Media watch: Was the Utoro arson incident in August a hate crime?

Utoro district

The Utoro district of Uji city in Kyoto Prefecture holds a great deal of historical significance for Zainichi Koreans, meaning permanent residents of Japan with Korean background. During World War II, the area was home to workers who had been brought over from Korea, then a colony of Japan, to build an airfield. They lived in a ramshackle workers’ dormitory, and after Japan surrendered in 1945 and construction of the airfield was suspended, many stayed on in the area and made their homes there, despite the fact that they eventually lost their Japanese citizenship and became foreign nationals. In 1989, the owners of the land in Utoro where these Zainichi Koreans lived filed a suit to have them evicted, and in 2000, after several appeals, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the land owners. However, by 2011 some of the residents had raised enough money, both within Japan and in South Korea, to buy part of the land in Utoro. In 2017, the local government opened a public housing complex on the land, with a second complex slated to open in 2023. Many of the tenants are descendants of the original mobilized Korean workers.

According to a June 28 article in the Asahi Shimbun (which was published in English July 12), Utoro is home to about 90 Zainichi Koreans comprising 50 households. The article was mainly about a memorial hall that the residents were building to honor those who had moved to the area from Korea and made it a community. The hall, which cost ¥200 million to build, would be a three-story steel frame building comprising 450 square meters of floor area. The workers’ dormitory was torn down, but one section measuring 25 square meters has been preserved as part of the exhibit for the memorial hall, which is set to open next year. 

Unfortunately, the Utoro Heiwa Kinenkan will have fewer exhibits than originally planned. On August 30, a fire originating in a vacant house in Utoro spread to five other buildings, including a storehouse where many of the exhibits for the memorial hall were being kept. On December 6, a man was arrested for purposely starting the fire. He was identified by Uji police as 22-year-old Shogo Arimoto, unemployed. As it happens, Arimoto had been arrested in October for setting fire to the Nagoya office of the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan). 

According to Kyoto Shimbun, a local anti-discrimination citizens group held a press conference on December 15 at a Kyoto prefectural building where they released a statement saying that the Utoro arson case should be investigated as a hate crime, since there is evidence that the suspect started the fire out of malice toward Zainichi Koreans. Though many mainstream media outlets have covered the Utoro arson case, none have suggested it might be a hate crime, probably because the term has no legal purchase in Japan. Kyoto Shimbun defined hate crime as crime motivated by prejudice based on race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, language, or disability.

On the same day, the web talk show No Hate TV discussed the ramifications of the press conference and whether the Japanese media even understands what a hate crime is. Journalist Koichi Yasuda ventured that the Utoro arson case sent a “clear message.” Using an English term that became popular in the U.S. during the years when Donald Trump was president, he said that the crime was a “dog whistle” to those who harbored anti-Korean sentiments; a call to arms against Korean residents of Japan that would be heard loud and clear by those predisposed to hate Koreans but which would be generally ignored by everyone else, because they would not be able to hear it as such. This latter group includes the media. 

In this regard, the Utoro incident will be prosecuted as a normal arson case, thus hiding from the public the real nature of the crime. As Yasuda points out, most reporters get their information about crimes directly from the police and simply regurgitate it for readers and viewers. As a matter of course, police tend to reveal as little as possible so as to make the prosecution’s job easier in court. The problem, as Yasuda sees it, is that reporters “don’t think for themselves,” and thus miss the larger picture. Consequently, the public misses it as well. Though several media outlets did report that the suspect was also under arrest for a previous arson incident that targeted a Korean-related organization, they never explicitly made any connection. Though such caution could be explained as adherence to the journalistic principle of only relating relevant facts, journalistic practice usually demands that such obvious connections be followed up. 

Both Yasuda and his interlocutor, activist Yasumichi Noma, believe that the Utoro arson case is a clear example of a hate crime, which should be distinguished from “hate speech,” a term that does have meaning in Japan since the Diet enacted a law in 2016 condemning hate speech. However, as pointed out in a recent Mainichi Shimbun editorial, the law, which is meant to encourage local governments to “take steps to end discriminatory deeds and utterances based on people’s country of origin, their race, or their ethnicity,” has done nothing to curtail hate speech, mainly because it does not expressly ban hate speech. The reason is that many people believe that penalizing hate speech would encroach on freedom of speech in general. 

As Noma explains, too many people in the media think hate speech is limited to calls for violence against or expulsion of targeted groups, when it actually encompasses a much wider and more insidious practice of verbal aggression. Consequently, hate crimes fall outside their understanding. Such people will definitely recognize anti-Black lynching or recent physical attacks on Asians in the U.S. as crimes motivated by hate, but because they don’t notice anything similar in Japan they don’t make the connection. An exception that proves the rule is the coordinated murder of 19 disabled persons at a nursing facility in Sagamihara that took place in 2016. The mainstream media characterized the crime as an act of terrorism carried out by a sociopath, but terrorism is essentially an indiscriminate act, since it is perpetrated against a general population with no concern over who is affected and who is not. The perpetrator of the Sagamihara massacre, however, was clear that he was targeting disabled people. In fact, he wrote a letter explaining that he thought his act would be to the benefit of the country. It should be noted, however, that a number of non-mainstream media did call the Sagamihara killings a hate crime, using the English term, so it’s not as if the idea was unavailable.

In order to illustrate his point, Noma uses the five-level Pyramid of Hate devised by Holocaust remembrance organizations. Hate speech, he says, belongs to the second category from the bottom, categorized as Acts of Bias. Hate crimes, however, are included in the category that’s second from the top, Bias Motivated Violence. The pinnacle of the pyramid is Genocide. Noma claims that Japan is unique for not recognizing hate crimes, an assertion that’s difficult to prove. What he seems to be saying is that hate crimes in Japan are simply treated as crimes, which would go without saying except that it is important to designate a crime motivated by hate as such in order to teach citizens about the virulence of discrimination. In the U.S. and Europe, if a crime is also designated as a hate crime, it carries an extra burden of penalty, because the possibility that one’s actions are motivated simply by hatred or fear of “difference” must be addressed with the full force of the law. Otherwise, such attitudes and behavior will continue. 

Noma and Yasuda say it is the media’s responsibility to devise a “correct definition” of hate crime and apply it in their reporting to situations where discrimination is manifest in the commission of a crime. More than likely, media outlets probably know what a hate crime is, but are afraid to describe any crime as such. Yasuda claims that NHK, in fact, did use the term at one point when covering the Utoro arson case, but now that piece is gone from its website. 

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