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Japan’s ‘Cyber Nationalists’ Are Convinced that MERS Started in Korea

The Netto-Uyoku are using the tragic outbreak as an opportunity to spread more nationalistic fervor online.

by Mari Shibata
Jun 15 2015, 9:00am

A guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace in South Korea, which was built in 1935 but destroyed by the Japanese in the early 20th century. Japan and South Korea have historically had tensions, but hateful nationalism among citizens is the minority. Image: Josh Hallett/Flickr

There have now been more than 140 cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in South Korea, and the World Health Organization is predicting more will arise before the outbreak is over.

The spread of the brutal disease, which kills more than a third of those it infects, has prompted sympathy from some—and vitriol from the rightwing Japanese netizens known as "Netto-Uyoku," or "internet nationalists."

Of course, the nature of social media is amplifying this minority voice, making it seem at times that most Japanese are thrilled that Koreans are being afflicted by this terrible disease.

The latest catalyst is a newspaper article that went viral on Twitter in Japan, causing the Netto-Uyoku to vent their xenophobic rants about Koreans online.

Late Thursday, the phrase "kankoku-zenkokushi"—translated as "all newspapers of Korea"—crept into Twitter's top 10 trends in Japan. The phrase refers to a short opinion piece in the Japanese edition of Joongang Ilbo, one of Korea's three largest newspapers, which accuses Japan of not providing international help for Korean victims of the outbreak.

When there is any bad news from either Korea or China, level of activity among the Netto-Uyoku suddenly increase online

"Despite [Korea] providing help during the [March 11th 2011] earthquake, Japan is doing nothing," the article says. "There have been no suggestions about sending medical staff or collecting donations, despite South Korea showing compassion toward an earthquake that left an unauthorised discharge of contaminated water worth 10,000 tons from the nuclear power plant."

The article going viral lacks a byline, which spawned the idea that the claim was being made by "all newspapers of Korea." As a result, "kankoku-zenkokushi" appeared as a top 10 trending topic on the site for almost two days, as pop-up Twitter accounts with anime character profile pictures tweeted links to the story along with photos and links allegedly debunking the idea that Korea had provided any help to Japan after the March earthquake.

Korea "thieved during a fire, put aid relief into defense spending of the [disputed] Takshima Islands, celebrated when there was an earthquake," user @SHOUTOFBLANK wrote, in a tweet that is representative of many spouted by nationalist-leaning Japanese Twitter users in the past week. "I haven't forgotten. I haven't forgotten about it at all."

Such users do not claim they are Netto-Uyoku themselves. Unlike the traditional right wing groups which take their nationalistic slogans to the streets with blaring trucks and post online officially as a campaign group, the Netto-Uyoku is an umbrella phrase that loosely refers to individuals embracing a Japanese form of nationalism primarily or solely online.

Their xenophobic stance represents only a fraction of mainstream Japanese society, despite animosity between the two nations going back centuries. But when there is any bad news from either Korea or China, level of activity among the Netto-Uyoku suddenly increase online, which has the ability to push keywords that lead to racist remarks into the trending section of mainstream social networking sites.

2channel, a text-based internet forum that emerged in the late 1990s, is the online home of xenophobic ranters that developed into the Netto-Uyoku. The article trending on Twitter is the topic of the number one thread, with 2chan users venting their anger over what they claim was "unforgivable behaviour" by the Koreans during the 3/11 earthquake that they "will never forget."

One user dug out an image from the September 2011 Asian Champions League quarter-final in Osaka, showing a Korean football supporter holding a banner with the slogan "Celebrating Japan's Big Earthquake." The image was widely reported by mainstream media at the time, and was posted in the same discussion surrounding MERS to gather support and ramp up more anti-Korean comments from fellow users.

A fan made a sign in poor taste.

Another vented their anger by sharing an undated graphic of countries that donated to Red Cross Japan that does not show any figures from Korea. Apparently sourced from one of Japan's prominent newspaper Asahi, users are expressing praise over Taiwan's ranking in second place with 2.92 billion yen (23.6 million dollars) and accuses the Koreans of "going home after taking photographs of dead bodies and damaged buildings." Such comments mirror Japan's historically more positive relationship with the Taiwanese compared to the Koreans, a common trait among the Netto-Uyoku.

The infographic in Japanese.

Although other words have now displaced the phrase in Twitter's trending topics, a YouTube video that features a reading of the article is still being tweeted with "kankoku-zenkokushi" as a way to continue promoting the anti-Korean position.

The video was uploaded by user MAXSCOPE Koukoku Journal. Many Netto-Uyoku may try to obscure their connection with the loosely-affiliated movement. But the channel description says it is an "information channel by a Japanese for the Japanese community" with content ranging from "announcements and narration on East Asia, China, South Korea" to "domestic and world events the mainstream media do not touch." (The word "Koukoku" in the username is also a synonym for the "Great Japanese Empire," the parliamentary constitutional monarchy that ran from 1868 to 1947, a period before the two World Wars romanticised by Japanese nationalists.)

There is an ongoing discussion in Japan about whether laws should be passed to regulate hate speech.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has also urged Japan to adopt legal restrictions to deal with hate speech from groups such as the Zaitokukai, short for Zainichi Tokken wo Yurusanai Shimin no Kai—translated as "Citizens against the Special Privileges of the Zainichi."

The local government in Osaka, where the Zaitokukai have a large presence, recently voted just last week to to postpone a decision until at least autumn. If passed, it would make Osaka the first city in the nation to regulate hate speech.

The debate was prompted by offline xenophobic rallies against the ethnic Koreans permanently residing in Japan—known as the Zainichi—but such laws could extend to cover hate speech online.

The proposed law in Osaka would create a third-party panel of experts to investigate claims of hate speech against the city's residents, and have the authority to remove signs and request internet hosts to take down harmful content from websites.

For now, any xenophobic comments in relation to events on the Korean peninsula remain unregulated. YouTube users like MAXSCOPE Koukoku Journal continue to spread the xenophobic claim that "MERS is a South Korean phenomenon," without mentioning that MERS originated in Saudi Arabia. (The disease is referred to by its acronym, which in turns avoids the use of the phrase "Middle East" in the Japanese language.) That leaves the Koreans dealing with two plagues: the outbreak of MERS in Korea, and the outbreak of online hostility in Japan.