Nationalism rears head ahead of poll



Park Jeong Hun always found Japan a reasonable place to live, a place where, as a second-generation Korean, she rubbed along well with her neighbors. But when her nonprofit group tried to put on a dance to showcase their heritage in the cosmopolitan city of Nagoya, things unexpectedly turned ugly.

Municipal officials received a visit from two respectable-looking Japanese men proffering business cards, saying they were in the city to protest the mounting of Park’s Korean dance event. Footage posted on the Internet shows the mask of civility soon slipping as the men let out a volley of racist abuse at a city official.

“I had to cancel the show for the children’s safety,” Park said afterward.

Observers say this kind of incident, though not typical, is becoming more common as a strain of robust nationalism grows in Japan.

Bruised by the territorial flare-up with China over the Senaku islets that Japan administers but both sides lay claim to, and a spat with South Korea over another bit of disputed real estate, the Seoul-controlled Takeshima Islands, the Japanese public is feeling less neighborly.

A recent government survey found that a record 81 percent of those polled expressed a negative view toward China, and only 18 percent voiced friendly feelings, down more than 8 percentage points year on year. Meanwhile, just 2 in 5 felt positively about South Korea, plunging 24 percent from 2011 and dipping below the 40 percent mark for the first time in 15 years.

And ahead of the Dec. 16 general election, mainstream political parties are rushing to accommodate this rising hawkishness and rightism.

Former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is trotting out his China-bashing rhetoric after joining forces with the stridently populist Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, as they cross the country stumping for Nippon Ishin no Kai (Restoration Party of Japan), hoping to challenge the established political order.

Ishihara, Nippon Ishin’s recently appointed leader, told journalists he wants to rewrite Japan’s “ugly” Constitution — anathema to many who cherish its pacifist Article 9.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also back at the helm of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is pushing an increasingly conservative agenda and pledging to examine the issue of posting officials on the Senkakus to bolster Japan’s control of disputed islets, which China calls Diaoyu.

Abe has vowed not to compromise “even 1 mm” over what he views as Japan’s sovereign territory, and says he would seek to boost the status of the well-funded Self-Defense Forces and let them engage in collective self-defense — another postwar taboo.

His call to also re-brand the SDF as the National Defense Force (Kokubo-gun) is a bit of semantic slight of hand that translates poorly, but indicates the direction he’s headed in: a constitutional rewrite.

Despite polls showing Abe’s LDP winning the largest number of seats in the Lower House poll, the final outcome still appears set to be an unpredictable affair with most commentators predicting no single party will secure an outright majority.

But whatever postelection coalition emerges is unlikely to take a dovish tack, observers say.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has cautioned against the headlong rush to the right in an interview with the Financial Times, saying, “This kind of (ultranationalist) atmosphere or mood is emerging . . . and it’s possible that tough talks could captivate the public, but that would be the most dangerous thing for the nation.”

Law enforcement officers say they are seeing a rise in membership of extremist groups, and — more significantly — a change in the kind of people joining up.

Takuji Norikane, who heads a division keeping tabs on political extremists for the National Police Agency, says old-style rightists in their quasi-military uniforms and black vans blaring martial music were easy to spot.

“Nowadays, we have these rightwing citizens’ groups that take to the streets wearing normal clothes,” Norikane said. “Such groups with rightwing ideologies are active across a wider geographical region of the country, and the number joining their ranks is swelling.”

Norikane said many of these groups clothe “extremely nationalistic and xenophobic ideas” in the language of civil rights. One group, which goes by the name Zaitokukai, uses the Internet to organize demonstrations at which people gather to shout slogans calling for immigrant “roaches” to “die.”

Journalist Koichi Yasuda said that with more than 12,000 users, the group’s site is a breeding ground for opinions that would not look out of place among rightist fringe movements in Europe.

“They have a similar nature to the neo-Nazis in Europe,” said Yasuda, author of the prize-winning book “Netto to Aikoku” (“Internet and Patriotism”), noting many members are seemingly ordinary people such as businessmen or housewives. “The forums they use see a lot of calls for ‘immigrants’ to leave the country.”

Takeshi Nakajima, associate professor of politics at Hokkaido University, says a mood of neoliberalism is rising in Japan that is not dissimilar to the tea party movement in the United States.

“Neoliberalism advocates a political agenda of small government and self-responsibility,” Nakajima said, citing the rise of Abe and Hashimoto. “A natural result of this is that it widens the economic gap, and thus fuels nationalism.”