The Japanese city of Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, is set to become the first in the country to introduce regulations to help stop the spread of hate speech in public.
Home to a large Korean population, Kawasaki has seen a rise in far-right nationalist protesters targeting migrants in recent years.
Under the new guidelines, expected to take effect by the end of March, the City Council in Kawasaki will ban hate speech demonstrators from using parks and other public facilities to promote discrimination.
Choi Kang-Ija, an ethnic Korean leader, says the demonstrators often called her community “cockroaches” and “maggots” during public protests in Kawasaki.
“They used megaphones, placards or flags, speakers from cars. They wanted to embarrass us,” says Choi.
The decision on whether to give groups permission to use public facilities will be based on their past activities, online history and background checks on protesters.
Local officials will also issue warnings to groups that promote discrimination.
They wanted to embarrass us.
However, these groups will not be subject to any criminal penalties, a position also reflected in a national hate speech law introduced in Japan in 2016.
Choi, who has addressed Japan’s national parliament on the issue of discrimination, questions whether the law is strong enough to curb hate speech.
“That national law says that hate speech should not be tolerated. It doesn’t use the word ‘prohibited’. I don’t think the law can stop anything,” she says. “However, based on the current legislation, all local governments can work on implementing their own rules.”
Kyoto and Aichi Prefectures are considering introducing similar guidelines to help stop nationalist demonstrations.
Far-right groups have tried to intimidate Korean communities in cities across Japan, including Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
Hiroyuki Seto, a prominent right-wing leader who has organised nationalist rallies in Kawasaki, says hate speech laws and local government guidelines are designed by those with a “left-wing ideology”.
Seto, a prominent leader of a fringe political movement called Japan First, regularly blogs and holds public lectures for his supporters.
Notorious for supporting Adolf Hitler, Seto tells Al Jazeera that protests against Korean migrants are necessary because he believes many of their businesses are funneling millions of dollars to the North Korean regime.
“I think some of them who claim to be South Korean nationals are actually close to North Korea. There is a hidden ideology behind them,” he says. “The hate speech law is made by those who try to suppress our voice. We don’t have such a way of thinking … like getting rid of migrants for no reason. We only fight against people who are associated with North Korea.”
Seto says it’s unethical for Japan to curtail freedom of speech and right-wing groups have the right to hold protests.
Professor Tomohiko Taniguchi, a foreign affairs spokesperson for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, concedes that the hate speech laws could be strengthened but stresses that hate crimes are “negligible” in Japan. He says hate speech is “under control”.
“I would say that the Japanese society has done pretty much a good job to prevent the outburst of those xenophobic sentiments from occurring and no political party has ever tried to run for office with a xenophobic platform,” he says.
who claim to be South Korean nationals are actually close to North Korea. There is a hidden ideology behind them.”]
Asked how the government protects those who encounter discrimination or violent threats, Professor Taniguchi says authorities will act if a crime is committed.
“Breaking anyone’s property is a crime and harassing people is a crime. And if it is a punishable crime, obviously the police force and judicial system must get involved,” he says.
But he denies that ethnic Koreans face widespread discrimination. He says previously they could not enter the top universities and would not be hired by leading Japanese companies, but this was no longer the case.
“I’m not saying that Japan is completely discrimination-free,” he says. “You have a lot of issues and problems you have to tackle. But if you put those issues and problems in historical perspective, I would say that Japan has come a long way.”
But Choi, the activist who runs human rights workshops at a Kawasaki community hall, disagrees. She says many Korean migrants have faced discrimination ever since they were brought to Japan as slave labour or prisoners during the second world war.
Even today, she says, it’s difficult for many ethnic Koreans to find jobs or rent an apartment.
She is concerned that escalating tensions with North Korea over its nuclear weapons could lead to further reprisals against her community.
“Whenever the political climate intensifies, the Japanese public tends to blame Koreans who live in Japan – even though there’s nothing we can do about it. In order to resolve this anxiety, the public may think removing minorities can solve the problem,” she says.