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FOCUS September 2015 Volume 81

Human Rights and Cyber Hate Speech: The Case of the Ainu

Ann-elise Lewallen

In early autumn 2014, two Hokkaido politicians engaged in separate online attacks, questioning the veracity of the Ainu position as indigenous peoples and as a coherent ethnic community in 21st century Hokkaido. Ainu first received recognition as indigenous peoples of northern Japan in 2008. While recognition brought the promise of indigenous rights and new political status, it was also accompanied by increasing concern from conservative interest parties who feared the possibility of greater legal status for Ainu as threatening to majority Wajin (ethnic Japanese) enjoyment of constitutional rights. Conservative factions have vocalized these criticisms primarily using online forums such as Twitter, blogs, and elected official websites, and these online conversations have then been channeled into raucous street campaigns. Since the mid-2000s, social media sites have served as digital forums for circulation of critical commentaries and hate speech against immigrant and minoritized communities. Online criticism of Ainu in 2014 extended from a string of conservative attacks against Ainu uses of public funds in 2009. As discussed below, these cyber hate speech incidents are troubling for the state of Ainu human rights and the possibility that indigenous rights might be introduced as part of planning for future Ainu policy. At present national Ainu policy is being coordinated by the Cabinet appointed Council for Ainu Policy Promotion (Ainu Seisaku Suishin Kaigi), with semi-regular meetings coordinated by the national government in Tokyo.

Cyber Hate Speech: Questioning Ainu Existence

On 11 August 2014, Sapporo City Assemblyman Yasuyuki Kaneko posted on the micro-blogging site Twitter that “Ainu people no longer exist.” Specifically, Kaneko wrote, “Ainu people, of course they no longer exist now. At most, Japanese of Ainu ancestry is what they are, crazily using up concessions, it’s unconscionable! How do I explain this [excess] to taxpayers?”2 His comments ricocheted across Ainu community Facebook pages, and soon across the media, sparking criticism and outrage from the Ainu community and beyond. The Ainu Association of Hokkaido (AAH) elected not to respond in any official fashion, but several individual Ainu and allied scholars, both inside and outside academic institutions, spoke out about the issue.3 By mid-August a group of Sapporo Ainu formed an ad hoc coalition, the Ainu Minzoku Sabetsu Hatsugen o Kyumei suru Kyodo Jikoiinkai (Ainu Peoples’ Discriminatory Speech Investigation Coordinating Committee), and sent a public letter to Kaneko on August 22 demanding an apology. Kaneko refused to apologize and devoted himself to exposing what he called Ainu misappropriation of public funds, rooting out examples of city support for Ainu and then lambasting them on his website and Twitter feeds.4 Kaneko’s further tweets and refusal to recant drew condemnation from Japan’s top political leaders, including Chief Cabinet Secretary and head of the Cabinet-appointed Ainu Policy Committee Yoshihide Suga as well as Sapporo Mayor Fumio Ueda.5

In response to these attacks, anti-racism campaigners and Ainu activists have labeled these media-based and cyber-based attacks as “hate speech,” grouping them with a wave of xenophobic protests and cyber bullying emerging around the mid-2000s.6 On 25 August 2014, a loosely based collective calling itself Sapporo Against Racism (SAR) launched an online petition drive to demand Sapporo City Assembly pass a resolution calling for Kaneko’s resignation.7 The petition described how Kaneko’s tweet negated both Ainu existence as humans and their sense of ethnic identity and belonging as Ainu, further accusing the Ainu of cheating the system by abusing public funds earmarked to ease inequality, all public statements unfitting to an elected official.8 On 22 September 2014, the Sapporo City Assembly approved a resolution demanding Kaneko’s resignation from the municipal assembly. Due to the non-binding nature of the resolution Kaneko refused to resign, but he was expelled from his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Kaneko’s initial tweets later fanned outward. On 11 November 2014, Hokkaido prefectural legislator Onodera Masaru, the same lawmaker who had ordered a massive financial audit of AAH in 2009, tweeted that the question of whether Ainu can actually be recognized as Indigenous peoples must be revisited, and any funding allocated to Ainu programs or for Ainu welfare likewise must be reevaluated and possibly revoked. During the ensuing months, Onodera elevated his criticism, pulling from archival materials and scholarly records to bolster his case against the AAH. Civil society likewise registered outrage at this denial of Ainu humanity. A broad multiethnic scholar-activist alliance infuriated by this unbridled cyber hate speech and its basis in erroneous historical revisionism coalesced quickly, publishing an anthology rejecting the validity of what they termed the Ainu Minzoku Hitei-ron (“Discourse of Ainu Peoples’ Non-existence”) in February 2015.9 This alliance emerged in part from a tactical strategy to help educate the public about the Ainu contemporary and historical situation, and thus to ensure that Kaneko and Onodera would be driven from office during the April 2015 general elections. Ainu and non-Ainu supporters thus sought to rectify the damaging impact of this misguided discourse in the absence of any response from official Ainu organizations. By early April 2015, SAR’s petition had gathered more than 15,000 signatures and signers had been encouraged to circulate the petition to social media networks. Indeed, the morning papers bore the results on 12 April 2015: neither Kaneko nor Onodera managed to gain reelection and their terms concluded by the end of April 2015, which was declared a major victory by SAR and petition supporters.

Yet, most troubling, these inflammatory remarks against Ainu and the tweets that elaborated the sources of the historical interpretations that fed these anti-Ainu perspectives have already travelled to the broader netto uyoko (Net Far Right) circuit. Since the mid-2000s, new patterns of online xenophobic rhetoric have emerged wherein members of right-wing groups film staged street protests and rallies featuring anti-Korean or anti-Chinese resident rhetoric and streamed these in real-time.10 By streaming these protests on interactive platforms, these new right-wing groups encouraged viewers to vicariously participate through posting messages to the video streams, thus boosting circulation of this ultranationalist discourse, and creating the sensation that thousands of supporters were engaged in the real-time protests. Kaneko and Onodera both extensively utilized twitter and other social media applications to circulate their anti-Ainu rhetoric and thus their historical interpretations and arguments about Ainu “non-existence,” in part to ensure that these would be circulated to and adopted by other members of the netto uyoku. As of Fall 2014, related right-wing groups in Tokyo had already begun to appropriate the Ainu “non-existence” theory and combine this with ongoing xenophobic displays against Koreans and Chinese neighborhoods, to argue that none of these ethnic minority communities should be eligible for government support.11 Civil society groups such as Counter-Racism Action Collective and Onnagumi have joined together with SAR to stage significant counter-demonstrations against the Kodo-suru Undo (Action Movement) or Kodo-suru Hoshu (Action Conservatives), including a travelling panel exhibit, and petition drives to educate Japanese voters about the politics of candidates on the ballot. And certainly, the massive petition drive organized to oust Kaneko in fall 2014 proved to have a major impact with Kaneko’s failed bid to win reelection in April 2015.

Meanwhile, despite these developments and the increasingly shrill displays of hate speech against minorities in Japan, performances that often threaten violence, the Japanese government has remained silent. During Japan’s periodic hearings at the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in late August 2014, a delegation of Ainu, Okinawan, and ethnic Koreans presented a shadow report to educate the committee about the frightening escalation in hate speech and threats of violence.12 In response, the CERD drew upon new measures developed to identify cases of hate speech and provide specific measures that state governments should adopt to combat its dissemination and any escalation of violence it precipitates.13 CERD specifically condemned the Japanese government’s refusal to take concrete steps to censure hate speech in public forums or the media, and expressed concern at the absence of investigations or prosecutions in response to hate speech.14 CERD urged the Japanese government to introduce punitive measures against public officials “who disseminate hate speech and incitement to hatred” including removing them from office, because of the potential of such rhetoric to escalate into physical and other forms of debilitating violence.15 While CERD’s recommendations constitute important censure from international society, they do not override state sovereignty. That is, they cannot directly compel the government to take corrective action nor do they provide punitive measures when it fails to act. Ultimately these recommendations and Japan’s periodic reports to CERD and other United Nations human rights treaty monitoring bodies constitute a moral compass, emphasizing the values of international society in ensuring that human rights are advanced within each sovereign nation.

Social Media and Human Rights: Possibilities and Pitfalls

Increasingly, social media are being used to facilitate Indigenous communities in asserting “digital self-determination.” In this sense social media enables Indigenous communities to forge and assert real-world sovereignty in online contexts by utilizing the user-friendly interfaces of social media tools to strengthen claims of sovereignty. Yet digital technologies still harbor the limitations of the non-digital world. They are often used to deny full enjoyment of human rights for Indigenous and other communities and/or to reinforce the gender stereotypes, racism, colonialism and hetereopatriarchy16 of the offline world. As anthropologist Tomomi Yamaguchi (2013)17 has documented in her study of the ultra right-wing’s use of the internet to circulate neo-nationalist xenophobic rhetoric, use of digital technologies also portends troubling conservative and racist trends because of the anonymity it affords its users and user ability to broadcast hate-based rhetoric to audiences at great distances, even if the offline gatherings are quite small.

But these same disadvantages may be transformed into strengths for Indigenous communities. When the right-wing hate speech circulated over twitter feeds and sought to disable the funding support for Ainu in Hokkaido, Ainu cyber-networks leveraged their positions to circulate updates about counter-racism actions, to launch petition drives, to call for impromptu protests and gatherings to counter public displays of hate speech, and to disseminate information. If utilized carefully, these serve as a means of empowerment and a way to discuss diverse viewpoints in private group settings and to overcome great physical distances toward cultivating group cohesion. I urge that we question how indigenous scholars, both Ainu and non-Ainu, and their colleagues outside educational settings might take part in an Ainu affirming movement and challenge the hegemony of this small, but strident, minority of voices seeking to leverage cyberspaces to circulate their noxious messages. While positioning social media as an important communications tool for indigenous networking and discussing a wide range of issues, it is critical that we do not forget its social context. It is not a value-free tool, nor is it beyond the spaces or the imaginary realm of the nation. It remains firmly embedded in the dialogues and discourses of the offline world.


ann-elise lewallen is Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.

For further information, please contact: ann-elise lewallen, East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies, HSSB 4001, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9670 USA; ph: (805) 893-4505; fax: (805) 893-7671; e-mail:;


[1] The Council for Ainu Policy Promotion at

accessed 23 April 2015

[3] I would like to thank Chisato Abe and Mark Winchester for sharing public statements and other information in response to the hate speech campaigns against Ainu in 2014-15, including the 25 August 2014 petition drive.

[4] A full selection of Kaneko’s anti-Ainu statements and responses to critics can be found here:, accessed 23 April 2015.

[5] “Kaneko Sapporo-shigi no ‘Ainu Minzoku inai’ Hatsugen, Suga Kanbochokan mo hihan.” Asahi Shimbun, 26 August 2014, page 34, and “Jiminkaiha ga Ridatsukankoku, shitagawanekereba jomei ‘Ainu Minzoku inai’ Hatsugen no Sapporo shigi.” Asahi Shimbun, 29 August 2014, page 30.

[6] Lawyers Association of Zainichi Koreans (LAZAK), “Discrimination Against Koreans in Japan: Japan’s Violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.” Shadow Report to the 7th-9th Periodic Reports of Japan, 85th Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Geneva: 11-29 August 2014.

[7] For more information on this petition, see Mark Winchester and Akira Okawada, editors, Ainu minzoku hiteiron ni kosuru (Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2015).

[8] Petition available at Sapporo Shigikaigicho-Takahashi-Katsutomo-sama-Ainu Minzoku he no Heito Supichi wo Tekkai shinai Sapporo Shigikaigiin-Kaneko Yasuyuki ni tai suru Giin Jishoku Kankoku Ketsugi wo Motomemasu, accessed 2 May 2015.

[9] See Winchester and Okawada op. cit.

[10] Yamaguchi, Tomomi, “Xenophobia in Action: Ultranationalism, Hate Speech, and the Internet in Japan” in Radical History Review, 2013, 117(Fall): 98-118.

[11] My gratitude for the Counter-Racism Action Committee for organizing the Sapporo Against Racism Panel Exhibit, 22-24 November 2014, and helping to elucidate the disturbing links between Ainu and other minoritized communities in Japan as subjects of Far Right racism.

[12] LAZAK, op. cit., pages 27–35.

[13] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “General Recommendation No. 35: Combatting Racist Hate Speech.” International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, CERD/C/GC/35, 26 September 2013. Full text of recommendation available at

[14] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “Concluding Observations on the Combined Seventh to Ninth Periodic Reports of Japan,” CERD/C/JPN/CO/7-9, 29 August 2014. Full text of the Concluding observations available at

[15] Ibid.

[16] Heteropatriarchy refers to the dominance of heterosexual men in societies around the globe, especially as pertains to legal and political power, and the corresponding de-legitimization of non-male and non-heterosexual persons.

[17] Yamaguchi, op. cit.