National

Different disaster, same story: Osaka quake prompts online hate speech targeting foreigners

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Monday’s deadly quake in Osaka Prefecture has led to the resurgence of what has become a familiar — if disconcerting — post-disaster trend on the internet: a slew of hate speech-driven tweets warning of “crimes” committed by foreign residents.

In the aftermath of the magnitude 6.1 earthquake, which left at least three dead and hundreds injured, scores of tweets were seen labeling ethnic non-Japanese — particularly ethnic Koreans and Chinese — as criminals who may take advantage of post-quake confusion to rob banks and convenience stores, and commit other dangerous crimes.

Authorities warned against the propagation of groundless rumors on the internet, and urged people not to spread hate speech and false information.

“When a quake happens in the Kansai region, there is a strong possibility of Chinese and Koreans engaging in wrongdoing. It’s possible they will go after ATMs in banks and convenience stores,” one Twitter user wrote.

“Who are those Koreans poisoning water in the wells every time a quake happens?” wrote another.

This is by no means the first time online rumors vilifying those of Korean descent and other foreign residents have emerged after a disaster. Similar online slurs were seen in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and the 2016 quakes that ravaged Kumamoto Prefecture, as well as the floods and landslides that devastated Hiroshima Prefecture in 2014.

“The spread of post-disaster or post-accident disinformation implying crimes have been committed by foreign residents or describing them as dangerous has been a recurring phenomenon,” said Koichi Yasuda, a freelance journalist who has covered extensively issues related to human rights of non-Japanese people. Yasuda cited the so-called Kanto Massacre, which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, in which scores of ethnic Koreans were murdered by the army, police and vigilantes after unsubstantiated rumors were spread that they were rioting and committing acts of sabotage — including the poisoning of wells.

Such baseless information “sows divisions in society,” potentially resulting in a particular demographic being “identified and pilloried as enemies” by the general public, Yasuda said.

The tweets denigrating non-Japanese have also drawn fierce condemnation on social media, with some urging their fellow Twitter users to swiftly report such xenophobic language.

“Post-disaster, hate-speech talk that foreign residents are committing crimes stokes public suspicions for no good reason, and possibly leads to them being hurt or discriminated against. Let’s report these comments as soon as you find them,” wrote one Twitter user.

Central and local governments are taking steps to challenge such hate speech.

“When the Kumamoto earthquake happened two years ago, online rumors verging on hate speech, as well as one saying that, for example, a lion has escaped a zoo, spread,” said Ken Kuruma, an official with the Justice Ministry’s Human Rights Bureau.

On Monday, the bureau posted a tweet warning against the possible advent of “disinformation” seeking to “stoke discrimination and prejudice” on the internet.

The Osaka Prefectural Government, too, posted a similar message on its website voicing dismay over the “proliferation” of factually erroneous online posts that describe “accidents that never happened.”

“Please be mindful of the source of information and make a sufficient effort to confirm its credibility,” the prefecture said.

Aside from tweets targeting foreign residents, rumors also surfaced Monday that the jolt had resulted in a Keihan Electric Railway train being derailed. When contacted by The Japan Times, a spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday that such an accident had never occurred.

A picture also went viral of a zebra having escaped a zoo, with multiple media outlets reporting that the photo was thought to have been copied from an old online news page.