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Korean resident of Japan's legal battle for dignity ends in her favor but problems remain

Lee Sin Hae holds flowers given to her by her supporters after the Osaka High Court ruled in her favor on June 19, 2017. (Mainichi)

OSAKA -- A Korean resident of Japan whose damages lawsuit against an anti-Korean hate group and its former chairman ended last year with the top court ruling in her favor told the Mainichi Shimbun in an interview, "The ruling doesn't mean we've crossed the finish line. It means we've just started on our way toward ridding the world of discrimination."

Freelance writer Lee Sin Hae, 46, filed a lawsuit with the Osaka District Court in August 2014 against "Zainichi tokken o yurusanai shimin no kai" ("Citizens' group that does not forgive special rights for Korean residents of Japan," or "Zaitokukai") and its then chairman, Makoto Sakurai, demanding 5.5 million yen in compensation. Lee alleged that the group defamed her by calling her "an old Korean hag" during rallies in the Sannomiya district of Kobe and "a lawless Korean" on Twitter.

The district court ruled in September 2016 that Zaitokukai had made the statements with the intent to incite and intensify discrimination against Korean residents of Japan, and ordered the group to pay Lee 770,000 yen in damages.

According to Lee's attorney, in June 2017, the Osaka High Court became the first court to recognize that a plaintiff had been subjected to "composite discrimination" -- in Lee's case, ethnic and gender discrimination. However, the high court upheld the lower court's compensation amount of 770,000 yen. Zaitokukai appealed, but the Supreme Court's Second Petty Bench turned down the appeal late last year, finalizing the Osaka High Court's decision.

Supporters of Lee Sin Hae give her bouquets of flowers after the Osaka High Court ruled in Lee's favor on June 19, 2017. (Mainichi)

It was through her writings criticizing hate speech that Lee herself increasingly became a target of hate mongers. She looked back on her three-year legal battle, during which she suffered insomnia and sudden-onset deafness as a result of stress caused by remembering painful incidents as she collected evidence for her case. "It's been made clear that if one singles out another as a target of hate speech, they will have to pay for it with money," she said.

Lee is hopeful that the precedent the courts set by recognizing that she had been subjected to composite discrimination will serve as a deterrent against discrimination in the future. Yet, people continue to take part in hate speech even when their identities are made public or they are ordered to pay damages, resulting in a reality in which hate speech is still plentiful both on the streets and on the internet.

"With the lawsuit, I became keenly aware that my strength alone was very weak," Lee said. "Society won't change unless the central government and administrative agencies come together and pour all their efforts into ending discrimination." What Lee demands now are effective measures that include criminal punishment.

Hiroko Kotaki, an attorney who represented Lee in the lawsuit, offered a certain measure of praise for the Osaka High Court's ruling for its recognition of the composite discrimination to which Lee was subjected. But Kotaki pointed out that it was problematic that claims to recover damage done by hate speech directed at an indefinite number of people, such as "Korean residents of Japan," are not possible under current laws. With that in mind, she said, "In addition to establishing new legal standards, internet service providers need to work to reinforce their self-monitoring capacity."

When the Osaka District Court ruled in favor of Lee in September 2016, former Zaitokukai leader Sakurai released a statement through his lawyer, accusing the ruling of being "unjust, as it was based on societal prejudice toward Zaitokukai." When the Osaka High Court upheld the lower court's decision, he released a statement that said, "I praise the fact that the compensation amount was limited to 770,000 yen, dealing a blow to the intentions of those who hoped to politically exploit the ruling."

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