Yasuda Auditorium, University of Tokyo. Photo: Wikipedia

Last Wednesday, Shohei Ohsawa, a specially appointed associate professor at the University of Tokyo, attracted a backlash over a series of anti-Chinese messages on Twitter. Ohsawa, who also serves as the representative director of artificial-intelligence (AI) development firm Daisy Inc, tweeted that “Daisy does not hire Chinese people.” When asked what he would do if a Chinese national applied for a job at the company, Ohsawa further tweeted that “I will not even interview the person if I know s/he is Chinese.”

In response to the backlash, the University of Tokyo issued an official statement on Sunday. It noted that “a certain professor” had made “inappropriate comments … about a certain country and its people,” without specifying the name of the country, Ohsawa’s name, or the content of Ohsawa’s comments. The statement argued that while the University of Tokyo does not tolerate discrimination of any sort, the comment by the professor “belongs to the individual and his organization, and is completely unrelated to the university.” The statement ends by expressing regret over the incident and offering a sincere apology to those “made uncomfortable” by the incident, but makes no mention of any potential punishment for Ohsawa.

Granted, Ohsawa’s comments come at a particularly sensitive time for Chinese nationals engaged in AI-related research outside their own country. US government authorities and media outlets have accused Chinese nationals of stealing cutting-edge technologies in fields like AI under the guise of collaborative research with foreign firms and researchers. Chinese nationals’ alleged tech theft has become even more sensitive as the US and China both see victory in the race for AI supremacy as essential for future global technological and economic leadership. Also, Japanese authorities have been enthusiastic about joining their counterparts in the US to take concrete measures on the international stage to prevent Chinese theft of AI-related intellectual properties.

Given the wider geopolitical battle over AI, Ohsawa’s anti-Chinese comments have earned applause from some Japanese netizens. Some replies to Ohsawa’s tweets have focused on the danger of Chinese nationals in Japan working on behalf of the Communist Party of China stealing cutting-edge research. In these comments supporting Ohsawa, the general theme of Chinese nationals not being worthy of the Japanese scientific research community’s trust overshadows any concerns about whether Ohsawa’s tweets amount to outright racism.

However, despite security concerns, blanket exclusion of all Chinese from employment consideration smacks of blatant violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, of which Japan is a signatory. Seen as such, the implicit refusal of the University of Tokyo to reprimand Ohsawa will reflect negatively on the school’s image. The university’s de facto permission for its employees to make racially discriminatory comments sets a dangerous precedent under which not just Chinese nationals in AI research, but also people of all races could be victimized. If respected researchers like Ohsawa can get away with openly excluding foreigners, then a social norm that sees foreigners as less than equal in Japanese society can be quickly entrenched.

Indeed, Ohsawa’s tweets reflect that his attitude toward foreigners in the country is much more than just about excluding the Chinese from AI involvements in Japan as a matter of national security. Last Wednesday, he also tweeted, “The Chinese do not perform so are not useful in a for-profit company,” and on Saturday, he tweeted that “lower-class citizens who do not understand Japanese” were speaking out against him.

Amid the heated online exchanges that continue to unfold, the silence of the University of Tokyo administration, Japanese academia at large, and the Japanese government is deafening. That silence is particularly striking given that, even in recent days, Japanese academia has proved itself to be highly capable and influential on contentious issues. Last month, the detention of a Hokkaido University professor in China over allegations of espionage drew strong protests from Japanese academics, leading eventually to the professor’s release. In light of this, Japanese academics’ failure to respond to the ongoing Ohsawa saga can only be interpreted as a lack of concern by the academic community that outright racial discrimination can peacefully exist on Japanese university campuses.

As Japan continues to face depopulation and aging, Japanese universities need to draw in more international students and academics to stay relevant and dynamic. There is an increasingly urgent need to signal publicly that Japanese universities are welcoming and accommodating to foreign students, especially the Chinese who make up 40% of all international students in the country. The fact that Ohsawa only received a very light slap on the hand from the University of Tokyo for openly preaching the exclusion of all Chinese illustrates that Japanese universities have a long way to go to create a more unforgiving environment for xenophobic sentiments among the ranks of its academic staff.

Xiaochen Su PhD is a business risk and education consultant in Tokyo, as well as the founder and managing director of the Study Abroad Research Institute, a Tokyo-based non-profit organization promoting international education. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.

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