Globe and Mail (Canada): “A black sun rises in a declining Japan”


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Hi Blog. The Globe and Mail (Canada) makes a case that a groundswell of far-rightism in Japan is even worrying the entrenched far-rightists.  Putting this article up for comments. While in Canada, I was contacted by the CBC Radio One for an interview on Japan’s immigration issues (that interview happened on Monday morning, recorded in Calgary). Perhaps this issue is making the rounds within Canadian media?  Arudou Debito in Sapporo


October 5, 2010
A black sun rises in a declining Japan
From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail (Canada)
Amidst another decade of economic stagnation, far-right nationalism threatens the country’s foundation
Courtesy of MS and AC

Until recently, it was the likes of Mitsuhiro Kimura that worried Japan’s political mainstream. The leader of the far-right Issuikai movement, he counted Saddam Hussein and French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen among his allies, and created friction with Japan’s neighbours by loudly denying the country’s Second World War crimes.

But now Mr. Kimura is among those concerned about a new breed of extremists, who are capitalizing on the bruised pride and swelling anger in Japan with a brand of politics that makes even a friend of the former Iraqi dictator uncomfortable. As this country staggers through a second decade of economic stagnation, and suffers the indignation of being eclipsed by historic rival China, there’s a common refrain coming from the growing ranks of this country’s young and angry: Japan must stand up for itself – and that foreigners are to blame for the country’s ills.

Take the past week alone. Infuriated by a perceived Japanese climbdown in a dispute with China over an island chain that both nations claim, right-wingers tossed smoke bombs at the Chinese consulates in the cities of Fukuoka and Nagasaki. Another man was arrested with a knife in his bag outside the Tokyo residence of Prime Minister Naoto Kan. On Friday, a motorcade of 60 cars organized by a right-wing group briefly surrounded a bus carrying Chinese tourists in Fukuoka, prompting Beijing to issue a warning to its citizens about the dangers of visiting Japan.

No one was hurt in any of the incidents. But they highlight a tide of rising nationalism that is just one of the new social ills afflicting a country that 20 years ago was the richest and most stable on the planet. Two consecutive “lost decades” and a dearth of political leadership – five prime ministers in the past four years – have unmoored Japan.

“There is a deepening sense that society is at an impasse,” Mr. Kan told an extraordinary session of Japan’s parliament convened last week. He went on to list off Japan’s many and deepening problems: economic stagnation; rising unemployment; an aging society and the highest suicide rate in the developed world.

One issue Mr. Kan didn’t mention is that more and more Japanese are turning away from traditional politics and embracing extremist ideologies laced with chilling hints of the country’s militaristic history.

On Saturday, an estimated 2,700 rightists marched through Tokyo’s main shopping district, decrying the government’s perceived weakness in the dispute with Beijing and calling for Chinese and Koreans to leave Japan. Several smaller anti-Chinese and anti-foreigner marches took place again Sunday, with some in the crowd wearing military-style black uniforms and others waving the Rising Sun flag the country’s military flew while conquering nearly all of East Asia during the Second World War.

“If you are not tough enough to stand up for Japan, get out of Japan! We need to fight against China!” a member of the extremist Zaitokukai movement shouted through a bullhorn Sunday morning, his anger echoing through the high-end shopping malls and coffee shops of Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

Another marcher switched targets when it was his turn at the bullhorn. “Throw illegal immigrants into Tokyo Bay!” he yelled to loud cheers from his fellow marchers and silent stares from shoppers who paused to watch the procession. If anyone disagreed with the sentiment, no one said so publicly.

The weekend rallies were organized over the Internet by new right-wing organizations that, unlike their predecessors, don’t play by the staid rules of Japanese politics. Dubbed the “Net far right” by local media and police, groups such as Zaitokukai have capitalized on the anger and despair many Japanese feel as this proud country struggles to come to grips with its economic malaise, as well as a sense that Japan is losing relevance and respect on the international stage. Founded three years ago, Zaitokukai claims to have more than 10,000 active members, with several times that number quietly following them and reading their xenophobic postings online.

“These Net right-wingers have no rules, no restrictions … . I’m against this kind of hate speech, these ugly comments. Their thoughts and ideas are okay, but the way they express them is not,” said Mr. Kimura, whose own Issuikai movement made headlines earlier this year by hosting an international gathering of right-wingers, including Mr. Le Pen, that featured a visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japanese war dead, including several convicted war criminals.

The return of Japanese extremism is in many ways unsurprising. While economists fret over the country’s slow overall growth and the threat of deflation, it’s the microeconomic picture that can be truly shocking.

With unemployment at a historic high of over 5 per cent – a number that understates the problem since many Japanese have given up looking for work altogether – the newly homeless now fill the country’s parks and Internet cafés. Twenty-three per cent of Tokyo schoolchildren will rely on government aid for things such as school supplies this year. Depression stalks the country and 26,500 people committed suicide in 2009, the highest rate in the world. If the Great Recession is over, it doesn’t feel like the recovery has started yet in Japan.

As in Europe 80 years ago, blame for the country’s troubles has fallen on foreigners. The No. 1 target is ethnic Koreans who live in Japan (Zaitokukai is the Japanese acronym for the group’s unwieldy formal title, Citizens’ Group That Will Not Forgive Special Privileges for Koreans in Japan), followed by the Chinese. A liberalized immigration system, which pundits across the spectrum agree is desperately needed to help deal with a rapidly aging population, is considered too sensitive to touch for any politician concerned about keeping his job in the next election.

“There are of course some similarities with the fascist and Nazi movements. Those who join Zaitokukai are the jobless and the underemployed, those on the periphery of the established society. They’re disheartened, and they have a lot of frustration,” said Gemki Fujii, a right-wing intellectual and author. However, he said that Zaitokukai is doomed to remain a fringe group because few Japanese admire the group’s abrasive tactics.

But the xenophobia that Zaitokukai helps spread via the Internet and its street demonstrations appears to be taking hold in Japan, which has a long tradition of isolating itself from the world. Racist comments about the country’s ethnic Korean and Chinese citizens are startlingly common, while other foreigners – including some long-term residents of Japan – say they also feel increasingly unwelcome, and complain of police harassment and rules that prevent non-Japanese from renting homes or gaining professional tenure.

While many of Japan’s neighbours – including China and both North and South Korea – say Tokyo still needs to do more to atone for its wartime misdeeds, academics say the country is moving in the opposite direction.

“There’s been a re-emergence of a right-wing, nationalistic discourse and reinterpretation of history,” said Koichi Nakano, an associate professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Go into a Tokyo bookstore and you’re bound to run into piles of books that would not be acceptable in Western society – Holocaust denials and the such. If it were Germany, there would be a big scandal in the international community. But because it’s Japan and [the books are] in Japanese, it makes it kind of invisible.”

Despite its status as one of Japan’s leading academic institutions, even Sophia University found itself on Zaitokukai’s target list last year when a small crowd gathered in front of the campus gates to shout “Christians, get out of Japan!”

“Badmouthing Chinese or Koreans in a very racist way is so abundant that it doesn’t even offend people any more,” Prof. Nakano said. “There was a taboo and now the taboo is gone. They kind of things they say, even in the late 1990s were almost unthinkable.”

19 comments on “Globe and Mail (Canada): “A black sun rises in a declining Japan”

  • “One issue Mr. Kan didn’t mention is that more and more Japanese are turning away from traditional politics and embracing extremist ideologies laced with chilling hints of the country’s militaristic history.”

    Kan didn’t mention it because it’s not true.

    “Another marcher switched targets when it was his turn at the bullhorn. “Throw illegal immigrants into Tokyo Bay!” he yelled to loud cheers from his fellow marchers and silent stares from shoppers who paused to watch the procession. If anyone disagreed with the sentiment, no one said so publicly.”

    Because they were too busy laughing at them.

  • I was in Shibuya waiting for a Russian friend (a Karate expert, far better at Karate than me) who was visiting Japan to make a couple of documentaries (one of them about my Karate sensei actually) and I was standing outside the Koban at Shibuya Station the weekend before the rally. This is the week before, mind you. There was a sizable smorgasbord of what looked like different groups working together to shout bile through the megaphones.

    It was quite a show- there were 30-40 of them or so, with 3 or 4 taking turns to shout hateful, racist, and violent language against Chinese people. They attracted a bit of an audience.

    I felt very, very uncomfortable there, in this public space…

    …I noticed one of the major figures was the particularly loathsome guy featured on the video “protesting” about The Cove ( including intimidating people in their homes. There he was, winding himself up into a really dramatic Schicklgruber-esque führery…he hasn’t got the hand gestures going, but, grim humor aside…

    What intrigued me was that this group, which was obviously obstructing a large public space, screaming hate speech, and doing so 25 meters from the Shibuya Koban. Would 30-40 foreigners shouting aggressive slogans denouncing the Japanese government for this or that or demanding ab and c rights be allowed to do the same thing? I suggest not.

    I got the feeling that 30-40 of us shouting for rights (something positive) would be told to shut up and move on, but that 30-40 rightists publicly screaming hateful racist bile was just fine for the local cops.

    Anyway my Karate friend is in love with the concept of the “Samurai”, “budo”, “Japanese culture”, etc. etc. all the cliches (as are so many martial artists) who don’t actually live in Japan.

    He was 50/50 about the protest, although obviously it was not making him happy, as I translated what they were saying. But then I pointed out that our “inochi o kakete” friend, who goes around harassing old women in their homes, and does it on video even, also proudly features in a video shouting racist abuse at white people too.

    So he didn’t really mind about these cockroaches hissing hate about Chinese people, but when I told him that the Chinese were just this week’s bile, the penny dropped. It’s amazing how racism hits home when it hits your own skin color, isn’t it, I thought.

  • History has a tendency to repeat itself, as the article points.

    In the 1920s, Germany, once proud and extremely powerful and rich, was in economic ruins. An obscure political party that initially met only on a beerhall was becoming more and more popular, with its ultraconservative ideas and blaming the jews for all the problems of Germany….

    In 2010, Japan, once proud and among the richest countries on earth, was in a second decade of economic slump. As residual wealth gets over, the economic prospects are very dark. An obscure political party that initially met only on the internet, was becoming more and more popular with its ultraconservative ideas and blaming foreigners for all the problems of Japan….

    Any similarites are just coincidence ….

  • Orpe:
    Great post and starkly terrifying isn’t it? Even more so, how we (humans) just keep making the same mistakes or allow them to happen.
    I have this image from the TV program “Twin Peaks” where the strange giant character appears to Agent Cooper and just keeps repeating: “It is happening again” just as another girl is being threatened by the same evil which perpetrated the Laura Palmer crime.

    (my apologies for the American pop reference to those who have not seen Twin Peaks)

  • “Zaitokukai claims to have more than 10,000 active members, with several times that number quietly following them and reading their xenophobic postings online.”

    “… several times,”? For the sake of argument, let’s say ten times. So we’re talking about a grand total of 110,000 people out of a total of 120 million. Well, I’m not scared.

  • I dunno…I was more worried about this kinda stuff ten years ago, when the history textbook flap was peaking (said discourse was much, MUCH more mainstream, too — these more recent folks I see as basically otaku wackadoodles, and I would guess that the vast majority of Japanese would think so, too).

    re: Weimar analogies; as a historian (and a half-life-long student of my host culture), I have some serious problems with these (although, admittedly, I’d venture that I find them as titillating as the next conspiracy theorist). Although I accept that there is something to the “humiliated former economic superpower” comparisons, I really think the commonalities end there. The key differences as I see them are demographic and moral (specifically re: masculine physical courage and the ability to inflict and endure violence): Germany in the 1920s was swarming with literaly millions of twenty- and thirty-something SERIOUSLY pissed off but still patriotic veterans of TRENCH WARFARE (n.b., probably the most foul and PTSD-inducing combat conditions in the history of warfare)– providing a prime manpower source for any political movement whose initial action plans involved putting thousands of brickbat-wielding goons on the streets to break shop windows and bust heads. To men who had endured years of bayonet attacks, artillery barrages, and poison gas in malarial, rat-infested, flooded trenches, an afternoon of window- and head-busting in the streets of Munich (replete with beer kegs, no doubt) would be a veritable walk in the park.

    In contrast, the only signficant Japanese demographic with even the most tenuous personal familiarity with systematic lethal violence are eighty- and ninety-something Japanese war veterans of the China campaigns (the number of survivors of ground combat against America and UK in Pacific Islands and Burma, respectively, is demographically miniscule — they all pretty much died at their posts in forced “gyokusai” [“death before dishonor”] defenses). For generations of Japanese males younger than this — growing up in 65 years of militarily emasculated postwar Japan (note I’m not necessarily saying this is a BAD thing!) — violence — ANY kind of violence — is a concept so abstract and removed from the personal experience of the vast majority of these men as to be essentially impossible to grasp (in my butchier teaching days, I often used to ask my predominately male classes how many of the students had ever been punched in the face or had a fistfight in their life — never more than one or two hands ever went up, usually none at all). What this means is that the manpower muscle pool for potential bat-wielding bully boys a real Nazi-style rightwing movement in this country would need to get off the ground is simply not there. As such, movements like the Zaitokukai will remain the fringe domains of anti-social wackos, otakus, and losers (ay-men to that, I say).

    Japan — if it goes out — will do so with a slow whimper. Not a bang.
    And in the meantime, don’t expect people to be lining up for kamikaze missions to the Senkakus any time soon.

  • Prof. Nakano: “There was a taboo and now the taboo is gone. They kind of things they say, even in the late 1990s were almost unthinkable.”

    I recommend this book by Prof. Field to the Good Professor (and anyone else interested in another professor’s POV who has studied the Japanese Right Wing).

    I may have mentioned this book before, actually. This sort of thing, complete with harassment taken directly to the home of the RW’s targets, isn’t new.
    And I would add that while Japan has it’s own spin on it, Japan is not unique in this regard (pointing out the RW is not Japan bashing… opposite actually).

  • There are rather too many generalisations in this article about the ‘uniqueness’ of Japan {‘which has a long tradition of isolating itself from the world’) so that odious but marginal rabble of right wing extremists is turned into some return of the repressed. I don’t hear this extremism among colleagues, among students, neighbours or my city council-and I do listen. Some more comparison of how right wingers are exploiting the recession in many developed countries (e.g. Tea Party, English Defence League, Sweden Democrats) would help us to see what is especially problematic about Japan-and there are big problems-without pretending that it is the return of fascism. File under bad social science.

  • Saw a parade of black sound trucks in Nagatacho when I was there last month. I was amused to see the police rolling out metal blockades to keep them from turning down certain streets. (So that’s what the blockades are for!) One of my companions said not all the guys in the trucks are right-wingers. Some are just ‘baito’ — doing it for the money. I wonder if they offer equal opportunity employment. Wouldn’t it be a fun job to roll around town in a black truck shouting to throw foreigners into Tokyo Bay?

  • The media have a lot to blame for this growing anti-foreign sentiment, especially the news outlets.

    This Senkaku island row has almost solely been painted with an anti-China bias brush, with almost no insight into why the Chinese feel entitled to this area (beyond stating that they are after the oil). This is indicative of how a great many news stories involving foreign agents tend to get the ‘foreign-devil, Japanese victim’ treatment. It is a wonder that anti-foreign sentiment isn’t actually greater.

    The news programs though are really starting to irk me recently. Someone committing any kind of minor offense, one that is usually relegated for local news filler, will almost certainly make the national news if he is a foreigner. Televised descriptions of at-large suspects will sometimes incredibly include the vague (read: unnecessary) statement ‘there was something foreign about him’, or something to that effect.

    Fueled by these perceptions, Japan has grown a knee-jerk reaction to everything it deems foreign, especially when the possibility exists that it could find its way here (in the form of immigrant, virus, investor, etc., etc).

  • In the 1920s, Germany, once proud and extremely powerful and rich, was in economic ruins. An obscure political party that initially met only on a beerhall was becoming more and more popular, with its ultraconservative ideas and blaming the jews for all the problems of Germany…

    In 2010, the United States, once proud and extremely powerful and rich, was in economic ruins. An obscure political party that initially met only in the coffee shops of white suburbia was becoming more and more popular, with its ultraconservative ideas and blaming its elected officials for all the problems of the country…

    This fits even better doesn’t it…

  • Hi Debito,

    I’m afraid to say that issues this article and the like such as your interview on CBC Radio One are of marginal interest in Canada. Here (I live in Canada now), Japan hardly rates interest in many conversations and in the news in general. The change from a couple decades back is dramatic. People, frankly, really are not interested or do not care.

    At lunch today, I was chatting with a woman who visited Japan last year for a week or so. Her comment summed up the feelings of many people here and said something along the lines of “People there seemed superficially friendly and there was something uncomfortable about the whole experience. I’m I went, but wouldn’t again.” And she is in a line of work where she deals with a lot of folks from around the world including Japan.

    On another note, I’ve had a couple J students in the past year bring up Yasukuni and say that of course Japanese people and politicians should go there. I doubt the same comment would have crossed their minds a decade or two back, so those noisy cockroaches have, sadly, some influence.

  • Oh my goodness, 2300 rightwingers in a city of 30,000,000 people, and a 5% unemployment rate to boot. These are “problems” the entire rest of the developed world would LOVE to have.

  • Debito had picked up on this same group concerning the Cove movie. I also blogged, here, , that these sentiments are not exactly lost on non-Japanese. In fact, it’s becoming a very sensitive issue.

    I think it’s easy to dismiss or pooh-pooh the handful of people going in for this sort of thing. But who can disagree that it bears watching? Especially when it’s U.S. military helping to defend the land that these people are so loudly “protecting” and have a real problem with sharing, even under rather tightly circumscribed terms . . .

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    There’s a good news story behind these right-wingers and their outrageous actions, but it’s not one in which unnecessary fears of a “black sun” are stirred up — I would have liked to see a human-interest story on that theater owner and particularly his elderly parents who had to endure these loudmouthed buffoons shouting threats through a bullhorn in front of their home. That was disgusting, reprehensible behavior, and the police should have been on the scene to stop them a lot sooner.

    I think the Zaitokukai is lying when they claim to have 10,000 members. If there are that many, why do we only see that one “inochi o kakete” idiot all the time?

    Bucky’s got it right. These wackos aren’t a harbinger of what Japan’s going to become. They do, however, deserve to be shamed for their vicious harassment of a few innocent people.

  • Debito is there a link to a recording of the CBC Radio interview. I missed it and would like to hear it.

    — So would I. It was a recording and I don’t know when it airs (or aired).

  • @ Joe D, don’t let J-students bring up Yasukuni, I would absolutely not go down that route, even if it was a lesson on current events. (Ditto if I was teaching in China, I wouldnt talk about politics as I d probably just get the CCP line repeated to me ad nauseum).

    Why give a forum to extremism? I d just educate them that it was a taboo subject and we cannot discuss it, or it’s out of the scope of the lesson, thus by extension not acceptable in society. Teaching assertion, fluency or opinion giving is fine, but extremist views have no place in a classroom.
    Why does it often seem that the alternative to slavish pro Americanism is seen to be retrogressive racist nationalist “alternatives” (actually, no alternative at all) like electing someone like Ishihara Shintaro just because he “speaks out”?

    “Democracy” doesnt mean you can say exactly as you please. Students should learn this, even if the GOJ is too gutless to pass an anti-hate law or stop “No Foreigner” signs.

  • jonholmes – interestingly the forum they chose to bring up Yasukuni was in writing assignments, not class discussions.

    Note – I teach in Canada. Why shouldn’t students (and teachers) at university be able to broach subjects such as this?

    I’m afraid that I simply disagree with you. Talking about Yasukuni (or subjects such as Nanking – or Israel with Saudi students for example) should not be a taboo (I agree that not all classes offer appropriate venues, but you make a rather blanket statement without considering where/what/who I instruct), but rather may be an opportunity for dialogue. A student supporting the visiting of Yasukuni may not be something I remotely support, but I don’t believe that it is extremism – I think it is more likely a result of other factors – most 20 year old Japanese studying overseas are not extremists by any measure, but rather youth trying to figure out the world.

    The question I’m interested in is really – why are they even bringing it up for starters – my interpretation of student work/comments is that most likely it’s from exposure either through conversations at home or through the Japanese media. These same students are primarily looking to complete their degrees in Canada – if they can’t articulate things like this or have a willingness to explain/debate, then they’re probably in for a long and tiring road studying overseas for any length of time.

    — We’re getting off topic. Please bring it back if you reply, jonholmes.


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