Japan’s new Prime Minister, Abe Shinzō, has proclaimed Japan a regional model of “democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights”. Indeed, Japan has proud traditions of free debate and grassroots human rights movements. But ironically – and largely ignored by the outside world – the rights of minorities and the work of those who fight hardest for human rights are under growing pressure in Abe’s Japan.
Japan signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, but refuses to introduce anti-hate speech laws. One reason, according to the government, is that such laws are unnecessary, since Japan’s penal code prohibits group defamation, insult, threatening behaviour, and collective intimidation.
But the limits of this approach have been on display in recent disturbing incidents. On 9 February, for example, a group of racist demonstrators – including members of the best-known hate group, the Zaitokukai – marched through an ethnically diverse district of Tokyo, shouting incitements to violence and carrying placards with slogans such as “Kill Koreans”. A large police contingent was on hand, but despite abundant evidence of group defamation, threats and collective intimidation, none of the demonstrators was arrested.
Matters were very different, though, when, around the same time, a Zaitokukai member lodged his own complaint of victimization. His claim, made more than four months after the event, was that he had been “assaulted” when refused entry to a September 2012 meeting organized by Japanese grassroots groups seeking apology and compensation for the former “comfort women” (women from throughout the Japanese empire coerced into serving in brothels run by the Japanese military during the Pacific War). Those who attended the meeting remember it as a peaceful event, despite the presence of a few menacing Zaitokukai protestors outside. Regardless of this fact, and of the curious delay in the complaint, police responded zealously to the Zaitokukai member’s claim, bringing in four members of the “comfort women” group for questioning and descending on members’ homes to search for incriminating evidence.
Many in Japan work very hard for “democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights”. But there is no rule of law if the instigators of violence are allowed to peddle hatred, while those who pursue historical justice are subject to police harassment. Democracy is left impoverished when freedom of hate speech is protected more zealously than freedom of reasoned political debate.