Japan's Hate Speech Problem: After the Abe-Empowering Election

07/22/2013 08:36 am ET | Updated Sep 21, 2013

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party won big in Sunday's parliamentary elections, giving the country a semblance of political stability that hasn't been seen since the days when Japan, Inc. dominated the mindscape.

A record of revolving door leadership -- seven prime ministers in seven years -- was enough for the Japanese public to stick with the status quo and hold their collective breaths.

Parliamentary elections are unlikely to take place again in Japan until 2016.

My informal polling among Japanese friends tells me that political apathy remains high -- confirmed by low voter turnout -- and enthusiasm for Abenomics is low. There is still a lot of worry about Japan's future, especially its festering regional disputes with its East Asian neighbors and Abe's tin ear when it comes to concerns with his nationalist leanings and political revisionisms.

As reported by Chico Harlan of the Washington Post:

...some opposition lawmakers in Japan fear an emboldened Abe could speak more openly about his revisionist beliefs, enraging China and South Korea and aggravating the United States, which is pressing Tokyo to play nice with its neighbors.

Playing nice -- or speaking softly -- is not usually what politicians do who win big.

Abe wants to revise Japan's constitution and have a standing military beyond defensive purposes, which would exacerbate existing tensions. The LDP's domination in the Diet may also embolden the rightwing hatemongers who have taken to the streets and to the Internet to call for the ouster of resident Chinese and Koreans in Japan.

Hate speech group membership in Japan is quite low, perhaps in the tens of thousands. Numbers are hard to track, but numbers alone don't really matter when YouTube propagates videotaped messages of hate. Consider one 14-year-old Japanese girl's outburst in Tsuruhashi, Osaka's Koreantown earlier this year:

I can't tell you how much I despise you and wish I could kill you all. You have smug faces and if you continue to behave in that way we will have a massacre here in Tsuruhashi. This is Japan, and you should go back to Korea. You do not belong here.

This video was translated into several regional languages and English and played widely around the world. How many watching wondered if this young girl reflected the opinion of hundreds, if not thousands, of Japanese youth?

Hate speech demonstrations in Japan are the brainchild of Makoto Sakurai and his Zaitokukai organization, which was formed in 2006 during Abe's first one-year term. Zaitokukai claims 13,000 supporters, though usually only 200-300 show up to protest in neighborhoods like Shin-Okubo, Tokyo's Koreatown.

Abe's response to the rise of hate speech rhetoric has so far been to slough it off as a sort of reality TV episode of Japanese Behaving Badly:

I believe that the Japanese people respect harmony and shouldn't exclude other people. The Japanese way of thinking is to behave politely and to be generous and modest at all times.

More recently he told a magazine that he would leave the whole thing to "the good conscience of the average Japanese citizen." Spoken like a man who wants the bad image street protesters to become just another evaporating political issue.

The problem with Abe's response so far to the hate speech issue is that his words resonate across ears that have heard too much of his revisionist history. He has said that Japan was never an aggressive military power in Asia until World War II. For the record, an estimated 20 million Chinese died fighting Japan in the 1930s and 1940s; Japan ruled Korea for thirty-five years (1910-1945) and Taiwan for fifty (1895-1945).

Such insensitivity to past military transgressions and colonial occupations bodes ill for those who are hoping that Prime Minister Abe will tackle more than just economics after Sunday's elections.

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