Media watch: Trial of Utoro arson suspect receives scant coverage

Utoro after the fire (Yahoo)

May 16 was the first day of the criminal trial of Shogo Arimoto, the 22-year-old man arrested for starting a fire in the Utoro district of Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, last August. Arimoto admitted to all the charges, though he denies the prosecutors’ characterization of his motives for starting the fire, which is that Arimoto has deep feelings of enmity toward Koreans. Utoro is famous as a community of Japan-resident Koreans who are descendants of workers brought from the Korean peninsula during World War II to help build an airport. In April, a memorial hall containing items related to and explanations of the history of the Utoro district opened, and the fire that Arimoto allegedly set destroyed not only seven buildings, but about 40 items that were destined to be part of the memorial hall’s archives. In December, we reported on the incident and its background here

Though the Asahi Shimbun covered Arimoto’s first day in court, for the most part the significance of the arson as a possible hate crime has been ignored by the media. In their opening statement, the prosecution explained that the defendant quit his job last July and expressed his frustration by setting fire to buildings associated with Koreans. At first he set fire to a South Korean school and the Aichi Prefecture headquarters of the Korean Residents Union in Japan, but neither received any press coverage, so he planned the Utoro arson with more care, targeting the memorial hall artifacts because he thought “society” would pay more attention. He was arrested in October for the July arson attack, and the arrested again in December for the Utoro fire. 

The Asahi reporter talked to Arimoto after the court session. He denied that his act was a hate crime and would say so in court at a future date (the next session is June 6). The reporter wrote that the first time he talked to Arimoto sometime in the past, he admitted that he may have started the Nagoya fire as an expression of resentment toward Koreans, but the Utoro fire was completely different. He carried out that act basically to punish the Korean residents of Utoro for “illgally occupying” the district. For many years, until the late 1980s, the Koreans who lived in Utoro were said to be squatting and were subjected to eviction notices by the land owners. The residents eventually bought some of the land, and the memorial hall was built with funds from private donors and the South Korean government. A professor from Doshisha University told Asahi that it will be difficult to prove that the Utoro fire was an “act of discrimination,” and even if the prosecutors can convince the court that it was a hate crime, under present law there is no provision to augment Arimoto’s sentence the way the U.S. government can augment a sentence if they prove that the perpetrator of a crime also violated someone’s civil rights. 

The trial is being watched carefully by a group of lawyers representing the victims of the Utoro fire, who may file a civil suit against Arimoto someday. The lawyers have maintained ever since Arimoto’s arrest that the arson constituted a hate crime and have mostly been frustrated that the mainstream media haven’t covered it as such. The web program No Hate TV discussed the first day of the trial on May 18. One of the hosts, journalist Koichi Yasuda, is covering the trial firsthand and noted that the prosecutor read a letter from Arimoto’s parents in which they called themselves “average Japanese,” which Yasuda interpreted as meaning they didn’t really know much about Korean residents in Japan. Yasuda wondered if that meant they also thought the Korean residents of Utoro were illegally occupying the land where they lived for so long. In any case, he also said it was difficult to get a sense of Arimoto based on what was discussed during the first session. Yasuda’s interlocutor, activist Yasumichi Noma, noted that the prosecution was correct when they said the media didn’t cover the July fires. If they had, would Arimoto then have been compelled to set the Utoro fire? Though some have said that coverage of such crimes is dangerous since they could lead to copycat incidents, Noma feels that not covering them is even worse, since people remain ignorant about discrimination against Korean residents of Japan. Consequently, the only people who talk about it in public are racists who already hate Koreans and who look upon Arimoto as a hero. 

See here for an explanation in English about the memorial hall and the Utoro district.

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