Tech Companies Missing a Brutal Wave of Hate Speech in Japan

YouInstantly following the assassination of Shinzo Abe by a gunman, rumors quickly circulated on Japanese social networks. It falsely claimed that the suspect was a “Zainichi Korean.” The term generally applies to descendants of Korean people who emigrated to Japan between 1910 and 1945—a period when Japan occupied Korea. These people are the most vulnerable minority in Japan, and they suffer severe online abuse.

This summer online hatred turned into actual violence. A 22-year-old man allegedly set fire to and destroyed seven buildings in Utoro—the ethnic Korean district of Uji, a city of some 185,000 on Japan’s main island Honshu. The attack, which resulted in no deaths, shocked Zainichi Koreans throughout the country.

He was sentenced on August 30 to four-years imprisonment

According to the suspect, the aim of the attack was making Koreans fear living in Japan. According to media reports, the suspect was inspired by anti-Korean comments made by Yahoo!! readers. News Japan said that he was motivated by a desire to gain notoriety from Yahoo! Users.

Yahoo! News Japan has only 70 content moderators, according to reports. They are responsible for policing an estimated 10.5million comments per month. This is the nation’s most visited news website. Articles about Utoro attracted hateful comments as well as disinformation about Zainichi Koreans.

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In a written statement to TIME, the platform said it uses “AI and [moderators] to properly eliminate some malicious users and posts” and that it has cooperated with government agencies to do so. Many of the posts from those days are still available on this site.

Major tech platforms around the globe, on all continents, have tried to find a way to allow people to express themselves freely and protect others from hateful posts. To do so, they’ve implemented content moderation practices that are often inadequate or particularly hard on moderators—even despite warnings from users and employees who moderate content. Japan is no exception.

However, Japan may not be as open to online problems as the United States and other nations. Japan’s digital culture receives little attention from the international media and researchers beyond high-profile pop culture phenomena like anime and video games. Matt Alt is a Tokyo-based writer who says that this may be due to the difficulty of understanding Japanese online discourse. Within the country, what happens online tends to stay online, says Alt: “There is sort of a barrier between online happenings and mass media in Japan. More so than the West.”

Eight months following the attack on Utoro Zainichi Korean settlement, Uji on April 30, 2022, Kyoto, the damage to the arson site at Utoro Zainichi Korean settlement is still visible. The incident has led to the arrest of a Japanese citizen aged 22.

Jinhee Lee—NurPhoto/Getty Images

Japan’s hate speech epidemic

Japanese far-right netizens called “netto-uyoku” flock to Yahoo! News Japan, Japanese Wikipedia and Twitter allow anonymity. The sites are used by them to propagate historical revisionism as well as to encourage xenophobic views in Korea and China.

Japan has the second largest market in Japan with Twitter’s 45 million Japanese users. It has a policy that “prohibits statements of exclusion based on race or ethnicity,” according to a Twitter spokesperson, who specifically added that “statements of exclusion or violence towards the Zainichi Koreans will be subject to enforcement.”

But Zainichi Koreans are frequent targets of abuse on the site, where they are derided as “cockroaches,” “cancer,” “illegal immigrants,” and “chon” (a highly derogatory term), while being told to “go back to your country.” The last attack is particularly painful, given that the ancestors of many Zainichi Koreans were forcibly sent as laborers to Japan during the colonial era. One Zainichi Korean described it to TIME as “the murder of the soul.”

Japanese Wikipedia has the second most trafficked Wikipedia page after English, with over one billion pages viewed each month. It played an important role in the whitewashing crimes against humanity committed by Imperial Japan, China and Korea. It makes many false claims about Zainichi Koreans and perpetuates the stereotype that they are criminals. One of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors said in an email to TIME that “Japanese Wikipedia has been hijacked by netto-uyoku.”

Wikimedia Foundation which runs Wikipedia denies this claim. It said in a statement to TIME that it had investigated historical revisionism on Japanese Wikipedia and found “some presence of right-wing users who have possibly attempted to control the content on certain pages” but the abuse didn’t seem frequent or sufficient enough to enforce a ban. The foundation subsequently added that its “volunteers have included more relevant, verified historical context in [disputed] articles,” although much disinformation remains.

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Daisuke Tsuji, an associate professor at Osaka University, who has collected data on netto-uyoku for over a decade, says “Only about 2% of internet users in Japan are netto-uyoku.” But their viewpoints are over-represented on the internet, partly because they are among the few Japanese willing to talk about politics, he says. “Unlike in the U.S. or U.K., Japanese don’t really talk about politics in daily conversation. Even on the Internet, it’s a small segment of the population that engages in political discussions.”

The Japanese tend to avoid conflict on social media is another example. In an analysis of Twitter in Japan, researchers found that plenty of progressives were on the site, but they weren’t discussing the same topics as netto-uyoku. Since liberals aren’t actively engaged in creating counter narratives, the viewpoints of netto-uyoku are rarely challenged.

These cultural influences, along with the acceptance of hatred on the Internet have allowed netto-uyoku create an impression that their views seem more mainstream than they really are. They can spread hatred across the globe, causing harm to hundreds of thousands. There are at least 300,000 people in Japan who are categorized as “special permanent residents,” almost all of whom are Zainichi Koreans—and many thousands more may consider themselves part of this group because of their heritage.

What’s happening to Zainichi Koreans isn’t unique, of course. As a result of the online harassment of minorities, there is a lot of overlap with what’s happening offline. Ariadna Mateamoros-Fernandez studies digital media at Queensland University of Technology. She says that most social media platforms fail to grasp how hatred is expressed in other contexts than the U.S.

Countries without adequate legal protections for minorities only exacerbate the problem. Japan has been pushing for laws against discrimination. Japan passed the Hate Speech Act in 2016, but activists say it didn’t go far enough because it prescribes no penalties. They claim the absence of an explicit condemnation by government encourages ethnic hate.

Japanese nationalists marching in the streets during an anti-racist rally held in Kawasaki (Japan) on July 16, 2017. Right-wing activists marching with racist slogans and flags sparked chaos, prompting police to step in.

Richard Atrero de Guzman—NurPhoto/Getty Images

Scant protection for Japan’s minorities

Some Zainichi Koreans and Zainichi-related Japanese are frustrated by lack of government action. They are attempting to end discrimination through legal actions, even though it is not common in Japan.

Sinhae Lee from Osaka, who was born Zainichi in 2014 sued Zaitokukai (a far-right hate organization known for holding anti-Korean rallies) for harassment online and off. Lee believed she received about 5,000 racist and sexually offensive tweets each day. However, after filing the case, she claims she has been receiving as high as 20,000. She says Zainichi Korean women are especially targeted because “we’re at the bottom of the bottom of society.”

The case was won in 2017. However, it had a devastating impact on Lee’s health. Lee suffered weight loss and insomnia as well as stress-related hearing losses. The harassment on Twitter hasn’t stopped, but when she reports these posts to Twitter, she’s told that they don’t violate Twitter’s rules.

Natsuki Yanuda (a well-known photographer) filed a suit against two anonymous twitter users for making discriminatory comments regarding her father Zainichi Korean last December.

Choi Kang Ija filed a second suit in her place. He had harassed her repeatedly on Twitter and his blog. In fear for her safety, she was also threatened with death at work. She has worn a protective vest.

Many Zainichi Koreas reside in the Sakuramoto District of Kawasaki City, Greater Tokyo. It’s also a popular site of anti-Korean hate rallies, and its residents have been threatened with violence.

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“Platforms need to enforce their own guidelines against hate speech,“ says Hajime Kanbara, a human rights lawyer, who represents both Yasuda and Choi. Because Twitter and other American companies withhold users identities, it makes filing lawsuits against anonymous users more difficult. “I want them to respond more flexibly to user disclosure,” he says. (Japan now has a law, the Provider Liability Limitation Act, that allows victims of online defamation to request disclosure of the sender’s details).

In June of this year, the Japanese parliament passed legislation that makes “online insults” punishable by up to a year in prison. However, it is unclear what the legislation covers. Lawyers and activists worry that this measure could be used to protect the powerful and prevent hate speech.

“It’s very hard for victims to file a complaint or go to civil court,” says Sinhae Lee. Instead of placing burdens on victims, Sinhae Lee says platforms, government and society can do more.

Last summer’s arson attack in Uji could be a signal of what’s to come, unless the government and the platforms take action, says Kanbara, who warns of “a hate crime with numerous casualties.”

Zainichi Koreans fear the worst.

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