Ultranationalist rallies targeted at residents and businesses in the capital’s Koreatown district have cast a dark shadow over the once-thriving area.
Sales at a Korean restaurant in the area, just east of Shin-Okubo Station on the JR Yamanote Line, have already been halved, said owner Kim Doc Ho.
Kim, who came to Japan 29 years ago, saw sales surge at the restaurant after the airing of a popular South Korean TV drama sparked a national craze for all things Korean a decade ago.
But business began to decline after relations between the two countries soured following the August 2012 visit of then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to the rocky South Korean-controlled islets known as Dokdo, which Japan claims and refers to as Takeshima.
The tense bilateral standoff has led to a series of anti-Korean demonstrations in the Shin-Okubo district by right-wing groups, including one identifying itself as “citizens who do not condone privileges given to Koreans in Japan.”
On June 16, some 200 such demonstrators clashed with about 350 people opposed to the racist demonstrations, resulting in the arrest of eight people.
“As a small-business owner, disturbances are the last thing I want to see because they scare customers away,” Kim said.
Although angry at the rallies, Kim refrains from openly criticizing them for fear of becoming a target.
“It will be really sad if the Japanese stay away from Shin-Okubo because of demonstrations, while Koreans cower,” he said.
Other business owners voiced concern about Shin-Okubo’s status as “a town of exchanges between Japan and South Korea.”
According to Nobukatsu Kin, a third-generation Korean resident of Japan, local Korean shop owners have reported an average year-on-year drop in sales of around 30 percent.
The adverse impact the demonstrations have had on business in Koreatown is “beyond doubt,” although exactly how much can be attributed to them is uncertain, Kim said.
Some shop owners shocked by the hate speech have closed, he added.
Kin, a patent attorney, collected some 13,000 signatures between March and early July to pressure police to end the demonstrations.
He then received harassing telephone calls after demonstrators posted his number on the Internet.
The demonstrations in Koreatown are “acts of violence deviating from freedom of expression,” he said.
Although the police maintain they are not in a position to turn down applications for demonstrations for that same reason, they are asking the organizers to avoid the main streets of Koreatown.
“Organizers have no intention of forcing their way through the central part of the town,” a police officer in charge said. “They are likely to shun it” for rallies.
But a 45-year-old Korean man, who runs a Korean goods shop there said that keeping demonstrations outside the central part is “no solution because they (demonstrators) yell, ‘Kill Koreans!’ or ‘Koreans, get out!’ in places that aren’t far enough away.”
The question of legal restrictions on hate speech has drawn little attention from lawmakers, with only 6 percent of all Diet members responding to a questionnaire on the issue conducted in June by Jinshu Sabetsu Teppai NGO Network, an association of civic groups campaigning against racial discrimination.
Japanese lawmakers should recognize that legal restrictions on hate speech, which is treated as a criminal offense in Europe, are starting to be taken for granted by the international community, said Yasuko Morooka, a leader of the association and visiting researcher at the Center for Asia Pacific Partnership at the Osaka University of Economics and Law.
In the meantime, a group of Korean residents in Shin-Okubo is planning to conduct a variety of events, such as screenings of South Korean movies and dramas, by early next year in a bid to revitalize Koreatown.
“As this town is my second home and the place where our children were born and raised, it’s really painful to hear (demonstrators) say we should get out,” said Lee Sung Min, a 47-year-old leader of the group and operator of a Korean language school.
“We would like to change the atmosphere here” with the events.