Last week I ended this column by noting that Myanmar (also known as Burma) can ill afford bigotry and intolerance. Neither can Japan. The outpouring here of hate speech targeting ethnic Korean residents is a disturbing development even if it is not representative. And certainly, it is encouraging that these xenophobic sentiments have sparked a backlash among Japanese.

The Shin-Okubo district of central Tokyo, until recently known as a cosmopolitan hub of the Korean pop-culture boom and long an enclave of diversity, has suddenly been thrust into the front line of jingoism as nationalist rightwingers have marched through its streets over the past several months carrying ominous placards calling for “Death to Koreans.”

This is the city that has just been awarded the 2020 Olympics?

Sorry, marches advocating ethnic cleansing are shamefully out of step with 21st-century values and norms — and they also make Japan appear more uncivilized and dangerous than it really is. Though most Japanese may be nonplussed by the eruption of such primordial impulses, beneficial and brittle relations of interdependence with other countries burden the nation’s leaders with unshakeable responsibilities.

Hence, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it’s time to condemn and curb this vitriol that threatens lives, subjects minorities to indignities, contravenes fundamental Olympic principles and tarnishes Japan’s reputation.

Why hasn’t the Liberal Democratic Party loudly repudiated these extremist profanities — and what will it take to get the ruling coalition it heads to pass anti-hate-speech legislation? Without doubt, the important constitutional right to free speech can be protected without sanctioning hate speech.

A Kyoto court recently ruled that hate speech is discriminatory and illegal and awarded damages to a Korean school targeted by rightwing demonstrators, while also banning further rallies within 200 meters of its premises.

This landmark ruling drew on the fact that, in 1995, Japan acceded to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination that went into force in 1969. However, the Diet has not got round to passing laws to enforce that United Nations treaty commitment, and so the Kyoto judge’s ruling has thrown down the gauntlet.

Businesses in Shin-Okubo, mostly owned by Zainichi (long-term Korean residents of Japan), have suffered a sharp fall in business as visitors steer clear of the repellant atmosphere and potential violence as counter-demonstrators confront the xenophobes. Sadly, racists have transformed Shin-Okubo into an ugly blemish on Olympic Tokyo.

What’s going on? Zainichi have lived in Japan for generations and are not prone to crime or other antisocial behavior that might incite such outbursts. They have assimilated into Japanese society and are at home here even if they are subject to significant discrimination that serves to marginalize them both economically and politically. And there has not been one of those sudden economic downturns that often translate into minority scapegoating.

Koreans resident in Japan are no strangers to prejudice. Indeed, 90 years ago in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, thousands were killed in Tokyo by vigilante mobs enraged by baseless rumors that Koreans were setting fires, poisoning wells and looting.

In 2000, then Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara told members of the Self-Defense Forces to be vigilant about crimes by what he called “sankokujin” (literally, “third-country people,” a derogatory term for Koreans and Chinese) in the event of an earthquake — a chilling comment evoking sentiments behind the senjingari (Korean hunting) of 1923.

So why are the Korea-phobes crawling out from under their rocks now?

My guess is that the ramping up of nationalist sentiments over the past year, mostly sparked by the territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea, has played a role. And problems with South Korea surrounding unresolved historical grievances have also escalated over the past year as Korean courts have ruled that Japanese firms should compensate forced laborers, and have also pressured Korea’s government to demand redress for the wartime “comfort women.”

So East Asian neighbors are giving Japan a hard time and ethnic Korean residents of Japan are paying the price.

Given the troubled state of bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea, it is worth remembering that Oct. 8, 2013, was the 15th anniversary of the historic Korea-Japan partnership signed in 1998 by President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi — a landmark event which demonstrated what leaders can do if they are up to the challenge.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recalls, “By looking back on relations between Korea and Japan in this century, Prime Minister Obuchi humbly accepted the historic fact that Japanese colonial rule inflicted unbearable suffering and pain on the Korean people and expressed painfully deep repentance and heartfelt apology for the ordeal.

“President Kim Dae-jung sincerely acknowledged the Japanese prime minister’s perception of history, expressed appreciation and mentioned that it is a necessity of the times that both Korea and Japan make concerted efforts to overcome the unfortunate past and build a future-oriented relationship based on the spirit of reconciliation and friendship.”

Kim, the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was the bad boy of the Korean democratization movement who, in 1973, was abducted from a Tokyo hotel by Korean agents and narrowly escaped assassination. It is believed that then-President Park Chung-hee, father of current President Park Geun-hye, sanctioned the kidnapping by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency because he wanted to silence his popular political rival. However, the United States is said to have pressured Seoul to release Kim, so saving his life.

In 2001, Emperor Akihito publicly acknowledged that the Imperial family’s ancestors came from the Korean Peninsula — a bombshell aimed at lessening antipathies by encouraging Japanese people to understand that “they” are “we.”

Subsequently, in 2002, President Kim sat beside Emperor Akihito watching the final of the FIFA World Cup in Yokohama — a Kodak moment if ever there was one. Unexpectedly, South Korea and Japan managed to jointly host the soccer fest without incident, ushering in a period of warming relations as Japanese developed an unlikely love affair with Korean TV dramas and pop culture.

Now the nations appear to be sparring over everything, including Japan’s bid to secure UNESCO World Heritage status for sites in Kyushu where wartime Korean forced laborers worked — one being Hashima Island off Nagasaki (the inspiration for the villain’s lair in the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall”). Japan wants these sites recognized because they contributed to its industrialization, while Seoul worries that the triumphalist message will obscure their dark history.

Koreans need look no further than Auschwitz to understand how UNESCO World Heritage designation can preserve and promote painful memories. On this issue, and others, there is undoubtedly room for cooperation.

According to South Korea’s media, the nation’s two delegates to the International Olympic Committee rose above the sniping this summer and voted in favor of Tokyo’s bid — and haven’t suffered any adverse consequences.

Surely it’s time for Japan’s leaders to also embrace the Olympic spirit and show the world that hate speech has no place in this country.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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