National

Discrimination in Japan on the rise as coronavirus fears grow

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Since the coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, the world has seen a rise in xenophobia, with reports of discrimination including race-based harassment in schools, tourist spots and foreign communities in Japan prompting authorities and educators to take action.

Experts are worried the discrimination will escalate, not only against Chinese, but also any Japanese exposed to the coronavirus.

In late January, the city of Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture, caused a stir by canceling a cultural exchange event for Chinese and Japanese residents. In an announcement on Facebook, the city’s international exchange association posted information about its decision “out of concern about the spreading virus.”

Takanori Yamamoto, a sociology professor at Shizuoka University who specializes in discrimination, was alarmed by the decision.

“It was a hypersensitive and excessive reaction” that impacts Chinese residents who are part of the community, he lamented in a telephone interview Friday. He noted that the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in Shimada, which has a large foreign-born population, have been a local fixture for over a decade.

Social media are being flooded with reports of verbal attacks against Chinese living in Japan. For example, a Chinese woman in a recording uploaded to Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, complained that a server at a restaurant in the city of Ito shouted “Chinese! Out!” at her.

Yamamoto speculates that the negativity directed at these people is stemming from the frustration building over ill-mannered tourists from China. Given past tensions between the two nations, he worries such thinking may further stir nationalist sentiment in both Japanese and Chinese communities.

“An outpouring of negative feelings is common amid strained international relations or health threats like this (coronavirus) crisis, and the government should urge calm,” when addressing the public, Yamamoto said.

Earlier this month, five elementary and junior high school students at public schools in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, reported being bullied in connection with the outbreak.

Akihiro Nakamura, an official of Kamogawa’s board of education, said to prevent such behavior all public elementary and middle schools in the city held all-school meetings to educate children about resentment and discrimination.

“We explained that people who treat patients infected with the virus or take care of others who came back from China are doing their best to prevent the spread of the virus and told them to show their respect and support,” he said.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has urged schools to step up measures against bullying amid the outbreak.

In Tokyo, Kanagawa and Chiba, officials called on educators to stay vigilant and ensure students’ emotional well-being, stressing that hate attacks aren’t always aimed at non-Japanese.

Koji Izawa of the Chiba Prefectural Government recalled that also bullying surfaced after the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster when child evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture were forced to attend new schools.

“We’re referring to the lessons we learned that time,” Izawa said.

Officials in Chiba have distributed pamphlets to children with information on the coronavirus and measures taken so far. Included are tips on how to maintain good hygiene and health. They have also been visiting the schools to watch for discriminatory behavior.

The outbreak that has prompted dozens of countries to restrict or suspend travel to and from virus-hit areas of China and forced many tourists to cancel their trips.

“We’ve received many inquiries about measures we are taking to control the spread of the virus,” a marketing representative at a hotel near Narita airport said by phone.

The hotel has beefed up its hygiene protocol by increasing the availability of hand sanitizer in common areas and housekeeping staff are cleaning the places where guests mingle more often.

The representative, who requested anonymity, urged calm.

“We are prepared for other infections — such as outbreaks of influenza or norovirus — which often occur around this time of year,” he said.

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