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Bread & Roses: A Leftist Case Against Hate Speech Laws in Japan

SNA (Tokyo) — My self-introductory column last month had a photo of me and my nine-month-old buck rabbit, Sumitaro, who I began living with on July 21. About a month passed when I realized something incredible—I had stopped watching TV.

For many long years, I routinely switched on the tele upon my arrival home. I had no special program to watch; it was background, what is called nagara. This Japanese word indicates doing a main task while doing something else almost unconsciously, like being absorbed in a smartphone game while kind of walking (and bumping into things). But a free-ranging bunny in the home tends quickly to find and start to chew on TV wires. So, I covered the antenna cable and unplugged the power cord.

I have not watched TV a single time in the month since. It’s too much trouble to re-plug in the TV and put a bunny-safe case over the cord. Yet I don’t miss TV at all, except for occasional curiosity about this or that drama.

Perhaps our new pet is entertainment enough (in addition to social media of course). My husband, who hates the cacophonous squealing, oishi-ing and kawaii-ing of TV, appreciates our new pet for weaning me off the tube.

Recently, I ran an errand to my sister’s house, where the TV was on. All stations were covering the recent decision by South Korea to scrap its military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan in retaliation for Japan’s removal of its neighbor from most-favored nation status. The stations were uniformly bashing Korea for the move, with dramatic banners and scary background music. This one-sided and unfair coverage swelled my bosom with disgust. I had to turn it off. They say that young people don’t watch TV anymore; it’s an old-folks’ pastime. That might be a positive trend since a few minutes of this anti-Korean corporate media could easily plant deep seeds of prejudice.

Corporate media march in anti-Korean lockstep because they adhere to the current anti-Korean corporate government. The fourth estate has long abandoned its role as a watchdog on power calling out corruption and malfeasance, instead serving only to back up the government’s already immense authority.

“That’s like North Korea”—this is what many Japanese say regarding dictatorial practices such as pushing a single ideology onto the nation’s citizenry. I speculate, though, that the people of North Korea know in their hearts that their TV stations are broadcasting government propaganda, while the people of Japan are duped far better by the fun, festive commercials, ads, and other soft-power programs, because they don’t know that they themselves are bobbing up and down on the rough waves of an ocean of propaganda.

Tokyo in this sense is more successful ruling their people than Pyongyang is. The most effective slavery has slaves who don’t realize what they are.

Just because bilateral relations are worsening doesn’t mean the people of the two countries do or should hate each other more. Government is government, people are people; efforts are afoot to strengthen civilian friendships and exchange.

Yet, Zaitokukai (Citizens’ Association That Will Not Permit Special Privileges for Resident Koreans), an ultranationalist group, has in recent years become active calling for an end to state welfare for ethnic Koreans in Japan, including several marches using foul, aggressive language against Koreans. Meanwhile, the neto-uyo (online rightwingers) have increasingly spread hate against those of particular ethnicities or nationalities.

A comedy play called Tsure ga Uyo ni Narimashite (performed by Warai no Naikaku) captured this phenomenon in 2012. An ordinary man shocks his girlfriend one day by becoming a neto-uyo, hating Koreans in particular.

I was in a café with a friend who has little interest in politics. She turned to me and said, “South Korea really pisses me off.” Another friend of mine returned home to her octogenarian parents. During dinner her father started going off on Korea and Koreans. This shocked my friend because he had never before expressed any sort of contempt for Korea. But when you bathe each day in the hateful waters of corporate TV and its anti-Korean coverage, it makes sense that this hate enters your pores and seeps deep into your heart.

Kawasaki city in Kanagawa Prefecture announced in June its intention to pass an ordinance that would be the first ever to levy a financial penalty on those guilty of making hate speech. Mayor Norihiko Fukuda reassured the public that the new rule will “pay due heed to freedom of expression.” (I still wonder what “due heed” means). A national hate speech law was passed in 2016, but with no penalty for infractions. Kawasaki city asked for public comment on the proposed law.

Many on the left celebrated the possibility of a law with teeth, and many of my friends in the union movement have emailed me, asking me to write a public comment in support.

On the right, the Zaitokukai and other anti-Korean activists have blasted the proposal as an “unacceptable ordinance that infringes freedom of expression.”

Alas, my heart is torn. Most “leftwingers,” including myself, have fought hard to prevent national authority from infringing upon freedom of expression, a fundamental human right in the Constitution of Japan. But when it comes to the issue of hate speech, we quickly set aside this right in order to make room for an exception. This makes me very nervous.

Mayor Fukuda says they will “pay due heed to freedom of expression.” But look back at how the government treated concepts like the “right to collective self-defense” and the “crime of conspiracy.” They reassured us they would use these only as a last resort; that the ideas would never be abused. So, relax.

The left wing knew then not to relax. To stand up and say “no friggin’ way” to the new conspiracy law, to attempts to reinterpret the Constitution to allow for a standing army. Yet when it comes to hate speech, we suddenly entrust enforcement to the government, as if we want nothing more than to be controlled by the authorities. Now we witness the bizarre spectacle of the right wing screaming at the top of their lungs to protect the right of freedom of expression.

I understand the strong desire to shut up those who spew speech vile to our ears. Some believe that, left unmolested, hate speech will fan the flames of contempt for particular ethnic or racial groups, leading to violence, murder, and ultimately genocide. I can only try to imagine the fear, pain, and outrage of Koreans in Japan when they hear, “Koreans are lower than maggots,” or “Let’s drive Koreans out of the country.” Such words reek of the lowest form of prejudice. Many on “our” side believe that such speech does not “deserve the protection of freedom of expression,” that “free speech does not extend to hate.”

But we must respect the fact that it is indeed expression, no matter how vile or racist. Can we punish people based on a prediction that their speech, left unpunished, will eventually lead to genocide? This seems like the “pre-crime” type of dystopian paranoia thinking that fueled the conspiracy laws passed in 2018, which enable prosecution of groups for discussing various crimes, even as a joke, and challenges people even for the thoughts they think. I don’t understand why so many of our comrades on the left believe that hate speech prohibitions are needed to top up the crimes already on the books.

Many of my Japanese friends who support the proposed Kawasaki ordinance recognize that such hate speech is perpetrated by the majority Japanese against the minority Koreans and they feel a special responsibility as a Japanese person with any sense of justice not to overlook it. That sense of justice makes them think that anybody reluctant to support such prohibitions is promoting hate speech; at the end of the day they are promoting racism and prejudice.

Many of my friends assume that I support the measure. I am president of a multinational labor union and my academic research theme is foreigner rights and social welfare. I come into contact with discrimination and racism against foreigners every day, and I often feel outrage at what I see.

But hating hate speech isn’t the same as agreeing that it should be regulated under the law. The contrary is also true: opposing such a regulation does not mean I support hate speech.

Regulating hate speech in a superficial way without seeking the cause of hate speech and hate in the first place is like playing whack-a-mole. Can shutting down those who spew hate speech and making them the victims of oppression/suppression really solve the problems of racism? We should indeed go after the cause, not the symptom; we should discover and openly discuss why hate speech is spreading with such intensity among historically illiterate young people in Japan today. The only weapons we have to fight prejudice and racism are knowledge (i.e. learning history) and dialog (i.e. speech).

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