As many people who have spent time online can attest, the idea of the internet as an ideological war zone is hardly new. With his new book, “Japan’s Nationalist Right in the Internet Age: Online Media and Grassroots Conservative Activism,” however, Jeffrey J. Hall has brought academic rigor to one group rarely studied: the Japanese right.
Hall’s book, released by Routledge on April 7, maps how neo-nationalist groups use the internet to bypass the mainstream media. Some of these groups reach huge numbers of people, and claim to have shifted national political opinion on key national issues of territory disputes and wartime history.
Conservative internet broadcaster Channel Sakura, for example, has around 530,000 YouTube subscribers and has laid out its political sphere of interest in thousands of videos. According to Hall, Channel Sakura, which launched in 2004, and its activist wing, Ganbare Nippon, have been behind some of the largest right-wing demonstrations in postwar Japanese history. Among their more successful stunts has been crowdfunding a flotilla of small boats for expeditions to the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, in a bid to goad Japan’s government into taking a tougher line against China.
A native of Washington, and the child of government workers, Hall grew up saturated in politics. “People with extreme viewpoints fascinate me,” he says. So, when he arrived in Japan in 2005, he began to dig into rightists. “I was interested in how if I searched for things in Japanese, such as ‘comfort women’ (women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II) or Nanking (the 1937-38 massacre of civilians by Japanese troops in the city now known as Nanjing), I would basically only get popular right-wing videos on YouTube.”
Hall was surprised to find little reliable academic study on nativist cyber-activism in Japan, and eventually embarked on a doctorate on the subject at Waseda University in Tokyo. He is now a lecturer at Kanda University of International Studies. “Academics spend too many words saying these people are wrong and dangerous, and I just wanted to explain what they did,” he says.
The internet, he adds, is a perfect activist tool: Where once rightist activists laboriously wrote books and papers for mere handfuls of followers, they can now use the internet to indoctrinate people into their cause.
“(The internet) makes it easier for (rightist activists) to find and recruit new people and create systems to keep them there,” Hall says. YouTube, in particular, helps locate and bind followers to the cause. “Because of algorithms, eventually (these right-wing groups) are all you have in your universe. And once you’re in there, you’re donating money.”
A pivotal moment, Hall says, came in September 2010, following the collision of a Chinese trawler with Japan Coast Guard patrol ships and the arrest of the trawler’s captain. The now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) freed the captain after China stopped exports of rare earth materials. Channel Sakura and other nationalists took maximum advantage of the spat, Hall recalls, to try to bring even those without rightist leanings toward China issues into the fold.
“The collision appealed to people without right-wing views — they could see how embarrassing it was for Japan,” he says. “They could see how weak the government looked. It contributed to the demise of the DPJ as a viable political force.”
Yet successfully changing broad public opinion remains elusive. Hall points to the feverish foreign media coverage of the ultraconservative anti-Korean organization Zaitokukai. The group gained widespread negative attention for mobilizing supporters who screamed threats and insults outside ethnic Korean schools. In 2019, a court in Kyoto fined a former member of the group under a new hate speech law. Founder Makoto Sakurai has since launched the Japan First Party and ran in the 2020 election for Tokyo governor, where he won just under 3% of the vote.
“Because they scream the loudest, Zaitokukai got a lot of attention, but they didn’t succeed in doing anything except maybe getting new hate speech laws passed,” Hall says. They also prodded the left-wing into action, he notes, with counter-racist groups taking photos of Zaitokukai members and posting the images on Twitter to shame them. “The right-wingers do it to the counter-racists as well, though they were often outnumbered at demonstrations.”
Of more interest, perhaps, is the role of the online right-wing in bringing once fringe ideas to the mainstream — and its overlap with establishment politics. Channel Sakura has repeatedly hosted politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Regular commentator Toshio Tamogami, former chief of staff of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force, built up a cult following that he leveraged into a campaign for Tokyo governor in 2014. He bagged roughly 12.5% of the vote. Hall notes that among younger voters, Tamogami was second in popularity only to the (LDP-backed) winner Yoichi Masuzoe.
While a lot of political space exists between active rightist speakers, they share common political goals, namely revising Japan’s basic modern charters: the U.S.-authored constitution of 1946, wedding Japan to pacifism; the Fundamental Law of Education, which they believe brainwashes children to have negative views of Japan; and the security treaty with the United States, under which Japan plays a junior role. They reject what they call Japan’s “shazai gaikō” (“apology diplomacy”) for its wartime deeds. While Abe did not publicly call for annulling the verdicts of the 1946-48 war-crime trials that took place in Tokyo, his visits to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine and his obfuscation over the definition of “war of aggression” calls into question his faith in the verdicts.
The rightists, therefore, invested great hope in Abe when he returned to power in 2012, and, initially, they were rewarded: The prime minister made a pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine in 2013, appointed conservative allies to the board of Japan’s largest broadcaster, NHK, and pushed through a re-interpretation of the pacifist clauses of the Japanese Constitution. But disappointment followed.
“Abe continued to support the official apologies of the 1990s,” Hall says. In his speech on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end in August 2015, Abe “repeated key phrases acknowledging that Japan waged aggressive wars.” Although it was not as directly apologetic as the statement socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama gave in 1995, “it was still a far cry from what outspoken nationalists would have said about the war.”
The online right is not just vulnerable to betrayal by realpolitik — politics based on practical matters, not ideology — their entire platform is precarious, Hall says. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are all non-Japanese companies, and they can restrict or limit access at will. “(The rightists are) very careful and aware that they are in a risky situation,” Hall says. “They deleted thousands of old videos, likely because they would be banned now.”
According to Hall, the most dedicated activists are banking on flying under the legal and technological radar. “As long as they aren’t Zaitokukai-level racists, the government is not going to bother with them,” he says.
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