Activists stalk English teachers in South Korea – a glimpse at Japan’s future?

The LA Times has a story on how an activist group in South Korea, sinisterly named the “Anti-English Spectrum” has been following foreign English teachers to ferret out suspected wrong-doing:

The volunteer manager of a controversial group known as the Anti-English Spectrum, Yie investigates complaints by South Korean parents, often teaming up with authorities, and turns over information from his efforts for possible prosecution.

Outraged teachers groups call Yie an instigator and a stalker.

Yie waves off the criticism. “It’s not stalking, it’s following,” he said. “There’s no law against that.”

Since its founding in 2005, critics say, Yie’s group has waged an invective-filled nationalistic campaign against the 20,000 foreign-born English teachers in South Korea.

On their website and through fliers, members have spread rumors of a foreign English teacher crime wave. They have alleged that some teachers are knowingly spreading AIDS, speculation that has been reported in the Korean press.
The debate over foreign English teachers is symbolic of a social shift taking place in a nation that has long prided itself on its racial purity and singular culture, South Korean analysts say.

In less than a decade, the number of foreigners living in South Korea, with a population of nearly 49 million, has doubled to 1.2 million, many of them migrant workers from other Asian nations.

Also included are the foreign English teachers, most from the United States, drawn here by compensation packages that may include as much as $2,500 a month plus free rent and a round-trip ticket to teach a Korean population obsessed with learning from native speakers.

While the idea of vigilantes following English teachers around is definitely unnerving, the effort seems much smaller and more reasonable than I expected from the headline. No reports of violence and just one threatening e-mail. If there are troublemakers in the country I think the citizens have a right to their activism. The “activists” seem more like a community of Internet hobbyists going after a group that’s done nothing to them for no reason other than self-satisfaction, very similar to the incidents of “enjo” flaming campaigns in Japan (or scambaiters, “Anonymous” protests against Scientology, etc. in the English-speaking world). I am tempted to write it off, but given what I am reading here and all the reports on English teachers smuggling drugs and getting into other trouble, the relationship between the foreign English teachers and the local Koreans seems genuinely strained.

Given the relative similarity of the situation in Japan (homogeneous Asian population, fetish over learning English from natives), it struck me how nothing like this has sprung up yet, especially given the industry’s business/hiring practices and the excesses of some of the teachers. There are stirrings of anti-foreigner sentiment here and there, but what strong feelings there are tend to come from fringe rightist groups railing against Koreans.

It’s possible there is a difference of degree in Korea – the Internet is a more integral part of life, there are proportionally more English teachers there, and foreigners in general are a more visible presence. That said, it could offer a glimpse at where Japan might be headed.

Korea remains one of the most connected nations on the planet, and has become famous for flaming campaigns. There was a recent string of celebrity suicides, some apparently a result of internet harassment.

In Japan, these attacks are quite common, though I have yet to hear about any high-profile suicides. Japanese net users have turned their ire on Westerners before, most notably in the “WaiWai incident” when they became outraged over lewd, liberally translated articles on the Mainichi Daily News site. If a foreign English teacher commits a heinous crime (or the police decide to play it up), it’s possible the 2ch crowd could start something a “Spectrum” of its own. If it comes to that, we will all no doubt back our dismissive comments about Debito and beg him for help (I am guessing there is no Debito equivalent in Korea – prominent Korea blogger Marmot has very little sympathy with his wayward fellow Westerners). Even so, I don’t get the impression that average Japanese people feel uneasy about Western English teachers – quite the contrary, they tend to be treated very well. Maybe we can thank the JET program for bringing in more “high quality” talent with its more rigorous selection process.

Next, there are a lot of English teachers in Korea! If the article’s figure of 20,000 is correct, it’s even more than the roughly 14,000 in Japan (and shrinking) even though Korea’s population is just 40% of Japan’s. If Japan had the same proportion of English teachers there’d be 36,000 of them, and businesses would probably have to lower standards even more to fill all the positions.

According to the article, foreigners make up 2.4% of South Korea’s population. In Japan that number is 1.74% and growing. Also, from all accounts the US military presence is felt a lot more in Korea, be it from soldiers on the street or the daily awareness that the country remains in a state of imminent war.

But with the foreign population on the rise in Japan, its greater visibility means there will definitely be some kind of reaction. Some might feel the kind of anger that’s directed at the government’s proposal to give permanent residence the vote. Those protests have yet to produce any violence or anything worth calling an “incident” but it’s a potential rallying point, and the bill hasn’t come up for debate yet.

The article draws a link between the Anti-English Spectrum and the overall issue of dealing with foreigners in “racially pure” South Korea, noting there have been some recent racially motivated attacks. I think there’s a clue in this for people watching Japan. When the net activists start wielding the hammer of anti-foreigner rage, Western English teachers might start to look more and more like a nail.

Dissolving a Local Assembly

There’s a rumble in Nagoya as the mayor is clashing with the assembly over a reduction in local taxes, and commentators are mulling over the possibilities of what could happen next. Will the assembly pass a no-confidence resolution against the mayor? Could a citizen petition demand the dissolution of the city assembly? Or will the assembly dissolve itself?

In Kasumigaseki, the central government is a classic example of a parliamentary system. The people elect their representatives to the Diet, which in turn selects the prime minister. A chief characteristic of this form of government is that the parliament and prime minister have their hands around each others throats: the parliament can pass a motion of no-confidence in the Prime Minister with a mere simple majority vote and force resignation or an election at any time, just as the prime minister has the power to dissolve the parliament at will (but which is not as straightforward as you might think).

Local governments are structured differently. Under the Local Autonomy Law (地方自治法) passed in 1947, Japan’s local governments follow a more republican form of governance that incorporates direct democracy. The voters elect not just the members of their municipal and prefectural assemblies, but also the mayor of the municipality in which they live, and the governor of the prefecture. In addition, the people have the right to petition to dissolve the assembly or force a vote to have the mayor or governor resign. The relationship between the governor or mayor—let’s call this person the “Executive”—and the assembly is more distant than relationship between the Prime Minister and the Diet. For a no confidence resolution to pass in a local assembly, 2/3rds of all assembly members must be in attendance, and 3/4ths of all attending members must vote for the measure. Once the chairman of the assembly delivers the resolution to the executive, he has ten days to either dissolve the assembly or resign. This is the only case when an executive can dissolve a local assembly.

The Local Autonomy Law, passed during the American occupation, did not grant the assembly the right to dissolve itself, because that’s not in the arsenal of an elected assembly in a republican government. But it wasn’t long before the Diet came under intense popular pressure to recognize the right of a local assembly to dissolve itself and call an election. So eighteen years after the passage of the Local Autonomy Law, the Diet passed in 1965 the “Special Measures Law concerning Dissolving the Assembly of Local Governments” (地方公共団体の議会の解散に関する特例法). The law is noticeable for its brevity at a mere two articles long, and yet the first article states the law’s purpose in a long-winded statement which shows, I think, how reluctant the scholars of political theory in Kasumigaseki were to meddle with the direct democracy of local governments:

Article 1. This law sets out special measures to the Local Autonomy Law regarding dissolving the assembly of local governments, following the trend of public opinion concerning petitions on dissolving the assembly of local governments, so that such assemblies can dissolve themselves and hold elections to listen to the opinion of local residents.

The second and final article goes on to set incredibly high standards for dissolution: 3/4ths of all assembly members must be in attendance, and 4/5ths of all attending members must vote for the dissolution. I do not know of any other elected assembly in the world that has such a steep threshold for passing a resolution. Consequently, you might think that this is an obscure procedure that exists under law, but which is never practically used.

Not so—a mere month after the law passed, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly dissolved itself after public and opposition pressure following an LDP bribery scandal (refereneced previously by Adamu in this post on Tokyo’s local elections). And the next year the Ibaraki Prefectural Assembly dissolved itself. Prefectural assembly dissolutions have been just about unheard of since, but dozens of municipal governments have dissolved as well, usually following the revelation of fraud or gross illegality during an election.

New blog in Japanese

I love MFT for what it is—a vehicle for international people interested in Japan to bounce ideas, rants and anecdotes off each other. That said, MFT has its limitations. In particular, not many Japanese people are involved here, which is understandable given that (a) we blog in rather colloquial English much of the time, and (b) many of our topics are simply not that interesting to locals.

Yet we cover many topics that could use more attention and counter-voices from Japanese people, and have even carried a couple of Japanese-language posts in the past for that purpose. I also personally want to improve my Japanese writing skills, which don’t get as much exercise as they should.

So I decided to start a completely separate personal blog, in Japanese and as Japanese-blog-like as I can stomach. (I will use my real name and avoid emoji, in case you’re worried.) This new blog is not really intended as a “Japanese version” of MFT, though material may be cross-posted or cross-referenced from time to time. It is basically a separate project with separate purposes in mind.

Here’s the link, and here’s a direct link to the first post, about how I “fell into Japan.”

Panasonic in Mecca

Panasonic has quietly been a top topic in Japanese news stories concerning the Middle East this month by winning a contract to put up the first corporate billboard in the holy city of Mecca. The billboard will be near the airport and will be for consumer goods aimed at pilgrims.

I note that this has been published in a few media outlets in Japan, where the press release was issued in Japanese, but I cannot find news stories that report this in English and see no evidence that the story was published in Arabic.

A thread at 2ch brings up some interesting points that should have given Panasonic pause: “Isn’t this like breaking the prohibition on tall buildings in Kyoto?” and “I’m sure this is fine because they were speaking with Muslims on the deal, but I wonder what the extremists will think.” On the one hand it’s great that Japanese companies are breaking ground and leading the way as they push into new markets, but I hope they’ve done their cultural due diligence.

Does money have the constitutional right to talk?

This has been a hot topic in American legal discourse recently thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which upheld the notion that corporations have the right to free speech—in this case, the freedom to spend money to defame Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries, which was previously banned for corporations under election finance statutes. You can read the whole opinion here (PDF), but it is long, and filled with discussion of the historical concepts of corporations, going back to when the Constitution was written.

The idea of corporations having constitutional human rights seems alien to many American observers and probably bizarre to many Japanese people. So far, the best concise analysis of the subject I have found (in the context of the American case) is this piece by law professor Usha Rodrigues at my favorite “blawg,” The Conglomerate. She points out that even the justices of the Supreme Court did a good job of conflating various types of “corporation,” when in reality a corporation can be a home-office business, a completely non-profit organization or even a type of governmental entity. (Justice John Paul Stevens, who led the left-wing dissent, even brought Tokyo Rose into the argument.)

From this perspective, it becomes more clear that corporate status is not a very good dividing line. It captures Goldman Sachs and the big oil and pharmaceutical companies, but it also captures the Sierra Club, the NRA and all sorts of organizations that do have a valuable role in consolidating a force of popular opinion that might not otherwise be expressed.

The real problem for populists, I think, is the fact that political donations are treated as a form of speech. There’s a way to get around this: amend the Constitution. Good luck doing that without a lot of money to run a campaign.

Since this is mostly a Japan blog, I should add that Japan’s Supreme Court ruled similarly, albeit more tersely, on a similar case in 1970—the Yawata Steel case, outlined in Japanese here. This case was originally brought by a lawyer who held Yawata Steel stock and wanted to stop the company from making political donations. The court’s ruling, which is still law in Japan, was that Japanese corporations have the full array of constitutional human rights “to the extent possible given their nature” (性質上可能な限り). Some extracts from their opinion (available here in Japanese), followed by my English paraphrase:

Companies are formed for the purpose of performing a particular business, but this does not mean that they can only act in direct furtherance of the purposes listed in their articles of incorporation. Companies, like individuals, are part of the state, their localities and their regional societies, and have responsibilities toward those entities. Even if a certain type of act is beyond the purposes of the company as provided in its articles of incorporation, such an act should still be allowed to the extent that it is expected and demanded of the company in the course of its social relations.

Such acts are not necessarily limited to not-for-profit acts. A company may also (directly or indirectly) find value toward its own development as an enterprise through disaster relief, services to society, funding social welfare projects and other peripheral acts. Appropriate expenses by a company toward these social duties are naturally to be allowed and do not violate shareholder rights or harm shareholder profit.

The above reasoning also applies to corporate gifts to political parties. The constitution does not expressly mention political parties nor grant them any special status, but implicitly assumes their necessary existence through its general structuring of the representative democracy system. Political parties are the most powerful constituent body of the people’s government, and to participate in their development is naturally to be expected as a social act even by a company. Political donations are a normal component of the cooperation between citizens and their government.