The city of Kawasaki in the Greater Tokyo area on Thursday enacted a new ordinance imposing criminal penalties on those found guilty of hate speech targeting ethnic minorities in Japan, a nationwide scourge that has for decades made everyday life here intimidating and miserable for victims.
The bill, the first of its kind in Japan, which now bans discriminatory language and actions in public against people who do not come from Japan, was approved by Kawasaki City's sixty-seat assembly and will come into force on July 1.
Under the ordinance, violators will be issued warnings and repeat offenders issued city-mandated orders. In addition, the city can reveal the names and addresses of those found guilty of hate speech and criminal charges may be filed against them.
Repeated violators could face penalties of up to 500,000 yen (4,600 U.S. dollars) under the new ordinance.
Kawasaki Mayor Norihiko Fukuda said the new ordinance would be an effective measure to deal with issues of discrimination against ethnic minorities and that it was suitable to the city's demographic.
"Now we have an ordinance with great effectiveness that suits the local situation," Fukuda said, with reference to the city's population of 1.5 million people comprising a large number of Korean nationals and those of Korean descent.
The ordinance specifies discriminatory actions that the city will no longer tolerate, with these including calls for minorities to be kicked out of Japan, the encouragement of physical attacks against residents hailing from countries or regions outside Japan, and verbal insults likening them to things other than humans, such as insects.
The move by Kawasaki City, the 8th most populated city in Japan including the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, comes following the central government in 2016 enacting a law aimed at curbing hate speech that fell a long way short of the city's hopes and did little to stamp out such discrimination, as no punitive measures were included in the law to ban or punish such discriminatory language.
Owing to rising instances of xenophobic remarks made against residents in Japan of foreign lineage and their descendants, particularly, but not limited to Korean residents in Japan known as "Zainichi Koreans," the anti-hate speech law was brought into effect in 2016.
But since then, and most recently in May this year, lawmakers from both Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic and opposition parties said more constant efforts are needed to made to eradicate hate speech here, with some members calling for a new law to be enacted to comprehensively ban the discriminatory practice while highlighting the current law's limitations.
The current law, for example, is limited in tackling human rights violations on the internet.
A government website last year, for instance, was widely condemned for allowing public posts to be displayed carrying xenophobic remarks about Korean residents in Japan.
The Cabinet Office website, at the time, asked the Japanese public to post their opinions about some political issues, and among the posts, some read: "Kick out the Koreans" and "Their forcible deportation is necessary." Other posts, as has been the case with verbal assaults on the streets, likened Korean people to cockroaches.
The Cabinet Office at the time stopped receiving and posting the public's comments, but did not remove or filter any of the comments prior to that, with an official saying that the opinions of the public should be respected.
But, as the government has tried to clamp down on instances of hate speech, it has itself been embroiled in controversy.
A ruling LDP lawmaker said that even as recently as this year, some candidates during election campaigns have made hate speeches.
Such xenophobic ideology here has, for decades, been the source of a great deal of intimidation and suffering for Korean and other non-Japanese residents in Japan, particularly owing to a notorious "citizens' group" called Zainichi Tokken wo Yurusanai Shimin no Kai, the official name of the ultra-nationalist group better known as Zaitokukai.
The group, described by Japan's National Police Agency as a potential threat to public order due to its "extreme nationalist and xenophobic" ideology, in their boisterous public demonstrations, are typically dressed in Imperial Japanese Army-inspired uniforms and use megaphones while waving Imperial flags.
Zaitokukai, often likened to Neo-Nazis, believe that some Korean residents in Japan, known as "Zainichi Koreans", are being given special legal privileges by the government here to help integrate them into Japanese society.
Zaitokukai also vocally oppose long-term Korean residents who have been given permanent residence status by the Ministry of Justice and, as such, are eligible to claim the same welfare benefits as Japanese citizens.
Zaitokukai's xenophobic manifesto calls for Zainichi Koreans, as well as other non-Japanese residing here, to be stripped of their legal citizenship, kicked out of Japan, belittled in public, harassed on the streets and in their places of business, and, in the most extreme and shocking cases, assaulted, raped and murdered.
In terms of Japanese law, while there is a clear distinction between a "hate crime" and "hate speech," groups like Zaitokukai have previously exploited the law and operated in a grey area under so-called free-speech.
As such, thousands of people's lives of all ages here have been made miserable, including young children of foreign ancestry, as hate crimes could be punishable by law, but individuals and groups who made hate speeches could do so and have been doing so for decades with complete impunity.
As such, lawmakers and civic groups here have said that the only way to eradicate such hate speech was to enact a comprehensive new law to ban it entirely and criminally punish those who violate it.
Japan is home to around 600,000 ethnic Koreans, many of whom are the descendants of the nearly 800,000 Korean workers who were forcibly brought here to work during Japan's brutal colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsular during Word War II.
The 2016 anti-hate speech law, while being a step in the right direction towards eradicating hate speech, is not being applied with unequivocal conviction through local governments nationwide and is lacking in comprehensive punitive measures, experts on the matter have said.
Other critics of the law note that despite decades of suffering of the victims of hate speech, the law was only brought into effect as recently as 2016, despite Japan having been a signatory to the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination since the mid-1990s.
Kawasaki City, however, is now leading the charge in combating hate speech by its move to impose criminal penalties on violators, with a civic group of Korean residents on Thursday welcoming the unprecedented ordinance.
They said the ordinance now made it clear that those inflicting pain through discrimination would be held responsible.
"Although I think it won't immediately eliminate discrimination and anti-foreign sentiment, they will eventually be gone once the sense that hate speech is a crime takes root," 76-year-old Pae Jung Do was quoted as saying on the matter.