State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014 - Case study: The disturbing rise of hate speech against Koreans in Japan

by Lailah Nesbitt-Ahmed

Anti-Korean demonstrations in Tokyo during 2013 brought international attention to a troubling trend in Japan – an apparent rise, in recent years, of xenophobic sentiment towards the country's ethnic Korean population. Crowds of protesters, carrying banners with nationalist symbols and racist slurs, repeatedly targeted the Shin-Ōkubo neighbourhood, where many Korean businesses are based, during the year. Denigrating graffiti has also become widespread. While anti-Korean comments have existed on internet forums such as 2chan for a while, what distinguishes these recent incidents is that they have crossed from the confines of the online sphere into the street. Nevertheless, the internet continues to serve as an important tool for right-wing organizations and nationalists. Groups coordinate meet-ups and use YouTube and other social media sites with video-sharing tools to spread footage of anti-Korean protests.

What is driving these tensions? Many attribute them to the strained ties between Japan and the peninsula and increasing anxiety within the country about its future position in the region relative to South Korea and China, both of which have developed rapidly in recent years. However, the current problems are also rooted in Japan's imperial past. When Japan colonized Korea in 1910, many Koreans voluntarily migrated there. Many others were later conscripted during the Second World War to bolster the country's manufacturing. In addition, besides being forced to work in industry, many Korean women were sexually enslaved and forced to work in wartime brothels as so-called 'Comfort Women'. However, nationalists have been reluctant to recognize the full extent of these crimes – a source of continued friction between nationalists and Koreans demanding apologies or compensation.

An added challenge is the lack of formal citizenship that some Koreans face, despite having lived for extended periods in Japan. Many found themselves left stateless by the 1950s, with their Japanese nationality annulled but unable or unwilling to leave. In 1965, Koreans who came before and during the war were finally given the opportunity to naturalize, and in 1991 their descendants were granted status as 'special permanent residents' and the right to vote in local government elections. These and other privileges, such as welfare benefits, have become a major rallying point for right-wing groups. In addition, while a large number of Koreans chose to naturalize and take on Japanese names, some decided to remain as they were and others became preoccupied with political activities related to North Korea. The refusal of some Koreans to assimilate, combined with ongoing territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea, have provided nationalists with another pretext for attacking the Korean minority.

However, this xenophobia should not be seen as representative of mainstream attitudes towards Koreans. Senior politicians have condemned the repeated use of hate speech in recent demonstrations and in October the right-wing organization Zaitokukai ('Citizens against the Special Privileges of the Zainichi [Koreans]') was ordered to pay 12 million yen – an amount equivalent to more than US$120,000 – to a Korean school after a group of them disturbed classes by holding rallies and shouting insults. Even some right-wing nationalists have expressed concerns about the rising use of hate speech. Most importantly, average Japanese, concerned about the direction their country is taking, are speaking out. A number of general rallies were held in Tokyo and Osaka during 2013 to protest against racism and hate speech. Counter-protesters have also shown up during racist demonstrations to show their support for the Korean population.

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