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Anti-racism reading club keeps watch outside train station in Japan for hate speech rallies

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mainichi– Every weekend in front of JR Kawasaki Station just south of Tokyo, a reading group gathers to keep a lookout for hate speech demonstrations against foreign nationals and their descendants.

It’s been a year since the full implementation of Kawasaki’s ordinance to create “a city without discrimination that respects human rights.” They are the first anti-hate speech measures in the country to carry penalties.

But while roadside demonstrations making indirectly discriminatory claims have not stopped, hate speech is now being resisted not with violent language, but through the culture of reading.

On a Saturday in mid-June, at about 9 a.m., people started gathering around a sign put up in the plaza in front of the station that says “reading club in front of Kawasaki Station.” Participants sat in chairs reading, having casual conversations, and keeping an eye out ready to respond to sudden protests against foreign nationals that haven’t already been announced on social media.

On July 1, 2020, a new city ordinance was enacted that forbids the use of discriminatory language and actions against people of specific countries or regions in public areas — such as roads and parks. In the event that individuals don’t comply with warnings or orders relating to the ordinance, the city government can file criminal charges.

As a result of the ordinance’s implementation, directly discriminatory remarks such as “kill Koreans living in Japan” have fallen, but comments like “Korean people in Japan do whatever they want,” that don’t directly infringe on the ordinance’s provisions, have continued to be used during roadside demonstrations.

According to the Kawasaki Municipal Government, if a public protest is announced ahead of time on social media, around 10 of its employees will head to the site of a protest and can confirm what is being said during the rallies. But when it comes to unannounced gatherings, they often can’t reach them in time.

The book club began as a way to respond to those kinds of situations. By securing a place in front of Kawasaki Station, a hotbed for hate speech activity, the group makes it hard for protesters to gather. Reading club participants would resist people who come to try and protest at the site, telling them, “This is no place for racists.”

The book club started in December 2020. Natsuki Kimura, a 53-year-old company employee living in the Chiba Prefecture city of Urayasu who has experience taking part in anti-hate speech demonstrations came up with the idea for an event that anyone can take part in. He tweeted to his around 5,000 Twitter followers with a hashtag translating to “reading club in front of Kawasaki Station,” and called on people to participate. On busy weekends and national holidays, 10 to 15 people show up, and the event has been held more than 50 times already.

In March 2013, Kimura happened to pass by a hate speech rally often held in the Shin-Okubo neighborhood of Tokyo, known for its Korean community. He was shocked when he spotted their placards that read, “Kill Koreans.” It was his first time seeing clear discrimination of an ethnic group right in front of him.

He felt it was intolerable, and while doing his work he also set out to engage in activities resisting hate speech demonstrations, under the name “counter.”

At first, he and his counter-hate group pushed back with polite language, such as asking people to “please stop,” but they realized it had no effect, and so adopted harsher language, such as asking “What do you think you’re doing?” and, “Get out, all of you.”

But with hate speech continuing in more devious forms that avoids infringing on the ordinance, it became necessary to fight back. “Our activism has to change. I want to fight hate speech with reading, a cultural activity which anyone can take part in with ease.”

Balancing freedom of expression as guaranteed in the Constitution of Japan makes stopping proclamations of non-direct discriminatory expressions difficult. The reading club has no legal basis to stop the public protests, and some on social media have written critically about the effect of the group’s activities.

Kimura admitted, “I thought I’d do it for society and for people, but I don’t know if it’s right to hold them or not.” Kimura says that even so, he keeps going because he doesn’t want anyone else to feel what he did on that day in Shin-Okubo.

Might there come a day when hate speech will end, and activities like these can stop, too? Kimura said, “The ordinance is still at the testing level. It’s difficult to crack down on what people say in a way that doesn’t take away their rights to freedom of expression, but the city’s approach is being tested as to how far the ordinance can show an effect. I want Kawasaki to become an example for the whole country.”

(Japanese original by Minhyang Hong, Yokohama Bureau)