against japanese stores and even people who own a Honda or toyota was afraid to go out because people were smashing it .

    It was pretty stupid , also from Korea the classic angry koreans burning japanese flags and so on , but they were in their right of free speech too.

    The girl in Osaka was a result of all the hate surrounding her environment but she was a lonely voice so its remarkable nobody sum up to her movement , but she has the right to express what she thinks so it was respectful that nobody stop her and there is in fact a huge difference between saying something and actually being able to do it.

    I know Japan is a very close society and they don’t like foreigners , I’m from Mexico and when I go to Japan the first times I kind of upset to being constantly requested to show my passport to the police , this is very shameful but i got used, even In USA who is supposed to have a hard line on Mexicans i never experience this while traveling.

  • http://batman-news.com Zetobelt

    A post of mine got deleted. So Japan Times has the same agenda that Japan Today.

  • http://batman-news.com Zetobelt

    The girl of the picture can not speak her mind about foreigners, but Debito Arudou can badmouth japanese people all he wants? That’s the freedom of speech that anglospeakers talks about?

  • http://batman-news.com Zetobelt

    Debito Arudou didn’t resign on his american citizenship. So, for me, he’s just another american expat looking for trouble in Japan.
    So, yes. The girl on the picture have some truth in her speech.

  • YoDude12

    Seems absurd to me – completely asinine. If I see a known and convicted rapist stalking a woman (a conviction, so a fact), and I tell my woman friend, “he is a convicted rapist, watch out,” I can be jailed for that? Someone hears me state a fact and because it “defames” the rapist I can be imprisoned. This is why hate speech cannot be criminalised.