Photo/IllutrationAnti-hate speech activists protest in Kawasaki in June 2018. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Kawasaki municipal assembly has unanimously adopted an unprecedented ordinance to crack down on hate speech. Under the ordinance, criminal penalties can be imposed for forms of expressions that denigrate or incite hatred and discrimination against specific individuals or groups based on race, religion, sex or other attributes.

The number of rallies and demonstrations that attack specific groups with extremely hateful language has declined since a law was enforced in 2016 to ban hate speech.

But hate speech has survived the law in more cunning and underhanded forms.

Some observers have warned about a backlash against the crackdown, pointing out the limits of the law, such as its lack of penalties for violations.

It is significant that Kawasaki city, where many ethnic Koreans live and whose efforts to tackle the problem prompted the Diet to enact the law three years ago, has taken a further step toward rooting out hate speech.

Under the new ordinance, criminal punishments can be imposed for discriminatory speeches and acts in public spaces that involve such communication tools as loudspeakers or placards.

If such speeches or acts are reported, the mayor is required to hear the opinions of an expert panel and then, if necessary, issue an expostulation and a cease and desist order to the offender.

The mayor can file a criminal complaint if the offender refuses to stop the speech or the act.

A maximum fine of 500,000 yen ($4,564) can be imposed on those who are convicted in court.

It is no doubt necessary to clamp down on hate speech. But excessive measures could threaten freedom of speech.

This concern led the municipal government to tread cautiously. In June, it published a rough draft of the proposal and then revised it after taking comments from citizens and experts before submitting it to the municipal assembly for a vote.

We welcome the ordinance, which is well-balanced and reasonable in terms of both content and procedures.

One court ruling concerning hate speech recently attracted public attention. In November, the Kyoto District Court found an anti-Korean activist guilty of defamation and fined him 500,000 yen for a hateful rant against the operator of a Kyoto school for ethnic Koreans.

Some victims criticized the ruling for recognizing the high degree of public interest in parts of the speech regarding past abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korea.

But the fact that the ruling invoked a provision that could impose a prison term on the violator will serve as a deterrent against such behavior to some extent.

Some countries have introduced very strict restrictions on hate speech supported by penalties. But debate on the issue in Japan has been insufficient in terms of nuance and depth.

Partly because of this situation, the law urges local governments to take measures on their own to deal with problems that arise in their jurisdictions.

In response to the call, the governments of Osaka and Tokyo have established ordinances that allow them to publish the names of people who have engaged in hate speech or behavior.

But this rule has never been applied to a specific case partly because of the difficulty in identifying offenders.

Kawasaki’s groundbreaking ordinance, when implemented, should be evaluated for its effectiveness and possible negative impact on freedom of speech.

We hope Kawasaki’s efforts will contribute to discussions at other local governments mulling similar ordinances and to the Diet debate on whether to revise the law.

The ordinance’s provision on criminal punishment exempts speech on the Internet out of concerns for possible infringements on freedom of speech.

But how to deal with hate speech in the highly anonymous space for communication is a policy challenge that must be addressed in the coming years.

Hate speech deeply and daily hurts the feelings of the targets who are members of society.

This fact should be kept in mind as we try to make steady progress toward eliminating the scourge of hate speech.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 13