Hate Crimes against Asian Americans in the Coronavirus Crisis: Lessons for Japan

Kinue Tokudome

The Japanese original was published on Ronza, April 20, 2020

As most of us in the US are now required to stay at home because of the coronavirus, I have more opportunity to speak with some of my friends who are normally very busy. Recently, I spoke with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action Agenda of the Simon Wiesenthal Center via Zoom.

Our conversation inevitably turned to the coronavirus and how it was affecting our lives. After sharing each other’s family situation under the restriction, we talked about anti-Asian American incidents that were happening with the spread of the coronavirus across the US. In less than a month, many things happened:

On March 18th, President Trump was challenged by a reporter during a White House press conference as to why he kept using the term “the Chinese virus” which many people complained as racist. He responded, “It’s not racist at all. It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate.”

He also mentioned that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson who tweeted in the previous week, “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” President Trump declared, “That can’t happen…It comes from China.”

Yet on March 23rd, President Trump tweeted, “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States…the spreading of the Virus is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form. They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER!”

A group of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ organizations created a website, “Stop AAPI Hate,” in mid-March and have been monitoring anti-Asian hate crimes. Those who experienced harassments or physical attacks could report to this site not only in English but in Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and some other Asian languages. It received 1,135 reports in two weeks. They ranged from verbal attacks like “Go back to China!” to physical attacks like being pushed or being sprayed disinfectant, and various forms of vandalism. Hate speech on the Internet was also reported. The most serious incident took place when a 19-year-old man in Texas stabbed a Chinese family with two young children, saying that they were spreading the virus. This incident led the FBI to issue a warning that “hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease…endangering Asian American communities.”

On March 25th, Congresswoman Grace Meng, representing the Queens area in New York where many Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, live, introduced a resolution, “Condemning all forms of anti-Asian sentiment as related to COVID-19.” (COVID-19 is the official name decided by WHO.)

The resolution calls for, among other things, “All public officials to condemn and denounce any and all anti-Asian sentiment in any form” and “Federal law enforcement officials, working with State and local officials, to expeditiously investigate and document all credible reports of hate crimes, incidents, and threats against the Asian-American community in the United States.”

As Rabbi Cooper had decades of experience of combatting anti-Semitic hate crimes, both in the real world and on the Internet, I asked him how he was assessing the current situation and if there were any lessons for Japanese people.

He asked me if I had watched Bill Maher’s recent commentary on “the Chinese virus.” Bill Maher is a political commentator and TV host. I happened to have watched that commentary. Although Bill Maher is hardly a Trump supporter, he nonetheless agreed with President Trump that we should call the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.” Bill Maher explained:

Scientists, who are generally pretty liberal, have been naming diseases after the places they came from for a very long time… Zika is from the Zika Forest, Ebola from the Ebola River, hantavirus the Hantan River… here’s the West Nile virus and Guinea worm and Rocky Mountain spotted fever and, of course, the Spanish flu… no one blogs about it. So why should China get a pass?

This is about facts. It’s about life and death. We’re barely four months into this pandemic, and the wet markets in China — the ones where exotic animals are sold and consumed — are already starting to reopen…

Sorry, Americans. We’re going to have to ask you to keep two ideas in your head at the same time: This has nothing to do with Asian Americans, and it has everything to do with China…We can’t afford the luxury anymore of non-judginess towards a country with habits that kill millions of people everywhere.

Rabbi Cooper said that he believed most Americans would agree with Bill Maher’s commentary. He then shared his thoughts.

“We only have to look at the heroic actions of first-responders, health care professionals, charities, and community volunteers during the coronavirus pandemic to remind us that crises can bring out the best traits in our fellow Americans. Sadly, however, they can also bring out the worst. That is why we need to remain vigilant to fight hate, conspiracies, and scapegoating.

“While it’s clear the Chinese government covered up key information about the coronavirus’ initial outbreak in Wuhan, we need to remember that it is the people of China who were the first victims of this policy.

“During the Black Plague in Europe in the Middle Ages, Jewish people were scapegoated and killed mercilessly by fanatics across the continent. Over 600 entire Jewish communities were destroyed. Many killers claimed that Jews had poisoned wells to spread the plague, or that the plague was a Jewish plot to decimate Christian communities. Never mind that Jews died in horrific numbers during the plague as well. Sadly, modern anti-Semites are right now on the Internet weaving similarly insane conspiracy theories blaming Jews for spreading coronavirus.

“We all must reject any and all efforts seeking to conflate justified anger at the Chinese communist government with anger towards Asian-Americans. We should never blame immigrants from Asia or any country for the actions of a foreign government they have no control over.

“And we must reject the anti-Semites who are always lurking for times of crisis, anger, and uncertainty to spread their cancerous hatred of Jews.

“So, moving forward, people in Japan, in the US, and around the world have an obligation to differentiate between a communist regime and the people of China. Otherwise, the concerns and anger will be taken out on the wrong target and Beijing will evade their global responsibilities.

“Secondly, the World Health Organization chief is in Beijing’s back pocket. If the WHO is to survive, he needs to be removed. He did not demand that the Chinese government provide an accurate and full account of the coronavirus outbreak when it first occurred in Wuhan. He was also reluctant to declare the situation as a pandemic. This situation presents Japan an opportunity—which I am certain the Foreign Ministry will not take— to demand accountability for its financial contributions to the WHO.  (On April 14, President Trump announced that the US would suspend its funding to WHO while it reviews the agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemics.)

“As for anti-Chinese hate speech on the Internet, the Simon Wiesenthal Center can help. I want Japanese people who find such postings to send us links to  ireport@wiesenthal.com and we will immediately forward to social media companies to pressure for its removal, the same procedure we follow for any threatening online hate postings. We just turned over a list of some 45 channels on social media platforms to US Attorney General Barr and US Homeland Security officials, that promote lurid conspiracy theories linking Jews to the pandemic.

“The bottom line is that it is not a hate crime to strongly criticize the Chinese government for their irresponsible behavior that put health of the people around the world at risk. Citizens in democracies have the right and obligation to express their opinions.”
The Japanese media have been reporting on the alarming increase of anti-Asian American hate crimes in the US since the spread of coronavirus there. But it is not a simple issue as Bill Maher’s commentary illustrated. According to a recent Harris Poll, 52% of American people agreed with President Trump’s calling the virus, “the Chinese virus.” The House resolution against anti-Asian hate crimes, whose 144 co-sponsors are all Democrats except one, has not been debated yet.

In addition, as some mainstream media in the last few days have been reporting in detail how the Chinese government hid crucial information in the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak, Rabbi Cooper’s warning on the importance of distinguishing legitimate protest against the Chinese government and hate crime is even more important now.

Japan has a history of discriminating against the very people who suffered diseases. Will the fight against coronavirus bring out the best traits in Japanese people or bring out the worst? I sincerely hope it will be the former.