Shin-Okubo is where Tokyo residents go when they want a fix of Korean food and pop culture. The busy neighborhood is home to dozens of restaurants specializing in Korea's spicy cuisine and stores crammed with souvenirs inspired by the stars of K-Pop, the musical phenomenon that has swept through much of East Asia.
But amid rising tensions between Tokyo and Seoul over rival territorial claims and conflicting interpretations of wartime history, Shin-Okubo has also become the setting for ugly confrontations between its large ethnic Korean community and Japanese far-right activists.
The latter are small in number, but their increasingly vicious protests have ignited a national debate over how – or if – Japan should respond to the rise of hate speech.
The venomous insults that fill the air during anti-Korean demonstrations go far beyond the impassioned chants heard at regular political rallies. "Kill all Koreans," and "Koreans must die," are common refrains.
In one notorious outburst that was widely reported in South Korea and China, a 14-year-old girl yelled at passersby during a protest in Tsuruhashi, a Korean neighborhood of Osaka: "I can't tell you how much I despise you and wish I could kill you all. You have smug faces and if you continue to behave in that way we will have a massacre here in Tsuruhashi. This is Japan, and you should go back to Korea. You do not belong here."
The demonstrations are being organized by Zaitokukai, a small but well-organized group of far-right activists who oppose granting even limited rights – such as welfare entitlements – to long-term Korean and Chinese residents of Japan.
Its chairman, Makoto Sakurai, was among eight people arrested on suspicion of assault during a recent confrontation in Tokyo with an antiracist group.
The protests even drew a response from Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The anti-Korean abuse heard on the streets of Tokyo, Osaka, and other cities "dishonored Japan," he said. "It is truly regrettable that there are words and actions that target certain countries and races.
"I believe that the Japanese people respect harmony and shouldn't exclude other people. The Japanese way of thinking is to behave politely and to be generous and modest at all times."
Anti-Korean sentiment is nothing new in Japan. The country is home to an estimated 600,000 ethnic Koreans, many of them the descendants of the estimated 780,000 Korean workers brought to Japan during its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.
Diplomatic tensions feed harsh tone
The rise of hate speech has coincided with a new round of tension between Seoul and Tokyo over sovereignty of the disputed Takeshima islands – known as Dokdo by Koreans – and anger at North Korea over its nuclear weapons program and its failure to resolve the cold war abductions of Japanese citizens. Mr. Abe has angered South Koreans and Chinese by suggesting that Japan had not waged a war of aggression on mainland Asia before the outbreak of the Pacific War.
He has also suggested that he will revise previous official apologies for Japan's wartime conduct – although that move has since been put on hold.
Zaitokukai, which claims 13,000 members but attracts only 200-300 people to its protests, has drawn criticism from fellow right-wingers.
"I've been active in the right-wing movement for over 45 years since I was a student, but even so, I believe that what's happening now is very worrying," says Kunio Suzuki, a senior adviser to the nationalist group Issuikai. "Most right-wingers, conservatives, and ordinary Japanese have nothing to do with hate speech."
Human rights groups are calling for legislation to curb hate speech, but their campaign has made little headway as political parties focus on the economy in the run-up to upper house elections on July 21. A recent survey of attitudes toward discriminatory language among more than 700 MPs drew responses from only 46.
No hate-speech legislation
Japan has been a signatory to the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination since the mid-1990s, but has resisted the introduction of domestic hate-speech legislation.
"Japan has been slow to approve a number of human rights and discrimination-related UN conventions due to the long-standing belief that there is no racial discrimination in Japan," says Yoshifu Arita, a lower house member of the Democratic Party of Japan. "I believe that this is untrue."
In attempting to explain the rise of hate speech, Mr. Arita cited the increasingly nationalist tone of mainstream Japanese politics, particularly under Abe. Zaitokukai, he noted, was formed in 2006 during Abe's first term as prime minister.
"There is a sense now that Japan has moved a few steps to the right," he says. "There is more criticism of members of parliament as 'traitors' who are "'selling out the country' at public events and on the Internet."
In a recent interview with a monthly magazine, Abe apparently spoke for many politicians when he said the response to verbal attacks on minority groups should be left to "the good conscience of the average Japanese citizen."
But left unchecked, the public abuse being directed at ethnic Korean residents could inflict serious damage to Japan's international reputation, says Mr. Suzuki. "These images are being shown in other countries," he said, "and it fills me with sadness that this is seen as representative of modern Japan."