On Feb. 24, 2013, Osaka’s Tsuruhashi district, home to one of Japan’s largest concentrations of ethnic Koreans and in recent years a major tourist destination, was the scene of a shocking incident.

The anti-Korean group Zaitokukai had organized a demonstration in the area, shouting ethnic slurs by bullhorn. Most of those participating were men. But then a 14-year-old girl stepped up, shouted that she hated all Koreans and said her group would massacre all of the Koreans in Tsuruhashi if they did not leave Japan.

The girl’s comments shocked the world. A YouTube video of the incident was translated into English and many other languages and uploaded, while the Osaka media gave it limited coverage and politicians expressed regret, but little else.

The lack of a strong response emboldened Zaitokukai, and the group escalated its demonstrations in Osaka and nationwide. Only after a combination of counter-demonstrations by the Korean community and anger and embarrassment on the part of many Japanese brought increased media attention and international concern did hate speech finally get on Japan’s political radar.

A key development came last August, when the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Japan to take firm steps to combat hate speech.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which heretofore had expressed little concern over the issue, then quickly announced it would form a project team with coalition partner Komeito to weigh measures to stifle hate speech.

By then, momentum was building in Kansai regional governments to give Abe and the central government a push. In October, Nara became the first prefecture to formally call for legal regulations to eradicate hate speech.

In a statement the prefectural assembly unanimously endorsed, it was noted that the Suiheisha Museum in Gose, Nara Prefecture, had been targeted with hate speech by Zaitokukai members in 2011 over a temporary exhibit on Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. The museum sued the vice chairman of Zaitokukai for defamation and eventually won ¥1.5 million in damages. The U.N. report was also referenced.

“In its August 29, 2014 report, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination advised the Japanese government that individuals and groups using hate speech against racial and ethnic minorities be investigated and, when necessary, prosecuted. Therefore, we strongly request that the government take a firm position on hate speech, and work to improve domestic laws to eradicate it,” the Nara assembly’s nonbinding declaration read.

In December, days after the Supreme Court upheld an Osaka High Court ruling and rejected Zaitokukai’s appeal in a case where the group had been found guilty of defamation for shouting abuse in front of a North Korean-affiliated school in Kyoto Prefecture, the city of Kyoto released its own statement calling for the central government to take action.

The reasons were both ethical and practical: Kyoto, as a major center for overseas tourists, could face economic losses if it is seen as tolerating hate speech.

“(The city of) Kyoto . . . is an internationally popular tourist destination and, as an art and cultural capital, coexisting with a diversity of cultures in city planning is the fundamental principle of its people,” the statement said.

As of the beginning of the year, 24 governments nationwide had all passed similar opinion statements, including the prefectural assemblies of Nara, Nagano, Fukuoka, Tottori, and Kanagawa, the cities of Kyoto, Nagoya, Saitama, and Sakai in Osaka Prefecture, and 14 towns and villages, including one in Kyoto and one in Nara, and Katsushika Ward, Tokyo.

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who faced off against former Zaitokukai leader Makoto Sakurai in an October debate that degenerated into a shouting match and nearly turned physical, is also bent on taking steps to prevent hate speech.

On Jan. 16, an Osaka municipal human rights committee compiled proposals for curbing hate speech. The recommendations include having the city pick up at least some of the court costs of anyone who sues a group or individual whose comments are recognized as hate speech by designated city officials. The recommendations will be formally given to Hashimoto late next month, and the city assembly may debate the issue in March.

If adopted, they would make Osaka the first local government to establish a system to evaluate hate speech claims and, if necessary, provide assistance, including financial aid, to alleged victims.

Before deciding whether the city should get involved, an outside committee of lawyers and residents would review each claim, seek written explanations from the alleged victims and perpetrators, and investigate. If the panel deems a hate speech claim valid, it would propose that Osaka assume a certain percentage of the victim’s legal costs, which it would determine, for a court case.

The Osaka human rights committee also looked into a possible new ordinance that would restrict who can use public facilities and fine users who engage in hate speech at such locations. But concerns about violating freedom of expression rights made those recommendations problematic, the panel said.

Thus by establishing a municipal system to evaluate hate speech allegations, offer assistance — and even offset some of the legal costs of those with valid claims who sue — Osaka is seeking to create a de facto ban.

Kwak Jin Woong, director of the Osaka-based Korea NGO Center, said it would be very difficult for the municipal assembly to actually pass a resolution banning hate speech, because of freedom of speech concerns and because there is no legal definition of it.

“The attitude among Osaka politicians is: ‘We should probably do something. We know we can’t just leave the problem as is,’ ” he said.

But although he does not expect governments to pass specific legally binding resolutions banning hate speech, Kwak said there are other actions they’ll probably take, especially after April’s local elections.

“The scale and number of people participating in hate speech rallies in Kansai is declining. I don’t think that hate speech will be a major issue after the April elections,” Kwak said.

But he added the issue of hate speech is also tied into the larger issue of Japan’s history on the Korean Peninsula. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War and the 50th anniversary of normalization of Japan’s diplomatic relations with South Korea. All eyes are on what sort of a statement Tokyo will make on both occasions, and the debate on what Prime Minister Abe should or shouldn’t say about history is growing not only in Japan, but also among politicians, policymakers and the media in Seoul, Beijing and Washington.

“The problem of hate speech is related to problems of history. So the debate over what to do about hate speech in the coming months will probably take place more and more within Japan’s larger discussion about the past,” Kwak said.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.

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