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Japanese right wing groups protest against Koreans in Tokyo. Photo: Xinhua

Big trouble in Little Korea: spiral of race hate grips Tokyo

Tokyo residents say they are living in fear amid rising violence after Korean and Japanese leaders fuelled historic nationalist sentiments

Kim Dong-sun says she is often frightened to walk home after work, but particularly on Sundays - one of the busiest of the week in the Shin-Okubo district of central Tokyo, an area that has evolved into a community of Korean residents of Japan.

It has also become a magnet in recent months for increasingly violent demonstrations by nationalist Japanese demanding that they leave.

The loud chanting was bad enough, Kim says, when the demonstrators would shout "Kill Koreans" or "Send them to the gas chambers".

But it is the violence that really scares her, especially as it is clearly escalating.

On May 21, Hiroshi Akai was arrested for assaulting a 51-year-old man who had spoken out against the demonstrations.

Akai, a former member of Japan's Self-Defence Forces who is now unemployed, told police that he had "accidentally bumped into" the other man.

The police report states that Akai hurled himself at the victim and had to be hauled away by riot police who were monitoring the demonstration.

During a recent protest march - which has become a weekly event - eight people were taken into custody by police. The scuffles began after anti-Korean protesters and more liberal groups - incensed at the "hate speech" being directed at the immigrant community - started spitting at each other, according to the authorities.

The demonstrators, demanding that Koreans leave Japan, numbered around 200 while their opponents mustered about 350 people, police say.

"I do feel scared when the demonstrators are here," says 37-year-old Kim, who works in a cosmetics store and is originally from Seoul. "I have to walk outside the shop sometimes and it's intimidating to see all these people arguing.

"I came to Japan two years ago because I wanted to study animation and film, but also because I loved Japan as a nation," she said. "But I am so disappointed at these people. It's so unfair that they are doing this."
Kim Dong-sun
I came to Japan two years ago because I wanted to study animation and film, but also because I loved Japan as a nation. But I am so disappointed at these people. It's so unfair that they are doing this
Kim Dong-sun

Walk down the busy main thoroughfares of the colourful Shin-Okubo district and it is almost like being in Seoul or Busan.

Restaurants advertise Korean staples such as cold noodle dishes, bibimbap in deep stone bowls and galbi beef ribs.

The supermarket on the corner stocks a wide array of kimchee and imported seasonings, while the chiller at the rear contains cases of both Cass and Hite beer. Shops selling popular lines of cosmetics have larger-than-life posters of Korean actresses and pop stars.

The narrow backstreets are a maze of more restaurants, bars, mom-and-pop stores, glitzy cosmetics shops and nail salons.

On a peaceful day, the voices are in equal measure both Japanese and Korean.

According to the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan, there are around 500 businesses in the Shin-Okubo district, which sprawls to the north of the bustling Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Of the total, around 350 are restaurants.

Japan is home to an estimated 600,000 Koreans, with the vast majority the descendants of labourers brought to Japan during the years of its colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.

Most still have links to South Korea; a smaller proportion swear allegiance to North Korea through Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents of Japan.

Shin-Okubo began attracting the Korean community about 30 years ago, says Shin Sang-yoon, a director of the chamber of commerce, simply because it was then one of the cheapest areas of Tokyo. It is a similar story in the Tsuruhashi area of Osaka, while a high percentage of Koreans have also chosen to live in the Kannai district of Yokohama.

"I would say we're a bit like Harlem is to New York," Shin says. "I came to Japan 25 years ago to study for a doctorate, but I changed my mind and ended up going into business."

Now 47, he is settled in Japan with his Korean-born wife and their two children.

And in all the years he has lived here, Shin says he has never seen such intolerance and hatred in the faces of the Japanese people who want the Korean community to disappear.

From some of the protesters' chants, it appears they would be happy to see them exterminated.

"We used to get some discrimination, I suppose, but there was nothing like this before, ever," said Shin, shaking his head.

Things began to deteriorate when then South Korean president Lee Myung-bak visited the Dokdo Islands in August, during the waning days of his administration. The two rocky islets, approximately midway between the mainlands of both Japan and South Korea, are inhabited by an elderly Korean fisherman, his wife and a unit of armed South Korean police.

And while the islands are effectively controlled by Seoul, Japan claims sovereignty over the territory and insists they be referred to as Takeshima.

This bilateral row inevitably reignited arguments over the two nations' shared history, with South Korean groups again raising questions about what is taught in Japanese schools about the decades of Tokyo's brutal rule over the people of the peninsula and the use of "comfort women".

That particular flame was fanned to new heights by Toru Hashimoto, the colourful and nationalist mayor of Osaka, who in May suggested that the women who provided sex to Imperial Japan's military in the early decades of the last century were not actually forced into the work.

Hashimoto's political star has waned dramatically since that ill-judged comment and there are even suggestions that he will step down as leader of the Japan Restoration Party, which he only founded in September last year to serve as a rallying point for the right of the political spectrum.

He seemed to have gathered a solid support base of like-minded individuals, however - a concern for immigrant communities.

"It started off as small-scale stuff, a small group of people saying that we should 'go away'," Shin says. "But the groups have got bigger and they have banded together, so there are hundreds of them here every Sunday now.

"And they're shouting 'kill Koreans' and chanting 'die, die, die'," he said. "It's unbelievable."

Shin estimates that sales at his cosmetics shops throughout the district have fallen by around 50 per cent in the past year, primarily because people feel unsafe in Shin-Okubo and no longer come to the district.

The protests are regularly spearheaded by a group that calls itself Zainichi Tokken wo Yurusanai Shimin no Kai, which is shortened to Zaitokukai and can be translated as the citizens' group that refuses to tolerate special privileges for Korean and Chinese residents of Japan.

The group is headed by 41-year-old Makoto Sakurai - who was arrested at a recent demonstration and charged with criminal assault.

In a statement on its website, Zaitokukai said Sakurai would deny the charges and claimed Japan faces a "do-or-die situation for our society".

Zaitokukai followers claim that Korean and Chinese residents of Japan are taking advantage of the social security system to get rich and gain other special breaks.

The group also alleges members of the communities conceal their true identity and nationality by taking a Japanese name as an "alias".

Korean residents believe the epithets being aimed at them comprise "hate speech", and complain the authorities have done nothing to stop the protests and the police only intervene when violence breaks out.

"The police are present every Sunday, but they don't stop them," says Shin.

"Personally, I think they're probably a little sympathetic to the right-wingers."

Japan became a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination as far back as 1995, but the statute has languished and has not been implemented into law.

In its report in January to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which comes under the convention, the Japanese delegation stated that racial discrimination is not such a serious issue in Japan that legal measures are required.

Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, has expressed concern about reports of racial abuse being bandied about and claimed that it runs counter to the traditional Japanese qualities of tolerance and harmony with others.

Sadakazu Tanigaki, the minister of justice, has also recently condemned the repeated cases of "hate speech" that are being reported in the media, describing the trend as "very worrying".

The media has also been weighing in with strongly worded editorials.

"Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, participants in the demonstrations mistake this freedom for the right to say anything," stated in an editorial on June 5.

"Their speech goes beyond acceptable limits and clearly constitutes hate speech.

"Although freedom of expression must be upheld by all means, legal measures should be taken to restrict hate speech that threatens people," it added.

"The police and local public safety commissions should use all available legal means to prevent demonstrations that clearly threaten ethnic groups."

It called on the government to enact a law that expressly prohibits ethnic discrimination by specifically defining the kinds of actions that constitute discrimination and that would provide people "who suffer psychological damage from hate speech" to be able to file legal suits for compensation.

Nothing, however, has been actually done to put a stop to it, the Korean community claims.

"We're trying to think of ways that we can get past this problem," Shin says.

"We have started a petition calling for peace and we are planning to have yellow balloons - another symbol of peace - outside every store on Sundays. We have to find a way to live together."

But he fears the escalating violence could get worse.

The young Korean men who live in the neighbourhood are growing ever more angry at the abuse that is being hurled at them and their families, Shin says.

"Us older members of the community are speaking with them, telling them not to respond or to get violent," he says. But it could happen, he admits.

And that would be a disaster.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Big trouble in Little Korea