Countering Hate Speech in Tokyo's Koreatown

Photo of Shin-Okubo by flickr user Metro Centric, (CC BY 2.0)

Photo of Shin-Okubo by flickr user Metro Centric, (CC BY 2.0)

Shin-Okubo, a district in Tokyo with a high concentration of ethnic Korean residents, has been suffering from anti-Korean protests by some extremely racist citizen groups in recent years. Despite the enormous popularity of Korean pop culture such as music, drama, and beauty products among Japanese, extremist hate speech appears to be helping heighten archrival sentiments between two of the United States’ closest Asian allies.

According to Norikoe Net [ja], a group working to overcome hate speech and racism in Japan, there were 360 hate speech demonstrations and propagation [ja] in 2013, both online and offline. From their investigation in February this year, 53 hate speech scribbles on walls were found on the streets of Shin-Okubo. Another group of volunteers [ja] plans to take collective action on March 2, 2014 to erase the hateful graffiti using 20 erasers[ja] provided by a local ward office.

Map of hate speech scribbling found in Shin-Okubo area in Tokyo. Screenshot from Google Map created by anti-racism group Norikoe Net.

Map of hate speech scribbles found in Shin-Okubo area in Tokyo. The picture shows sloppy writing which says “Koreans go home” with racial slur. Screenshot from Google Map created by Norikoe Net.

Seeing the photos of hate speech scribbles, twitter user Neige (@Neige_dayo) wrote;

To my untrained eyes, the writings all look like the work of the same person.

The tide of anti-Korean protest in Shin-Okubo also triggered a push-back from anti-hate speech demonstrators who protested against the hate-speech protests, showing messages like “let us all be friends” or “shame on you racist”. Various groups and citizens have joined the anti-anti-Korean protest to send out positive messages. But in some cases, this resulted in arrests after police tried to avoid any conflict between both the sides.

In October 2013, responding to a lawsuit filed by Kyoto Chosen Gakuen, an operator of pro-Pyongyang Korean schools in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward, a local court in Kyoto ruled against anti-Korean group Zaitokukai, saying that the words blared through sound trucks near a pro-Pyongyang elementary school were “extremely insulting and discriminatory”.

However, there’s no legal measure against hate speech in Japan. The Japanese Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, assembly, and freedom of thought, all of which make room for anti-Korean demonstrators to organize protests. Also, there is no law that directly bans graffiti. For the act of scribbling on other people’s properties, an offender can be arrested under Minor Criminal Offense Act, or for vandalism. In some rare cases, it is treated as a crime of damaging a building.

Japan acceded to the United Nations convention to eliminate racial discrimination in 1995, but no legislative measures have been implemented. The United Nation's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has long shown concern (since its 2010 report [en, ja]) regarding the human rights situation in Japan, such as hate speech and racist propaganda on the Internet, the lack of concrete information about the media and integration of human rights in television and radio broadcasting and the absence of legislation to give full effect to the provisions against discrimination.

The anti-Korean protesters are variously referred with qualifiers like “Japanese patriots”, “right-leaning” or “conservative” in English media, but they are different from conventional post-war Japanese right wingers, or from patriots with political right wing aesthetics. In a live-streamed interview[ja] with a prominent netouyo user “Yogen”, Kouichi Yasuda, a journalist who investigates “netouyo”, a general term for hyper-nationalistic Japanese Web users, exposed that netouyo are inclined to reinforce their patriotism just by blasting racial slurs against ethnic Koreans in Japan and abroad or anybody they dislike by labeling them as so, under the misdirected assumption that Koreans have extraordinary privilege –that many of them live in Japan off on social aid or that they control Japanese television media–a myth that is often perpetuated by trolls on the Internet.

Prime Minister Abe, whose historical agenda is sometimes perceived as right wing by media outside of Japan, has commented about hate speech last year, calling the anti-Korean protests “extremely unfortunate” and said that true Japanese people “must be polite, generous and humble.” 

Norikoe Net, which stands for “the International Network to Overcome Hate Speech and Racism” in Japanese writes about the condition of hate speech in Japan in its founding message;

Hate speech is used not only to attack Korean residents in Japan, who are an immediate target, but also to represent women in a hostile light and to attack social minorities such as the Ryukyuan or Lewchewan people, the residents of former “discriminated communities”, children born outside of marriage, the socially handicapped, sexual minorities, etc. There is a significant overlap between those groups who are subject to hate speech attacks and those whose personal rights or political rights have been violated or ignored under Japan’s postwar system. In this sense, hate speech in Japan can be viewed in itself as a form of discrimination that has been politically created by the postwar system.

The group, co-founded by an ethnic Korean activist, joined forces with a Japanese scholar, a lawyer and other prominent individuals like Chizuko Ueno, one of the most influential Japanese feminists, and even the right-wing activist Kunio Suzuki to collectively counter racism and hate speech by pushing for the enactment of an anti-discrimination legislation.

Tomone Komiya, a sociologist who translated The Freedom to Be Racist? by Erik Bleich, writes[ja] that Japan needs more materials to learn about hate speech and its legal restrictions abroad, in order to start the discussion on how to counter hatred, before hastily agreeing on policy making;


Either way, we, the member of the society have responsibility to discuss and decide what to do [about hate speech] in the context of Japan. The arguments in this book provide the first step to the task, which can never be done in a day.


This post was edited by Aparna Ray


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