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How Fukushima gave rise to a new anti-racism movement via Aljazeera

The Fukushima disaster of 2011 ignited an anti-racism resistance movement in Japan to defend minorities such as Koreans.

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After Fukushima

The rebirth of anti-discrimination social movements in Japan is one of the unexpected stories of 3/11.

Fukushima “awakened” first-time protesters in the tens of thousands to both the fragility and potentials of democracy in times of crisis. Yet this mass mobilisation did not merely represent activists’ attempts to build a new nation from the rubble of disaster. Rather, escalated feelings of distrust in government, media, and scientific authorities, in addition to a deep sense of remorse, shook up notions of what it means to be Japanese and to live in Japan.

Minority-led civil rights movements by ethnic Koreans, Buraku (a historically discriminated-against social caste), and indigenous groups, such as Ainu and Okinawans, have existed in Japan throughout the 20th century. 

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In February 2013, Noma put out an appeal on Twitter in response to what he saw as an imminent threat: the nationalist group, Citizens’ Association to Oppose Special Rights for Resident Koreans (Zaitokukai), was marching in Shin Okubo, the Koreatown of Tokyo. Outside Tokyo, they also targeted the ethnic Korean enclave of Tsuruhashi in Osaka, and Sakuramoto, a multicultural neighbourhood in Kawasaki. 

Their primary target was Zainichi Koreans, one of Japan’s largest ethnic minorities, which includes a diverse demographic spanning generations, from Koreans forcibly migrated under Japanese prewar colonial conditions to “newcomers”, many of them commercial purveyors of K-pop and Korean food. Noma’s appeal was a call to action against the racists.

Founded in 2006, Zaitokukai had previously targeted a 14-year old Filipino girl in 2009 – after her parents were deported for overstaying their visa – by protesting outside her home and school. They gained further notoriety the following year, after surrounding an ethnic Korean elementary school in Kyoto, verbally abusing the students there by calling them “children of spies” and “stinking” of kimchi. 

3/11 had opened a new door for xenophobic politics.

As anti-racism activists often see it, political chaos and social unease in the aftermath of the disaster allowed groups like Zaitokukai to amplify their brand of xenophobia and racial scapegoating. Ultra-right internet users fomented panic on websites like 2Channel, the Japanese website that inspired 4chan. Even in 2017, the website boasts over a million new posts every day.

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Fighting racism

“Anger is an energy,” Noma states, as we sit down one afternoon in a smoky coffee shop in Shinjuku.

This philosophy describes both the underlying emotions of protest but also the momentum born from physical action. Shibaki-tai’s tactics of rage and anger – their tendency for styles steeped in masculinity and defiance of respectability politics – drew a backlash from conservatives and progressives alike. Despite the controversy, the group helped raise the profile of a new wave of anti-racism counter action, bolstering existing organisations like Otaku of Antifa (OaA), a group focused on fighting racism through the media of manga and anime, and inspiring the formation of new direct action groups such as the Menfolk.

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Shibaki-tai eventually morphed into the Counter-Racist Action Collective (CRAC). They set up local satellites to counter-protest hate speech demonstrators across the country – in Osaka, Kyoto, Hokkaido, Okinawa, and even Fukushima Prefecture. CRAC built on its roots as culture workers, musicians, and designers in their fight against racism. They designed T-shirts and hats to make Antifa fashion “cool” and threw club parties. 

According to Japan’s Ministry of Justice, Zaitokukai and other similar groups staged over 1,100 hate-related rallies and demonstrations between April 2012 and September 2015.

Although focusing on Zainichi Koreans, Zaitokukai’s demonstrations have included a broad range of victims, including Chinese, refugees, and migrant families. Fixated on the notion of unearned privileges, the organisation even targeted victims from Fukushima who had received government assistance.

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Hate speech in the form of vitriolic racist abuse on social media remains prolific. Some Zainichi Korean women who have become visible in the anti-racism movement even report being the targets of stalking at their workplaces and in their neighbourhoods. This has spurred activists and sympathetic politicians to advocate for legislation specifically addressing the problem of online hate speech.

Activists worry that the deep roots of discrimination in Japan go beyond hate speech. In Tokyo’s 2016 gubernatorial election in July, former Zaitokukai leader Makoto Sakurai garnered around 110,000 votes. Though only a fifth place ranking, and slightly less than two percent of the popular vote, Sakurai went on to found the far-right Japan First Party the following month.

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Katsuo Hada is one of the few anti-racism activists who remains an active member of the anti-nuclear movement, attending weekly rallies in front of the National Diet to this day. He still reflects on his past with regret. Prior to the disaster, he had long held reservations about nuclear power, but, in his words, “did nothing about it”. He harbours similar feelings about discrimination. For 10 years, he points out, xenophobia and racism had been brewing in the pits of the internet. It took the shock of public hate speech demonstrations to jolt him – and other Japanese people – into action.

Since 3/11, he has “felt a deep sense of remorse. A sense of responsibility. That it’s wrong to be silent”.

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