“MOTHER F——- KISS MY ANUS. F—- OFF Mother F——-… foreigner. Sneaking PHOTO.”

A hand-written sign bearing these words is among several decorated with similar insults that greet shoppers outside a fashion store that sells rock-style clothing in Tokyo. The sign sits among shirts emblazoned with designs featuring overseas rock bands such as Iron Maiden, Children Of Bodom and Marilyn Manson in the fashion and kawaii culture mecca of Harajuku’s Takeshita Street in Shibuya Ward.

The Japan Times visited the shop after being approached by a foreign resident who was disgusted to see the signs while he was with his young daughter.

“The shop is absolutely covered in these messages,” wrote the reader. “I walk past this place from time to time. The thing that annoys me most is that Harajuku is such an anything-goes area full of all kinds of subcultures and minorities, not least of all foreigners, so this place is like a nasty little pit of intolerance inside an oasis of colour and joy.”

Asked about the thinking behind the signs, a staff member at the store explained that the shop put them up after becoming frustrated by the terrible manners of foreign shoppers.

“They usually take pictures, without permission,” said the staff member. The shop is concerned about images of its products being uploaded to the internet, she said. As to whether they would consider taking down the sign, she added: “I’m not so sure. If (they) had good manners, we wouldn’t do this, but there are so many that have really bad manners.”

She added that non-Japanese are welcome to shop at the store as long as they behave themselves. Another foreign reader who also wrote in to The Japan Times about the signs confirmed she had visited the shop and the staff had been “very nice.”

A law to tackle discrimination

In March, the Justice Ministry published the results of a landmark first-ever government survey into discrimination against foreign residents. Although it didn’t take up the issue of discriminatory signage specifically, 247 out of 4,252 respondents said they are “sometimes” refused entry to shops and restaurants in Japan due to their nationality. Surprisingly, 18 answered they are “frequently” refused entry. Sixteen of these responded about their language ability, with 13 saying they were able to speak a fair amount of Japanese.

In the survey, a Brazilian woman in her 20s said, “Once when I tried entering a small shop in Harajuku, a young staff member there blocked me, saying that the place was limited to Japanese only.” The report also gave the example of a British man in his 30s who said he was sometimes declined entrance to some services. “I was once declined by a hotel in Hokkaido,” he wrote. “Foreigners couldn’t stay there.”

In recent years, a number of reports of discriminatory expressions on signs have made it into the headlines in Japan.

In 2014, fans of soccer team Urawa Reds raised a sign that said “Japanese only” over an entrance to the stands during a J. League match against Sagan Tosu at Saitama Stadium. The league ordered the club to play in an empty stadium, costing the team over ¥100 million in lost ticket sales, and more than 10 supporter groups were disbanded.

Also in 2014, anti-Korean stickers that said “Let us protect the pilgrimage course from the Koreans” were discovered throughout a popular 88-temple walking course known as the Shikoku Henro that runs around the island region of Shikoku. The message was believed to refer to a campaign initiated by a 38-year-old South Korean guide, Choi Sang-hee, to mark the route with illustrated stickers in foreign languages to keep non-Japanese pilgrims from getting lost.

Moreover, starting in 2013, discriminatory rallies against people of overseas origin proliferated amid Japan’s deteriorating relationship with South Korea. A total of 347 such rallies took place in 2013 and 378 in 2014, according to the Justice Ministry. Some signs held by demonstrators called for the banishment or even massacre of ethnic Korean resident.

Partly in response to these rallies, in May 2016 the Diet passed Japan’s first law aimed at curbing racial discrimination — the Act on the Promotion of Efforts to Eliminate Unfair Discriminatory Speech and Behavior against Persons Originating from Outside Japan, better known as the hate speech law.

The law defines hate speech as “openly announcing to the effect of harming the life, body, freedom, reputation or property of, or to significantly insult, persons originating from outside Japan with the objective of encouraging or inducing discriminatory feelings against such persons.”

Shown a photo of one of the signs at the shop in Harajuku, Fumihiko Yanaka, a counselor at the Justice Ministry’s Human Rights Bureau, said it was difficult to conclude that it constituted hate speech, and that the bureau would have to investigate the background to the sign before it could reach a conclusion either way. Even if the bureau decided the signs’ content fell under the new law, Yanaka confirmed that the bureau has no power to demand the store remove the signs.

He said that displaying discriminatory signs, such as “Japanese only” or “No foreigners,” would not be considered as “infringing on human rights” unless an individual was affected. “There must be a victim,” Yanaka said. “Only if a specific individual claimed that their rights have been invaded would we run investigations and relief measures.”

Where possible, organizations that give business permits to such establishments — in the case of health centers and restaurants, for example — should take the lead in dealing with these kinds of problems, he said, although clothing shops usually require no such permission.

Passing the buck to localities

The hate speech law has come under criticism for failing to give specific examples of hate speech or lay down penalties for discriminatory behavior. Instead, the law calls on local governments to take measures to give the law teeth.

The law condemns unjustly discriminatory language as “unforgivable” and says, “Local governments shall implement educational activities in order to eliminate unfair discriminatory speech and behavior against persons originating from outside Japan in accordance with the actual situation of the region, taking into account the sharing of appropriate roles with the national government, and shall endeavor to make the necessary efforts therefor.”

Though critics have called for the government to lead by example rather than pass the buck, the hate speech law could yet turn out to be a game changer in terms of local measures against discrimination, whether those acts be aimed at foreign nationals or other minorities. Cities around Japan have already begun taking action, preparing and enforcing ordinances that set penalties for hate speech offenses as defined under the new law.

The first move was made by the city of Osaka. In July 2016 the city introduced an ordinance that defines discriminatory expressions in demonstrations, public speeches, as well as the dissemination and viewing of DVDs of such activities, as constituting hate speech. It allowed the city to demand internet providers delete discriminatory content, including videos, and to publish offenders’ names. At a news conference in March, Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura said: “Freedom of speech is not unlimited. It will be regulated if it disrupts public welfare.”

Kawasaki and Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward have established their own regulations and Nagoya is scheduled to follow suit.

Meanwhile in Shibuya — the ward including Harajuku, where the rock clothing store is situated — a civic group has been formed to push the municipal government to pass an ordinance that takes advantage of the hate speech law.

In 2015, Shibuya introduced another ordinance that recognizes same-sex partnerships as being “equivalent to marriage.” It also stresses the importance of banning discrimination based on gender, race, age or disability, saying that “the city must take the initiative in spreading and sharing understanding of respect toward human rights and diversity, that any form of discrimination should not be taking place.” However, it does not include any details about what kind of measures the city will actually take in such circumstances.

Yui Nagashima, a lifelong Shibuya resident who heads the civic group, says she wants the ward to go further, by pioneering an ordinance that restricts or penalize discriminatory expressions. As of now, none of the major wards and cities in Tokyo has such a regulation, even though the country is expecting to host as many as 40 million tourists from overseas in 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympics and Paralympics. Nagashima’s goal is to see an amended ordinance in place by then.

“If we continue allowing harmful speech by claiming ‘freedom of speech,’ then the victims just have to live with having their human rights infringed,” Nagashima said. “I don’t think hate speech and wordings that provoke racism should fall in the range of freedom of speech or expression. The current situation is wrong in that it prioritizes freedom of speech over damage to the victims.”

Although unable to provide specifics yet, Nagashima hopes that as well as enabling authorities to clamp down on hate speech rallies, a future ordinance may be able to restrict other forms of discriminatory expressions, such as exclusionary signs raised at stores.

In February, Nagashima’s group kickstarted its activities with a symposium that considered how Shibuya should tackle racial discrimination, bringing in influential experts in the field such as psychiatrist Rika Kayama and lawyer Yasuko Morooka, as well as Shibuya Mayor Ken Hasebe.

“Hate speech is a human rights violation committed by those who cry ‘freedom of speech,'” Hasebe said at the event. “While considering its association with freedom of speech, we’ll continue looking into what kind of measures we could take, while listening to the voices of the citizens.”

However, while the mayor may be making all the right noises, Shigeru Saito, the manager of Shibuya’s General Affairs Department, said that as yet, the ward has no plans to take further measures against discriminatory speech, although he was critical of the rock clothing store in Harajuku when shown a photo of one of the signs outside the shop.

“Looking at it, some people may consider it as restricting them from entering, so it is inappropriate,” said Saito. “But it’s difficult to regulate the operation of the store and the expressions that they use,” he said, confirming that the 2015 ordinance is only a principle for people to refer to and gives the city no powers to penalize violators.

The other legal options

With many local authorities still at the discussion and consultation phase in terms of implementing and enforcing penalties, are there other laws that can be effective in getting discriminatory signs placed in front of businesses removed?

Ryusuke Kin, a lawyer at Taito Kyodo Law Office and a member of the Tokyo Bar Association’s group dedicated to protecting the human rights of foreign nationals, said it’s difficult to prove illegality even if stores or services raise discriminatory signs such as “No foreigners” or “Japanese only.” He said the only legal precedents that exist are in cases where a business has actually refused to provide services based on nationality, and current law has no power to act based upon the presence of the signs alone.

“If a person was refused services due to their nationality and became a plaintiff, the court would accept their demand for compensation. It’s not about signs raised in front of the stores, but rather evidence,” Kin said.

On the other hand, if a store was to refuse a non-Japanese customer service, “Even if a store was to claim this was not due to nationality — saying it’s because they were with a dog or being loud — you wouldn’t lose if there was a (discriminatory) sign, because it becomes clear evidence,” he said.

In 1999, Brazilian journalist Ana Bortz won a suit against a jewelry store in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, after the shop owner attempted to force her out of the store upon realizing she was not Japanese. The Shizuoka District Court awarded her ¥1.5 million in damages, based on Japan’s obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which it signed in 1996.

In 2002 the Sapporo District Court ordered a bathhouse in Otaru, Hokkaido, to pay ¥1 million each in damages to three plaintiffs refused entry because they did not look Japanese. This ruling was based on articles of the civil code protecting individual rights and authorizing damages when these rights are violated, Article 14 of the Constitution — which forbids discrimination — and international conventions on racial discrimination and civil rights. However, the court did not uphold the plaintiffs’ claim against the city for its failure to implement an ordinance against racial discrimination based on the international pact cited in the Bortz case. That verdict was confirmed by the Sapporo High Court.

Debito Arudou, a plaintiff in the Otaru case and a columnist for The Japan Times who writes about human rights, hosted a “Rogues Gallery” of “Japanese only” and other discriminatory signs found across the country on his website, Debito.org, in the years after the Otaru case. There, readers could post photos of signs they found locally or on their travels, as well as any measures taken to get those signs removed, some of which proved successful.

“After the Otaru onsens case, bigoted shopkeeps realized they could put up ‘Japanese only’ signs with impunity, and they proliferated around Japan,” explains Arudou. “I dropped by those places, asked ‘Why this sign?’ and what could we do about it.

“Most managers adamantly denied any racism on their part, until I asked if someone like I, a Caucasian with a Japanese passport, could come in. When they said no, I pointed out the racism, to which they just shifted tack and blamed their racist customers. When they said yes, I often came inside and got more information about what was necessary to get the signs down. When they said they’ll think about it and I should come back later, I did and was usually denied entry again. I’d say each situation happened about a third of the time.

“We did get several signs down,” Arudou says. “Part of it was by calm persuasion about what how unenforceable the policy was: How were they to decide who was Japanese, especially when I was proving it was possible to be one without looking like one — and what about Japan’s international children? Part of it was the need to make the rules clear despite a language barrier. I listened to their rules, wrote up a bilingual sign for them to display, and received their exclusionary sign in trade. And part of it was quietly pulling signs down in the middle of the night. They didn’t go back up.”

Based on his experiences, Arudou advises engaging with business owners displaying discriminatory signs.

“If you have the language ability, or a friend or native speaker who is so inclined, ask the manager why the sign is up, and what it would take to get it down,” Arudou says. “After all, we shouldn’t allow racist behavior to be normalized through public signage. And if that doesn’t work, of course, I would never advocate that people pull the signs down quietly in the middle of the night. Never ever.”

In April, the Justice Ministry’s Human Rights Bureau beefed up its system of human rights consultation for non-Japanese residents and tourists. Phone consultations are available in English, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Portuguese and Vietnamese. Legal affairs bureau officials in 50 locations nationwide will consult with victims of human rights violations who make calls on 0570-090911, on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In 2016, they accepted about 600 consultations concerning racial discrimination.

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