Japan must go beyond mere platitudes on discrimination

Japan must go beyond mere platitudes on discrimination
Japanese football club Urawa Red Diamonds (in red) played their J.League home game against Shimizu S-Pulse in front of an empty stadium in an unprecedented punishment after fans recently hoisted a racist "Japanese Only" banner.

TOKYO - What constitutes discrimination and how should it be dealt with? The issue is taking on new urgency in Japan.

Two Sundays ago, two professional football teams were forced to play a closed-door match at the magnificent Saitama stadium north of Tokyo. The stadium can seat 60,000, but there was nary a fan in sight.

Football history was made, but for the wrong reasons.

The lockout of spectators, which cost over 100 million yen (S$1.2 million) in ticket refunds, was punishment meted out to Urawa Reds, one of the two teams, after three of its fans displayed a "Japanese Only" banner at a previous match.

The fans said that because foreigners were increasingly attending Urawa Reds matches and filling the seats behind the goal area traditionally occupied by diehard supporters, the banner was merely to indicate that those seats were "already taken".

But club officials decided the banner reeked of discrimination against foreigners in general, and imposed the harshest penalty they could think of.

The club also banned the three fans, and several other alleged accomplices, from attending Urawa Reds matches for life.

The punishment - including the closed-door game - certainly does not fit the crime, no matter how one looks at it. This is especially so considering that no one was physically or mentally hurt, nor even palpably offended, as a result of the incident.

Many restaurants around the stadium also took a hit business- wise on match night.

What probably embarrassed the Japanese was that no one had thought anything unusual about the banner, until some South Korean journalists, irked by what they saw, decided to file a story. The rest of the world's media followed.

Urawa Reds happens to be one of Asia's premier football clubs. Its team has played against many top Western clubs.

Japanese football officials were doubtless worried that if the label of discrimination sticks, it could result in the Reds not being allowed in future international matches, especially as European clubs are particularly sensitive to accusations of racial prejudice.

It could also put a stain on Japan's national football team, which is taking part in this year's World Cup in Brazil.

But is that really all that Japan should worry about?

It is not entirely coincidental that Korean journalists should be the first to spot the incriminating banner.

Korean journalists have honed their sensitivities to such nuances over the years. People of Korean descent in Japan have been the most conspicuous target of racial discrimination in this country.

Last year, demonstrations by Japanese groups against ethnic Korean residents erupted frequently in Korean enclaves in Tokyo and Osaka as relations between Japan and South Korea rapidly deteriorated over historical and territorial issues.

Hate speech against the Korean residents was plastered on placards and spewed through megaphones.

In Tokyo's Shin Okubo district, for instance, owners of Korean businesses were accosted and threatened. Demonstrators left behind hate speech graffiti on the walls that screamed "Die" and "Get out".

Ethnic Koreans - often referred to as "Zainichi" (which means "staying in Japan") - number about 670,000 and make up the largest racial group in Japan after the Japanese.

Many of these ethnic Koreans can trace their roots to the early part of the 20th century when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule. Many are descendants of Koreans who were conscripted during World War II or brought to Japan as forced labour to work in factories and mines under appalling conditions.

The younger generation of Zainichi speak only Japanese, go to Japanese schools and work in Japanese companies. Many are permanent residents, but keep their affiliations to either North or South Korea.

Although most Zainichi now are born and bred in Japan, they cannot obtain Japanese nationality by birth. To be granted citizenship, at least one parent must be a Japanese national.

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