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Osaka court orders firm circulating anti-Korean articles to pay discrimination damages

Individuals on the plaintiff's side are seen holding up banners hailing their victory in a case that sought damages from Fuji Corp. for distributing anti-Korean and Chinese literature in its offices, in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, on July 2, 2020. (Mainichi/Haruka Ito)

OSAKA -- A woman of South Korean origin in Japan, who endured mental health issues after documents with discriminatory content were repeatedly distributed at the major business where she works, has won her case against the firm for damages, after the Osaka District Court's Sakai branch ruled in her favor on July 2.

The plaintiff, in her 50s, works for real estate company Fuji Corp., which is based in the city of Kishiwada in western Japan's Osaka Prefecture and is big enough to be listed on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. She had been seeking damages of 33 million yen (about $306,987) from the company and its 74-year-old head, but the court ordered the business pay a total of 1.1 million yen (around $10,235).

In his remarks deeming the distribution of the documents to be unlawful, Presiding Judge Kenji Nakagaito said, "It is possible that there was a contravention of the person's moral interests, which do not allow for discriminatory treatment based on nationality, and which exceeds the limit of what is permissible."

According to the details of the court's ruling, the woman has worked part-time at the company since 2002. From around 2013, the company began to repeatedly hand out magazine articles and other material with contents insulting people from other countries, including South Koreans and Chinese people, to all of its employees. The writing disparaged acknowledgements of historical issues including "comfort women" who worked in the Japanese military's wartime brothels, and there were also passages describing foreign nationals from those countries as "liars" and "wild animals," and that they should "die," among other statements. There were also instances where the head of the company underlined passages they wished to emphasize.

The ruling by the court started off by giving weight to passages in the Labor Standards Act, which guarantee a person's moral interests and means that they cannot be subjected to discrimination based on their nationality. Though the court did not recognize that the distribution of the written materials was an act of discrimination specifically aimed at the plaintiff, it did say the firm's action "would have felt like a remarkable insult to people of South Korean nationality and those who have roots in its culture."

It recognized that a violation of her moral rights occurred, saying, "It is appropriate to have felt a sense of crisis from being treated with discrimination by a company that expresses feelings of hatred (toward South Korea). The woman was also distressed about voicing her opinions freely."

Because the company continues to distribute the written materials in large quantities, the court said, "In a wider sense, the actions constitute thought education, and there is a danger that the company is staging a large intervention into employees' thoughts and beliefs."

Upon receiving the judgment, Fuji Corp. issued comments indicating it is considering appealing the decision, saying, "It is very difficult for us to accept this based on considerations for our freedom of speech and our discretion in educating our employees."

On the evening of July 2, after the court made its decision, the woman who launched the case gave a press conference in the city of Sakai. She looked relieved, and said the ruling "reflected on the emotional pain I felt."

From her elementary school days onward, she has always led her life using her South Korean name. She said she was shocked the company was distributing huge amounts of discriminatory material daily, and that the firm didn't change its behavior even when she asked for it to stop, leading her to file her suit in 2015. After she submitted it, she received comments from colleagues telling her she was "an idiot who betrayed our kindness," and she was even put under pressure to take a payment of 3 million yen in exchange for her leaving the firm.

Her voice cracked as she said, "Every day I was unendurably hurt." In the five years leading to the decision she was sustained by her wish for her colleagues and children not to be made to feel the same way in their future working lives. "The most important thing to ask is how society and companies might change after this ruling," she said.

Koji Murata, the leading lawyer on her defense team, said, "It was a ruling that indicated the importance of protecting workers' thoughts and beliefs, and I wish to praise it highly."

Words and actions that lack consideration for a person's race or nationality are referred to as "racial harassment" in Japan. Amid a background of changes including worsening relations between Japan and South Korea, and an increase in foreign laborers coming to the country, it's expected that the number of people who become victim to this form of harassment will rise. But, when compared to sexual or power harassment, legal provisions for racial harassment are yet to be implemented. But why is this?

An investigation by the Ministry of Justice in 2016 found that among the 4,200 people of foreign nationalities who responded to their survey, around 30% of them had "often" or "sometimes" been spoken to in a discriminatory way in the previous five years. Of them, 53% reported that the person who said the remarks to them was someone they didn't know, while the second most chosen answer was someone close to their work or their clients, at 38%. People in their neighborhoods accounted for 19%, shop workers were cited in 15% of responses, and workers in governmental or public transport settings were reported to have made such remarks in 12% of people's experiences.

In the June 2020 revised act on advancement of comprehensive labor policy, the responsibility to draw up plans preventing power harassment has been placed on employers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Law sets down legal requirements for prevention of sexual harassment, but the 2020 act has strengthened the provisions and forbidden companies from dealing with employees who come forward about harassment in a way that leaves them worse off. Conversely, while groups that support foreign people in Japan have called for the act to include clear guidelines on prevention of racial harassment, this has not come to pass.

Ippei Torii, 66, is a director of the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan. Speaking about the reasons why legal protections against racial harassment haven't made it into law, he said, "There are very few politicians putting their efforts into issues around foreign nationals, as they are not enfranchised." He continued, "At its core, we live in a society that is permissive of discrimination against Korean people in Japan, and of the use of technical interns and others as disposable human resources. To make a society in which people can work fairly, changes to the law are needed."

Kim Sangyun, a professor in criminal law at Ryukoku Univeristy and a specialist in criminal law, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Japanese society is lacking when it comes to recognizing diversity in people and nationalities, which leads to unconscious discrimination in the workplace." With the number of foreign workers increasing, he said, "The most pressing issue now is for companies to recognize the importance of acknowledging one another, and to protect people's dignity."

(Japanese original by Haruka Ito, Osaka City News Department, and Fusajiro Takada, Osaka Bureau)

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