In most countries, police officers and criminals are supposed to be on opposite sides of the law, especially the higher up the chain of command you go, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe doesn’t appear to think this is necessary.

Last month, photographs surfaced showing several members of Abe’s new Cabinet socializing with members of an anti-Korean hate group known as Zainichi Tokken wo Yurusanai Shimin no Kai (more commonly known as Zaitokukai). The appearance of such images raises some disturbing issues.

Founded circa 2006, Zaitokukai is an ultranationalistic, right-wing group that seeks to eliminate the “special privileges” extended to non-Japanese who have been granted Special Foreign Resident status. These people are predominantly ethnic Koreans, many of whom were conscripted and brought to Japan as slave labor in the 1930s and ’40s. Zaitokukai also hates other non-Japanese as well — it just has a special hatred for Koreans.

In July, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the government to crack down on the growing number of hate-speech incidents targeting non-Japanese. The committee made special mention of Zaitokukai in its report and called on Japan to introduce legislation that specifically punishes hate crimes. The U.S. State Department has also named Zaitokukai in its annual human rights white paper. However, Zaitokukai isn’t on a U.S. blacklist like, say, the Sumiyoshi-kai yakuza syndicate — or, at least, not yet.

The National Police Agency has even touched upon Zaitokukai-related issues. “In parts of Tokyo and Osaka heavily populated by Korean-Japanese, racist right-wing groups have engaged in radical demonstrations, drawing the attention of society to the hate-speech problem,” the agency wrote in its white paper on public safety.

And yet Eriko Yamatani, the newly appointed chairman of the National Public Safety Commission that oversees the National Police Agency, doesn’t seem to be aware of Zaitokukai’s existence nor does she seem to believe hate speech is a problem. When photographs of her posing alongside several Zaitokukai members were uncovered by the Shukan Bunshun weekly tabloid, she said that she didn’t know the name of the group, and didn’t know the former Kansai bureau chief of Zaitokukai who was standing in the same photo. The man in question, however, claims to have known her for more than a decade in a recent interview with the tabloid. What’s more, Yamatani has appeared in a newsletter he previously published (even penning a column in it) and worked with various Zaitokukai members at other political rallies.

At a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Sept. 25, Yamatani denied that the weekly’s article was true and alleged she had been misquoted. However, when she was asked to publicly repudiate Zaitokukai, she refused — three times.

Shukan Bunshun last week published a follow-up article and included an audio recording of its interview with her, suggesting Yamatani did indeed lie at her news conference. It also added a proverb to its coverage: “All thieves start as liars.”

But lying to the press is not a crime, nor is hate speech illegal in Japan. Hate crimes are not illegal either. That said, generating profit for organized crime is something else.

Zaitokukai has had a tight relationship with Nihonseinensha, a right-wing group that is part of the Sumiyoshi-kai, the second-largest yakuza syndicate in the country. In testimony in the Diet, the National Police Agency acknowledged that Nihonseinensha’s top adviser was also a senior figure in the Sumiyoshi-kai.

Zaitokukai has been invited to events hosted by Nihonseinensha, it advertised in Nihonseinensha’s magazine and it even listed Nihonseinensha as a sponsor on its own website.

When Zaitokukai was asked why it advertised with Nihonseinensha, its answer was, “No special reason.”

Now some politicians in Japan, Yamatani included, have expressed tacit approval for Nihonseinensha’s “patriotic” activities, which include placing a lighthouse on the Senkaku Islands. (Note that I don’t say “disputed” — they’re clearly Japan’s property, in my opinion. It’s perhaps the only argument I might find myself in agreement with the right wing on).

Former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has publicly expressed admiration for Nihonseinensha. Do you suppose that Ishihara and Yamatani know that associating with and providing support to anti-social forces is a crime under the city’s Organized Crime Exclusion Ordinances? Maybe they need a warning from the Tokyo metropolitan police first to clarify that.

I wonder if Yamatani approves of Nihonseinensha’s other activities — intimidation, extortion, fraud and tax evasion.

I wouldn’t say the Sumiyoshi-kai is an angelic organization either. In July, 10 members allegedly kidnapped a 43-year-old man in Saitama, assaulted him severely and dumped his body in front of a hospital. Whether he died after being left there or was already dead remains to be seen.

Murder or manslaughter will be the focal point of the trial. Maybe the alleged thugs responsible can get the court to lean toward manslaughter by asking Yamatani or Ishihara to be character witnesses? They could then plead guilty to the lesser charge and promise to turn over a new leaf — devoting their lives to worthy causes such as promoting discrimination against Koreans.

It appears, however, that Nihonseinensha itself may be turning over a new leaf. “Screaming at children is unacceptable,” the group said in a note after I contacted it and requested a comment. “Thank you for pointing it out. We lodged a protest to Zaitokukai’s leader and are now cutting all ties with the group.”

That’s right — even the yakuza are now willing to repudiate Zaitokukai by name.

Here’s the rub:

Yamatani, who oversees the entire police force of Japan, appears to condone the activities of a hate group that, until recently, had ties to the Sumiyoshi-kai. Her appointment to the post should be questioned and, at the very least, Abe should be held to account for putting her there in the first place.

It’s unfortunate that Yamatani’s past connections to a yakuza-connected hate group have come to light and it’s unfortunate that she has lied to the press about it.

The prime minister might even consider sweeping the issue under the carpet by appointing another female Cabinet member to the position.

Minister of state for gender equality Haruko Arimura might be good. After all, she has publicly said that she often seeks advice from the spirits of war heroes — or war criminals — interned at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

It’s a tough choice: Do we want the country’s police commissioner getting advice from yakuza-backed hate groups or from the ghosts of war criminals? One thing is for sure: We can always count on Abe to make the worst choice.

Anyone got a Japanese Ouija board?

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

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