“Fear might be more harmful than the virus.” — Japanese Red Cross, April 21

There is nothing new about the tendency to look for scapegoats during pandemics. Indeed, at many points in history, anxiety about contagious disease has manifested itself in the form of fear mongering and xenophobia.

Contagious disease functions not only at the biological level, but also at the social level, since fear about contagious diseases can clearly contribute to discriminatory discourse about foreigners. This form of stigmatization can have lasting effects on individuals, on minority communities and on society as a whole.

A popular video produced in April by the Japanese Red Cross explains that pandemics occur in three waves. The first wave is that of contagious disease, generally associated with “physical infection.” The second is that of worry or fear and can be said to be a “psychological infection.” The third is related to prejudice and discrimination, and can be characterized as “social infection.”

As the video explains, there is a circular movement between these three types of infection, causing the disease to lead to fear which in turn leads to discrimination. In this sense fear actually contributes to the spread of the disease, since people who are victims of discrimination are less likely to admit that they are infected, which can make the work of diagnostics and tracing more difficult.

The coronavirus and hate speech

Outside of Asia there has been a significant increase in the number of hate speech incidents targeting people of Asian descent, and in some cases other groups (such as Hassidic Jews, Roma communities and various types of migrants) have also been targets of discrimination. Hate speech is increasingly gaining the attention of local and national governments, but from the legal and policy perspective many questions remain unresolved.

Following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, UNESCO produced a guide with tips for how to avoid discriminatory language when talking about the virus and in May the Council of Europe published a report providing information about the governance of online hate speech.

In Japan, hate speech against foreign residents became a serious social issue in the early 2010s. Demonstrations against foreign residents took place in big cities, such as Tokyo and Osaka, and the main targets were descendants of those who migrated from the Korean Peninsula, which was under Japanese colonial rule prior to the end of World War II. In 2016 the Hate Speech Elimination Act was approved by the Diet, but it sets no penalty for committing hate speech.

In the current pandemic, there have also been examples of discrimination against foreigners. In early March, anonymous letters, demanding that Chinese people should leave Japan, were sent to restaurants in the Chinatown in Yokohama. Also in early March, when the Saitama municipal government began the distribution of masks to local kindergartens, a Korean-owned kindergarten was deliberately excluded. When Ken Shimura, one of the most popular comedians in Japan, died of COVID-19 in late March, there were tweets saying he was murdered by Chinese.

The importance of city networks

In 2001, a Japanese network of cities with large numbers of foreign workers (mainly of Japanese descent from South America), was formed to share good practices in the support and inclusion of foreign residents. This network has been active in promoting policy dialogue with the national government. Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, the largest city within the network, has been a leading member since its creation. In 2017, Hamamatsu joined the Intercultural Cities (ICC) program of the Council of Europe and remains the only city in Japan to be a member.

The ICC program proposes the idea of “intercultural integration” as an alternative to the models of assimilationism and multiculturalism. Created in 2008, the ICC program includes 140 cities in Europe and beyond, and has been an important source of information and networking for cities that are committed to recognizing diversity, ensuring equality and promoting positive interactions. In recent years the program has also supported the creation of city networks at the national level, not only in Europe (Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Kingdom), but also in Morocco, Australia and Canada.

Local governments and inclusion

Recent research in public policy has shown that local governments are in a particularly good position to fight against discrimination and promote social cohesion for society as a whole. A 2018 study commissioned by the Council of Europe established that local policies can be more important than national policies for successful integration and that intercultural cities are better places to live.

As local governments in Japan attempt to make communities more inclusive, fighting discrimination has become one of the key issues in municipal integration policy. The city of Osaka made the first ordinance against hate speech in Japan in 2016, even before the Hate Speech Elimination Act was enacted by the Diet, and Kawasaki, home to one of the largest ethnic Korean communities in Japan, introduced the country’s first ordinance to ban hate speech with criminal penalties in 2019.

During a meeting organized by Hamamatsu in October 2019 in collaboration with the Council of Europe, officials from cities in Europe, Oceania and Asia discussed the importance of cities in the promotion of inclusion and social cohesion. We believe that the best way to promote inclusion in Japan is to build on the already existing network of cities, which had some success in the late 2000s but which seems to have lost momentum in recent years.

In the coming years of living with COVID-19, this renewed network will hopefully make it possible for cities in Japan to engage with cities elsewhere in the world, and for Japan to take its place in the global fight against discrimination and the exclusion of migrants.

Keizo Yamawaki is a professor at the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University, and a leading scholar on Japanese immigration policy who has advised national ministries and local governments. Bob W. White is director of the Laboratory for Research on Intercultural Relations and professor of anthropology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of “Intercultural Cities: Policy and Practice for a New Era.”

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