Over the past few months, hate speech in Japan and efforts to address the situation with legislation have drawn domestic and international attention.

Currently no law bans hate speech. While some local- and national-level politicians have criticized groups like the ultranationalist Zaitokukai when its members spew inflammatory rhetoric against Korean residents, others have balked, saying a rush to outlaw hate speech could have dire consequences overall for freedom of expression.

With pressure on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to call a snap election next month, serious Diet debate about legislation against hate speech will most likely get shelved until the political situation stabilizes or until some conspicuous event puts the issue back on the political radar.

Human rights groups in Japan have complained for years that the government has failed to enact laws against hate speech. Why has there been so much political and media attention of late?

In August, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a report on Japan that expressed concern over media allegations that hate speech is spreading, including incitements to violence, by elements belonging to Zaitokukai, which stages racist demonstrations against foreigners and minorities, particularly Koreans.

The U.N. recommended that the central government target such rallies, combat hate speech in the media and on the Internet, investigate and prosecute individuals and groups engaged in hate speech, and pursue sanctions against public officials and politicians who disseminate hate speech, while also better educating the public.

The report followed months in which Zaitokukai had been in the domestic and international news. It came a month after the hate group lost a case in the Osaka High Court, which upheld a lower court ruling that had banned public rallies where blatant racial slurs were used because such anti-social activities are not in the public interest.

What recent political moves have been made regarding hate speech?

In August, the Liberal Democratic Party set up a project team at Abe’s request to look into measures to counter hate speech.

Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, who met South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul in July and agreed that hate speech against Koreans in Japan should never be tolerated, asked Abe to consider legislating a ban on hate speech.

Last month after the team met its project head, Katsuei Hirasawa, voiced concerns about creating such a law because of the legislation’s potential threat to freedom of expression.

He asked the National Police Agency to consider curbing hate speech within the existing legal framework, including limiting locales for rallies, as organizations conducting demonstrations are required to report to police beforehand.

The Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, presented a draft bill to counter hate speech at a meeting of eight opposition party policy chiefs earlier this month. But given the threat of a snap election, it’s unclear if the bill will be taken up in the next Diet session.

What’s happening at the local government level?

Local leaders have discussed curbing hate speech targeting minorities, but they say they are wary of legislation that could violate the right to free speech.

Masuzoe told reporters in August that instead of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly passing an ordinance, the Diet should, if there is a national consensus, either pass a new law or revise existing laws to curb hate speech.

Kawasaki Mayor Norihiko Fukuda voiced support in May for restricting hate speech demonstrations, expressing worry about their impact on children. Kawasaki’s Koreatown, one of the most prominent such ethnic communities in the country, has been the scene of many demonstrations.

The city of Kadoma, Osaka Prefecture, also appears to be taking the issue seriously. It released a statement in March saying that while in principle there were no restrictions on groups or individuals seeking to use municipal facilities for public events, all applications for their use would be judged by the city in a comprehensive manner and with a view toward public safety and respect for the local citizenry.

If ordinances and regulations related to their management were violated or such violations were likely, the city said it would deny permission to use the facilities. This has been interpreted by the Kansai media as a de facto ban on groups like Zaitokukai.

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto made headlines last month when he and the head of Zaitokukai met in the city to debate the issue of hate speech.

Previously, Hashimoto had indicated, in the wake of the Osaka High Court decision in July against Zaitokukai, that he might favor a local crackdown against the group. A year earlier, a Zaitokukai rally in Osaka’s Tsuruhashi district featured a junior high school girl shouting that Korean residents should be killed. That caustic incident made international headlines.

The showdown between Hashimoto and Zaitokukai head Makoto Sakurai quickly turned ugly, with the two hurling insults at one another. At one point, Sakurai got up, walked toward Hashimoto and looked poised to throw a punch at the mayor, who also stood up before security intervened and kept the two apart. A few minutes later, after more bickering, Hashimoto ended the debate.

The incident surprised and angered many Osakans. One Korean group is pushing for the metropolitan assembly to introduce an ordinance banning hate speech, although local political support remains quite weak.

With increased attention in the Diet and regional assemblies, is some sort of legislation banning hate speech rallies likely?

Perhaps, but those supporting such legislation would do well to remember the old adage about being careful what you wish for.

The LDP hate speech project team is also debating tougher restrictions on noise levels of protesters and demonstrations around the Diet and foreign embassies, raising suspicions that the party may be more interested in quieting those who disagree with its policies than it is in combating what the U.N. and human rights groups would term hate speech.

Metropolises like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe have ordinances that dictate how large groups can demonstrate. These may eventually form the basis of additional Diet discussions that are ostensibly aimed at controlling hate speech demonstrations, without forcing politicians to debate controversial new legislation that has the potential to violate the right to freedom of speech.

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