Countering Xenophobia and Misogyny on Social Media: Japan and Germany

Visualizing Cyberspace Misogyny in Japanese Politics

On August 28th, the longest administration in Japanese political history finally saw its end. As the longest-serving leader, Shinzo Abe cited his worsening health to justifiably end his tenure prematurely. Widely publicized to have been a long-time affliction of his, Ulcerative Colitis had similarly served as a warrant for his previous departure in his first serving. Reactions have varied. Many have poured empathetic concern for his condition, with public personalities like talent Takeshi Tsuruno tweeting his admiration for the minister. Some have however, expressed skepticism over the political motive behind his leave, especially after the heavily censured mask distribution amongst other backlashes in regard to responses rolled out during the perilous Corona crisis, the prosecutor scandal, cherry-blossom corruption, Morimoto school scandal and more. 

Noriko Ishigaki, a female politician from the Constitutional Democratic Party, mentioned Abe on her twitter as “a poor crisis manager with a habit of breaking down his body at critical moments” on the day he resigned. The series of tweets were met with floods of criticism, with many calling for a retraction of the remarks and an apology. Later on, Ishigaki elaborated further on her intentions on Twitter, which was similarly, and unsurprisingly, not well-received. This criticism went viral, with both of her name and the hashtag “#石垣のりこ議員の辞職を求めます” calling for her resignation trending on Twitter Japan the entire day.

Noriko Ishigaki’s tweet: “The Prime Minister is a “working human being” too. So Resignation on the grounds of health is a natural right. I wish him a speedy recovery. However, the LDP should be severely questioned about its responsibility for appointing a man with no crisis management skills who has a habit of getting physically injured at critical moments as prime minister. I call for the early opening of the Diet as soon as possible so that this responsibility can be questioned and a political vacuum will not be created.”

There were other renowned people, including actor Takashi Matsuo who wrote an op-ed column for Mainichi Shimbun, and script writer Tomohiro Machiyama who similarly expressed his disapproval on Social Media. However, the magnitude of criticism she was exposed to was clearly anomalous to others who have made similar discourse; her first tweet was repeatedly criticized independently, despite her later text defending the necessity of investigating the crimes committed by the Abe administration over the past seven years and the possibility of constitutional violations.

It was also revealed last month that false posts posing as Ishigaki and defaming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were widespread, and Ishigaki has announced that she will take legal action on the matter. The spread of the slander against the opposition’s female MP, Ishigaki Noriko, was unusual compared to other prominent figures who expressed similar views.

“This, however, shouldn’t be misunderstood as mere joking, since it is harmful to the object of this kind of verbal abuse on the one hand and contributes to the normalization of sexism and misogyny on the other.”

“I wouldn’t want to be a female politician in Japan,” laughs Prof. Dr. Fabian Schäfer, a Political Scientist and Japanologist currently teaching at Erlangen-Nuremberg University in Germany. His first exposure to Japanese culture through a homestay in Tochigi prefecture as a political science undergraduate, ignited his passion for Japanese Studies. Recently, he co-authored a study visualizing cyberspace verbal attacks on Japanese female politicians in opposition parties as far more harsh and frequent than those targeted at male politicians, especially ruling LDP politicians. 

“When we started, our initial intention was to simply analyze sexist, misogynist and racist attacks on female politicians in cyberspace during an election or when a certain scandal happened. However, those attacks were consistent, not occasional. Because we collected these data when there was no election going on, it’s purely a snapshot of what you as a female politician, must endure if you have a social media account on a daily basis.” 

Tamara Fuchs, Fabian Schafer “Normalizing misogyny: hate speech and verbal abuse of female politicians on Japanese Twitter

While thematizing the outer appearance of a female person — commenting on how she looks and what she wears, is still common in Japan, Dr. Schäfer found out that the ways female politicians constantly get attacked is also, unsurprisingly, mainly based on their appearance, and not on their political agendas. 

“What’s interesting is that the Internet Ultra-rights are taking a large part of this misogynist attack on female politicians, using a lot of irony and neologism. They create a lot of new words to attack a person, which to me seems to be more like a mere game or “Neta” in Japanese, than necessarily being sexist or (promoting) certain political ideologies.”

“This, however, shouldn’t be misunderstood as mere joking, since it is harmful to the object of this kind of verbal abuse on the one hand and contributes to the normalization of sexism and misogyny on the other,” adds Dr. Schäfer.

A magical label you can stick on to your enemy 

Yet, when it comes to criticizing female politicians, misogyny is seemingly not enough for the detractors. Another form of discrimination often happens. Renho, a female politician of the opposition party for instance, with her half-Taiwanese and half-Japanese background, was attacked both for her gender and ethnicity. 

“This is what we call inter-sectional discrimination,” Dr. Schäfer says. 

When you google “Noriko Ishigaki” in Japanese, “South Korea” comes in fourth. 
The search result is full of blog posts and YouTube videos making all kinds of racist remarks arguing she must be a “Zainichi” (Korean-Japanese) to take such “Hannichi (anti-Japanese) actions,” thus should be eliminated. 

Although the scandals that allegedly took advantage of the algorithmic nature of Social Media to deliberately cause a social divide and change the outcome of the political campaigns have been reported and criticized around the world, little attention has been paid to the political influence of the “Internet right-wingers” in Japanese society.

Dr. Schäfer’s previous paper, Japan’s 2014 General Election: Political Bots, Right-Wing Internet Activism, and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s Hidden Nationalist Agenda, discussed how racist and xenophobic rhetoric functions as a “framing bridge” when Internet right-wingers attack the politically-opposed or someone simply considered to be unfavorable.

The labeling of ‘Hannichi (anti-Japanese)’or ‘Zainichi (foreigners in Japan: usually referring to Korean or Chinese descendents)’ could function to connect the nationalist discourse and certain political views as an “empty signifier“. Similarly, a discourse of “Hannichi-Femi (Anti-Japanese Feminists)” has appeared in attacking female politicians.

Besides being verbally attacked for her extramarital affair, Yamao is also accused of being “anti-Japanese” (han’nichi) in one of the tweets in our sample. In this tweet, Yamao’s name is appearing along with other female politicians, which are all accused of not only being “anti-Japanese” but are also described as “not pretty”:

20180323_055341, @****: #反日政治家#蓮舫#辻元清美#福島瑞穂#山尾志桜里

反日政治家の女達あまり美しいとは言えませんなあ。やはり内面が外に出るのですね。 . . . . . . .

20180323_055341, @****: #Anti-Japanese Politician #Renho #TsujimotoKiyomi #FukushimaMizuho #YamaoShiori One cannot really say that #antiJapanese female politicians are pretty, right? As one might expect, the inside turns outside, doesn’t it? . . . . . . .

The word “anti-Japanese” is a central term of the jargon of Japanese Internet right-wingers (netto-uyo) which is used to attack the political enemy by accusing him or her of acting “against” its own people, “the Japanese.” This is a very common rhetorical strategy of nativists and right-wing populists, whereby they can position themselves as the only ones to exclusively represent and speak for “the people.” Put differently, Yamao, along with the other female politicians hashtagged in this tweet, is publicly expelled from the ethnicnational community of “the Japanese.” Moreover, the link in the tweet relates to another tweet featuring very unflattering pictures of the four politicians. Hence, these female politicians are not only attacked for their allegedly “anti-Japanese” attitude but are also being pilloried for what a Japanese female is frequently being commented on and criticized for, namely her outward appearance.

(Tamara Fuchs, Fabian Schafer “Normalizing misogyny: hate speech and verbal abuse of female politicians on Japanese Twitter”)

Labeling of “Traitor”: Japan and Germany 


While the xenophobic discourses of “Hannichi” or “Zainichi” in Japan are increasingly normalized, Dr. Schäfer sees this phenomenon as not entirely original to Japan. “It’s very similar in Germany,” he says. “In Japanese, there’s a very extremist discourse on Social Media: “Baikoku (traitor of the state)”. In Germany, there are also words like “Volksverräter” (traitor of the people) and “Anti-Deutsch” (anti-German) that are applied in a similar way as “Baikoku” and “Hannichi. For instance, by labelling Chancellor Merkel as “Volksverräter,” people can exclude her for “acting like an enemy to her own people”.

“The unsolved post-colonial problems still linger in this rhetorical way to attack Zainichi for being foreigners,
who are the 4th generation and are based in Japan as part of its society”

However, the use of this labeling “anti-Deutsch” is quite different from Japan’s context.In Germany, it’s just the left-leaning politicians, journalists and activists who are attacked and labeled as traitors. There is a so-called Migrant Crisis with people fleeing from their home having wars, coming to Europe to find peace and life. People are accepting them from a humanist standpoint, but those who oppose this influx were calling Merkel and other politicians ‘traitors’ in fear of Germany being replaced by ‘others’. But in Japan, the targets are civil people in general. For instance, Zainichi people living in Japan are often targeted for the labeling of the ‘anti-Japanese’.” 

 But why? One might ask. Is it because China and Korea’s rapid economic growth  seems to be threatening Japan’s competitiveness? Dr. Schäfer observes that these forms of xenophobia and racism are logically incomprehensible. “If you look at the economic structure of Netouyo, they’re not necessarily economically in a bad shape. Many of them are middle-class with a stable job, enough money to live and to build their own house. It’s not that they think Zainichi people are stealing something from them.” 

    Dr. Schäfer dwells deeper into the structural reason rooted back in a century ago. “What it means to use this labeling is that Japan has not actually solved all those issues coming from its Fascist past. Germany had a cruelty that the Nazi regime conducted, they had a holocaust. Imperialist Japan also had its invasion of China, the Nanjing Massacre and so on, but in the immediate postwar period, Japan was politically and geographically in a very different position from Germany. Germany was occupied by 4 different countries of the UK, US, the Soviet Union and France. Being in the middle of Europe surrounded by former enemies, Germany had to solve all their political problems. Germany managed to build up regional friendship and peaceful relationships with its neighboring countries, because they were forced to.”

 In the meantime, Japan was only occupied by the US, who managed to include Japan in its own geopolitical agenda afterwards; Okinawa becoming the natural aircraft carrier for the US, and then the Korean war started and another Vietnam war. “For Japan, the war went on indirectly, and they were geographically and strategically included in these consecutive wars.” 

   Japan and its neighboring nations continued shelving the resolution of historical disputes in the nameof economic restructuring throughout the Cold War times, as the U.S. shifted to a policy of using Japan’s economic power for anti-communist purposes in the region. Under the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Allies in principle waived reparations, with the only exception being that Japan would pay reparations in the form of “services” to any country occupied and desecrated  by their past aggressions, when sought for.

For Japan, the Korean and Vietnam wars brought enormous economic benefits due to “special war demands (Sensou-Tokuju)” as the US depended on Japan for arm manufacturing. Subsequently, Japan strategically rebuilt its influence in Asia through aids and trade, where most governments were seeking a strong economic model right after independence. Compensation agreements were signed with Burma in 1984, the Philippines in 1981, Indonesia in 1983, and South Vietnam in 1984, respectively. Cambodia and Laos waived their right to claim reparations and received free-aid in return. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Micronesia received grant aids equivalent to reparations and economic cooperation. Taiwan, China, the Soviet Union, India and other countries renounced their claims for reparations soon after. The increasing demand created  by war and expansion of its economic activities in Southeast Asia, played a vital role in Japan’s rapid economic restructuring during post-war times. However, the price was not small; the opportunity for proper reparation was lost.  

“The unsolved post-colonial problems still linger in this rhetorical way to attack Zainichi for being foreigners, who are the 4th generation (Koreans who settled in Japan) and are based in Japan as part of its society,” Dr. Schäfer explains.

The conscription issue, the Comfort Women issue, the Yasukuni Shrine’s Class A-war criminal enshrinement issue, and other controversial issues that are prevalent to this day, continue to evolve into political issues and create chasms in the public sphere. They are all remnants of this post-war chaos in the region.

What’s the true cause of racism? role of Social Media

(Reuters/Issei Kato)

 The issue of migrants, which is now the main cause of racism in Germany, is not as relevant to Japan as there are very little numbers of refugees residing in the country. In 2019, only 43 out of 10,375 applicants were accepted for refugee status to enter, while Germany opened its door for 45,053 asylum seekers at the rate of 36.2% in the same year, according to the Asylum Information Database.

“It’s a very formatized way of attacking somebody, which has nothing to do with the politics but has more to do with
unsolved postcolonial past.”

This makes what is called “imagined homogeneous society” possible for Japan, according to Dr. Schäfer, “and in order to have the racist cause, the Japanese Ultra-rights always need to relate to South Koreans.” 

 When the Corona crisis hit, there was criticism of Pachinko shops for keeping themselves open despite the government’s “demand” for various businesses to observe requests for temporary closures  under the State of Emergency. As many of these shops have been customarily known to be run by Zainichi-rooted people, the censure on non-compliance incontrovertibly took on a layered meaning; Quickly, it turned into racism towards Zainichi.

“It’s a very formatized way of attacking somebody, which has nothing to do with the politics but has more to do with this unsolved postcolonial past,” Dr. Schäfer says. The Zainichi was typecast with yet another derogatory label —   Hannichi (anti-Japanese),  for supposedly choosing to deliberately remain open against the rules and thus enabling further spread of the virus. 

“I think it’s how the netouyo try to build the imagination of belonging to an in-group that shares the same exclusivist attitude”, Dr. Schäfer purports, of which he also suggests to be the true cause of racism in Japan, online and offline. Collective Identity helps support one’s sense of belonging to the group, consisting of an ideal view of society or how they want to live together.

“The community is, in theory, built with imagining external others by saying ‘this is our neighborhood.’ And if you’re not used to living with Zainichi people, for example, or in Germany with the Turkish people, you build up this mediatized, very racialized image of them. With the social media digesting racist discourse, you build up this ‘nonexistent other’ or ‘enemy’ in your imagination.”

Now that Social Media has become so pervasive in an individual’s life,  there is always the danger of being stuck on an injurious label which you have nothing to do with. Is this an irreversible phenomenon with no room for improvement? Dr. Schäfer suggests 3 potential remedies.

1. Legal regulation

While Dr. Schäfer agrees that “every discrimination for their race, gender, religion, or anything, this should be punished by law, in my opinion,” however, he also points out the possibility of perpetual collision between freedom of speech, and the possible abuse of the law by people in power. 

2. Companies’ initiative

“Twitter, Facebook and other Social Media platforms need to censor hate-speech or block people who are outspokenly racist or anti-feminist.” Yet, the biggest problem is that these companies are profit-driven. In the capitalist market, “the more traffic they make, the more advertisements they can sell so more money can be made.” Therefore, we can only believe in the companies’ ethics at this point.  

3.  Civic movement of people

Dr. Schäfer highlights the potential usability of internet countermovement, featuring the past example that took place in Japan. An online movement “Netouyo ban Matsuri” was an orchestrated event to ban and report hate speech discourse on YouTube and Twitter. The participants notified Facebook and Twitter of certain accounts that are being racist or ultra-nationalist. YouTube and Twitter decided to delete thousands of small yet very outspoken Netouyo accounts. “This kind of orchestrated counter movement against hate-speech on Social Media can be the key in changing the discourse,” he asserts.

 The question now is, does cyberspace countermovement really work to fight against discrimination and hate?
 In the upcoming article, the nature of contemporary communication on Social Media will be addressed by Dr. Schäfer, as well as the conditions under which internet countermovement could function to tackle with the increasing prevalence of hate-speech in society. 

(Photo: Thomas Bergner)

Prof. Dr. Fabian Schäfer | Fabian Schäfer studied Japanese Studies, Philosophy, and Journalism (1997–2003) at the University of Leipzig. In 2008 he received his doctorate from the University of Leipzig with a dissertation on “The Origins of Media and Communication Studies in Prewar Japan: Early Theoretical Approaches to the Press, Journalism and Public Opinion, 1920–1937”. 2005–2012 he worked as a Lecturer (Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) at the East Asian Institute at the University of Leipzig. He was a doctoral fellow of the Japan Foundation at the University of Tokyo (2004–05), a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (2008), and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Leiden (2009-10). In 2012–2013 he was a Senior Researcher (Oberassistent) at the URPP Asia and Europe at the University of Zurich. Since 2013 Fabian Schäfer has held the Chair of Japanese Studies I at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. 

Story by: Kaori Kohyama, Beatrix Lim, Liming Chew
Cover Photo: y’o

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