The clash between Toru Hashimoto and the weekly magazine Shukan Asahi over an article on the Osaka mayor’s lineage has raised a question that Japan still refuses to directly confront: What kinds of comments cross the line from criticism into hate speech that should be legally banned?

Shukan Asahi’s article last month delved into Hashimoto’s family background, noting his father was a yakuza. But it also added his father was a descendant of the feudal period “burakumin” social outcast class, which was traditionally shunned in Buddhist society because its members engaged in jobs considered unclean — butchers, tanners, undertakers.

The article broke no new ground, as the story of Hashimoto’s father and his burakumin roots had appeared in monthly and weekly magazines last year.

But it was to be the first in a series of articles that would, writer Shinichi Sano claimed, help readers to understand just who Hashimoto, who also heads Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), really is as a politician.

Hashimoto went ballistic and announced he would refuse to take questions from Asahi Shimbun reporters, as the newspaper owns Shukan Asahi. The magazine apologized and the planned series of articles was scrapped.

In explaining his objections, Hashimoto said the article set a dangerous precedent by talking about his “DNA.” In particular, he zeroed in on the cover of the magazine, which bore his name in katakana as “Hashishita” — another reading of the kanji compound that forms his name and the pronunciation used by members of burakumin communities.

“People are free to use expressions that don’t approve of my personality. That’s fine. However, not approving of my personality under the pretext that my bloodline or DNA is ‘Hashishita’. . . I think that’s absolutely wrong.

“This kind of thinking will lead to discrimination based on lineage, a class system, ethnic cleansing and eugenics. It’s an extremely dangerous way of thinking. What the Asahi did was comparable in the U.S. to affirming racial discrimination and in Europe to affirming the Nazis.

“Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are rights under the Constitution and have the strongest protection. It’s the same in Europe and the U.S.,” Hashimoto said. “There are lots of viewpoints about ethnic problems and the problems of the Nazis, but there are fixed regulations on putting out words and making them public.”

Yuriko Hara, secretary general of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, which is in consultative status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council, agreed that the Shukan Asahi article was discriminatory.

But Hara also said the incident is unlikely to lead to an aggressive push to improve human rights education in Japan, let alone establish a new law to outlaw racial and social discrimination.

“Hashimoto is concerned with economic efficiency above all else. As governor (of Osaka) and mayor, he slashed the budget for many human rights organizations in the prefecture, including those involved in education of burakumin issues,” she said. “Rather than support a human rights’ law, he would probably oppose it.”

There is a feeling among some Osaka media that because Shukan Asahi’s editors are Tokyo-based, they fail to grasp how sensitive the issue still is in the Kansai region. Had Shukan Asahi been headquartered in Osaka, this thinking goes, they would never have run an issue with “Hashishita” splashed across the cover.

Hara agrees that, compared with Tokyo and eastern Japan, public awareness of burakumin issues is stronger in Kansai, the Chubu region and Kyushu. “There is good education on the issue in public schools in these areas, where there have traditionally been more burakumin communities,” she said.

Education and legislation to ban discrimination against burakumin and other minority groups in Japan has long been a concern at the United Nations. In April 2010, the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination issued a report on racial discrimination in Japan, recommending the nation assist groups that continue to be stigmatized in society, such as burakumin communities.

The convention’s definition of racial discrimination includes bias not only determined by race but also by forms of social stratification — the precise reason its 2010 report cited the burakumin issue.

The report also called on Japan to enact legislation outlawing racial discrimination, and to “pay particular attention to the role of the media in improving human rights education and strengthen measures to combat racial prejudice that leads to racial discrimination in the media and in the press.”

Such legal recourse, however, quickly raises concerns about freedom of speech, as there is no single universally accepted definition of what constitutes hate speech.

Hashimoto cited European nations and the United States as examples where discriminatory speech is not tolerated, but they each have patchworks of differently worded laws and customs regarding racially offensive speech, which can sometimes include hate speech against social groups.

For instance, France uses a 1881 law as the basis for much of its hate speech legislation, prohibiting incitement to racial discrimination, hatred or violence based on one’s place of origin or their ethnic, national or racial status, as well as their religion, sexual orientation or disabilities. France, like Germany, also bans declarations that justify or deny the Holocaust.

In the U.K., the 1986 Public Order Act says a person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words, or who displays written material deemed as such, is criminally guilty if they intend to stir up racial hatred or it is judged that racial hatred will likely ensue as a result.

In addition to strict laws against justifying the Holocaust, Germany’s penal code makes it illegal to publicly incite hatred against parts of the population or to insult, maliciously slur or defame them in a manner that violates their “human dignity.”

The U.S. has introduced federal restrictions on certain harmful discourse that could be seen as partial limits on freedom of speech, while some local governments have passed symbolic resolutions to ban certain words.

In 2007, New York City banned the use of the word “nigger” amid alarm over the frequency with which it was being used, especially by younger members of the TV and music industry, as well as other ethnic groups who did not understand the term’s deep historical association with racism against African-Americans.

Many American businesses, schools, and other places have guidelines or regulations forbidding various words, phrases and behavior deemed offensive, although rulings by the Supreme Court on freedom of speech show that, compared with many other countries, what would be outlawed as hate speech elsewhere is permitted in the U.S.

As for Hashimoto, he has yet to declare if he or his recently formed national party will support efforts to ban hate speech. Whether he will use his clash with the weekly to call for new antidiscriminatory legislation remains an open question.

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