Tech companies miss Japan's brutal wave of hate speech

Iright after Shinzo Abe was killed by a gunman on July 8, rumor it quickly went viral on Japanese social media. It falsely claimed that the suspect was a “Korean from Zainichi”. The term is generally applied to descendants of Koreans who immigrated to Japan between 1910 and 1945, a period when Japan occupied Korea. They are the most targeted minority in Japan and suffer from severe online abuse.

Last summer, online hate turned into real-life 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 about 185,000 on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Although there were no casualties, the attack horrified Zainichi Koreans across the country.

On August 30, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

The suspect said that the purpose of the attack was to make Koreans afraid to live in Japan. According to media reports, he was radicalized by reading anti-Korean comments posted by readers of Yahoo! News Japan and one of his motives was to gain notoriety among these users.

Yahoo! News Japan it is reported there are only 70 content moderators to moderate around 10.5 million comments each month. It is the most popular news site in the country, and articles about the Utoro incident attracted a barrage of hateful comments and misinformation about Zainichi Koreans.

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In a written statement to TIME, the platform said it uses “AI and [moderators] to properly eliminate certain malicious users and posts,” and that it cooperated with government agencies to do so. But many of those posts remain on the site today.

Around the world and on every continent, major tech platforms have tried to strike a balance between allowing people to speak freely while protecting others from users who post hateful content. To do this, they have implemented content moderation practices that are often inadequate or especially hard on the moderators— even despite warnings from users and employees WHO moderate content. Japan is no exception.

But in Japan, unlike the US and other countries, online problems can disappear. Japan’s digital culture receives little attention from international media and researchers outside of high-profile pop culture phenomena such as anime and video games. Matt Alt, a Tokyo-based writer, says this is partly because deciphering Japanese online discourse requires a high degree of Japanese literacy. Within the country, what happens online tends to stay online, says Alt: “There’s something of a barrier between online events and the media in Japan. More than the West.

Damage remains at the scene of an arson attack at Utoro Zainichi Korean Village in Uji, eight months after the arson attack, on April 30, 2022, in Kyoto. A 22-year-old Japanese man was arrested in connection with the incident.

Jinhee Lee—NurPhoto/Getty Images

How hate speech spreads in Japan

Japanese far-right netizens dubbed “netto-uyoku” are flocking to Yahoo! News Japan and other platforms such as Twitter and Japanese Wikipedia that allow anonymity. They use the sites to spread historical revisionism and fuel xenophobic views about Korea and China.

Twitter has over 45 million Japanese users, making Japan the second largest market. It has a policy that “prohibits exclusionary statements based on race or ethnicity,” according to a Twitter spokesperson, who specifically added that “exclusionary or violent statements against 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 latter attack is especially 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 “soul murder.”

Meanwhile, with one billion monthly page views, the Japanese Wikipedia is the most visited edition of Wikipedia after the English one. He played a crucial role in whitewashing of war crimes carried out by Imperial Japan in China and Korea. The Korean Zainichi page contains many misleading statements and reinforces the stereotype of Zainichi Koreans as criminals. One of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors said in an email to TIME that “Japanese Wikipedia has been hijacked by netto-uyoku.”

The Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, denies the claim. She said in a statement to TIME that she investigated historical revisionism on Japanese Wikipedia and found “a known presence of right-wing users who may have tried to control the content of certain pages,” but the abuse did not appear to be frequent or sufficient to warrant a ban. . The foundation subsequently added that its “volunteers have included a more relevant, verified historical context [disputed] articles’, although much misinformation remains.

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Daisuke Tsuji, an associate professor at Osaka University, who collected data of netto-uyoku for more than a decade, says “Only about 2% of Internet users in Japan are netto-uyoku.” But their viewpoints are overrepresented on the Internet, in part because they are among the few Japanese willing to talk about politics, he says. “Unlike the US or the UK, the Japanese don’t really talk about politics in everyday conversation. Even on the Internet, a small fraction of the population participates in political discussions.”

In addition, the Japanese tendency to avoid conflict is also reflected in social media. In an analysis of Twitter in Japan, the researchers found that there were many progressives on the site, but they did not discuss the same topics as netto-uyoku. Because liberals are not actively engaged in creating counter-narratives, netto-uyoku viewpoints are rarely contested.

Such cultural factors, a plus normalizing hate on the internet, have allowed netto-uyoku to create the impression that their views are more mainstream than they really are. Their words have the potential to harm 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 be considered part of this group because of their heritage.

What is happening to Zainichi Koreans is of course not unique. Minority communities are being targeted online around the world as a reflection of what’s happening offline, says Ariadna Matamoros-Fernandez, who studies digital media at Queensland University of Technology. But most major social media platforms struggle to understand how hate is articulated in contexts outside the US, she says.

The problem is exacerbated in countries without an adequate legal framework to protect minorities. Activists in Japan push for anti-discrimination laws. Japan passed the Hate Speech Law in 2016, but activists say it does not go far enough because it does not provide for penalties. They also say the government’s lack of explicit condemnation encourages those who commit ethnic hatred.

Anti-racist groups (L) try to block Japanese nationalists from marching in the street during a rally demanding an end to hate speech in Kawasaki, Japan, July 16, 2017. Clashes broke out as right-wing activists marched with their slogans, flags , and racist remarks, forcing the police to intervene.

Richard Atrero de Guzman—NurPhoto/Getty Images

Weak protections for minorities in Japan

Frustrated by the lack of official action, some Zainichi Koreans and Japanese of Zainichi heritage have begun legal battles to stop the cycle of discrimination, although lawsuits in Japan have uncommon.

In 2014, Osaka-born Zainichi writer Sinha Lee sued Zaitokukai, a far-right hate group known for organizing anti-Korean rallies, for harassment both online and offline. Lee estimated she received about 5,000 racist and sexually offensive tweets a day, but after she filed the lawsuit, she says she was getting up to 20,000 a day. She says Korean Zainichi women are particularly targeted because “we are at the bottom of society.”

She won the case in 2017, but it took its toll: Lee suffered from weight loss, insomnia and stress-related hearing loss. The harassment on Twitter hasn’t stopped, but when she reports these posts to Twitter, she’s told they don’t violate Twitter’s rules.

Last December, Natsuki Yasuda, a well-known photojournalist, filed a lawsuit against two anonymous Twitter users who posted discriminatory comments about her late father, who was Zainichi Korean.

Her suit follows another, by Choi Kang Yi-ja, who sued a man who repeatedly harassed her on his blog and Twitter. She also received a death threat at work and was wearing a life jacket, fearing for her life.

The area around her workplace, the Sakuramoto Ward of Kawasaki City in the Tokyo area, is where many Zainichi Koreans live. It is also a popular place for anti-Korean hate rallies and its residents have been threatened with violence.

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“Platforms should enforce their own guidelines against hate speech,” said Hajime Kanbara, a human rights lawyer who represents both Yasuda and Choi. He says US companies like Twitter make it difficult to sue anonymous users because they don’t reveal users’ identities. “I want them to respond more flexibly to user disclosures,” he says. (Japan already has a law, the Provider Liability Limitation Act, which allows victims of online defamation to request disclosure of the sender’s details).

In June this year, Japan’s parliament passed legislation making “online insults” punishable by up to a year in prison. But exactly what it covers is unclear, and activists and lawyers worry the measure will be used to protect powerful people in the establishment while having little effect on countering hate speech.

“It is very difficult for victims to file a complaint or go to a civil court,” says Sinhae Lee. Instead of putting the onus on victims, she says platforms, government and society need to do more.

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

The Zainichi Koreans now fear the worst.

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