On Hate Speech During COVID-19(Kasumi Hirokawa)

KAWASAKI, JAPAN - JUNE 05: A anti-racist man holding a placards as some fascist and racist groups clash with anti-fascist and anti-racist as they try to disrupt an Counter-Racist protest in Nakahara Peace Park, Kawasaki City, Kanagawa prefecture, Japan on June 5, 2016. A district court in Kanagawa Prefecture has issued a first-ever provisional injunction preventing an anti-Korean activist from holding a rally near the premises of a group that supports ethnic Korean people. Photo: Richard Atrero de Guzman



“The Chinese are all trash.”

“The chinks should go extinct.”

“The Wuhan virus is an act of bioterrorism unleased by the China.”

“No stimulus packages for foreigners!”

“We serve only Japanese customers.”

Above are only the tip of a giant iceberg that is the global pandemic of xenophobia, spreading alongside COVID-19. These hateful comments were circulating the internet, in the form of anonymous bigoted comments on social media in the past few months. Because I have seen such vitriol, I no longer take them personally. There is no anger or sadness. I try to report them and block the posters. On average I delete at least five every week. The latest was a Twitter comment written under a link from Nikkei Asian Review article on April 29th. It said “China Virus.”

Hate speech such as these are not new to minorities living in Japan. It seems that there is a greater variety of online hate speech against the Chinese, which usually target almost exclusively zainichi and/or Koreans. Thanks to the pandemic, the Chinese once again became the Public Enemy in Japan.

I am a Japanese national of Chinese descent. Before my family’s naturalization, I was excluded from group activities and called names such as “the China virus” at kindergarten. I asked my mother to stop packing Shanghainese dishes into my bento box. By the time I started the first grade, I knew I had to hide my heritage from other children to protect myself. I feared being excluded and somehow knew that xenophobia had something to do with it.

I have been fortunate in the sense that no one has ever personally threatened me with murder. But I am concerned with how much easier now to be exposed to online hate speech against fellow minority groups and individuals on a daily basis, because of the popularity of social media. I worry about where COVID-19 related hate speech may lead us. I want high-ranking officials in Japan to condemn and show zero tolerance to xenophobia.

There is a new trend in grassroots activism against online hate speech in the US. News of individuals expelled from schools after posting racist videos on a social media platform TikTok began to surface in early April. TikTok users expose video creators’ identities and file complaint en masse to their schools.

However, Asian people are being targeted in racially motivated violence in the US because of the global spread of COVID-19. In one of the most horrifying cases, a New York woman was attacked with acid by an unknown man outside her home. The perpetrator is still at large. One Asian American friend of mine expressed her fear of leaving her apartment and  being targeted in similar attacks. Japanese people living and traveling overseas are among the victims of anti-Asian hate crimes.

I am thankful that I have not heard of a single violent hate crime case in Japan against the Chinese related to the COVID-19 pandemic. But we should not be too content. We must not tolerate any forms of hate speech. There is little effort shown by Japan’s leadership to contain the spread of xenophobia. No one who engages in hate speech is being held accountable.

At any other time, hate speech can seem like a mere background noise. However, when facing a crisis such as a global pandemic, war and natural disaster, the panicked mass will desire an easy solution, including creating a tangible scapegoat. The world has seen brutal examples with the Holocaust during WWII and Japan bore witness to the 1923 massacre of zainichi Koreans right after the deadly Great East Japan Earthquake.

We must prevent ourselves from repeating these atrocities, by nipping hate crimes in the buds.


What is ‘hate speech’?

The phrase ‘hate speech’ has gained traction in Japanese mass media after the passing of a local anti-hate speech bill in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture in 2019.

It was the first time a bill listing engaging in hate speech as a punishable crime was passed in Japan, unlike other developed countries. Germany and France are leading other EU member countries in the fight to penalize online hate crimes.

Lack of awareness on how to recognize prejudice is one of the primary reasons Japan is lagging behind in the fight against hate speech. Is it because of lack of educational opportunities? Or a fantasy that Japan is one homogenous country with no diversity? Is xenophobia too normalized for regular people to notice?

When I think back at some of my experience in witnessing xenophobic outbursts from regular people, they seem unintentional and subconscious. I remember a housing agent who started acting condescendingly after catching my conversation with my parents (we speak Chinese at home). The agent wanted to see the proof of my nationality and informed me that the landlord never accepts non-Japanese tenants. In another incident, I had a Japanese boss who openly expressed his distrust of the other Asian people.

Not all naturalized people are comfortable with coming out of the closet about their ethnic identities and immigrant experience. It took me decades to be able to open up about my own naturalized status and ethnic heritage.


What is hate speech? 

According to the online dictionary Kotobank, it is a hateful act or speech which incites violence or discrimination against individuals or a group of people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation.

Hate speech divides people into groups, pits them against others and breeds hostility. Hate speech often include explicit threats or suggestion of violent acts.

Anyone can engage in an act of hate speech, and in worse cases, people in positions of power within a local community or a country can display such behavior. If an influential person, such as a president of a country or a mayor of a city, engages in hate speech, the consequences can be dire.

Hate speech is usually deployed as a tool to inspire prejudice against a minority group and is closely linked with demagoguery. Hate speech and demagoguery work together to spread malicious misinformation against a minority group and justify discriminatory actions against the targeted group.


What is it like to be targeted by hate speech?

In the worst case, hate speech can lead to mass killings. However, the psychological effects of hate speech, while invisible, should never be overlooked. Individuals who belong to the targeted group experience emotional trauma and anxiety with interacting people from outside of their own group.

With sinophobia on the rise, I am afraid for the safety of my family members. The highest level government officials in Japan have not explicitly condemned acts of hate speech. For an individual in a position of power to stay silent on hate speech is to permit it to flourish. I do not know if my fellow Chinese diaspora people will be physically harmed. I do not know if others will intervene on our behalf, should we be the target of attacks. This very thought terrifies me.


COVID-19 and Xenophobia

The Chinese are wrongfully assumed to be carriers of the virus after the first confirmed case was reported to have been in Wuhan, China.

In Japan, discussion of COVID-19 stimulus packages attracted xenophobes’ attempts to exclude non-Japanese people from receiving government aid. In one notable incident, an ethnic Korean school was initially excluded from distribution of masks from the local city government because of residents’ and city government officials’ claims that Koreans would “put the masks to inappropriate use such as re-selling at a higher price” if they were given masks amid a massive nationwide mask shortage.

I’d like to clarify that COVID-19 did not give birth to anti-Chinese sentiments in Japan. Sinophobia runs deep in this country and it has reemerged once more. Anyone can see online tirades blaming the Chinese for the pandemic, calling for retaliation and reinforcing old stereotypes against them.

Although there are variations to stereotypes of Chinese people, the most common belief is that they are unclean, bad mannered and uncivilized. It is quite infuriating that while you are accused for being a savage but every other non-Chinese person you meet has the audacity to launch into tirades against you for belonging to an ethnic group who supposedly eat dogs and bats all day.


Hate cannot save you

COVID-19 is one fearsome foe.

It is invisible and highly contagious.

We do not have vaccines or cure.

Panic is a natural response when your safety is under attack.

But why is it that I continue to hear about incidents where non-Asian people were reported to have not only failed to keep distance from Asian people but also launched into physical attacks? Doctors tell us to beware of droplets from the infected. Why would you walk up to someone whom you assume being already infected?

I have to doubt behind extreme responses to COVD-19 is something more sinister than a simple fear of the disease.

Every human is at risk of contracting COVID-19. This is not the time to stay divided. Helping each other is the only we all beat this pandemic.

Fortunately, there is hope. The general attitude toward racism is changing.

A local anti-racism organization “No Racism No Discrimination” organized an anti-hate march on April 19 in response to COVID-19 related xenophobia. I have nothing but respect for marchers for standing up to hate speech.

As a minority living in Japan and a human against discrimination, I will continue to fight against bigotry.


photo by Richard Atrero de Guzman( JFJN )