BY TOMOHIRO OSAKI
An army of “coronavirus vigilantes” in Japan is going to extreme lengths to harass potential spreaders of COVID-19, resorting to “internet lynchings” of rule-breakers and targeting of long-distance travelers they see as virus-carrying invaders of their communities.
Vigilantism during a pandemic is not peculiar to Japan. Reports are common overseas of citizens setting up checkpoints to bar travelers, laying out thumbtacks to deter cyclists and erecting “stay out” signs outside villages.
But Japan does have its own share of vigilantes. Dubbed jishuku keisatsu (self-restraint police), these self-righteous individuals aggressively monitor the internet and hunt for cars traveling from outside the prefectures where they were registered, in a collective bid to shame anyone flouting stay-at-home requests and potentially putting others at risk.
One of the latest examples is a backlash against a woman in her 20s who reportedly traveled from Yamanashi Prefecture to Tokyo earlier this month despite having been notified by authorities that she had tested positive for COVID-19. Further turning the public against her was the fact that she initially provided officials with false explanations of her behavior in an apparent attempt to evade culpability for her actions.
She paid dearly: netizens enraged by her irresponsibility soon took it upon themselves to try to identify her Twitter account and real name, branding her a “corona-spreading terrorist,” digging up what they claimed to be photos of her and reportedly bombarding her supposed workplace with irate calls.
Not all information, however, was genuine. A Tokyo-based confectionary shop singled out as her workplace was eventually forced to release a statement on its website denying any association with her. “We’re considering taking legal action in regards with reputational damage” caused by “groundless information” circulating online, it said.
In other examples, Tokushima and Iwate prefectures have experienced a surge in antagonism against drivers visiting from across the prefectural border. Officials reported instances of cars with out-of-prefecture license plates being tailgated and vandalized, and their drivers targeted with verbal abuse. Authorities called on locals to behave in a “level-headed” way.
In Mie, officials lamented a case where someone threw stones at the residence of a COVID-19 patient and defaced the walls with graffiti. A mom-and-pop candy shop in Chiba, meanwhile, received a threatening letter last month written with strange block characters that said, “Don’t gather kids. Close the shop,” even though it had halted business long before the state of emergency was declared.
A similar anonymous poster again demanding a closure was reportedly taped to the door of a Tokyo livehouse last month, seemingly discounting the fact it had already been scaling down operations in line with the request by the metropolitan government.
A 29-year-old man who describes himself as an “internet vigilante” on Twitter said that even he was spooked by some of these instances of harassment and discrimination against COVID-19 patients, especially the stone-throwing case in Mie.
“They obviously crossed the line,” said the man, who goes by the moniker of Ishihara and declined to give his real name.
But at the same time, Ishihara said part of him understands their motivation, speculating that they may have felt they have to take the law into their own hands due to “legal loopholes” in Japan — including a lack of provisions to mandate the kind of city-wide lockdowns seen overseas.
“It’s partly because the law is inadequate that I think those vigilantes come into being,” he said.
Mafumi Usui, a social psychology professor at the Graduate School of Niigata Seiryo University, agrees. Underlying the behavior of these vigilantes, he said, is not only their fear of the virus but their desire to “punish” rule-breakers.
“They are truly convinced what they’re doing is right, and that they’re bringing justice where the police and the law cannot be relied upon,” he said. Under this logic, they may have regarded the Yamanashi woman, for example, not as a target to bully, but as a genuine threat to society who needed to be exposed and punished, he said.
Although not limited to Japan, vigilantism, Usui added, may have reared its ugly head here partly because a culture of collectivism and peer pressure — a mindset said to be ingrained in Japanese society — went too far.
“There could be a thinking at play that says ‘Why can’t you stay at home like everyone else does? Why can’t you follow rules?’” he said.
As far as massive online attacks are concerned, the phenomenon had existed long before the COVID-19 age, only resurfacing again amid heightened stress and uncertainty caused by the virus, said freelance journalist Koichi Yasuda, author of the book titled “Netto Rinchi” (“Net Lynching”).
It is likely that instead of being driven by any lofty sense of justice, those who pilloried the Yamanashi woman simply derived schadenfreude from “finding a common enemy to gang up on” and as a result, “venting their pent-up angst,” he said. The anonymous nature of such internet postings often emboldens their action, too, he said.
Officials are urging residents to act calmly to curb any further discrimination.
From the start, Tokushima had actively pursued the policy of minimizing traffic from outside the prefecture, such as by monitoring cars with non-Tokushima license plates at checkpoints. But Gov. Kamon Iizumi told a news conference last month that these policies “sent too strong a message” to residents, after complaints mounted of harassment against drivers with out-of-prefecture plates.
“It’s not like Tokushima residents alone are safe and those from the outside are dangerous,” Tokushima city mayor Sawako Naito told the same news conference. “Discrimination and division are something our city can never tolerate. It’s not the time for us to turn against each other,” she said.