Interview with Mr. David McIntosh

Mr. David McIntosh

Co-Director. Center for Minority Issues and Mission (CMIM)

1. Recently, discrimination and racism against the ethnic minority in Japan has aggravated. What is the key reason? Is this just a transitional phenomenon triggered by Abe government or a chronic problem of Japanese society which has little space for diversity (or difference)?

I think there are several factors behind the prejudice and discrimination seen in Japan. Some of these factors are long-term, and others are more short-term. The Abe government has been a trigger, as you say, of discrimination and racism in recent years, particularly against Koreans in Japan. Anti-Korean rhetoric is Abe’s go-to hot button with his nationalist-right support base, and we often see a spike in anti-Korean hate speech whenever an official in his administration criticizes North or South Korea. There is a clear cause-and-effect relationship between politicians’ signals and right-wing hate speech.

This character of the Abe government is rooted in longer-term factors, such as the oft-repeated “homogeneous race” myth, a long assimilationist tradition that has deep, systemic and psychological links to the Emperor system, and a studied refusal to address the past honestly in the Japanese education system. This is why so many Japanese citizen are woefully ignorant of their state’s historical wrongs against Koreans, or the Ainu indigenous people of the north, or Ryukyu-Okinawan people of the South. So they react personally, with denial and confused indignation, when they see Japan being criticized. The mainstream media contributes to this distortion by giving ample space to government-line commentators, but not to alternative, fuller viewpoints. These are all deep-rooted problems that require sustained, enlightened effort from government and public figures.

I’d like to mention here that the Japanese government enacted a law against hate speech in 2016, which has reduced the most egregious hate speech in public places. This is a good thing, to be sure, but the law has not been applied to the “virtual” public space of the internet. There is still a lot of terrible hate speech on the web, often targeting individuals. Meanwhile, leading figures who used to lead public hate speech rallies have started up political parties in the last few years, and are now using the privilege of “free speech” afforded under election laws to shout out thinly veiled xenophobic messages in public places. With a government that is willing to take only half-measures against racism, like the 2016 law, human right advocates feel like they are being forced to play cat-and-mouse with xenophobes.   There are many fine people in Japan who recognize these problems and are working for just change, but the current political leadership appears to be pointed in the opposite direction.

2. The Abe government has excluded Chosun (Korean) school from the government subsidy, Why? and what are the impacts to the Chosun school community?

In 2013 the Japanese government introduced a tuition support program for high school students, under which high schools receive funds for each student whose family income/tax amounts are below a certain threshold. This progressive program has applied equally to all Japanese public and private schools, and also to non-Japanese schools. Only the 10 or so Chosun schools across Japan, whose students are mostly 3rd- and 4th-generation Koreans in Japan, have been excluded from this benefit, even though the students’ families pay the same taxes as everyone else. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as well as the UN Committee on the Rights of Children, have repeatedly issued recommendations to the Japanese government to cease this discrimination, but the exclusion still continues today, 7 years later.

The Japanese government argues that this exclusion is not discrimination, but due to the fact that the Chosun schools, unlike other high schools, are not recognized as “class 1” teaching instituitions. Students COULD receive the same financial benefit as any Japanese, if only they attended a class 1 school, so there is no discrimination, says the government. Chosun schools are not denied accreditation because of low standards: Their students learn all the same subjects as high school students across Japan; they spend more hours in classrooms than Japanese students (due to additional classes on Korean history and culture); many successfully pass entrance exams to Japanese universities and advance to responsible professions after they graduate. Accreditation is denied because, in the words of the Japanese government, “Chosun schools have close links to the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, which influences educational contents, personnel decisions and finances.”  So, the exclusion is entirely political. It is designed to penalizes those who refuse to dissociate completely from the North Korean government, or to exchange their “Chosun” identy for Japanese, or for a passport of the politically more palatable South Korea.

The impact of this exclusion is significant, for students, parents and teachers. Parents must pay monthly tuition fees that other high schoolers’ parents receive government support for, and it is lower-income families that are impacted most by this.  Teachers, almost without exception, accept wage levels far below those of teachers in Japanese schools.  Students will often have to forego the kinds of life frills that the typical Japanese high schooler might take for granted, especially if they have siblings who also attend the Chosun school.  Also, the linking of Chosun schools with the DPRK often subjects students and families to vile hate speech.

For the past several years,  parents, teachers and students of Chosun schools have been protesting every Friday at the front entrance to the Japanese Ministry of Education. They are always joined by Japanese supporters, and sometimes by visitors from other countries, too.  Legal teams of Korean-in-Japan and Japanese lawyers have initiated court cases in several cities to demand fair treatment, but the discrimination has not ended yet. The Chosun school community and its supporters are committed to advocate for justice on this issue for as long as it takes.

3. What is the Japanese young generation’s attitude to the discrimination and racism? What is their overall reaction to Abe’s attempt to revise the article 9?

Japanese youth are generally open-minded about diversity, racially, and also in relation to sex and gender matters. I was surprised to learn recently that students in Japanese public high schools receive very thoughtful instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity. The church is lagging on this front, despite long, diligent efforts of affected persons and allies within the church. The enduring popularity of K-pop and Korean dramas among youth demonstrates that young people are able to ignore the othering noises of political leaders. However, this is also a sign that young people tend to be politically disengaged. I’d say their open-mindedness is esthetic and cultural, rather than conscious, or ideological.

Regarding the constitution, every student learns about the unique significance of Article 9, in which the people of Japan renounce war and reject maintenance of a standing army. But young people today don’t feel the same ownership and passion toward their peace Constitution as their grandparents and parents.

Sadly, according to recent surveys, young people appear to be increasingly swayed by the language of “security” rather than “peace.” A clear majority now hold a positive view of Japan’s security agreement with the U.S., and agrees with the principle of “collective self-defense,” both which feed into the Abe government’s design to revise the Constitution to allow Japanese military to engage in foreign lands. This is worrying. I believe this is a direct effect of the constant rhetoric of belligerence heard from Japanese and foreign leaders. “Security” is associated with othering, mistrust, fear and conflict; It is not peace at all. If young people can learn to reject prejudice and speak the language of respect toward “others,” how can fear-mongering leaders learn to reject “security” and speak the language of peace?

  • 4. Please share more about CMIM’s initiative to eliminate racism in Japan and uphold the value of diversity.

The Center for Minority Issues and Mission is a small, ecumenically supported organization that works with people in civil society and churches who are striving toward the same goal, of building a society in which every person, of any  background, can live with dignity, free of fear and discrimination. Together with human rights NGOs, national lawyers’ groups and support organization for refugees and migrant workers, we advocate for legal and institutional changes to better protect marginalized and vulnerable minority communities in Japan. With ecumenical partners like the National Christian Council in Japan (NCCJ) Committee on the Rights of Foreign Residents in Japan and the National Conference of Christians Seeking Institution of a Basic Law for Non-Japanese Residents (“Gaikikyo”), CMIM initiated a series of “colourful cafés,” in which guests who have non-Japanese roots share their unique stories and perspectives about life in Japan as a minority person. Eight of these stories have been published in manga format, in two, 20-page teaching resources that challenge young people to examine stereotypes and discrimination in Japanese society, and invite them to see every person as a friend, rather than “other.”

The Minority Youth Forum, a 4-day program held each September, has brought together young people from a range of churches across Japan and abroad, to learn about the history and present challenges of minority communities through lectures, testimonies, field trips, discussions and worship. Each Forum has focused on a different aspect of complex minority issues: Koreans in Japan and Japan’s imperial era, the Buraku community and , Ainu and indigenous peoples, and the disregard of the people of Ryukyu/Okinawa and their disregard by the state. This year’s 4th Minority Youth Forum, which was to take place in Fukushima, has been postponed to next year due to COVID-19, but we look forward with hope to future Forums and other events with young people.

Similar to other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed great strain on some of the most vulnerable communities in Japan, like foreign students, refugee claimants, and undocumented foreign residents. Many of these people have lost work and income in this period, but cannot access financial assistance offered to most residents by the Japanese government. To raise awareness about this problem, and to help gather donations for an emergency assistance fund established by an NGO for hard-hit neighbors, CMIM has issued a series of information bulletins. 

Inspired by Christ and strengthened by partners, we will continue our mission to march toward a just and inclusive society for all.