On May 2, the Cabinet Office removed the posts on its Government Monitor System (GMS) website, a place where citizens offered comments on government policy. The system was established in 1962 to solicit opinions from the public about government policy, but until 2012 it was a snail mail operation. Thereafter, business was carried out over the internet, that is until April of last year, when the site stopped accepting new comments but kept the older ones up. Then, a few weeks ago, a blog called Logi Report claimed that many of the posts qualified as hate speech, and the internet lit up, attracting the attention of the mainstream media, which didn’t seem to know about the GMS prior to Logi Report’s article.
Consequently, many outlets, including The Japan Times, ran stories about some of the commentary on the GMS site and asked the Cabinet Office about it. As Buzzfeed Japan reported on May 7, the gist of the government’s response was cautious and unsatisfying. An anonymous source told Buzzfeed Japan that there was no clear definition of discrimination and thus the government was reluctant to “censor” any of the comments. Then, suddenly, the comments vanished, with the official reason being that the site was no longer needed because it had accomplished its purpose.
What concerned Logi Report, Buzzfeed Japan and other media organizations were comments directed at non-Japanese, some of which called for the deportation of foreign residents, even though the GMS guidelines prohibit postings that could be considered “slanderous” or “discriminatory.” Given that an anti-hate speech law was implemented in 2016, media outlets wondered if the government took the law seriously. Moreover, the GMS guidelines restrict comments to policy matters, forbidding any that are political in nature and, as a number of media have pointed out, some comments clearly espouse right-wing positions.
In its coverage, Buzzfeed Japan went the extra mile and interviewed an anonymous contributor to the site who described the way it was run. The Cabinet Office would solicit potential contributors and then select about 600 to provide comments for one year. The comments were categorized and sent to relevant government offices, which were supposed to respond. Both comments and responses were then posted publicly on the site.
Buzzfeed Japan’s source, described as a salaryman in his 30s, said he was a “monitor” for fiscal year 2016. He said that each monitor was allowed to submit up to three comments a month, with each comment limited to 400 characters. Usually, it took a week for the comment to appear online. In principle, they were to be posted without changes, but he said he often noticed that specific references had been edited.
Buzzfeed Japan asked him why he wanted to be a monitor, and he answered, “I wanted to see my feelings about society reaching government ears.” People who applied to be monitors had to write a short essay about “the opinions they wanted to express.” There were no interviews. The monitor also said he realized early on that some of the comments on the site seemed to violate the guidelines since they expressed strong “ideological bias.” The Buzzfeed Japan reporter also noticed that some right-wing blogs started urging their readers “around 2015” to apply to the GMS to become monitors and express their opposition to Japan-South Korea relations and the “privileged” positions of Korean residents in Japan.
This aspect of the GMS was discussed in more detail on May 9 by activist Yasumichi Noma and journalist Koichi Yasuda on their web channel No Hate TV. Noma and Yasuda are self-styled “hate speech experts” and while their avowedly liberal opinions sometimes shade over into conspiracy theory, they pride themselves on taking a common-sense approach to the culture wars. In fact, they get along with their counterparts on the right surprisingly well. What they can’t abide is neto uyo, the reactionary rabble whose knee-jerk xenophobia seems to come straight out of a hate speech manual. To Noma, the objectionable comments on the GMS have neto uyo fingerprints all over them.
Noma retrieved some of the deleted comments from internet archives and went through the ones that contained hate speech. Most harped on the same subjects — the “comfort women” controversy, alleged rapes by Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War, the contested ownership of Takeshima — as a means of showing the supposedly reprobate nature of Koreans. Another common complaint was anti-U.S. base protests in Okinawa, which were invariably the work of Chinese and Korean sleeper cells. Other villains included the teachers’ union Nikkyoso and “left-wing” groups, targets Yasuda wryly dubbed “the hate all-stars.”
However, what really made Noma believe the comments were coming from organized neto uyo was not so much the content but the lack of logic. The commenters didn’t analyze anything. They just spouted cliches. That should have been enough to warrant their exclusion from the GMS, but there was also blatant misinformation. Some monitors wondered why the government didn’t crack down on “political activities” of non-Japanese, saying it was illegal. Foreign residents can’t vote in Japan, but their right to political action is guaranteed by the Constitution, and the Cabinet Office posted these comments without revision or rebuttal.
Both Noma and Yasuda mentioned that local governments also maintain public opinion sites, and showed comments from one in Nagano Prefecture that included examples of hate speech. When the Tokyo Shimbun called the prefectural office, the representative said that it was difficult to decide what’s appropriate in terms of freedom of speech.
Logi Report mentioned websites that solicit people to write right-wing opinions and post them. Some offer payment for articles uploaded or comments tweeted. That’s why so many reactionary statements on public websites are uniform and fixed. Noma and Yasuda wondered if, in fact, the commenters actually believed what they were writing. Some people will say anything for money.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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