National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Tokyo caught in a bind over restrictions placed on park demonstrations

by Philip Brasor

Contributing writer

Starting in 2017, Yuriko Koike, who is currently running for reelection as the governor of Tokyo, broke with tradition and did not send a letter of tribute to an annual ceremony that, since 1974, has commemorated the killing of Koreans by Japanese military and vigilante groups following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Tokyo governors, including Shintaro Ishihara, who was often accused of provoking xenophobia, have always sent a letter of tribute to be read at the ceremony, which is held at Yokoamicho Park in Sumida Ward on Sept. 1, the anniversary of the disaster. Koike herself sent a message in 2016 after she was first elected.

Her reason for not doing so since then is that she prefers to mourn all the people who died in the disaster, a sentiment that angered the memorial’s organizers, since the people they memorialize had been murdered after false rumors spread that Koreans were poisoning wells and rioting. The vast majority of those who perished in the earthquake and attendant fires were not victims of human hatred. Koike is subsuming recognition of an atrocity in a generalized tribute to those who died tragically, thus making it appear as if that atrocity has disappeared.

On June 12, the Asahi Shimbun ran an article featuring nonfiction writer Naoki Kato, who has published extensively about the Korean massacre. The purpose of the article was to discuss the ramifications of a new demand being made on the organizers of the memorial service by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. In order for the city park authority to approve the service, the organizers must now formally pledge that they will not do anything that interferes with park management. If something happens while the service is being carried out that park management deems a violation of this pledge, they can stop it. And if the organizer doesn’t obey this order, permission to use the park in the future might not be granted.

The pledge went into effect last December and applies to anyone who seeks permission to use a public park. People who hold events in parks usually have to adhere to restrictions, but, as the Asahi Shimbun points out, the pledge marks the first time a local government has threatened to “cancel” or “refuse permission for” an event if restrictions are violated.

Kato thinks the pledge was formulated with the Korean memorial in mind. In 2017, another group started holding a memorial in the same park at the same time, ostensibly for Japanese people who perished in the disaster, and last year this group set up loudspeakers and broadcast claims while the Korean service took place that there was no massacre in 1923 and in fact Korean residents looted and killed Japanese people. The two groups clashed and at least one person was arrested.

The organizers of both services are responsible for the actions of their participants and, had the pledge been in effect, they would have been in violation of it. Tokyo would then be able to refuse permission for them to use the park in the future, which seems to be the purpose of the second group’s memorial. According to Kato, the group’s organizers have admitted publicly that they are only holding their service in order to interfere with the Korean group’s memorial and eventually get it banned.

The Asahi Shimbun says the pledge has received backlash from parties who believe it violates the Constitution’s guarantees of free assembly and freedom of expression, and points out that other local governments have made similar regulations in order to limit the use of public space. In 2018, Shinjuku Ward reduced the number of parks where demonstrations can be launched from four to one, presumably to discourage their use for purposes that may lead to what the ward would consider public disorder. The content of the demonstration is apparently irrelevant. The point is to prevent problems for the police.

On June 11, 117 lawyers and university professors issued a statement accusing the Tokyo Metropolitan Government of false equivalence in the matter of the Korean massacre memorial. The opposing group, they believe, showed up to cause trouble, and placing the onus on the organizers of the Korean memorial for any resulting unrest was essentially serving the demonstrators’ purpose. The petitioners demanded that the memorial be permitted to take place without interference from outsiders.

In a piece published in Gendai Shinsho last September, nonfiction writer Koichi Yasuda, who often covers hate speech issues, wrote about his experience at the 2019 memorial. He recognized some faces in the anti-Korean group from other demonstrations at which foreign nationals were vilified. Despite their ostensible aim of mourning Japanese people who died in the 1923 disaster, all the demonstrators did was castigate the Korean memorial, saying the massacre never happened. Yasuda points out that at least one of the groups participating in the demonstration has never contested that the massacre happened. Officially it is considered a historical fact. The only real point of contention is apparently how many Koreans died. Korean groups say the number was around 6,000.

In April 2019, Tokyo implemented a law regulating hate speech in the capital ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The metropolitan government wanted to prohibit groups from using public spaces to incite hatred. Many people on the left didn’t like the law because they saw it as infringing on free speech, but both Yasuda and Kato suggest the right-wing groups protesting the memorial in Yokoamicho Park are using the law to their advantage. They show up and incite hatred toward the memorial ceremony with the idea that the park authority will shut down the memorial because its very presence provokes hate speech.

The cynicism behind this scheme is built into the name of the right-wing group: Ishiharacho Giseisha Ireisai (Ishiharacho Victims Memorial). Ishiharacho indicates the neighborhood surrounding Yokoamicho Park, and Yasuda talked to four local neighborhood associations. All said the group had nothing to do with the community and no residents had been invited to attend its memorial.

“I’ve never even heard of it,” one neighborhood leader said.

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