On May 24, the Diet passed Japan's first ever anti-hate speech law. There had been mounting concern over the treatment of foreigners and minorities in Japan, particularly ethnic Koreans in recent years. Anti-Korean rallies from groups like Zaitokukai have been known to include threats to “wipe out” Koreans in Japan, as well as other hateful language. The bill passed by the Diet condemns this language and empowers municipalities to take steps to address the problem, ideally through education and mediation. The law is written specifically to protect legal residents of overseas origin and their descendants.
As an American, my instinct is to protest such laws. It strikes me that free speech needs to include hate speech if the concept is to have meaning. There are already laws on the books against harassment and threats of violence. Certainly, Zaitokukai anti-Korean protests have included some ugly incidents, including using a loudspeaker to disrupt lessons at a Korean school. But as happened in that particular case, the police were and remain able to intervene. What need is there for a law criminalizing the expression of certain views?
But of course, we are not talking about America. We are talking about Japan. Japan has a very different history around issues like free speech and race. It therefore seems prudent to look at the law from a more practical perspective. The goal is to reduce the likelihood of future ugly incidents. To that end, even a symbolic law is enough to send a message.
Many people are ambivalent about hate speech laws because they are often broadly written. Governments have been known to use vague laws for unintended purposes, and in the case of a speech law this could lead to censorship. For this reason I think it is good that the law passed by the Diet is quite specific about who it seeks to protect. It is focused only on legal foreigners. Some are critical of the fact that the law does not also specifically include asylum seekers and illegal residents (visa overstayers, undocumented immigrants, etc). However, the hateful speech the law seeks to curb was not really focused on either of those groups. When you are in the business of enforcing speech codes, the narrower the scope the better.
Another criticism of the law is that it “lacks teeth.” The law simply tells each municipality to come up with its own policies and lacks any strong enforcement mechanism. It may just be the American in me speaking, but I happen to think that more flexibility at the local level is a good thing. Let the districts where this is a more serious problem enact harsher policies that represent the will of those constituents, and let other districts act differently. Threatening people across the entire country with fines or jail time just for saying something “offensive” I believe goes too far.
It is important to keep in mind the distinction between genuinely harmful speech (threats, harassment) and opinions we consider ugly. Japan's postwar history with Zainichi Koreans is a complex one. There are legitimate political complaints that Japanese people may have against both the Chongryon (North Korean) and Mindan (South Korean) organizations with regard to their activities within Japan. People should be free to voice those concerns, but should be discouraged from advocating violence or accosting school children. With the right measures, regional governments can take steps to ensure political dialogue stays respectful.
My hope is that the municipal authorities will be empowered by the new law to take action in cases where there is genuine harassment and potential violence. A civil society need not tolerate either. However, I do not think individual citizens, writers or politicians should be punished merely for expressing negative opinions of foreigners. I think Japan is better off having such people out in the open to encourage dialogue and resolution. Ideological wars are won by proving the other side wrong, not simply insisting that their views are forbidden.
Free speech is worth fighting for, both in America and Japan. Free societies should not want the government in the business of policing opinions, and we should use laws already on the books to stop speech that crosses the line and threatens people's physical safety. While I have misgivings about the law, I respect the Diet's attempt to deal with a complicated issue in a way that both avoids outright censorship and gives officials a means to aid minority communities. There can be no perfect law about speech in a society with tens of millions of unique voices. Time will tell if the Diet's actions constitute a step in the right directio© Japan Today