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No Room for Hate Speech in Japan

In my first few years working as a journalist in Japan in the late 1980s, I immersed myself in covering issues pertaining to the Korean community. It was as good an education as any young, eager reporter in this country could get: One of the hottest issues I was covering at the time was the forced fingerprinting that tens of thousands of ethnic Koreans living in Japan had to go through from age 16, and the identification they had to carry on them at all times.

Never mind that many of these Koreans were born and raised in Japan, yet not allowed to vote under Japanese law or even to obtain Japanese citizenship. They were a kind of stateless minority in Japan, and were tired of being treated that way.

Some westerners living in Japan at that time were joining the Koreans in breaking the law by refusing to be fingerprinted, and a number of major cases were being fought in the courts to challenge Japan’s discriminatory policies against ethnic Koreans. The Kansai (western) area of Japan, where I lived, was ground zero for the anti-fingerprinting movement, and I was right in the center of the hurricane, reporting on the related issues as often as I possibly could. (See the
ARCHIVES page of this website for a few of those fingerprinting stories.)

So when, a few years later as a bachelor living in Japan, it came time for me to move and find another place to live, the obvious choice for me was the downtown district of Ikuno Ward, home to the largest of the many Korean communities scattered around Japan, with a Korean population of about 90,000.

Why there? Well, because for me, Ikuno was to Japan what Harlem is to America: the part of a major city with a long history representing a people’s struggle for freedom and deferred dreams, yes, but also the people’s deeply rich cultural roots and pride in their heritage. In much the same way that Harlem is America, likewise Ikuno was Japan for me.

The blatant housing discrimination that I faced as a foreign resident as I searched for an apartment in the Korean community — my first encounter with such illegal discrimination in Japan — made me even more determined to live there. Some Japanese would view the Ikuno area of Osaka an inner-city “slum” to be avoided at all costs. Not me. I knew the Korean community well from having covered it as a reporter and felt right at home. The spirit of resistance I felt in the Korean community inspired me in the few years that followed as I churned out some of my best work as a journalist.

So, when I recently saw some video footage online that was taken this summer of a demonstration of anti-Korean hate speech in downtown Osaka, I instantly recognized where it was taken: the shops, the buildings, the flow of traffic and pedestrians — and yes, I could even smell the familiar scents of spicy Korean
kimchi pickles and yakiniku grilled beef that waft through the neighborhood.

In that particular video clip, taken in front of Tsuruhashi Station on the JR Railways’ Osaka Loop Line, just a couple minutes’ walk from where I used to live, a young Japanese woman is shown joining one such anti-Korean demonstration and spewing a bunch of hate-filled garbage over a loudspeaker about exterminating all Koreans and insisting they all go back to “their country”. It is truly sickening. These Japanese demonstrators had chosen the heart of the culturally rich Korean community to declare war against the “arrogant” and cheeky minorities, and would put them in their place on their own home turf.

That demonstration was one of many that arose around Japan this past summer, with a special focus on Koreans and the so-called “special privileges” they receive as minorities in this country (that is, if you call being treated like dirt the equivalent of special treatment). Japan is a society with a long history of prejudice and discrimination against minority groups both within and beyond its borders, but as reported in this video news segment, we are now witnessing a relatively new phenomenon: ordinary Japanese protesting in the streets and literally calling for blood and the return of Japan’s former World War II glory.

The neo-fascist-leaning prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, himself no slouch when it comes to discriminating against fellow Asians, has been conveniently slow in condemning this rising serpent of hate that we now see raising its head in Japan. Unlike in the U.S. and other countries, Japan has not ratified laws that prohibit such speech. And it needs to ratify them — and soon.

Many Japanese have empathy with Rev. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the U.S., and deservedly so. But as one young Korean-Japanese university student correctly told me at a guest speech I gave a few years ago at a local college: “America has its discrimination against Blacks, but in Japan there is discrimination against Koreans”. And not only Koreans, I might add: Also suffering the brunt of discrimination in Japan are ethnic Chinese residents, the indigenous Ainu people of the north and the native Okinawan people of the south, the
buraku caste minority, and so many others. But that student was absolutely right: Japan’s anti-Korean prejudice and discrimination need to be seen and dealt with at the same level as discrimination against African Americans in the U.S.

But why Koreans in this recent rising of hate speech in Japan? Koreans are, after all, brothers to the Japanese on the genealogical spectrum.

It might help if we understand it this way: Japan is to Asia what England is to Europe — a society that considers itself to be better, more superior to its own brethren. Just as the Irish, with their long and rich Celtic heritage, have been historically treated as little more than stray dogs by the more “civilized” British, so it is with Koreans and Japanese here in Asia. In other words, there is a special kind of despising that is reserved for the ethnic family members that are closest to you. That, and a need generally to scapegoat someone else for one's own domestic problems, especially in economically tough times. Some kind of strange, twisted human logic indeed.

As a minority myself in Japan, I witness and experience racism and prejudice every time I go outside — we all do, those of us from various cultures and countries and races living throughout Japan — and the darker one’s skin is, the worse the discrimination seems to get. (Take a look at an article I wrote some years ago, “
Racism in Japan”, for an overview.) I have always looked particularly to the Korean community in Japan for “Survival 101” lessons on how to live under brutal oppression, for they have truly put up with a lot and still thrived.

But we are seeing a new kind of rage, similar in many ways to so-called “white rage” in the U.S., that is potentially violent and life threatening. And just like we speak out against it in other societies, we must speak out against it here in Japan as well.

I have stood up and spoke out against racism when I was living in the U.S., and I stand side by side today with the Korean brothers and sisters in this fight against Japanese hate speech and racism, and will increasingly be doing so in the future as well. It has been a long time since I reported on these kinds of issues concerning Koreans in Japan, an era I look back on today with some sense of nostalgia. But there is actually nothing nostalgic about people’s ignorance, fear and hate of other people, and we need to confront this new brand of ugliness head on.

Koreans, along with all other minorities in this country, make up a vital part of Japan as a wonderfully diverse, multicultural society. When Japan can see this mixing of cultures as something positive rather than negative, then we will be making real progress. And let us hope and pray that that day comes sooner rather than later.

If we are going to get there sooner, we should be clear that there is no room in Japanese society for hate speech.
Like this editorial says in a newspaper for which I used to work and report on Korean issues, we should not tolerate hate speech in this country. Let’s get some real hate-speech laws on the books in Japan, and then start prosecuting a few of these loudmouthed Japanese citizens for breaking the laws when they dare to call for Korean “massacres” in the streets. Then maybe the message will get out there that such speech has no place in this society or this world.

It’s worth remembering that when all is said and done, today it is Koreans; tomorrow it could be you and me.
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