Hate speech against Korean residents of Japan has become an international issue as the United Nations has called on Tokyo to take proper measures to deal with the problem. At the center of the hate speech controversy is the anti-Korean group Zaitokukai, known for organizing street rallies that verbally attack ethnic Koreans, particularly in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo district and Osaka’s Tsuruhashi area, both known as Korea towns.

Under these circumstances, it has surfaced that a lawmaker tapped last month to head the National Public Safety Commission — which oversees the National Police Agency — posed for a photo in 2009 with Zaitokukai’s Kansai branch leader. In her new position, Eriko Yamatani has an important role to play in curbing hate speech. But in her recent speech and Q&A session at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Yamatani not only failed to take a stance against Zaitokukai’s activities but refused to denounce the group.

This is utterly deplorable. Yamatani should realize that her failure to oppose what Zaitokukai does will not only deepen suspicions about her basic political views — and the policy orientation of the Abe administration for that matter — but also serve to obstruct Japan’s efforts to fight against hate speech.

In July, the U.N. Human Rights Committee recommended that Japan “should prohibit all propaganda advocating racial superiority or hatred that incites discrimination, hostility or violence” as well as demonstrations intended to disseminate such propaganda. The next month, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Japan to “firmly address manifestations of hate and racism as well as incitements to racist violence and hatred during rallies.”

Yamatani acknowledged on Sept. 18 that she posed for the photograph in question at a hotel in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture in February 2009. Shown in the photo were Yamatani and six other people, including the man who was then head of Zaitokukai’s Kansai branch.

That photo was a fixture on the man’s website until Sept. 16. Yatamani said she was unaware of the man’s background at the time. But the man has stated that he has known Yamatani for about 15 years since he asked her to serve as an adviser to another group to discuss education-related issues, adding that he did not tell her about his activities as a Zaitokukai member.

Zaitokukai aims to abolish what it calls “special privileges” accorded to ethnic Koreans in Japan, especially their “special permanent residency” visa status. A 1991 law gave them such status on the grounds that such Korean residents either had Japanese nationality due to Japan’s colonial rule over Korea until they lost it when the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect in 1952, or are the descendants of such people.

When Yamatani was invited to a news conference at the FCCJ on Sept. 25, questions from the participants focused on her relationship with Zaitokukai. A reporter of The Times newspaper of London asked, “Will you take the opportunity here to reject unconditionally Zaitokukai, and the policies and sentiments which it represents?” Instead of squarely answering him, Yamatani instead replied, “Generally speaking, it is not appropriate to comment on various organizations.”

It is deplorable to hear the minister in charge of the NPA make such a statement, in view of the fact that Zaitokukai’s activities are widely known to the public and that its members’ utterances at rallies clearly constitute hate speech. Examples of their utterances include: “Go back to the Korean Peninsula,” “You Koreans, die,” “You stink of kimchi” and “Let Koreans be disposed of in an animal shelter.”

Yamatani’s evasive reply could lead people to believe that she has no intention of denouncing Zaitokukai because she shares an ideological affinity with it. Given that she is a Cabinet minister, the same could be said for the Abe government, which has only stated that the 2009 photo is no problem.

The phrase “special privileges” of ethnic Koreans living in Japan is a key public relations weapon in Zaitokukai’s efforts to mobilize people. But the government had a valid historical rationale for giving them special permanent residency status. Korean residents in Japan are not entitled to more social and administrative benefits than Japanese. Yet at the news conference, Yamatani expressed no objections to the phrase.

In view of the abhorrent situation involving hate speech being directed at Koreans living in Japan and of the fact that Japan is a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, legislators and the public should seriously consider legal measures to ban hate speech aimed at ethnic and sexual minorities including “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.

In doing so, utmost care must be taken so that no measure leads to weakening freedom of speech, expression and thought. Sanae Takaichi, a former policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party and now internal affairs and communications minister, once called for restricting demonstrations around the Diet while discussing measures against hate speech. Any move to suppress people’s expression of political opinions by taking advantage of efforts to combat hate speech should be denounced and stopped.

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