TOKYO -- In the summer of 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement was gathering tremendous momentum, comments on social media in Japan to the effect that "discrimination in Japan is not as bad as it is in the United States" often popped up. But is that true?
The results of a survey conducted by a private organization and released in February 2021 showed that this common social media sentiment was far from true. What the majority who feel that "discrimination in Japan is not as bad" cannot see is a reality that their privilege shields from them.
Between December 2019 and February 2020, the Korean Scholarship Foundation -- an organization based in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward that assists South Korean foreign students and "Zainichi" Korean residents of Japan while they are in school -- surveyed 1,030 students in high school through graduate school about experiences they'd had in the past three years. About 80% of the respondents were Japan-born, including Zainichi Koreans whose families have been in the country for several generations.
Of the respondents, 30.9% said they had been verbally harassed for reasons including being Zainichi Korean. Of those, 48.1% of cases involved being harassed by classmates and other students. Furthermore, 16.4% mentioned customers they had encountered at their part-time jobs, and 10.1% said that Japanese teachers at school had been the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, 73.9% of respondents said that they had seen ethnic discrimination online. A total of 23.7% said that they often or sometimes refrained from using the internet because they did not want to see discriminatory articles or other content. The survey highlighted how using the internet, indispensable in everyday life, has been impacted by discrimination.
A high percentage of respondents -- 75.7% -- also said that they had seen or heard hate demonstrations or speeches. And at least 23.9% had had offensive encounters in public, such as at stores, on public transportation, and at government offices, or had been treated in a discriminatory manner when trying to rent apartments and other types of residence.
More women than men said that they had faced verbal harassment, with 14.5% of female respondents saying they had been verbally harassed by Japanese teachers, 10.7 percentage points higher than the figure for male respondents. The survey revealed that Zainichi Korean women are victims of intersectional discrimination, targeting both their gender and their ethnicity.
So what are verbal harassers saying to young Zainichi Koreans? In a section of the survey that allowed respondents to answer that question freely, "Go back to South Korea," "Get out of Japan," and, "Chon" (a derogatory word for Koreans) were just some of the things they had been told. And these words were all uttered by Japanese youth of the same generation, such as the respondents' friends and classmates. Multiple respondents said that the terms were said jokingly.
Respondents also said that they were harassed verbally by adults. "A Japanese teacher said to me, 'Are you a North Korean spy?'," "My girlfriend's father said that Koreans who attended ethnic schools were dangerous," and, "At my part-time job, a customer who saw my name badge said, 'Can you not even speak decent Japanese?" are just some examples. Multiple respondents said they experienced outright job discrimination, in which they were told they would not be employed unless they used their Japanese names.
Seventy-three percent of those subjected to discriminatory speech and actions said they felt offended, and 10.1% said they made them resent the fact that they were South Korean or Korean. At least one respondent said that they wished they had been born Japanese. Of those who had seen or heard hate demonstrations and speeches, 21.3% said they felt anxious and fearful about living in Japan.
Takahiro Akedo, a sociologist and specially appointed researcher at Hosei University who analyzed the survey results, says, "Those who have been directly discriminated against through words and actions have a tendency to resent themselves more, and those who have witnessed hate speech online or hate demonstrations in the streets to have their view of Japanese society worsen." Cho Kyongho, an assistant researcher at Hosei University who also took part in analyzing the survey, said, "Discrimination has a big emotional impact on students on the receiving end. Some of these cases could drive people to suicide."
In the summer of 2020, in debating the Black Lives Matter movement, the claim that "there is no racial discrimination in Japan" rolled through Twitter. A Japanese Nike commercial in which young women athletes, including Zainichi Koreans, were portrayed trying to overcome hardships such as discrimination and bullying through sports, caused a buzz that November. Many slammed the ad, claiming that the contents were "fraudulent," or that "there is no discrimination around me." But what becomes clear from the survey is that, as the relationship between Japan and South Korea, and between Japan and North Korea, become increasingly frigid, anti-Korean sentiment has gone from being an extreme discourse of the few to that of the ordinary public, hitting young Zainichi Koreans in Japanese society today.
"To tell a certain ethnic group to get out or to call for them to be killed used to be something screamed in the streets by a tiny number of extremists," says journalist Koichi Yasuda. "But now, such discriminatory words have become increasingly a part of everyday vernacular. Discrimination and prejudice have been imprinted into our subconscious not just in the streets and online, but in various parts of our day-to-day lives, and are now being widely wielded."
To restrict repeated instances of hate speech that had been taking place on the streets, Japan's Diet enacted the Hate Speech Act in 2016. But it does not set any penalties for committing hate speech and does not apply to online hate speech.
Yasuko Morooka, an attorney well versed in the issue of hate speech, says that "an all-encompassing anti-discrimination law is necessary." Mostly in the United States and Europe, there are varying types of anti-discrimination legislation, and some countries, like Germany, have criminal penalties for hate speech.
"This latest survey has brought into sharp relief that there is no shared awareness in Japanese society that ethnic discrimination and racial discrimination are unacceptable," Morooka points out. "Only by enacting a law banning hate speech and building a shared awareness can we stand at the starting line to eliminate discrimination."
(Japanese original by Yoshiya Goto, Photo and Video Center, and Aya Shiota, Integrated Digital News Center)