Can Japan tackle its increasingly vocal right-wing organisations, xenophobia and hate speech directed towards Koreans?
Japan has never been easy for those of Korean ethnicity. In the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, for example, up to 6000 ethnic Koreans were massacred by Japanese citizens, police and vigilante groups for allegedly poisoning wells. Koreans were also used as slave labour in Japanese businesses during the Imperial period. Japanese nationals of Korean ethnicity were even stripped of their Japanese nationality on 2 May, 1947. In short, discrimination, mistrust and misunderstanding have persisted to this day for ethnic Koreans in Japan.
Despite the negative experiences of ethnic Koreans in Japan, a honeymoon of sorts began with the Hanryu boom in 2004 in which middle-aged housewives and even prominent first ladies such as Miyuki Hatoyama and the current first lady, Akie Abe, became fans of Korean culture. Hand-in-hand with this cultural exchange came the enormous growth inpopularity of Korean eateries, grocery stores and pop culture. The two countries even co-hosted the 2004 World Cup.
Former President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to the disputed Takeshima/ Dokdo Islands on 10 August 2012 damaged years of progress in warming relations. The visit helped contribute to the rise in hate speech and anti-Korean sentiment as voiced by right wing organisations such as the Japan Conference/Zaitokukai. North Korean nuclear tests and missile launches have added more fuel to the anti-Korean fire.
Hate speech and growing xenophobia targeting Koreans and also Chinese has festered with competing nationalisms in the region. Continued criticism by both Korea and China about Japan’s wartime past, Comfort Women, spats over the Takeshima/ Dokdo and Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands, criticisms by Zaitokukai about Korean residents with “privileges” such as Special Permanent Residency, and new historical narratives such as the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression” have acted as a lightning rod for right-wing conservatives and nationalists to engage in hate speech and xenophobia, calling for ethnic Koreans to leave Japan. At the same time, history textbooks, visits to Yasukuni Shrine by political leaders, and calls to re-examine the history of Japanese Imperialism and the Comfort women issue create a vicious cycle of escalating criticism against Japan.
The response by the government, both at the local and national level, has been varied and inconsistent. Local governments have responded by protecting freedom of speech while at the same time ensuring that “groups or individuals seeking to use municipal facilities for public events are screened to protect public safety and respect for the local citizenry.”
At the national level, Japan’s parliament, the Diet, began deliberations on 4 August 2015 on an opposition-backed bill to ban racial discrimination, hate speech, and to require the government to create anti-discrimination programs that report their results to lawmakers. The ruling government is cool to this idea, preferring to use existing laws and education to mitigate hate speech and xenophobia.
Competing nationalism and the continuation of anti-Japanese education and movements in China and South Korea will strengthen and widen the support of right-leaning groups such as the Zaitokukai, making their current hate speech and xenophobia more mainstream than peripheral in Japanese society. This will make anti-discrimination legislation more necessary, but more difficult to achieve.
Staying true to his 14 August World War II statement, in which he stressed that Japan will “uphold the basic values of freedom, democracy and human rights“, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should link actions to words and spearhead the realisation of an anti-discrimination bill to stamp out hate speech and xenophobia.