INTERVIEW/ Yasumichi Noma: Giving hatemongers a taste of their own medicine

September 02, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

While hate-filled racist demonstrations against ethnic Korean residents in Japan continue unabated, a movement to counter them is gaining momentum.

One of the leaders of this movement is activist Yasumichi Noma, who heads a group called Reishisuto wo Shibakitai, which translates as "corps of racist bashers."

Shibakitai is known for its in-your-face radicalism. Members not only taunt and insult racist demonstrators, they even get physical from time to time. What is the purpose of resorting to such action?

Here is what happened on June 16 in Tokyo's Shin-Okubo "Korea town" district.

It was a Sunday, and the neighborhood teemed with K-pop fans and tourists while riot police guarded more than 100 anti-Korean demonstrators who marched on the main street, waving Hinomaru national flags and wartime Rising Sun flags, spewing hate speech and chanting slogans such as "Koreans are cockroaches" and "Kick them out (of Japan)!"

Forming the core of this anti-Korean demonstration was Zainichi Tokken wo Yurusanai Shimin no Kai, or Zaitokukai for short.

Then people on the sidewalk began yelling at the demonstrators, telling them to get lost. Some carried placards with messages such as "shame on you, racists." Others, armed with bullhorns, bellowed, "The cockroaches are you!" and "Die!" There were more than 300 such counter-demonstrators, many of whom were members of Shibakitai.

Soon, melees broke out all over the neighborhood while tourists stared in horror. Small children looked terrified. Four anti-Korean demonstrators and as many counter-demonstrators were arrested that day.

In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Noma explained his decision to form Shibakitai. Excerpts from the interview follow:

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Question: How do you feel about racist demonstrators and counter-demonstrators screaming insults at one another in public places?

Noma: I couldn't be happier. The counter-demonstrators screaming insults from the curbside are thought to be members of my Shibakitai, but many are ordinary people who have nothing to do with us. They show up on their own because they are thoroughly angry and fed up with those foul-mouthed racist hatemongers. I have always thought that those scum ought to be put in their place and shamed by the general public, and something close to that is actually happening now. This is an ideal form of counter-demonstrations.

Q: But the noise is deafening, traffic gets snarled, and the very coarse language on both sides is definitely not pleasant to hear. And you call this situation "ideal"?

A: When an action is motivated by anger, it is inevitably accompanied by angry words. In anti-fascist movements in Europe and the United States, there is a great deal of anger, and sometimes there is even violence.

By comparison, our counter-demonstrations can even be described as perfectly peaceful. We keep hurling invectives at those racists' faces, in the hope that they will eventually become demoralized and lose their desire to take to the streets.

In 2010, I began to participate in counter-demonstrations against Zaitokukai and other groups. But in Tokyo, we were never more than a few dozen strong, and we were pretty useless.

But Zaitokukai and the like became energized after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak landed on one of the Takeshima islets in 2012. In addition to marching on the streets of Shin-Okubo, they began harassing local store owners and picking fights with passers-by in what they called "osanpo" (leisurely stroll).

I couldn't just sit and let this go on, so in late January I went online to invite like-minded people to join my group.

At first, my primary purpose was to make the racists stop their "osanpo," rather than directly confront their street demonstrations.

But at a demonstration on Feb. 17, about 30 people who were not members of my group showed up, holding placards. Over the next month, their numbers swelled to several hundred. From there, it just came naturally to switch to direct confrontation.

Different people have different ways of confronting hatemongers, but Shibakitai's basic policy is to verbally abuse them mercilessly. My favorite invectives are "human scum" and "national embarrassment," but I know my technique and language still need some work.

Q: Aren't there other ways of countering racist demonstrations?

A: In the past, intellectual left-leaning liberals have attempted counter-demonstrations. But sadly, their politely delivered, perfectly reasoned arguments such as "we find it impossible to condone this sort of xenophobia" simply didn't resonate with the general public, let alone rabid racists.

I personally cannot understand how anyone can remain cool and collected in the face of a mob that keeps screaming things like "kill Koreans" and "boot them out (of Japan)."

Isn't it much more human, or normal, to want to yell back, "Shut the hell up, you morons"? People who want to vent their fury directly on racist hatemongers are now coming to Shin-Okubo to do just that.

Many people think that the weekly demonstrations against nuclear power generation in front of the prime minister's office are of a peaceful nature. But when they began last spring, the demonstrators were using pretty foul language in denouncing the prime minister and his Cabinet ministers.

This style of protest demonstration--expressing one's indignation directly to the prime minister and his Cabinet ministers--obviously appealed to many people.

In recent years, citizens groups have come to favor a "softer" approach to any action they take. But I realized that when people are really outraged, they need an outlet that enables them to share and express their outrage directly to the party or parties concerned.

That realization forms the basis of Shibakitai's action.

Q: But my impression is that the racist demonstrators and the counter-demonstrators aren't that much different.

A: The racists are ordinary citizens, and so are we. Both they and we are a majority of the citizenry. When you just see us yelling profanities at them, sure, we are no different from them.

But what you are overlooking is the fact that they are attacking members of an ethnic minority, while we are telling them to back off.

Is justice on the side of the people who enjoy discriminating against an ethnic minority, or is it on the side of those who won't tolerate it? The answer is obvious, isn't it?

Q: Is Shibakitai the "good guy"?

A: Since Shibakitai's conduct and attitude are as bad as those of the racists, we are definitely not the "good guy." You could say that we are engaged in a "battle between the bad and the bad."

Still, there is absolutely no question that we are on the side of justice.

Q: How so? Would you like to elaborate?

A: Good and evil are relative, but there is no relativization in terms of good and evil when justice is the issue. If you understand justice as "fairness," as American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) postulated, discrimination against an ethnic minority by an ethnic majority is decidedly not fair. This is a logical conclusion.

Take hate speech, for instance. It may appear as a form of free speech, but there is an inherent asymmetry or offensive nature that does not allow counterargument.

When a Japanese citizen yells at a foreign resident in Japan to get out of Japan and the foreigner shoots back, "You get out yourself," this does no harm at all to the Japanese citizen. Now, that's unjust, and it's downright unfair.

Some people say both Shibakitai and Zaitokukai should get lost. Actually, they are so right. Our purpose is not to keep our group going, but to make Zaitokukai and their ilk stop spewing hate speech.

If their demonstrations and our counter-demonstrations escalate to the point of both sides getting outlawed by the authorities, so be it. It only means there will be no more hate speech on the streets.

Q: Wouldn't there be less harm done if you simply ignore racist demonstrators, rather than challenge them?

A: Discriminatory remarks became noticeable on the Internet in the late 1990s, but everyone, including the mass media, ignored them. As a result, such remarks moved out of cyberspace into the real world, accompanied by blatant discriminatory action.

If this situation goes unchecked, I worry that hate crimes that are already occurring in Europe and the United States may well start occurring in Japan, too.

If people can see what I'm talking about and they still say that racist demonstrators should be left alone, I truly have to wonder how they are going to justify their argument.

Take major newspapers, for instance. Why haven't they built up their critical counterarguments against hate speeches?

Even now, the major newspapers are only arguing methodology and repeating cliches such as "we must be cautious about regulating them by law" and "free speech can be challenged only by free speech." This is beyond my understanding.

Q: Are you saying that the media are partly to blame for the spread of hate speech?

A: In a sense, you could say that Zaitokukai and similar racist organizations were established to counter the leftist liberal media like The Asahi Shimbun.

When people were becoming tired and even suspicious of the "political correctness" of leftist liberals, the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents became national news.

Many people felt they had been betrayed by the leftist media, and there followed an explosive surge of rightist sentiment, especially on the Internet. That was when Zaitokukai and other far-right groups appeared.

In principle, freedom of expression is absolute. But from the standpoint of public welfare, it is also possible to define what constitutes minority harassment and regulate it by law.

But given the present inability of the nation's administrative authorities to crack down on violators, the only recourse for the concerned citizenry is to employ what I'd call "counter-verbal attack."

Q: The public does not tolerate racist demonstrations, but now that the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations have gone this far, hardly anyone seems to be sympathetic to Shibakitai anymore. What makes you keep going?

A: When I was a child, I read "Hadashi no Gen" (Barefoot Gen) by Keiji Nakazawa over and over. The manga graphically depicts instances of glaring discrimination against A-bomb survivors and ethnic minorities, but the protagonist and other characters are anything but "politically correct."

Detractors of this work criticize Gen's "coarse language," and say they are repulsed by the violent content. These people are completely incapable of appreciating this manga's real value.

When the law of the land and society at large don't protect people, what principle should one embrace in order to take action? I think this is what I learned from Barefoot Gen.

(This interview was conducted by Hideaki Ishibashi and Keisuke Ota.)

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Yasumichi Noma, leader of Reishisuto wo Shibakitai, was born in 1966. After working as deputy editor in chief of a music magazine, Noma went freelance in 2000. In 2011, he started inviting the public on the Internet to join demonstrations against nuclear power generation. Noma participated in the establishment of the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes.

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Yasumichi Noma, the leader of Reishisuto wo Shibakitai, in the Shin-Okubo "Korea town" district in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward (Toshiyuki Matsumoto)

Yasumichi Noma, the leader of Reishisuto wo Shibakitai, in the Shin-Okubo "Korea town" district in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward (Toshiyuki Matsumoto)

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  • Yasumichi Noma, the leader of Reishisuto wo Shibakitai, in the Shin-Okubo "Korea town" district in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward (Toshiyuki Matsumoto)
  • Counter-demonstrators confront members of the anti-Koreans rally in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward in June. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Yasumichi Noma during an interview with The Asahi Shimbun (Toshiyuki Matsumoto)

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