1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Members of a nationalist group march on the street at Korean Town in Tokyo during a demonstration denouncing South Korean people living in Japan on June 16, 2013. (Photo: AFP)
Image: Rie Ishii/AFP/Getty Images

Dangerous rivalry

Julian Ryall, Tokyo
July 9, 2013

The long-running rivalry between Japan and Korea has dramatically worsened in recent months. But death threats go beyond what should be permitted as free speech, Japanese conservatives insist.


Given their wildly divergent political views, it is something of a surprise that Kunio Suzuki and Yoshifu Arita agree on anything. But an issue that both men consider to be a stain on Japanese society has brought them together.

Suzuki is a right-wing adviser to the nationalist Japanese political organisation known as Issuikai. Arita is a member of the left-wing Democratic Party of Japan and serves in the Upper House of the Japanese parliament.

Carrying Japanese national flags and navy flags, members of a nationalist group march on the street of Korean Town in Tokyo during a demonstration denouncing South Korean people on June 16, 2013. (Foto: AFP)
Experts believe rivalry between the two neighbors has worsenedImage: Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

Both men deplore the scenes of extremists belonging to a group called Zainichi Tokken wo Yurusanai Shimin no Kai, Zaitokukai for short, and can be translated as the citizens' group that refuses to tolerate special privileges for Korean and Chinese residents of Japan, marching through Japanese cities chanting "kill, kill, kill Koreans" or waving placards stating "good Koreans, bad Koreans, still kill them all."

'Hatred and unpleasantness'

"I have been involved in the right-wing political movement here in Japan for 45 years now, ever since I was a student, and I have never before seen this degree of hatred and unpleasantness," Suzuki said in a press conference in Tokyo. "I believe that most fellow right-wingers and conservatives in Japan feel the same as me, that the things that are being said to the Korean community here are despicable," he said.

Arita agrees with that assessment, and warns that Japan is facing a turning point in its political history as it has taken "two or three steps to the right" since the election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December of last year. "Since Mr. Abe came to power, Zaitokukai and other groups have drastically strengthened and escalated their activities," he said.

Kunio Suzuki is a right-wing adviser to the nationalist Japanese political organisation known as Issuikai (Copyright: DW/Julian Ryall)
Suzuki: 'I have never before seen this degree of hatred and unpleasantness'Image: DW/J. Ryall

Making the situation worse, he said, is that television footage of the protest marches are being broadcast around the world and promoting the image of Japan as a hotbed of intolerant and racist thugs.

Death threats

In one particularly notorious clip that has attracted attention in South Korea and China, a girl aged 14 addresses passers-by in the Tsuruhashi district of Osaka, saying "I can't tell you how much I despise you [Korean people] and I wish I could kill you all. You have smug faces and if you continue to have that attitude, then we will have a massacre here in Tsuruhashi.

"This is Japan and you should go back to Korea because you do not belong here," she says, watched by impassive police officers. Japan is home to an estimated 600,000 Koreans, with the vast majority the descendants of laborers 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.

Things began to deteriorate when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the Dok-do islands in August. 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, the government in Japan claims sovereignty over the territory and insists they be referred to as Takeshima.

Yoshifu Arita, member of the left-wing Democratic Party of Japan (Copyright: DW/Julian Ryall)
Arita: 'Japan has taken two or three steps to the right since the election of PM Abe'Image: DW/J. Ryall

Disputed history

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 "comfort women."

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

Zaitokukai followers claim that Korean and Chinese residents of Japan are taking advantage of the social security system to get rich and get other special breaks, including being able to conceal their true identity and nationality by taking a Japanese name as an "alias."

Arita says those claims, and plenty of others, are completely false but that a "mob mentality" has emerged in Japan.

"The people of Japan's middle class have fallen on hard times recently and they are taking their feelings out on foreign residents," he said. "They are full of frustration and they're targeting people who are weaker than them. "Each of these people will have a different reason for saying these things, but basically they are just dissatisfied with their own lives."

No enforcement of laws

PM Abe 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, but there have been no commitments to enforcing statutes on hate speech.

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 of this year 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 were required.

Arita and Suzuki say they aim to publicize the problem in Japanese society, but they fear that huge damage has already been done to the nation's reputation.

"These images are being shown in other countries and it fills me with grief that this is seen as the truth of the situation here in Japan now," Suzuki said. "These demonstrators are flying the Japanese flag at these marches," he added. "I feel that the Hinomaru flag is crying at being used by these people in this way."

Skip next section Explore more