Japan broadcaster NHK cleared of defamation for using 'human zoo' to describe Taiwan aborigines

TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese broadcaster NHK did not defame a Taiwanese woman by using the term "human zoo" to refer to a century-old event involving her father, the country's supreme court ruled on Thursday (Jan 21).

The court overturned a lower bench's finding that had ordered the publically funded broadcaster to pay 1 million yen (S$12,300) in damages over a 2009 programme.

The broadcast examined the "Japan-Britain Exhibition" held in London in 1910 to which Japan took several members of Taiwan's aboriginal population, including the woman's father, as exhibits.

Taiwan was a Japanese colony at the time, and the practice of exhibiting the little-known peoples of far-flung territories was a common one among Western imperial powers.

In November 2013, Tokyo High Court ordered NHK to pay damages to the woman, a member of the island's Paiwan ethnic group, for defaming her by using the term, with the presiding judge reportedly saying the expression had a "serious discriminatory meaning".

The woman argued that the term "human zoo" implied the Paiwan people were uncivilised, but that some of those who took part in the exhibition did so out of pride that they were representing their indigenous group.

But on Thursday, the Supreme Court said it "cannot accept the judgment", according to a ruling posted on its website.

The purpose of the programme was to describe "the fact that Japan followed the example of what was called a 'human zoo' carried out by Western powers to advertise their efforts to civilise barbaric and inferior people in their colonies".

"It is unreasonable to think that a general audience would regard the plaintiff's father as a person who should be treated as an animal in a zoo, thus the programme did not degrade the social reputation" of the Taiwanese woman, it said.

Japan emerged from self-imposed isolation in the middle of the 19th century and historians say it took on colonies partly as an attempt to establish itself as an imperial power and to mitigate the self-perceived risk of being taken over by a Western country.