National / Social Issues

Japan's laws against hate speech piecemeal, lack teeth

Kyodo

When Moon Kong-hwi saw the scene, he thought the bottom of society had dropped out.

It was five years ago when he witnessed people engaged in hate speech in Osaka’s Tsuruhashi district, one of the country’s famous Korea towns. Since the vitriol came at maximum volume, what still echoes in his ears are words that raise fears.

It happened in front of JR Tsuruhashi Station. What he heard outside of the station’s exit was screams such as “Go back to South Korea!” and “Get out of Tsuruhashi!” by a dozen of people who held loudspeakers and rising sun flags.

“Uttering discriminatory words shouldn’t be done in society. But common sense is no longer there,” he said.

He could not do anything and went home, painfully aware that he is a minority in Japan. Since then, he has made it his mission to put information on the internet so his young son and daughter will not encounter such derogatory displays.

There is one-minute video shot in Tsuruhashi in February 2013. A young girl yelled at Koreans living in Japan: “I really can’t stop hating you!” “We will carry out a massacre in Tsuruhashi!” she continued.

The girl, now 18, lives in the Kanto region. She still wages hate-speech campaigns while aiming to be a TV celebrity.

“The purpose of the campaign was to demonstrate that Japan is no longer a peaceful country. Looking at the reactions on the internet, I thought it was successful that we turned their eyes to the issue,” she explained.

Asked if she believed if what was in the video constituted discrimination, she said, “Saying it is discriminatory itself is wrong. In a really racist country, people throw cans at those who are discriminated against.”

“In today’s Japan, do we have that much discrimination?” she asked.

Japan’s first hate speech law, which took effect in June, was created in line with Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, and Article 13, which guarantees basic human rights.

Experts, though, say the law is flawed because it lacks both a stated prohibition of hate speech and carries no punishment for perpetrators.

In July, an ordinance to curb hate speech took effect in the city of Osaka. It helped minimize threatening expressions, including “Die!” and “Kill them,” but did little to curb slurs like “the crime rate among Korean people is high.”

Yet the environment surrounding offensive displays appears to be changing.

Kawasaki announced on May 31 it would not allow the organizer of a hate speech demonstration to use a park following past remarks and activities. In Osaka, police called for “a society free of discrimination.”

But perpetrators of discriminatory behavior have turned their attention to the political arena.

Makoto Sakurai, 44, the former head of the anti-Korean group Zaitokukai, ran in the Tokyo gubernatorial election in July, and said in a campaign speech: “This is a free country. It is free to call you anything during the campaign.”

Sakurai was able to publicly pledge, for example, the “abolition of public assistance for non-Japanese” because Article 21 protects freedom of political activities as well as freedom of speech, while the election law prohibits interference in political speeches.

He did, however, refrain from the violently offensive outbursts that he has frequently made in the past.

Sakurai, who had said he was not interested in elections until the gubernatorial poll, was not elected but garnered about 110,000 votes. He launched a political group and said in his blog that his goal is to gain a majority in every assembly in Japan.

Regulations and ordinances have helped tighten curbs on hate speech, but the discriminatory feelings deeply embedded in people’s minds have not changed much.

“How could the Constitution encourage discrimination and hurt people’s feelings?” said one activist in the “counter” movement against hate speech. Surging nationalism has raised the question and society is searching for an answer.