TOKYO, Japan — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be speaking to the United Nations this Friday, but he may not be very welcome. In late July, the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged Japan to crack down on the growing cases of "hate speech" targeting foreign residents. The U.N. committee urged Prime Minister Abe's administration to "firmly address manifestations of hate and racism as well as incitement to racist violence and hatred during rallies," and create laws to rectify the situation.
Recent events make it appear that the prime minister and his cabinet are not paying attention; several members of the cabinet not only appear oblivious to racism and hate speech issues, they associate with those who promote them.
Last week photographs of Japan's newly appointed National Public Safety Commissioner socializing with members of the country's most virulent racist group, Zaitokukai, were brought to light in an expose by Japan's leading weekly magazine, Shukan Bunshun. In U.S. terms, it would be the equivalent of the attorney general getting caught chumming around with a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. This week it was reported that another cabinet member received donations from them, and that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself may have ties to the staunchly anti-Korean organization.
All of this isn't good for Japan and Korea relations, since much of the racism is directed at people of Korean descent, nor is it good for U.S.-Japan relations. In February, the U.S. State Department in its annual report on human rights, criticized the hate speech towards Korean residents in Japan, specifically naming the Zaitokukai. The group is well known for its anti-social actions, but The Daily Beast has learned that it also has had ties to Japan's mafia—including the Sumiyoshi-kai, which is blacklisted by the United States.
The latest news of links between the Japanese ruling coalition and unsavory characters comes just after another scandal involving neo-nazi links to two other cabinet members made headlines worldwide.
The standard line of defense offered by the cabinet members embroiled in controversy over their connections to racist groups, "We just happened to get photographed with these people. We don't know who they are," is getting harder to swallow. And it has raised some disturbing issues.
The U.N. and the U.S. State Department can certainly urge Japan to deal with the problem but as long as hate crime pays politically and to some extent monetarily and the administration seems to condone ultra-nationalist racist groups this is unlikely to happen. The scolding that the U.N. gave Japan seems more and more prescient as links between the cabinet and bigoted ultra-nationalist organizations keep coming to light.
Koreans living in Japan suffer the brunt of racism and hate speech, and their situation is complex. In some ways they are analogous to Jews in America in the early 1930s. They are a small minority and many of them are second or third generation residents who have no ties to Korea. Large numbers of them were originally brought to Japan as slave labor before and during World War II—although Japan's revisionist historians prefer the term "conscripted" over "enslaved."
Koreans in Japan have been subject to racism and violence since as far back the early 1920s. After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 there were rumors spread that Koreans were poisoning wells and committing robbery. Thousands of Koreans in Japan were murdered in the resulting frenzy.
After the war, many Koreans stayed and divided into two camps: some who took North Korean citizenship and others who took the side of South Korea. While being racially indistinguishable from Japanese, many still retain their culture, attend special Korean schools, and retain their Korean nationality.
Like Jewish people who changed their name to better fit in and to avoid discrimination, some Koreans take up Japanese names to hide their identity. They are still the targets of subtle and not so subtle overt racism—increasingly vocalized by the group known as Zaitokukai.
The Zaitokukai, founded in 2006, has a name best translated as "Citizens Against the Special Privileges of Ethnic Koreans." They are an ultra-nationalist, right-wing group that argues for the elimination of privileges extended to foreigners who had been granted Special Foreign Resident status—mostly Korean-Japanese.
The Zaitokukai also collect a lot of money in donations from like-minded citizens.
The group, which is led by Makoto Sakurai, whose real name is Makoto Takada, claims that ethnic Koreans abuse the social and welfare system in Japan. Zaitokukai claims to have over 14,000 members. It organizes protests and demonstrations across Japan, even in front of Korean elementary schools, yelling such slogans as "Go back to Korea," "You're the children of spies"—making numerous veiled and overt threats. The group asserts that all foreigners are criminals who should be chased out of Japan, especially the Koreans.
In a recent book, Sakurai states, "The Japanese understand what the Koreans are up to. If you think about it, there's no way we can get along with these people. Even though Japanese people don't do anything, Koreans just cause one incident (crime) after another. Every time a Korean commits another crime, our support goes up."
And when support goes up, so do the earnings of the Zaitokukai—earnings that are poorly accounted for and go untaxed. It's a great racket and it's completely legal.
However, the group does have associations with the Japanese mafia, aka the yakuza, and those may not be legal. They are very closely tied to the political arm of the Sumiyoshikai, known as Nihonseinsha.
Eriko Yamatani, as chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, oversees Japan's police forces. It makes her association with Zaitokukai and their criminally inclined members highly problematic. One picture that dates back to 2009 shows Yamatani standing next to Yasuhiko Aramaki, who was arrested a year later for terrorizing a Korean elementary school in Kyoto, found guilty and then later arrested again in 2012 on charges of intimidation.
Another of the people photographed with Yamatani is Shigeo Masuki, a former Zaitokukai leader. Masuki was arrested at least three times after the photograph was shot, once for threatening an elementary school principal and later for insurance fraud. Yamatani initially denied that she knew of the Zaitokukai affiliation of the people in the pictures. This is slightly strange since she has reportedly been friends with Masuki and his wife for over a decade. When replying to questions from TBS radio about the recent scandal, she explained the Zaitokukai exactly in the terminology of a true believer, inadvertently using the words "Zainichi Tokken (Special rights of the Korean Residents In Japan)" herself. At a press conference held today (September 25th), she was questioned about her use of the term and stated uncomfortably, "In my reply (to TBS) I might have just copy and pasted from the Zaitokukai homepage." She refused to criticize the group by name or clarify whether she believed that ethnic Koreans had special privileges.
Yamatani, in her current position, oversees the National Police Agency—the very same agency that noted in its 2013 white paper that the Zaitokukai were committing hate speech, promoting racism, and posed a threat to the social order. If hate-speech becomes a crime, she may be in charge of overseeing the police that enforce the law.
She isn't the only one close to the Zaitokukai in the current cabinet. According to the magazine Sunday Mainichi, Ms. Tomomi Inada, Minister Of The "Cool Japan" Strategy, also received donations from Masaki and other Zaitokukai associates.
Apparently, racism is cool in Japan.
Inada made news earlier this month after photos circulated of her and another female in the new cabinet posing with a neo-Nazi party leader. Both denied knowing the neo-Nazi well but later were revealed to have contributed blurbs for an advertisement praising the out-of-print book Hitler's Election Strategy. Coincidentally, Vice-Prime Minister,Taro As, is also a long-time admirer of Nazi political strategy, and has suggested Japan follow the Nazi Party template to sneak constitutional change past the public.
Even Japan's Prime Minister Abe has been photographed with members of Zaitokukai. Masuki, who snapped a photo with Abe on August 17h 2009, while he was still a member of the group, bragged that Abe "kindly remembered him."
As of publication date, the administration hasn't explained the relationship between the two and a home page featuring a photo of Abe and Masuki has been taken down.
In their 2013 white paper on public safety in Japan, the National Police Agency touched upon the Zaitokukai as follows: "In parts of Tokyo and Osaka heavily populated by Korean-Japanese, racist and anti-foreign right wing groups have engaged in radical demonstrations, drawing the attention of society to the hate speech problem." While Zaitokukai isn't mentioned by name, it's clear who they are referring to.
Sakurai, the leader, has an arrest record but no convictions. The Shinjuku police did arrest him (and counter protestors) on charges of assault after a violent demonstration in "Koreatown" last June, but he was not prosecuted. He is still fuming about it: "The Shinjuku Police didn't even apologize to me yet."
According to police sources, leaders of the Zaitokukai have in the past openly associated with members of Japan's major crime families and continue to do so.
When we asked Zaitokukai's public relations office to comment on the fact that the Yakuza draw much of their number from the ethnic Korean population in Japan, and that the head of the Inagawa-kai, Japan's third largest organized crime group is also ethnic Korean, they would only state, "We think that anti-social forces (yakuza) should vanish."
Apparently, they are fine with terrorizing powerless Korean students and small business owners but not okay with harassing the yakuza.
A police source told The Daily Beast, "It's amusing to hear their response was that saying anti-social forces should go away. We look at the group as a part of a wider spectrum anti-social forces that include yakuza."
Some of Zaitokukai's "emergency fund raising campaigns" are said to bring in over a hundred thousand dollars in a few days. The amount of money the group earns is not checked by reliable third-party entities so their real earnings are unknown.
Hate speech isn't a crime in Japan, but what would be prosecuted as hate crime in the US is legal here. Sometimes crime does pay.
Since September 3, it seems that every day yields new information linking an Abe cabinet member with a racist or neo-nazi group. While the ties to racist groups and the cabinet members seem problematic, there are signs of hope…sort of.
In August, Japan's ruling party, which put Abe into power organized a working group to discuss laws that would restrict hate-crime, although the new laws will probably also be used to clamp down on anti-nuclear protests outside the Diet building.
Of course, it is a little worrisome that Sanae Takaichi, who was supposed to oversee the project, is the other female minister who was photographed with a neo-Nazi leader and is a fan of Hitler.
Maybe the Abe administration is sincere about dealing with hate crimes and just unlucky to have so many cabinet members being photographed and getting donations from the wrong people.
Sadly, Japan is in the middle of a huge racist boom. Anti-Korean books, magazines, and comic books are selling like wildfire. The anti-Korean diatribe Bokanron (The Impudent Korea Argument), a book released on December 5 last year, became the top selling book on Amazon within a week and sold 270,000 copies by the end of March. An assistant editor at a weekly magazine told The Daily Beast, "If you have an article ridiculing Korea or Koreans on the cover, the issue sells. That's the climate we're in."
However, Japan is definitely in a precarious time. What was once taboo has become socially acceptable and the prime minister remains silent, hoping to avoid alienating his political base and let the fires of political nationalism continue to smolder.