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Sunday, Oct. 22, 2006

Riding with the rightists

Symbols of freedom of speech or signs of social malaise? Staff writer ERIC PRIDEAUX took his tape, his camera and his time to get to know some of those who bellow their rightwing beliefs from scary 'sound trucks' that disturb the peace throughout Japan

Staff writer

Steel grilles cover their windows and patriotic slogans plaster their sides. Thunderous rhetoric and martial music blast from huge speakers mounted on top, while people in paramilitary uniforms glower out grim-faced. These fortresses on wheels look like they could quell a riot in the Gaza Strip -- but instead they're to be found patrolling some of the world's most expensive real estate along central Tokyo's glitzy Ginza shopping street, around the Imperial Palace, revered national shrines and despised foreign embassies.

News photo
LOOKING RIGHT -- Japan's right wing is at a crossroads: With the Cold War won, the absence of a clear enemy denies rightists an overriding cause to unite and motivate them. The national mood, however, appears to be swinging in their favor. ERIC PRIDEAUX PHOTO

They are the (generally) black trucks that are the intimidating signature of Japan's uyoku (rightwing) political activists -- an element of society little understood by the average citizen, let alone foreign residents or visitors often moved to recoil in fear from the vehemence of the nationalistic passion they so stridently broadcast.

Today, many uyoku who call themselves minzoku-ha (ethnicity faction) regard themselves as patriots set on "restoring pride" in Japanese culture and history at a time when -- as they see it -- modern, Western-influenced values are eroding the time-honored fabric of Japanese society.

As attention-grabbing as the presence of these extreme rightwingers is in Japan's major cities, though, their numbers are hard to pin down. Estimates range from 5,000 to 20,000 individuals, depending on whether or not weekend warriors are included. But even experts in the field concede that nobody knows for sure.

Nonetheless, with North Korean missile tests, and now a purported nuclear-weapon detonation, stoking Japanese nationalism from the government down, there seemed no time like the present for The Japan Times to attempt to penetrate the cloud of mystery surrounding these bellicose groups in the vanguard of Japan's current mood swing.

To do so involved making the acquaintance of some extremely opinionated individuals -- boarding their trucks with them to see what the world looks like from that perspective. The goal, as I sat behind their darkly tinted windows, was to try to answer the questions: How successfully have uyoku adapted to the post-Cold War period; why does the right resort to violence, as in this summer's alleged arson attack on the home of a key ruling-party politician; what is their mission today; and are they racist?

The answers revealed an illuminating variety of views. Though one speaker expressed disdain for other Asians, most rejected the notion that Japanese were superior to other ethnic groups. Opinions were varied on the use of violence -- but one comment described a common thread uniting what activists themselves admit is an otherwise fractured rightwing movement.

"Priorities vary from group to group, but overall the uyoku focuses on protecting the Japanese political order, a social order based on the Emperor," explained Mitsuhiro Kimura, leader of the Tokyo-based shin-uyoku (new right) organization Issuikai.

Notions of what social order should be protected, though, have shifted over time. Noted uyoku expert Kenichi Matsumoto, in his 1995 book "Uyoku/The Myth of Nationalism," presents a snapshot of rightist thought throughout modern history. He argues that in the dying days of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867), as Western ideologies were gaining currency with Japan's liberal crowd in a country that had been closed to the world for almost 250 years, the conservatives' agenda -- having hauled the Emperor out of obscurity to become head of state -- focused on keeping foreigners and their unpredictable influences out.

It was in the middle of the reign of the restored Emperor Meiji (1868-1912) that Matsumoto believes the liberal and conservative wings hardened into what we today term "left" and "right," with leftists pressing for popular rights and pacifism, and rightists seeking to establish Japan as an equal military power on the international stage.

The rightists' cause made significant progress with Japan's David-and-Goliath victories in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, which led to Taiwan becoming a colony in 1895, and the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, which effectively left it with a free hand in Korea, which it formally annexed in 1910.

The period between 1912 and the buildup to World War II then pitted the Japanese left, with their Marxist condemnation of capitalism, against a growing focus on ethnocentricism on the right. Both extremes were distrusted by the government, and though Emperor-worship underpinned Japan's militarist crescendo, Matsumoto and other scholars point out that both leftists and some extreme rightists too, were followed by police and arrested.

After WWII, while the left cozied up to Moscow, the right called for the total destruction of communism. Among the most famous (or infamous) was Yoshio Kodama, a wartime profiteer who was arrested in 1946 by the Allied Occupation forces as a Class-A war criminal -- only to be released two years later, scholars believe, to work as an agent for the Americans. In this new role, Kodama became a behind-the-scenes kingmaker, helping to create what would become the Liberal Democratic Party that has ruled Japan almost continuously since 1955.

Rightists who joined hands with the United States during the Cold War to fight communism were labeled riken uyoku (profit-motivated rightists), and their ties with the U.S. are said to have involved lucrative, and covert, business deals.

Then, in the 1960s, another model for the postwar right would emerge: the acclaimed novelist and ultrarightist Yukio Mishima, who dreamed of his political group, Tatenokai (Shield Society), triggering a new surge of nationalist pride. His life, however, came to a dramatic end in 1970 when, at age 45, he committed ritual suicide following a failed coup attempt at the Ground Self-Defense Force's Eastern Army Headquarters in Tokyo. Mishima's spirit would nonetheless live on among Japan's shin-uyoku, which was coalescing around the time of his death to counteract an active, and leftist, student movement.

Like Mishima, today's shin-uyoku maintain a critical stance toward U.S. global power -- particularly U.S. bases in Japan. Despite their yearning for a Japanese cultural ideal free from what they regard as American cultural hegemony, many other rightists have resigned themselves to Japan's dependence on the U.S. for regional security -- and after North Korea's apparent test of a nuclear weapon this month, that reluctant embrace is unlikely to slacken any time soon.

Also within this political constellation are the ninkyo uyoku (chivalrous right) -- members of organized crime groups who, though nationalist in sentiment, are criticized by many rightists for running protection rackets behind the veil of political expression.

Whether at the hands of ninkyo uyoku or other groups, according to the National Police Agency, last year there were five acts of "terrorist/guerrilla" violence across the country, including a firebomb attack on a Chinese bank in Yokohama. (No comparable acts were committed by extreme leftists during that time period, the NPA said.) Last year, too, some 2,100 rightists were arrested for other offenses, such as assault, extortion and fraud. Accounts of intimidation of leftists and liberals are not uncommon.

Given that Article 21 of Japan's Constitution guarantees "freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression" -- and that "no censorship shall be maintained" -- rightist campaigners enjoy considerable latitude. Still, local regulations determine how loudly their trucks can blare their slogans, military marches and nostalgic ballads. Tokyo, for instance, bans sound volumes of more than 85 decibels measured 10 meters from a loudspeaker. But judging by the frequency with which the trucks are to be heard around town, enforcement is spotty to say the least.

Observers may wonder why any rightist need resort to coercion, considering former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits over five years to Yasukuni Shrine to pay his respects to Japan's war dead (including Class-A war criminals) -- a key demand of the right. Add to that an incoming administration, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that is committed to a staunchly conservative agenda, including a tough stance on North Korea and a commitment to bolstering patriotism in the nationwide school curriculum.

Yet, rather than sensing that their time has finally come, rightists seem to feel more embattled than ever. The reasons abound. In the area of gender relations, left and right have argued over the term "gender free," implying a society free from sexual discrimination. To rightists of both sexes, these concepts represent a radical denial of natural differences between the sexes, and a rejection of family values at the heart of Japanese society.

Also, the right suffered a significant setback this summer when media reports claimed that Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Showa, himself disapproved of the enshrinement of 12 convicted and two indicted Class-A war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine (besides the fact that, in 2001, the current emperor, Akihito, acknowledged having Korean ancestry). Other recent reports claim that General Hideki Tojo, the best known of the 14, supported rules for enshrinement that would have made himself ineligible.

Meanwhile, law-enforcement pressure has dried up many traditional sources of financial support, such as (voluntary or coerced) corporate donors.

But both rightists themselves, and outside experts, agree that the most important reason for the malaise afflicting uyoku is that they have only a feeble left to contend with nowadays. Hence they must work harder to maintain their various motivations and not succumb to infighting.

"The enemy of the right isn't the left," said rightwing activist Shinichi Kamijo. "The enemy of the right is the right."

So does that spell the end of Japan's right?

Issuikai's Kimura thinks not. "Political conditions for the uyoku are good. The communists have fallen, after all," he said. "But as for Japanese society as a whole -- maybe the administration views us as an Achilles' heel. So we must now study how we go forward."

See related links:
'God of death' seethes with rage
Yasukuni is a 'duty'
Anti-American in name of 'respect'
Building 'crisis' mood

The sights and sounds of Japan's ultranationalists: A multimedia presentation

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