National / Social Issues

A year after enactment of hate speech law, xenophobic rallies down by nearly half

Kyodo

The number of xenophobic rallies in which ultra-right-wing groups use discriminatory language has dropped by nearly half in the 11 months since the Diet enacted a law to deter hate speech, the National Police Agency said.

While statistics show some positive impact from the law, legal experts are starting to point out its limitations because groups are finding ways to circumvent it by modifying their language at rallies to avoid obvious epithets but still express the same kind of bigotry.

From June 3, 2016, through the end of April, police nationwide tallied 35 demonstrations involving hate speech versus 61 in the same period a year earlier.

The Diet enacted the law on May 24, 2016.

“The decline in demonstrations by rightist civil groups is probably attributable to the law’s entry into force and increased social debate on the matter,” an NPA official said.

An official of the Justice Ministry’s Human Rights Bureau said that while rallies involving verbal attacks against ethnic Koreans and other minority groups have not been eradicated, the law has “helped raise awareness that hate speech is not allowed.”

The law describes extremely offensive verbal abuse that incites discrimination against people born outside Japan or against their descendants living in Japan as “unacceptable.”

Designed to curb hate speech, the law urges the central and municipal governments to take measures to eliminate discrimination. However, it stops short of prohibiting or penalizing such speech for fear that doing so would violate the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

The Justice Ministry has shown municipal governments examples of hate speech, including phrases that urge others to “kill people” of a certain nationality, “throw them into the ocean,” tell them to “return to their homeland” or describe them as “cockroaches.”

But Satoko Kitamura, a lawyer investigating hate speech rallies, told the Diet earlier this month that organizers have been “contriving ways so that (their demonstrations) will not be recognized as adopting hate speech.”

She said participants in demonstrations in Tokyo, Saitama and Fukuoka raised signs that said “Die Korea” or chanted a slogan that said, “Please enter the Sea of Japan.”

“The Justice Ministry is calling on municipal governments to take into consideration the contexts and meaning of the expressions. As long as there are people who feel they are targeted and offended, such language must also be considered hate speech,” Kitamura said.

Iruson Nakamura, a 47-year-old journalist whose mother is a Korean resident of Japan, said, “(Hate-motivated) demonstrations have continued and online speech that incites discrimination is uncontrolled. Prohibitive measures must be sought by amending the law or enacting ordinances.”

The Kawasaki Municipal Government is preparing to compile guidelines to deter offensive speech at public facilities because a dozen rallies directed against Korean residents have been held in the city since 2013, prompting the central government to enact the law last year.

In those rallies, participants chanted “Koreans go away” and other slogans.

In the first such attempt in Japan to draft guidelines aimed at tackling the issue, the Kawasaki Municipal Government is planning to set strict requirements for restricting demonstrations while also protecting the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

A draft presented by the city in April said Kawasaki authorities can reject or revoke permission to use parks and community halls when activities are likely to involve derogatory or offensive slogans against a targeted group. However, to prevent arbitrary restrictions, the draft also underlined the need to consult a third-party organization for expert opinion.

Choi Gang I Ja, a 43-year-old third-generation Korean resident of Kawasaki, said hate speech needs to be restricted.

“Once (hate speech) leaves a scar on us, it cannot easily be healed,” she said.

Shortly after the Diet enacted the law, the city prohibited rally organizers from using a park, citing the need to protect citizens from verbal abuse. Kawasaki became the first municipality in the country to take such a measure.

But not many municipalities have followed suit amid concerns about the potential for violating people’s constitutional rights.

Although the city of Osaka originally aimed to set restrictions against hate speech, its ordinance only enabled the municipal government to publicize the names of individuals and organizations that engage in hate speech after such events are held.

Ryang Yong Song, the 34-year-old representative of the Anti Racism Information Center said, “For the last year, discussions only focused on what is hate speech and the scope of freedom of expression, but that is not enough. A law is needed to ban all kinds of discrimination including ethnicity, birth and disability.”