National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Internet rightists' strategy of provocation gaining traction in Japan

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Popular TV personality and model Rola recently tweeted her opposition to new U.S. base construction in Okinawa. The comment was immediately derided by people who said celebrities like her had no business in political debates. Although these critics may support base construction, they didn’t engage Rola on the issue. They attacked her, not her views.

This rhetorical method is a characteristic of netto uyoku (internet rightists), as put forth in a new book by Koichi Yasuda, “Uyoku no Sengoshi” (“A Postwar History of the Right Wing”), which explains how the movement has evolved, particularly since the emergence of the internet.

In a J-Wave radio interview with fellow journalist Osamu Aoki in November, Yasuda outlined the differences between classic right-wing activists — the kind who drive big, black trucks blasting martial music — and the anonymous internet species. To him, although classic right-wingers sometimes resort to extortion and other underhanded methods of persuasion, they are typically serious about their patriotism and target ideas rather than individuals. They support freedom of expression and don’t discriminate against marginalized groups. They would never engage in hate speech.

“I don’t like rightists,” Yasuda says, “but I admit they have integrity.”

That sense of purpose has lost relevance, he says, as society in general “has moved further to the right.” Older activists are pulled into the internet rightist sphere, some as veterans who “instruct” new generations of protestors in the art of provocation.

In the old days, Yasuda says, provocation meant parking your truck outside a company or government bureau and yelling about their complicity in activities deemed harmful to Japan. Now, he says, it’s mostly street demonstrations targeting Koreans, Chinese and other foreign groups. Today’s internet rightists rail against people such as Rola who oppose U.S. base construction.

The work of many internet rightists is devoid of substance. They have no concrete goals and trade in xenophobia for its own sake. Their politics is about resentment. This is, of course, a worldwide phenomenon. Some call it populism, but the main difference in Japan is that it’s a populism typically divorced from ideology, born of boredom and momentum. Yasumichi Noma of the Counter-Racist Action Collective once described the presence of internet rightists as the antithesis of the cockroach phenomenon, which says that when you see one cockroach in your kitchen it means there are 10 in your walls. Conversely, when you see 100 right-wing troll messages on social media, there are probably only two people behind them.

Last month, Mainichi Broadcasting System aired a documentary about how this presence manifests as action. One segment explained how the Tokyo Bar Association received thousands of written requests for disciplinary action against attorney Ryo Sasaki, whom the petitioners accused of working for Pyongyang-affiliated schools in Japan.

Sasaki told Mainichi Broadcasting System he has nothing to do with Pyongyang-related schools. His field is labor relations. Because formal disciplinary requests must include the names and addresses of petitioners, Mainichi Broadcasting System contacted some, and most confessed they didn’t know what Sasaki did, only that he was doing something bad. When Sasaki threatened to sue the petitioners for interfering with his business activities, many sent letters of apology.

The petitioners were readers of a blog who said they received letters from the administrator, which they then filled out with their names and addresses. They had little or no idea what they were doing but since they agreed with the purport of the blog they thought it was something important. A recent article in Spa, which focused on retired people with time on their hands falling under the sway of right-wing content on the web, described those who regularly petition against lawyers for right-wing causes as being old and impressionable.

Mainichi Broadcasting System tracked down the blog writer, who denied sending the letters but said that North Korea is taking over Japan and that lawyers are to blame. When Mainichi Broadcasting System pressed him for the provenance of his views, he admitted that he simply copied writings from other sources.

A well-known publisher had compiled some of these blog posts into book form. The publisher refused to talk to Mainichi Broadcasting System, which later discovered that Sasaki was representing a former employee of the publisher who was suing it for firing her after she accused a supervisor of harassment. Did the disciplinary campaign against Sasaki originate with the publisher? It isn’t clear.

Nevertheless, the incident shows how easy it is for internet rightists to mobilize followers, even for activities those followers don’t understand. Another subject of the documentary was Kazue Muta, a gender studies scholar doing research into sexual abuse that has outraged rightists because she receives a subsidy from the education ministry. As with the charges against Rola, trolls take issue with her character rather than address her findings. Another victim is Mitsuko Uenishi, the Hosei University professor who revealed that the labor ministry survey data used in a Diet debate last February in support of the ruling party’s discretionary labor bill had been doctored. Although ministry officials admitted to the forgery, Uenishi was bashed incessantly by people who didn’t seem to care about the facts, including at least one politician.

This strategy of provocation has moved beyond anonymous rightists to mainstream conservatives. The editor-in-chief of the conservative monthly Hanada told Mainichi Broadcasting System that he consistently targets the Asahi Shimbun because the daily is the bete noire of his readers. The reporter pointed out that Hanada had mistakenly accused the Asahi Shimbun of being the first publication to condemn ruling party lawmaker Mio Sugita after she published her essay denigrating LGBTQ people. Actually, said the reporter, the Mainichi Shimbun broke that story.

The editor-in-chief laughed: “No, it has to be the Asahi Shimbun.”