National / Social Issues

With hate speech bill, Osaka grapples with freedom of expression

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

The Osaka Municipal Government has proposed an ordinance aimed at curbing hate speech against racial and ethnic minorities in the city, where verbal and other attacks against Korean residents have intensified in recent years.

The bill was introduced to the municipal assembly on Friday. If passed, the ordinance will take effect this fall and make Osaka the first city in the nation to regulate hate speech.

The proposal, the brainchild of the outspoken Mayor Toru Hashimoto, has two pillars. First, it would create a third-party panel of experts to investigate claims of hate speech against the city’s residents. If the claims are considered legitimate, the city would make public the names of individuals or groups engaged in such acts.

Furthermore, if the situation is deemed urgent, the municipal government could bypass the expert panel and take action on its own, such as requesting Internet providers to take down harmful content from websites and ordering facilities displaying hate speech fliers or signs to remove them.

The second pillar is financial assistance to alleged victims who take hate speech users to court. If the plaintiffs win their court cases, they would be exempt from repaying all or part of the loans, according to the draft ordinance.

The bill, however, stops short of creating penalty clauses for — or restricting the use of public facilities by — perpetrators of hate speech, due to concerns that such action could infringe on constitutional rights to freedom of expression.

Kim Kwang-min, secretary-general of the Osaka-based nonprofit organization Korea NGO Center, hailed the city’s move, expressing hope that the bill will clear the assembly.

“Four percent of the city’s population is foreigners, and it has numerous areas where there are large concentrations of ethnic Koreans,” Kim said. “The ordinance reflects the city’s resolve to fight discrimination against Korean residents.”

But he said the ordinance alone won’t be effective in eliminating hate speech, saying groups attacking Korean residents have lately shifted tactics.

“In response to mounting criticism against them, hate speech groups nowadays avoid the use of explicit language, such as ‘Kill them!’ and ‘Expel them!’ which they used in the past,” Kim said. “They now say things like, ‘It’s unfair for foreign nationals to receive welfare,’ making themselves sound as if they are merely expressing their political beliefs.”

Kenta Yamada, a professor of media studies at Senshu University, meanwhile, argued the city’s move runs counter to longtime approaches to speech laws in Japan, where, out of regret for the dark history of suppressing citizens’ speech before and during World War II, the postwar government has stayed away from legally regulating people’s rights to freedom of expression.

The bill also would do little to address discriminatory governmental practices against ethnic Koreans, such as recent moves by the central government to cut subsidies to Korean schools, Yamada said.

“Politicians are skirting their responsibility by going after easy targets, failing to address public discrimination (against minorities) in Japan,” he said.