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Comedian hounded by unfounded murder claims sees parallels in slander of Princess Mako

Japanese comedian Smiley Kikuchi is seen in Tokyo on Oct. 20, 2021. (Mainichi/Haruka Utagawa)

TOKYO -- Online slander and attacks have swirled ahead of the marriage of Princess Mako, a niece of Emperor Naruhito, to her college sweetheart Kei Komuro on Oct. 26. The vilification has continued even after it emerged Princess Mako has been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

    The Mainichi Shimbun asked comedian Smiley Kikuchi, 49, who suffered spurious online accusations including claims he was "involved in a murder" and who has worked to raise awareness of the issues around slander, for his take on the situation.

    Mainichi Shimbun: The slander and abuse against Princess Mako and Kei Komuro (both 30), is unrelenting. How do you see it?

    Smiley Kikuchi: It's just sad. "Is the entire population of Japan made up of bullies? After pro-wrestler Hana Kimura died in May last year following online attacks over her actions in a TV show, the government and the private sector had a deeper discussion about slander and online abuse, and I thought awareness of people's human rights online was slowly improving. But it wasn't. I feel like the understanding that anyone can become a perpetrator still hasn't become widespread.

    If you look at the slander and abusive comments that are out there, you'll see things people have written that go beyond what is referred to as defamation under the Penal Code and appears more consistent with threats. But the people who post these words, as well as the people who approve of them by clicking "like," probably have no sense that what they're doing is a crime.

    Kei Komuro, foreground, is seen at Narita airport following his return from the United States as he prepares for his marriage to Princess Mako. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    In response to anonymous slander and attacks, those affected can, based on the service provider responsibility control law, request the release of information on the slanderer's identity. But because Princess Mako and Mr. Komuro haven't done this, the attacks haven't stopped. They become vicious toward people who don't defend themselves, like a lynch mob. What can adults say when they're the ones creating this situation while calling on children to end online bullying?

    M: Does it remind you of what you were subjected to?

    SK: When I see the excuses from people engaged in slander, I see the same trends as in my case. The perpetrators who decided I had committed a heinous crime and verbally assaulted me believed without doubt that what they were doing was just. Even when mine became a police case, they switched to saying they were "victims caught up in lies."

    I think that buck-passing is the same in the current case. Even though Princess Mako has announced she is unwell because of the verbal abuse, several reasons have been brought together to brand Mr. Komuro a "bad person" and justify vilifying them. It seems like they're thinking, "Because he's a bad person, it's just to attack them." But, these questions of good, bad, justice, the right view, all of these are decided subjectively. The internet as a tool has a terrifying capacity to bring together people with the same idea.

    M: When people sharing an idea congregate and get group approval, the slander can intensify, can't it?

    SK: Yes, people who repeatedly slander others enjoy trolling their targets. I think it's like an addiction. Some say they've a lot of time on their hands to be attacking people online, but in my experience looking at the perpetrators in the incident affecting me, I don't think it's because they have a lot of time; I think they've reached a point where they can't stop, and they're isolated. If they had people around them they could talk to about the slanderous or defamatory remarks they were going to put online, then they'd probably refrain from posting, and they probably wouldn't write things anonymously. But because they don't have anyone around them to talk to, they seek approval online. The coronavirus has decreased face-to-face contact. I think the pandemic is accelerating these factors.

    M: Is there anything you want to say to people posting slanderous and abusive comments?

    SK: I want them to imagine those suffering by the words they write. No matter how much they emphasize their "correctness" according to their own measure, once they start abusing others they've crossed the line.

    No person has the right to remove another human being from society, but their words can end up doing that. Now that technology has advanced to the extent that anyone can speak to the whole world, everyone's a commentator. Whether a person has zero followers or zero retweets, I want them to write their posts with a sense of responsibility.

    I don't want the kind of damage I went through repeated. Let's make slander and defamation a thing of the past -- the kind of thing people look back on and say, "In those days adults did pathetic things like that."

    Profile: Smiley Kikuchi

    Born in Tokyo in 1972, Kikuchi formed the comedy duo Nightshift in 1993, but the following year he became a solo comedy artist after his partner retired from the entertainment business. In 1999, posts began to emerge online claiming Kikuchi had been involved in a murder he had no connection with. For about 10 years he endured death threats and slander.

    In 2008, he submitted a victim report to the police, and several internet users were exposed as his trolls. His book, whose title translates to "Suddenly, I was made a murderer," was published in 2011. He continues to lecture on online manners and other topics.

    (Japanese original by Haruka Udagawa, Digital News Center)

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