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Flaws in Japan's legal system make hate crime hard to punish: experts

A house that was destroyed in an arson attack is seen in the Utoro area in the city of Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, on Aug. 30, 2021. (Mainichi/Kentaro Suzuki)

KYOTO -- Japan's lack of a legal system that provides a concrete basis for punishing hate crime has been singled out by experts ahead of a court ruling over arson attacks on houses and other buildings associated with "Zainichi" Korean residents.

    On Aug. 30, the Kyoto District Court will deliver its verdict on Shogo Arimoto, 23, a resident of the Nara Prefecture city of Sakurai being tried for arson. According to the indictment, he set fire to an establishment affiliated with the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) and a Korean school located in the central Japan city of Nagoya's Nakamura Ward in July 2021. The following month, he allegedly poured oil and set fire to an abandoned home in a Korean community in the Kyoto Prefecture city of Uji's Utoro area, which led to the complete or partial destruction of a total of seven homes and other buildings in the area.

    The defendant told the court he "felt animosity toward Koreans," suggesting that discrimination against a specific racial or ethnic group was a motive. Experts raised the need to follow the example of the U.S. and countries in Europe to establish legislation that punishes hate crime beyond the scope of a general criminal case.

    A counsel for the Utoro district, whose community was devastated in the arson attack, expressed outrage at the way the case was treated. "It could not be any clearer that this is a hate crime. Why does the prosecutor avoid using the word 'discrimination'?" the counsel asked during a press conference following a hearing in late June.

    At the closing of that day's hearing, the prosecutor had pointed out that the defendant's actions stemmed from "revulsion against Zainichi Korean residents and the self-centered desire to gather attention from the public." However, the prosecutor did not use the word "discrimination" and sought a jail sentence of four years.

    The defendant admitted to the allegations presented in the indictment, and the weight of the criminal punishment has been the focal point of the case. The victim's side has repeatedly called for the prosecution to acknowledge the motive as being of a discriminatory nature and to take this into consideration when deciding the sentence.

    Lawyer Yasuko Morooka observes a press conference by the defense counsel of the victims of an arson attack in the Korean community in the Utoro area of Kyoto Prefecture, in this photo taken in the city of Kyoto on May 16, 2022. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)

    A senior investigator told the Mainichi Shimbun, "It is not necessary to recognize discriminatory intent when processing arson as a criminal case." Even if the incident stemmed from discriminatory motives, there is no relevant law in Japan that provides a basis to consider such motives when determining a criminal sentence.

    In 2009, anti-Korean group Zaitokukai (an abbreviated name for the "Association of citizens against special privileges for Korean residents in Japan") carried out hate speech near Kyoto Chosen Daiichi elementary school, a pro-Pyongyang school in the city. Members of the group made calls like "Koreans, get out of Japan," and the group was accused of forcible obstruction of business. However, the ruling did not go as far as recognizing the motive of racial discrimination, and all four accused individuals, including executives, were given suspended sentences.

    Why is it difficult for discriminatory motives to be reflected clearly in criminal sentences? Yasuko Morooka, a lawyer familiar with hate speech issues, pointed out, "The Japanese government has not provided a clear definition of hate crime in the first place, nor has it indicated standards."

    Amid a standstill, the Japan Network towards Human Rights Legislation for Non-Japanese Nationals & Ethnic Minorities, a group consisting of researchers and lawyers, submitted a recommendation on hate crime countermeasures to the Minister of Justice in April. The group has demanded that the government issue a declaration to eradicate hate crime, create guidelines for applying existing laws to such cases, and establish a comprehensive law to eliminate racial discrimination.

    According to the group, hate crime is severely punishable under federal law and a majority of state laws in the United States. Germany's criminal code also stipulates that motives based on racial discrimination are considered when deciding sentences.

    Morooka, who also heads the group's administrative office, commented, "First, authorities must create guidelines on the verification of discriminatory motives and decision-making for criminal sentences so that hate crime can be dealt with under existing legislation. Ultimately, legislation to comprehensively ban discrimination must be established."

    (Japanese original by Kotaro Chigira, Kyoto Bureau)

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