IImmediately after Shinzo Abe was killed by a gunman on July 8, a rumor quickly spread on Japanese social media. He falsely claimed that the suspect was a “Korean Zainichi”. The term generally applies to descendants of Koreans who emigrated to Japan between 1910 and 1945, a period when Japan occupied Korea. They are the most targeted minority in Japan and suffer from vicious online abuse.
Last summer, online hate turned to violence in real life. A 22-year-old man reportedly burned down and destroyed seven buildings in Utoro, the ethnic Korean district of Uji, a town of about 185,000 people on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Although there were no casualties, the attack horrified Zainichi Koreans across the country.
On August 30, he was sentenced to four years in prison.
The suspect said the purpose of the attack was to scare Koreans into living in Japan. According to media reports, he became radicalized by reading anti-Korean comments posted by readers of Yahoo! News Japan and one of its motives was to gain notoriety among these users.
Yahoo! News Japan would only have 70 content moderators to control about 10.5 million comments each month. It’s the country’s most popular news site, and stories about the Utoro incident have drawn a torrent of hateful comments and misinformation about Zainichi Koreans.
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In a written statement to TIME, the platform said it uses “AI and [moderators] to properly eliminate certain malicious users and messages” and that it has cooperated with government agencies to do so. But many of those posts remain on the site today.
Around the world and on every continent, major tech platforms have tried to strike a balance between allowing people to speak freely while protecting others from users who post hateful content. To do this, they have implemented content moderation practices that are often inadequate or particularly harsh on moderators, despite warnings from users and employees who moderate content. Japan is no exception.
But in Japan, unlike the United States and other countries, online problems can get worse. Japan’s digital culture receives little attention from international media and scholars beyond high-profile pop culture phenomena like anime and video games. Matt Alt, a Tokyo-based writer, explains that this is partly because deciphering Japanese speech online requires a high degree of Japanese literacy. In the country, what happens online tends to stay online, says Alt: “There is a kind of barrier between online events and mass media in Japan. More than the West.
The aftermath of the damage remains at the site of the arson attack at the Utoro Zainichi Korean settlement in Uji, eight months after the arson attack, on April 30, 2022 in Kyoto. A 22-year-old Japanese man is under arrest in connection with the incident.
Jinhee Lee—NurPhoto/Getty Images
How hate speech spreads in Japan
Far-right Japanese netizens known as “netto-uyoku” are flocking to Yahoo! News Japan and other platforms like Twitter and Japanese Wikipedia that allow anonymity. They use the sites to propagate historical revisionism and stir up xenophobic views on Korea and China.
Twitter has more than 45 million Japanese users, making Japan its second largest market. It has a policy that “prohibits exclusionary statements based on race or ethnicity,” according to a Twitter spokesperson, who specifically added that “Zainichi’s exclusionary or violent statements toward Koreans will be subject to application”.
But Koreans in Zainichi are frequently the target of abuse on the site, where they are derided as “cockroaches”, “cancer”, “illegal immigrants” and “chon” (a very pejorative term), while being told to “return to your country.” The latest attack is particularly painful, given that the ancestors of many Zainichi Koreans were forcibly sent as laborers to Japan during colonial times. A Korean Zainichi described it to TIME as “soul murder.”
Meanwhile, with one billion page views per month, Japanese Wikipedia is the most visited edition of Wikipedia after English. He played a crucial role in whitewashing Imperial Japan’s war crimes in China and Korea. Zainichi’s Korean page contains many misleading claims and reinforces the stereotype that Koreans in Zainichi are criminals. One of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors said in an email to TIME that “Japanese Wikipedia has been hijacked by netto-uyoku.”
The Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, rejects the complaint. He said in a statement to TIME that he investigated historical revisionism at Japanese Wikipedia and found “some presence of right-wing users who may have tried to control the content of some pages,” but the abuse did not seem frequent enough or sufficient enough to enforce a ban. The foundation later added that its “volunteers have included more relevant and verified historical context in [disputed] articles”, although there is still a lot of misinformation.
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Daisuke Tsuji, an associate professor at Osaka University who has been collecting data on netto-uyoku for more than a decade, said that “only about 2% of internet users in Japan are netto-uyoku.” But their views are overrepresented on the internet, in part because they are among the few Japanese willing to talk politics, he says. “Unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, the Japanese don’t really talk about politics in everyday conversation. Even on the Internet, it is a small part of the population that engages in political discussions.
Additionally, the Japanese tendency to avoid conflict is also reflected on social media. In an analysis of Twitter in Japan, researchers found that many progressives were on the site, but they weren’t discussing the same topics as netto-uyoku. Since liberals are not actively engaged in creating counter-narratives, netto-uyoku views are rarely challenged.
These cultural factors, along with the normalization of hatred on the Internet, have allowed netto-uyoku to make their views seem more mainstream than they actually are. Their words can hurt hundreds of thousands of people. There are at least 300,000 people in Japan who are classified as “special permanent residents”, almost all of whom are Koreans from Zainichi – and many thousands more may consider themselves part of this group because of their legacy.
What happens to the Koreans in Zainichi is not unique, of course. Minority communities are being targeted online all over the world, as a reflection of what’s happening offline, says Ariadna Matamoros-Fernandez, who studies digital media at Queensland University of Technology. But most major social media platforms struggle to understand how hate is articulated in non-American contexts, she says.
The problem is exacerbated in countries without an appropriate legal framework to protect minorities. Activists in Japan have pushed for anti-discrimination laws. Japan passed the hate speech law in 2016, but campaigners say it hasn’t gone far enough because it doesn’t include any penalties. They also say the lack of explicit government condemnation emboldens those who perpetuate ethnic hatred.
Anti-racism groups (L) try to stop Japanese nationalists from marching in the street during a rally demanding an end to hate speech in Kawasaki, Japan, July 16, 2017. Scuffles broke out when right-wing activists marched with their slogans, flags, and racist speech, forcing the police to intervene.
Richard Atrero de Guzman—NurPhoto/Getty Images
Little protection for Japan’s minorities
Frustrated by the lack of official action, some Zainichi Koreans and Japanese of Zainichi heritage are mounting legal fights to end the cycle of discrimination, even though legal action in Japan is rare.
In 2014, Osaka-born Zainichi writer Sinhae Lee sued Zaitokukai, a far-right hate group known for organizing anti-Korean rallies, for online and offline harassment. Lee estimated that she received about 5,000 racially and sexually abusive tweets a day, but after filing the case, she says she received up to 20,000 a day. She says Korean women in Zainichi are particularly targeted because “we are at the bottom of society.”
She won the case in 2017, but it took its toll: Lee suffered weight loss, insomnia and stress-related hearing loss. The harassment on Twitter has not stopped, but when she reports these posts to Twitter, she is told that they do not violate Twitter rules.
Last December, Natsuki Yasuda, a well-known photojournalist, filed a lawsuit against two anonymous Twitter users who posted discriminatory comments about her late father, who was a Korean Zainichi.
Her lawsuit came on the heels of another, from Choi Kang I-ja, who sued a man who repeatedly harassed her on her blog and Twitter. She has also received death threats at work and wears a protective vest, fearing for her life.
The area around his workplace, the Sakuramoto Ward of Kawasaki City in the Greater Tokyo Area, is where many Zainichi Koreans live. It is also a popular site of anti-Korean hate rallies, and its residents have been threatened with violence.
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“Platforms should enforce their own guidelines against hate speech,” says Hajime Kanbara, a human rights lawyer who represents both Yasuda and Choi. He says US companies like Twitter make it difficult to file a lawsuit against anonymous users because they withhold users’ identities. “I want them to respond more flexibly to user disclosure,” he says. (Japan now has a law, the Supplier Limitation of Liability Act, which allows victims of online defamation to request disclosure of the sender’s contact information).
In June this year, Japan’s parliament passed a law that makes “online insults” punishable by up to a year in prison. But precisely what it covers is vague, and activists and lawyers fear the measure could be used to protect powerful people in the establishment, while having little effect on combating hate speech.
“It is very difficult for victims to file a complaint or go to civil court,” says Sinhae Lee. Rather than placing the burden on victims, she says platforms, government and society should do more.
Last summer’s arson attack in Uji could be a signal of what’s to come unless the government and platforms act, says Kanbara, warning of “a hate crime with many victims “.
Zainichi’s Koreans now fear the worst.
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