Hate-Speech Case Forces Japan to Confront Workplace Racism

Hate-Speech Case Forces Japan to Confront Workplace Racism


Distributing handouts is an unusual way for executives to communicate with employees in the 21st century. The messages on some of Fuji Corp.’s materials were even more retrograde. One featured a screenshot from a nationalistic YouTube video with comments below, including one that read “Die zainichi,” a reference to second- and third-generation Koreans living in Japan. Several of the documents referred to Korean comfort women — women and girls trafficked for work in Japan’s military brothels during World War II — as “whores.” 

One employee in particular, a third-generation zainichi whose name has been withheld by Bloomberg and other media over concerns about future harassment, grew increasingly uncomfortable. She asked the Osaka home-builder to stop the leafleting. It didn’t and, in 2015, she sued.

Japanese law doesn't have much precedent to punish racial discrimination. The country was the 145th party to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1995, and the employee’s case holds that Fuji and its chairman, Mitsuo Imai, went against the international pact as well as the country’s own labor law. When Japan’s legislature, the Diet, passed the Hate Speech Act in 2016, the employee and her lawyers alleged that the language in the handouts also met the country’s new category of “unjust discriminatory speech and words.”

A lower court ruled last year that Fuji had caused psychological harm but declined to characterize the leaflets as offensive to any particular employee. The company appealed, saying the handouts are for educational purposes and covered by Japan’s free-speech protections regardless. “These are reference materials that will allow employees to be aware of broad, global political trends,” Imai said in an email. “They do not contain hate speech.” 

The case, which is now before an Osaka high court, spotlights Japan’s longstanding and sometimes violent discomfort with its zainichi population and its growing immigrant communities in general. Years of strict immigration laws have maintained a level of homogeneity that's unusual among liberal democracies — the country is an estimated 98% ethnically Japanese — and it’s been largely insulated from the more global push toward diversity of all kinds in the workplace. But with an aging workforce and a still-stagnant economy, policy makers have softened on immigration. As more foreigners arrive, as many politicians hope they do, companies and communities may finally have to figure out how to make them feel welcome. 

Hate-Speech Case Forces Japan to Confront Workplace Racism

“It feels like a huge problem that there’s no acknowledgement that foreigners have a livelihood here, that they’re not just workers but residents, entitled to human rights,” said Rika Lee, associate professor at the Faculty of Policy Studies at Chuo University in Tokyo. “That acknowledgement is part of the path to globalization, one that’s good for Japan and the Japanese people.”

Immigration is a divisive issue in all of the world’s wealthy nations, and Japan is no exception. From 2000 to 2019, Japan registered a 48% increase in its immigrant population, according to United Nations data; roughly 10% of Tokyo twentysomethings are now foreign-born. The government continues to recruit foreign workers to fill skills gaps in the labor market, and many Japanese people think the country’s gone far enough. In a 2018 survey by Pew Research, just 23% said the government should welcome more foreign workers.

There's another obstacle. Japanese policy has often assumed that any influx of foreign workers would be temporary; eventually, they’d go back home, or they’d naturalize and become Japanese. There’s little room for a hyphenated identity, according to a 2021 paper from University of Toronto sociologists Jeremy Davison and Ito Peng. “The notion of immigration as we know it in the West—migration to a foreign country with the intention to settle as a permanent resident or naturalized citizen—was somewhat foreign.”

Tennis star Naomi Osaka has almost single-handedly forced the country to reckon with its own diversity. Japan is one of the few countries that doesn't recognize dual citizenship, so Osaka, Japanese-Haitian by birth, had to choose. In opting to carry a Japanese passport, she also started a conversation about racial prejudice and discrimination there. NBA player Rui Hachimura has been similarly outspoken. Last year Nike, which sponsors both, introduced a controversial ad in the country targeting racist attitudes and bullying, including against Koreans. 

Hate-Speech Case Forces Japan to Confront Workplace Racism

Prejudice in the workplace is often more subtle, but not always. In December, Japanese media reported that Yoshiaki Yoshida, the chairman of global cosmetics firm DHC Corp., used anti-zainichi slurs to disparage actors in commercials for products made by rival Suntory Holdings Ltd., bragging that “everything about DHC is pure Japanese.” DHC declined to comment. 

The Japanese government doesn’t collect data on ethnicity, race or national heritage, and over time, many zainichi have taken on Japanese names and naturalized, effectively hiding their Korean heritage. That gives the official impression that the number of zainichi are dwindling, either assimilating or dying out, and feeds a popular view that anti-Korean prejudice will eventually resolve itself.

“They’re becoming less visible in terms of government data, but becoming less visible doesn’t mean the problem isn’t there,” said Hwaji Shin, an associate professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco who has studied race and ethnicity in modern Japan. “The significance shouldn’t be quantified and measured by the official size of the population.”

Before it turns to new arrivals to plug the holes in its economy, Japan should pay more attention to the foreigners within its borders, said Ha Kyung Hee, an assistant professor at Meiji University and a zainichi. “I feel uncomfortable when people rationalize the need for diversity because we need foreigners, given the shrinking population,” she said. “Without convincing support, adding on more people will only mean pain. Instead of just saying ‘Welcome,’ Japan needs to face its problem at hand.”

With China to the north and Japan across a narrow strait in the south, migration has flowed in and out of Korea for centuries. When Japan colonized the peninsula in the early 20th century, it conferred modified citizenship status on its new subjects. From 1920 to 1930, the number of Koreans in Japan grew tenfold to about 420,000, according to research compiled by Sonia Ryang, a professor of Asian Studies at Rice University in Houston. 

Hate-Speech Case Forces Japan to Confront Workplace Racism

During the war, roughly 634,000 Korean men were brought to Japan to work in mines, construction, manufacturing and machine industries. In total, by 1945, there were more than 2 million Koreans living in Japan. The end of the fighting also led to Korea’s freedom from Japanese occupation, and Koreans who’d been living in Japan for more than a generation had a decision to make. About two-thirds repatriated.

The remaining third stayed and became known as zainichi, literally “staying in Japan.” No longer afforded the rights of citizenship, they had to register as foreigners and renew their documents regularly. Because Japan doesn’t have birthright citizenship, their children and grandchildren were subject to the same protocols, based on the assumption that eventually, they’d go back to Korea. But the peninsula had become unrecognizable, and for the children and grandchildren of the original arrivals, Japan was the only home they knew. Over time, many took on Japanese names to avoid unnecessary attention or discrimination. In one survey, conducted in 1986, some 91% of zainichi living in Kanagawa prefecture said they also used Japanese names.

Meanwhile, political tensions between Japan and the two Koreas have continued to simmer, often spilling into social media and popular culture. In 2002, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il took responsibility for the abduction of Japanese citizens, triggering an outpouring of anti-zainichi sentiment. Seven years later, an extremist group demonstrated outside a Korean elementary school in Japan, assailing the students as spies and shouting for them to leave the country.

Japan’s most famous zainichi, SoftBank Group Corp. Chairman Masayoshi Son, has said he was subject to verbal and physical attacks during his school days. “If you are born into one of those families of Korean descent, you are subject to groundless discrimination,” he said in an interview with Nikkei Asia in 2015. “When I was in elementary and junior high school, I was in agony over my identity so much that I seriously contemplated taking my own life. I’d say discrimination is that tough.” 

Hate-Speech Case Forces Japan to Confront Workplace Racism

Beyond open hostilities, zainichi have suffered economically, said Kim Myungsoo, a professor of sociology at Kwansei Gakuin University, west of Osaka. Kim’s research notes that zainichi tend to work in lower-paying jobs, including “such marginal sectors as Korean BBQ restaurants, pachinko parlors, construction, money-lending, scrap metal collection, and so on,” he wrote.

In 2015, two decades after Japan signed on to the U.N. treaty, lawmakers proposed a bill to curb racial discrimination. The elementary school demonstrators in Kyoto had been found guilty of “forcible obstruction of business” and ordered to pay more than 12 million yen ($108,000) in damages.

Testifying before the National Diet, Choi Kangija, a Kawasaki citizen, recounted a confrontation with protesters. A group of zainichi had formed a human barricade to keep demonstrators out of their neighborhood. Choi said she stood with her middle-school aged son as the agitators yelled that Korea was “an enemy,” said that Koreans were “cockroaches” who should “die or be murdered,” that they “shouldn’t be breathing, as they pollute the air.” The residents held their ground, and the mob vowed to return.

“I’m not here to testify as anti-Japanese,” she said. “I’m really scared. Getting in the public eye to speak about the consequences of hate speech, I’ll be slandered as anti-Japanese.”

To Kim Sangyun, a law professor at Ryukoku University who testified in support of the bill, the Hate Speech Act is a milestone. “It’s not perfect but it’s a step toward progress,” he said. “Before, there was nothing.”

The Fuji employee can remember when work was fun. She went out with her co-workers for a drink occasionally, and her boss was flexible if she needed to leave to care for her family. She still works there, afraid as a zainichi in her mid-50s, she’d have a hard time finding work elsewhere. But it's far from enjoyable, and the distribution of anti-Korean documents has continued, she told the Osaka court in January.

In 2019, while the case made its way through the Japanese court system, the leafleting continued at Fuji. One of the fliers photocopied a magazine cover promoting a book called “Koreans are liars.” Other phrases in the handout included “No one will be disturbed even if  Korea disappears from the world,” and “culture of shame.” 

Hate-Speech Case Forces Japan to Confront Workplace Racism

Imai said in a 2019 hearing that he simply wanted to share a book that was hugely popular. “It’s published in South Korea,” he told the court. “It’s an admirable book.” In an email to Bloomberg, he added, “There are a countless number of employees who wish to have these books and documents distributed. The plaintiff is the only employee who is saying these materials cause pain.”

The employee has tried to remain anonymous. Her name is shielded in court testimony and documents and hasn’t been published. But at work, she said, she is the only one who uses a Korean name, and the lawsuit has made her a target. More than once, the fliers, including Fuji’s “Daily Business Report,” featured quotes from employees opining on the lawsuit. 

“I feel resentment against the idiot who is repaying warmth with vengeance,” one wrote. “It’s pathetic, foolish, it really makes me mad,” wrote another. A third, underlined, read: “I think the world will show her what true hate speech is against her from now on.”

“Work has become a place where it’s harder and harder for me to breathe,” the plaintiff said, her voice trembling slightly during her five-minute testimony. She and her lawyers have asked the Osaka high court to stop the company from distributing any more materials.

On its blog, Fuji has defended its position several times, citing freedom of speech and saying that internally distributed documents are not aimed at anyone specific, nor are they compulsory reading materials. The company pointed out that two of its board members were of Korean descent. Before they naturalized as Japanese citizens, they were zainichi. One testified in Fuji’s defense.

Takashi Nakai, a lawyer representing Fuji, argued it would be “absolutely unacceptable” for the court to uphold the first ruling, that the firm had violated the law. The company would then always have to consider whether the content of its materials conflicts with the beliefs of the plaintiff, he added: “The company will be put in a dangerous position, with the foundation of the business destroyed.”

During the hearing in Osaka in January, Imai sat with his counsel. He showed little emotion during his employee’s testimony and didn't take the stand. His lawyer, Masahiko Nakamura, asked the court to consider his constitutional protections. “The fundamental problem with the ruling is a clear lack of consideration for defendant Imai’s freedom of speech,” he said.

Hate-Speech Case Forces Japan to Confront Workplace Racism

Before the Hate Speech Act passed in 2016, its opponents had a primary objection: the legislation would go against Japan’s constitutional commitments to “freedom of speech, press and all other forms of expression.” Others, though, complained that the act, as written, didn’t go far enough. “It’s irrelevant because it has no teeth,” said Stephen Givens, a Tokyo-based lawyer, who testified against the measure. “Law has meaning only when it has force.”

Twenty kilometers south of Tokyo, officials in Kawasaki agreed that the national measure fell short. The city has one of the country’s biggest Korean communities and was early to open civil service exams to non-Japanese nationals. Last year, the city made hate speech a criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to ¥500,000 ($4,575). Specifically, it prohibits calls to drive out minority groups, incitements to violence and slurs that paint people as subhuman.

In the intervening months, the city has mounted a public awareness campaign, with posters in subway stations and streaming videos on public displays. The posters read, “STOP! Unfair Discrimination. Let’s respect each other and create a society without prejudice and false rumors based on nationality, race and ethnicity.” They were made to commemorate the one-year anniversary since the ordinance was implemented. 

The global pandemic has warped all assessments of the past 18 months, but Norihiko Fukuda, the mayor of Kawasaki, said in the spring that the local ordinance combined with the Hate Speech Act “have had some success.”

“It’s necessary for these rules to be sustained over the long term,” Fukuda said in a statement.  “With a determination to be unforgiving to those who discriminate, I plan to practice the ordinance in its appropriate way, to create a foundation that doesn’t leave room for discrimination and to realize a fair society.”

Hate-Speech Case Forces Japan to Confront Workplace Racism

Choi, who testified in support of the national Hate Speech Act, still lives in Kawasaki. Earlier this year, her son, Neo Nakane, brought a lawsuit after he became the target of a racist attack online. In May, the Tokyo high court ruled in Nakane’s favor and awarded him 1.3 million yen ($11,700) in damages.

The new laws are helping, said Choi, although they haven’t stopped the harassment she says she faces regularly. Most recently, she got a printed letter in the mail, a stream of bile that ended with the word “die” repeated over and over.

“I am pushing the government, I am fighting in court, I have gone to the police,” she said. "There are limits to what an individual can do. I'm not a believer who thinks hard work on an individual level will be good enough.”

This summer, while most of Japan focused on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the Tokyo Olympics, the high court in Osaka heard further arguments. A decision is expected in November. Whatever the outcome, it’s not likely to end there. The plaintiff’s lawyer said they would take action if unsatisfied by the verdict. Meanwhile, the company has vowed to “fight this case to complete victory, not just for our company but to protect our country’s freedom of speech.”

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