National / Social Issues

Japan playing catch-up with proactive local governments in fight against hate speech

Kyodo

Towns, cities and prefectures have been taking faster action than the central government to eradicate ethnic discrimination since the 2016 enactment of the law against hate speech.

Despite progress in municipalities where a sense of crisis is growing, including Kawasaki, the western Tokyo suburb of Kunitachi and Osaka, some governments say there is only so much that can be done without state action. And those reluctant to take tougher steps are conscious of the need to protect freedom of speech.

Hate speech often includes threats to kill people of certain nationalities, insults — such as comparing certain groups to cockroaches or other creatures — and alienating remarks like “Go back to your home country.”

The 2016 law is designed to deter hate speech but lacks provisions to ban or punish the use of discriminatory language.

To make up for that, a draft ordinance unveiled by Kawasaki City Hall on June 24 stipulates criminal penalties for discrimination, a first by any municipality in Japan.

According to the draft, discriminatory remarks targeting a person from a specific country or region would be banned from being made in streets, parks, railway stations and other public spaces. Repeat violators would be punishable by fines of up to ¥500,000 ($4,600).

At the gathering of a civic group in Kawasaki on July 4, when campaigning kicked off for the House of Councilors election, participants welcomed the city’s move.

“It will be an ordinance that will stop hate speech for real,” said Choi Kang-ija, a Korean resident who was verbally abused after criticizing hate speech at a rally.

Some people, however, are concerned about how the penalties proposed in the draft might affect civil liberties.

“We must be careful not to undermine an individual’s freedom of speech,” said a Kawasaki Municipal Assembly member from the Liberal Democratic Party after being briefed on the draft ordinance. The LDP is headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Kanagawa Bar Association supported the proposed ordinance in a statement issued by its president, but bar lawyer Masao Honda said at the meeting that “members passionate about human rights were opposed to criminal penalties or any restrictions on freedom of speech.”

An official in the Kawasaki Municipal Government said that the ordinance calls for careful judicial judgment to safeguard freedom of speech and that the city is “determined to eradicate discrimination through the introduction of criminal penalties.”

Smaller governments, however, are having a particularly difficult time dealing with online hate speech and say it should be addressed at the national level. The ordinance drafted by Kawasaki also exempts online comments from punishment.

Yasuko Morooka, a lawyer well-versed in discrimination issues, said it should be the central government’s responsibility to enact anti-discrimination laws, including the bans and penalties.

To counter online hate speech, she also called for taking prompt legal measures.

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