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In the run-up to Sunday’s Tokyo gubernatorial election, one candidate’s xenophobic speeches have fanned the flames of an ongoing debate over hate speech.

Makoto Sakurai, the former leader of anti-foreigner group Zaitokukai, urged voters to expel foreign residents from Japan to defend the rights of Japanese nationals.

Speaking to a crowd in Tokyo’s Sugamo district, he claimed that foreign residents — particularly Koreans, Chinese, and Filipinos — are exploiting Japan’s welfare system.

“What have we done to Koreans? We’ve done nothing wrong to them,” he said, denying Japan’s wartime aggression. “We have helped them to increase their population, to extend their life expectancy and to double their grain production. Even so, they are still flocking around Japan’s social welfare system.

“If there are foreign residents in Japan who can’t live a day or two without social benefits, just let them die or leave Japan,” he said in a video available on his campaign website.

“Japanese people have been victims of various crimes committed by you. Don’t you ever look back on your behavior and try to change the situation?” Sakurai asked in another speech in front of an office of the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) in Tokyo. He was addressing Korean people in the office, and called them “unwanted.”

“Koreans always try to avert their eyes from the truth. That’s why I’m standing here, enraged, asking you to leave Japan immediately,” he said. “Can someone please tell me what makes this assertion hate speech?”

To finish off, he said: “I will come back here and perform this speech again and again. I’ll be invincible for 16 days,” referring to the length of the gubernatorial election campaign.

Despite his xenophobic remarks, Sakurai garnered more than 110,000 votes from Tokyoites, winding up fifth among the 21 candidates behind Yuriko Koike, Hiroya Masuda, Shuntaro Torigoe and Takashi Uesugi.

Under the current election law, such hate speech cannot be regulated, according to Tokyo Metropolitan Government official Yasuhiro Masumoto.

“Giving campaign speeches is a part of (a candidate’s) political activity, which is protected by the freedom of expression,” he said, adding that even if people find a candidate’s speech to be utterly absurd, impeding their right to speak their beliefs is not an option.

Justice Ministry official Toshiya Yamaguchi, however, said political campaign speeches can be investigated if they obviously violate the human rights of an individual or group. He said the party that feels its rights have been violated needs to speak up, and the speech itself needs to be deemed outside the bounds of logical political discourse.

Although the government in May enacted a law to deter hate speech against racial and ethnic minorities, it does not pertain to campaign speeches, Yamaguchi said.

“Criticism of specific ethnic groups is not immediately deemed a human rights violation if a rationale for the policies is provided. It is difficult to regulate them just because they are unfavorable to some groups,” he said.

However, Yasuko Morooka, a lawyer involved in the fight against hate speech, said Sakurai was very obviously exploiting the gubernatorial election to attack foreign residents in Japan because he spoke in front of places where people who don’t have voting rights live or work.

“The government enacted an anti-hate speech law, meaning they are mandated to tackle the issue . . . ,” she said.

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