Last year, bar associations nationwide were suddenly flooded with about 130,000 letters seeking to punish lawyers who have expressed support for the subsidization of Korean schools affiliated with North Korea.
The move appears to have been triggered by the blog Yomei Sannen Jiji Nikki, which loosely translates to ‘a diary on current affairs kept by someone with three years left to live.’ The blogger, who is considered a netouyo (right-wing internet activist), criticized the lawyers in question.
Seeing it as a form of harassment, some lawyers are fighting back, filing civil suits seeking compensation from those who plagued them with undesired mail and obstructed their work.
‘Service to society’
One former reader, in his 30s, still remembers the first time he read a Yomei Sannen Jiji Nikki post that denounced both Korean residents in Japan and opposition parties who were seen as trying to destroy the country.
Believing the blog spoke truthfully about matters that mainstream media outlets were failing to report, the man began to check the site numerous times per day.
The blog, kept by an unidentified person, asserted, “At a time when the United Nations is adopting sanctions, resolutions (against North Korea), a group demanding subsidies (for the schools) is indeed a group supporting terrorists.”
The blogger was reacting to public statements released in 2016 by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and several local bar associations criticizing local governments’ moves to stop paying subsidies to Korean schools due to Pyongyang’s repeated missile launches and nuclear tests.
A statement issued by the federation said the schools are “attended by children of people with roots in the Korean Peninsula who have settled in Japan for historical reasons and are members of Japanese society. … Stopping subsidies for political reasons would violate those children’s right to study.”
The blogger provided a list of 21 bar associations and the names of involved and uninvolved lawyers, urging readers to convince them to be reprimanded for supporting Korean schools.
In what the reader thought would be an act “of service to society,” the man told the blogger he would take part in the campaign, and the blogger mailed documents that he could use to file requests for disciplinary action.
The names of the lawyers targeted in the campaign were already included in the papers, and all he had to do was sign his name, affix his seal and mail the documents to the designated addresses.
The blogger’s methods abused a technicality that was allowed under the Lawyers Act — anyone can demand punishment of a lawyer if he or she engages in a demeaning act. Once such a request is filed, a bar association must conduct an investigation, creating a burden for lawyers under investigation.
The man who sent the letter was among hundreds of Japanese who flooded 21 local bar associations across the country last year with thousands of letters demanding disciplinary action against the lawyers, all citing the same reason: their siding with Korean schools over the subsidy issue.
The number of requests rose to about 130,000 last year, compared to around 1,000 to 3,000 in an average year, and most concerned Korean schools, according to a tally by the federation.
Moreover, the letters regarding the Korean school issue used similar language, suggesting they were all sent by readers of Yomei Sannen Jiji Nikki. The blog began calling for the punishment of lawyers around June 2017.
Another former blog reader, who is in her 50s and unemployed, said she came across the blog around 2017.
“Although I had been uninterested in politics before, I took an interest in the blog, believing it provided secret information,” she recalled.
As she continued to follow the blog, she gradually started to harbor thoughts that she “must protect Japan from enemies” and eventually came to believe that the federation was “trying to disrupt Japan with malicious intent.”
The man and the woman both admitted to campaigning against the attorneys on a whim and were later surprised to learn that some had decided to take legal action, saying the campaign constituted a hate crime against Korean residents.
It was after reading other blogs denouncing Yomei Sannen that the two realized the rightist blog was making false claims. They came to view it as “like a religious cult.”
They have sent letters of apology to 174 lawyers, saying that they demanded punishment “without understanding the system.”
The woman says she still opposes spending public funds on Korean schools with ties to the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, also known as Chongryon.
But she now believes it is “wrong to label all opinions that go against mine as being ‘anti-Japan’ and take a hostile view of them.”
Popular blogger Ichiro Yamamoto said the Yomei Sannen blog is a netouyo blog with a cult following.
Its readers include many middle-aged and elderly people who are isolated at work or at home and discover the internet is a place where they can feel engaged, he said.
“If you feed such people with fake news about the existence of ‘enemies’ and conspiracy theories, they tend to jump at them so they can blame their own unhappiness and complaints on others.”
According to Yamamoto, who is also a senior researcher at the Japan Institute of Law and Information Systems, netouyo sites attacking South Korea, China and some opposition politicians have been popular in recent years, with some of them being compiled into books.
“They are beginning to be a business, raking in revenue from ads, donations and publications,” he said. “Their content gets increasingly extreme and biased (to gain reader attention).”
Kenta Ikeda, a Sapporo lawyer who was targeted in the campaign, received a letter of apology from a man who petitioned for his punishment, saying he resorted to “discrimination (against Koreans) in an attempt to escape from the pain of not being recognized in society.”
“A society where adults can be easily incited by the internet and be a party to discrimination is perilous,” Ikeda said. “If this problem is left unattended, we might see something similar to the Korean massacre at the time of the (1923) Great Kanto Earthquake at any time.”
In the chaos that ensued after the quake devastated wide areas of Tokyo and surrounding areas, military and paramilitary forces killed many Koreans and Chinese, apparently acting on a rumor that they would stage an uprising. Many groundless rumors swirled at the time, including one alleging Koreans were poisoning wells.