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Symposium looks at the disturbing rise of online nationalism

by Eriko Arita

Staff Writer

While the territorial disputes between Japan and China, and that with South Korea, seem to have quietened down recently, some people remain frustrated by the issue.

Since August, when South Korean President Lee Myung Bak visited the Takeshima islands (known as Dokdo in South Korea), the islets have become the center of a row testing bilateral ties. In September, the relationship between Japan and China also deteriorated, as Japan nationalized three of the five Senkaku Islands, which China calls Diaoyu.

On Oct. 28, at a symposium titled “Temptation to Nationalism” in Tokyo’s Koenji district, Takayoshi Kise, an editor for Daisan Shokan publishing and emcee of the event, said: “I think the territorial disputes on the Senkakus and Takeshima has in turn triggered a recent rise in nationalism, on all sides — which (renowned author) Haruki Murakami compared (in an article in the Asahi Shimbun) to being drunk on “cheap liquor” — and xenophobia in Japan, China and South Korea.”

As part of the panel discussion on nationalism Kise asked freelance journalist Koichi Yasuda — one of the three speakers at the event — about his book titled “Netto to Aikoku” (“The Internet and Patriotism”), in which he looks at an organization called Zaitokukai (an abbreviation of “Zainichi Tokken wo Yurusanai Shimin no Kai” [Group of Citizens Who Do Not Forgive Special Rights of Foreign Residents]).

Yasuda said he had noticed on the Internet that the Zaitokukai were representing an emerging right-wing element. “But after learning of Zaitokukai’s activities, I hesitate a little to describe the group with such terms as ‘right wing,’ ‘conservative’ or ‘nationalist,’ ” Yasuda said, as he believes the group is much more extreme than regular right-wingers. Mentioning a demonstration of 200 Zaitokukai members in Tokyo’s Uguisudani on Oct. 27, he said, “They shouted the slogan, ‘Deport Korean prostitutes from Japan,’ claiming ‘Koreans are spreading AIDS’; ‘Koreans are disturbing the sexual morale of Japanese’; ‘Koreans are insulting the nation of Japan through prostitution,’ and they said, ‘That’s why we must deport Koreans, get them out, and finally, they said, ‘We must kill Koreans.”

Although these slogans are absurdly extreme, Yasuda explained the group consisted of seemingly regular members of society — salarymen, housewives, retirees and students.

The Zaitokukai emerged in 2007 and increased its membership to roughly 120,000 via the Internet, according to Yasuda. It claims that Korean residents who came from the Korean Peninsula during its period of Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and their offspring have unfairly enjoyed “special rights,” including receiving the same social welfare as Japanese nationals.

Yasuda said such claims and hatred toward foreign residents became louder after the Lehman Shock in 2008, adding he found that Zaitokukai members believe that their benefits, including social welfare, have been taken by non-Japanese.

“Zaitokukai members are anxious, often complain and are full of hatred that they cannot control,” he explained.

Aggressive language against foreigners, common among the Zaitokukai, has also recently increased in the mass media toward South Korea and China.

Attacks on different ethnic groups have, of course, occurred in other parts of the world too, including conflicts in former Yugoslavia, starting in the late 1980s. At the symposium, another speaker, freelance journalist Yukihiko Kimura, discussed his experiences in the region where ethnic Albanians and Serbians fought and tens of thousands of people were killed.

Kimura said that during his coverage of conflicts between people of different ethnic backgrounds, he realized that race or nationalism are connected to something emotional, and fictional.

He referred to a bridge in Mitrovica which divides the city between the ethnic-Albanian majority living in the south and the ethnic-Serb majority in the north. The bridge has been barricaded since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, as Serbs insist that Kosovo belongs to Serbia. However, another bridge has not been blocked and people from both countries freely cross it.

“I think people are fighting over that bridge because they want something to symbolize their strong will,” Kimura said. “The Senkakus and Takeshima, too, are emerging as such symbols.”

Yet Kimura said he thinks the majority of Japanese and South Korean people have no interest in the islands.

A similar comment was made by the third speaker, film director Sion Sono, who made a movie in 1995 titled “Bad Film,” in which Chinese residents in Tokyo fight against Japanese.

Sono created the movie as a black joke, he said, but now it seems true to life.

However, Sono said that when he visited Pusan in South Korea to attend Pusan International Film Festival in early October, he asked several South Koreans on the street whether they want Dokdo to belong to Korea.

“Everyone said, ‘I don’t need them,’ ” Sono said, adding that he wonders where the oft-reported heated discussions on the islets actually happen.

He mentioned a popular advertising phrase that has often been used to promote Hollywood movies in Japan; “All Americans were moved to cry.”

“But not all Americans cry when watching a movie. And like that, not all South Koreans are furious (about Dokdo),” he said. “I think only certain people are fanning the fury.”

Yasuda agrees, and said that territorial disputes are convenient for some people.

“I think people such as politicians are taking advantage of the disputes to escape from their jobs. It is because the disputes help them to attract political power, despite the fact that such disputes don’t improve people’s lives,” Yasuda said, referring to Satsuki Katayama, policymaker of the Liberal Democratic Party.

“Katayama joined a protest in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo attended by Zaitokukai members and other right-wingers who actively accuse Korean residents on the Internet,” Yasuda said. Shin-Okubo is also known as Tokyo’s Koreatown.

“I believe Katayama is trying to attract votes from these right-wingers on the Internet. I am afraid more politicians will utilize these people and connect them to major political movements,” he warned.