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Japan must go beyond mere platitudes on discrimination

Publication Date : 01-04-2014


What constitutes discrimination and how should it be dealt with? The issue is taking on new urgency in Japan.

Two Sundays ago, two professional soccer teams were forced to play a closed-door match at the magnificent Saitama stadium north of Tokyo. The stadium can seat 60,000, but there was nary a fan in sight.

Soccer history was made, but for the wrong reasons.

The lockout of spectators, which cost over 100 million yen (US$968,400) in ticket refunds, was punishment meted out to Urawa Reds, one of the two teams, after three of its fans displayed a "Japanese Only" banner at a previous match.

The fans said that because foreigners were increasingly attending Urawa Reds matches and filling the seats behind the goal area traditionally occupied by diehard supporters, the banner was merely to indicate that those seats were "already taken".

But club officials decided the banner reeked of discrimination against foreigners in general, and imposed the harshest penalty they could think of.

The club also banned the three fans, and several other alleged accomplices, from attending Urawa Reds matches for life.

The punishment - including the closed-door game - certainly does not fit the crime, no matter how one looks at it. This is especially so considering that no one was physically or mentally hurt, nor even palpably offended, as a result of the incident.

Many restaurants around the stadium also took a hit business- wise on match night.

What probably embarrassed the Japanese was that no one had thought anything unusual about the banner, until some South Korean journalists, irked by what they saw, decided to file a story. The rest of the world's media followed.

Urawa Reds happens to be one of Asia's premier soccer clubs. Its team has played against many top Western clubs.

Japanese soccer officials were doubtless worried that if the label of discrimination sticks, it could result in the Reds not being allowed in future international matches, especially as European clubs are particularly sensitive to accusations of racial prejudice.

It could also put a stain on Japan's national soccer team, which is taking part in this year's World Cup in Brazil.

But is that really all that Japan should worry about?

It is not entirely coincidental that Korean journalists should be the first to spot the incriminating banner.

Korean journalists have honed their sensitivities to such nuances over the years. People of Korean descent in Japan have been the most conspicuous target of racial discrimination in this country.

Last year, demonstrations by Japanese groups against ethnic Korean residents erupted frequently in Korean enclaves in Tokyo and Osaka as relations between Japan and South Korea rapidly deteriorated over historical and territorial issues.

Hate speech against the Korean residents was plastered on placards and spewed through megaphones.

In Tokyo's Shin Okubo district, for instance, owners of Korean businesses were accosted and threatened. Demonstrators left behind hate speech graffiti on the walls that screamed "Die" and "Get out".

Ethnic Koreans - often referred to as "Zainichi" (which means "staying in Japan") - number about 670,000 and make up the largest racial group in Japan after the Japanese.

Many of these ethnic Koreans can trace their roots to the early part of the 20th century when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule. Many are descendants of Koreans who were conscripted during World War II or brought to Japan as forced labour to work in factories and mines under appalling conditions.

The younger generation of Zainichi speak only Japanese, go to Japanese schools and work in Japanese companies. Many are permanent residents, but keep their affiliations to either North or South Korea.

Although most Zainichi now are born and bred in Japan, they cannot obtain Japanese nationality by birth. To be granted citizenship, at least one parent must be a Japanese national.

For a long time, Zainichi faced discrimination by the Japanese, forcing many Zainichi to go about their daily lives under assumed Japanese names.

But in recent years, many young Zainichi are confident enough of their ethnic identity to live and work under their Korean names. One example is movie director Lee Sang Il, 40.

These days, young Zainichi who are bilingual in Japanese and Korean, or in Japanese and English, are sought after by Japanese companies with large overseas operations.

The Zainichi, claiming special privileges on the ground that their forefathers did not come to Japan of their own accord, have long clamoured - unsuccessfully - for the right to vote in local elections and to work in local governments.

The culprits in the anti-Korean demonstrations are in fact mostly from an entity known as Zaitokukai, whose name, spelt out in full, means "citizens' group that will not condone special rights for ethnic Koreans".

Last year, the Kyoto district court ruled as "racial discrimination" a 2009 case in which Zaitokukai members used loudhailers to disrupt classes at a school for ethnic Koreans.

But Japan's leaders, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, went only as far as to express "concern" and "regret" over the incident. "The Japanese value harmony and are not an exclusionary people. The Japanese believe that no matter when, they must be polite, open-minded and humble," Abe told Parliament.

That the Japanese leadership does not seriously think the anti- Korean issue is worth doing anything about beyond spouting platitudes is troubling, especially as Tokyo is gearing up to welcome people from all over the world to the 2020 Olympics.

The latest report on human rights by the US State Department, released in February, raises concern over the growing incidence of hate speech against people of Korean descent in Japan.

Clamping down on hate speech, it is often argued in Japan, impinges on the people's right to freedom of expression.

Yet in Britain, France, Germany and other major European nations, hate speech has been outlawed, ironically - it is said - to "protect" freedom of speech.

If Abe needs an excuse to follow suit, the "Japanese Only" banner put up by some thoughtless soccer fans should be reason enough for him to swing into action. And he can take a leaf from the Europeans and tell his compatriots that it is to protect the right of the Japanese to speak.


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