One of the great mysteries of life in Japan is the presence of the ultra-right. Loud, threatening and occasionally lethal, the shaven-headed patriots seem immune to police powers. “Why doesn’t someone do something about those guys,” is a fairly common response by the first-time foreign visitor. A strong clue to the answer to this mystery can be found in Li Ying’s celebrated but beleaguered documentary, “Yasukuni.”

About half-way through, Li’s camera pans around the old soldiers and politicians commemorating the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the shrine on Aug. 15, 2005. Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has just roused the crowd by promising that Japan will again “rise like a lion.” A woman takes the stage and says: “We are committed to rebuilding a proud Japan, where the prime minister can openly worship at Yasukuni. We will devote ourselves to speeding the day when the Emperor too can worship here.”

As she rejoins the spectators and the familiar chords of “Kimigayo” groan from the speakers, two young protesters shout anti-Yasukuni slogans. The protesters are hauled away from the stage, beaten by ultra-rightists and chased from the shrine as an enraged old man repeatedly screams at them to “Go back to China.” The two men, who are Japanese, are then arrested by the police.

That woman politician was of course Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Tomomi Inada, today widely seen as the main critical force against the movie and a leading historical revisionist. Rightwing webcaster Sakura Channel lists her as a supporter of its movie “The Truth of Nanjing,” which argues that the 1937 rape of the old Chinese capital by Japanese imperial troops is a lie. Inada helped lead the recent lawsuit against novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who angered neo-nationalists by writing about the military’s role in forcing civilians to kill themselves during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. She is a signatory to a now famous 2007 Washington Post advertisement arguing that the sexual enslavement of thousands of Asian women had no basis in fact, and a member of a parliamentary group fighting against what it sees as “masochistic” teaching of history in the nation’s high schools.

This is a busy woman then, but not too busy to attend a private screening of Li’s documentary last month along with 80 other lawmakers. Inada afterward said she felt the movie was guilty of “political propaganda” and seized on a decision by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan to award Li a ¥7.5 million grant. Later, she defended her views to reporters. “I felt the movie’s ideological message was that Yasukuni was a device to drive people into an aggressive war,” she said.

But Inada appears unable to comprehend the link between her very public criticism and perhaps its most foreseeable consequence: menacing visits by men in black vans emblazoned with love poems to Japan. As we now know, four Tokyo cinemas subsequently pulled the plug on the documentary after apparent threats and protests from ultra-rightwing groups. Nothing to do with me, says Inada: “I have no interest in limiting freedom of expression or restricting the showing of the movie,” she said. “My doubt is about the movie’s political intentions.”

Japan has been here many times before. Because of rightwing protests, few Japanese have seen Minoru Matsui’s 2001 movie “Japanese Devils,” or Paul Schrader’s 1985 art-house cinematic tribute to Yukio Mishima. How many people here will ever see the dozen or so movies made to commemorate the 1937 Nanjing Massacre over the last two years in Europe, North America and China? The pattern is often the same: The movies pick at the scabs of Japan’s war history, conservative politicians express “concern” and the ultra-right go into battle because, well, that’s what they do.

“Politicians know that when they, say, make pronouncements about these issues that we will take action,” says Yoshisada Takahashi, who heads a Tokyo-based ultra-nationalist group. Like most other ultra-nationalists, including the group that first spooked the Ginza Cinepathos movie theater with a visit in March, Takahashi has not seen “Yasukuni,” only heard about it from people like Inada. “They talk, we protest. They know this because it has happened many times in the past. In that sense, I think the politicians are using us.”

Many have been quick to blame the cinemas for the “Yasukuni” debacle. The Asahi and Sankei newspapers, representing the left and right of mainstream public opinion in Japan, have both urged the theater managers to rethink their decision. One newspaper called the collapse under threat “pitiful.” But you can hardly blame the theaters for running scared, says Japan-based film director John Junkerman, who wrote the subtitles for “Yasukuni.”

“There have been a sufficient number of violent attacks for alleged ‘anti-Japanese’ thought crimes that the threat of violence is very intimidating,” he says, citing several cases including the murder of Asahi journalist Tomohiro Kojiri in 1987, the stabbing of film director Itami Juzo in 1992 and the most recent fire-bomb attack on the home of LDP politician Koichi Kato, after he criticized prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni. “Couple this with the apparent reluctance of the police to intervene to prevent intimidation, and the threat that the theaters perceive is not actually unreasonable.”

Junkerman acknowledges that Japan has “a very high level of respect for and exercise of freedom of expression.” But the branding of a movie as “mondai-saku” — or a “problem” — in the press is a very effective way for politicians to raise questions about its political slant, and “the right wing take over from there.” Ultra-nationalists are like the mad dogs kept in bad neighborhoods: not nice to be around but useful in an emergency.

One of the more interesting developments, then, in the continuing saga over Li’s movie, is how little support Inada appears to have among nationalists, who believe she has betrayed them. “That woman is the worst,” says prominent new-right figure Mitsuhiro Kimura. “First she criticizes the movie, then refuses to back the protests against it. She did a complete about-face.”

At a Shinjuku meeting about the “Yasukuni” movie last weekend, another senior new-right activist, Kunio Suzuki, argued that ordinary Japanese should have a chance to judge for themselves what all the fuss is about. “I think it is a mistake for politicians to decide what is best for the public to see,” he said.

There are signs that Suzuki may get his wish as the smear campaign against the movie runs out of steam. As I write, as many as 20 theaters around the country plan to screen the film, which has now become a sort of free-speech cause celebre. Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura and even Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda have called the harassment of the movie “inappropriate.”

It helps that, Inada aside, conservatives who have seen the movie believe the pejorative “anti-Japanese” is wrong, though many dislike the final scenes, showing decapitations by sword-carrying Japanese soldiers in China. Li, who moved to Tokyo in 1989 and speaks fluent Japanese, describes his movie as a “love letter” to the Japanese people. “I live in Japan. How could something that is anti-Japanese be good for me, personally? This love letter may be hard to watch, but that’s the form my love takes.”

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