Ben Hills

Even inside one of the sinister black trucks, the blast from the 3,200-kilowatt loudspeakers scrambles the brain. “South Korea – get out of Takeshima,” bellows the cheer-leader. “Get out,” chorus the other 30 vans and coaches in the convoy which chokes traffic for nearly a kilometre through Tokyo’s narrow streets. Red and white national flags flap from the roofs, old military songs blare out when the demonstrators run out of slogans – and a small army of riot police keeps watch. Helicopters and a blimp patrol overhead; sniffer dogs search for explosives.

Passing office-workers glance indifferently at the strident slogans painted on the sides of the trucks. “Down with the communists” they say. “Return the Northern Territories.”

It’s just another Thursday morning, and – as happens on average once a fortnight – Japan’s Right is on the warpath.

This time the target is South Korea, but it could as easily be Russia, the communists, the teachers’ union, or any of a dozen betes noires, especially the liberal media.

Two weeks ago, Japan’s noisy right-wingers reminded the country that occasionally words are not enough, no matter the volume.

Armed with guns, dynamite, and a samurai sword, two members of an outlaw group invaded the Asahi Shimbun, the country’s second largest newspaper, and held hostages for six hours before surrendering to police.

The demonstration a week earlier was more typical of the Right’s recent form. A motorcade carrying South Korea’s president, Kim Young-sam , was about to sweep past on an overhead highway, and the sound-trucks were lined up below, determined to let him know they have not forgotten Takeshima Island, or Tok Do as the Koreans know it … even if most Japanese neither know nor care any more.

This desolate speck of rock in the Sea of Japan, roughly midway between the two countries, is at the centre of one of the world’s most pointless territorial squabbles – no-one has lived there (apart from token occupying garrisons) and its only known resource is a squid fishery.

Never mind that Mr Kim’s spokesman says “the islands are Korean and will stay that way until the earth perishes … they are not even on the agenda for any talks”. Never mind that the Japanese government no longer pushes its claim; nor that Takeshima has not been mentioned in the Japanese media for more than a decade.

No issue is too ancient or obscure to inflame the passions of the Zen Nihon Aikokusha Dantai Kaigi (the All Japan Nationalist Organising Committee), the umbrella organisation which co-ordinates about 300 rightist groups and which has organised this otherwise totally-ignored demonstration.

For all its raucous posturing, its murky history of influence in the back corridors of government, its threats and the occasional “terrorist” attacks, this demonstration demonstrated what the critics have said for years: the Right is running out of relevance.

“We are not a fascist organisation … we are not neo-Nazis,” says Ryuzo Yano, vice-chairman of Japan’s most influential confederation of right-wing groups. “This is an image problem we have.”

Mr Yano is sitting on a sofa in a small, nondescript office block in the Tokyo suburb of Ushima, a shabby neighbourhood of old wooden buildings, bars, bathhouses, a shrine to the fox-god Inari. We have been led there by a man who has seen one too many John Le Carre movies: “Meet him outside the noodle shop. He will be carrying a rolled-up newspaper.”

The vice-chairman is flanked by two of his lieutenants. All three are straight from central casting. Mr Yano, a suave man in rimless glasses and a grey Prince-of-Wales check suit is the model of the urbane godfather-gonerespectable.

On his right slouches Mr Tetsuo Yoshida, a nervous, wiry fellow who chain-smokes Parliament cigarettes and describes his job as “CIA” – chief of intelligence; on his left is Mr Yasuhiro Kamata, a bruiser in a dark blue suit who cracks the knuckles of his banana-sized fingers and says he is the “number one action committee head”. As the brains – and the brawn – of the Zen Nihon organisation, they claim they can put 2,000 to 3,000 troops on the street for any worthwhile cause.

A whiteboard hanging behind the communications desk lists the names and numbers of scores of bosses of affiliated right-wing groups. Although they would like to be known as one of the country’s more extreme groups, they did not number among their affiliates the Taihi-kai (Great Sorrow) organisation which attacked Asahi to avenge the honour of its leader, Shusuke Nomura, who committed ceremonial suicide at the newspaper last October after it lampooned his organisation as the “Society of Lice”.

ZEN Nihon’s hero is Yoshiaki Sagoya, a fanatic who assassi nated the Japanese Prime Minister, Osa chi Hamaguchi, in 1930, one of the key”incidents” that delivered Japan into the hands of the generals, and Asia into World War II. Hamaguchi was a moderate who signed the London Disarmament Treaty, outraging the military which accused him of usurping the emperor’s role as supreme commander.

Half-hidden in a corner of Mr Yano’s office is a stack of antique two metre-tall muskets, carved out of wood, which his followers use to practise military skills, real guns being illegal.

Before the demonstration against President Kim, I was invited to watch the crew of the convoy go through their paramilitary paces at a rendezvous point under the cherry trees of the Yasukuni shrine, the Shinto cenotaph to Japan’s 2.4 million war dead. They appeared grateful for the attention – the Japanese media ignore them.

About 100 supporters turned up – from a region with a population of 30 million. They were mostly in their 20s and 30s, dressed in blue fatigues with military-style markings, black lace-up boots and forage-caps.

They lined up under the famous cherry trees for a briefing, sang the kimigayo (Japan’s unofficial national anthem), and bowed towards the imperial palace, before driving off in a rolling thunder of protest.

Inside the trucks were carpeted areas where people could nap, as well as lunch-boxes and Eskies full of soft-drink. The youngsters seemed to be enjoying the outing. The older hands were more concerned about events in North Korea than the Sea of Japan – “Japan should develop its own nuclear weapons, then no-one would fool with us,” said one.

Mr Yano, the public face of the right wing, has a difficult role to play. He doesn’t want to risk advocating breaking the law – drivers of the sound trucks emitting these warlike slogans wear their seatbelts, stop at red lights, and fly their flags no more than 3.8 metres above the ground, as prescribed by a council by-law.

But lest this all sound like a dwindling Dad’s Army, he is keen to be quoted saying bloodcurdling things such as: “We identify those we disagree with. They include politicians, academics, business leaders, public servants… but not artists.

“The way they should be dealt with is murder.”

In practice, the most common targets for the right wing’s ritualised wrath have been Japan’s still-vigorous Communist Party (the annual picnic organised by its newspaper, Akahata, is always disrupted), meetings of the teachers’union, which is accused of indoctrinating Japanese children with left-wing ideas, and anything to do with Russia – although the Cold War is over, the right-wingers still want at least the four southern islands of the Kurile chain “returned”, and large chunks of Siberia as well.

When pressed on what terrorist acts members had committed in recent years, “CIA” cites the case of a man who two years ago – in protest against Emperor Akihito’s visit to China – attempted to drive a truck containing propane gas cylinders into Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s official residence. It blew up before he got there, giving him severe burns and a six-year jail sentence.

“Yes, we feel the numbers are declining – but, of course, we still take them seriously,” says Superintendent Shigenori Ota of the National Police Agency. Ota is the second-in-charge of the agency’s Second Public Security Division, which exclusively monitors the Right.

“They might once have been seen by the Government as having a useful role in counter-balancing the communists, but today …” he waves his hands in a rippling motion, “they are just pond-slime floating on the water of society.”

Police say the number of nominal right-wingers has dropped to about 100,000, with no more than 16,000 active members. There are about 800 groups the police keep track of, but many of these are either defunct, registered as a tax-lurk, or a front for criminals.

The number of “incidents” involving right-wingers dropped to 220 last year- less than half the level of activity a decade ago – and the majority of these were breaches of traffic rules and anti-noise by-laws.

The most serious incidents Ota could recall in 1993 involved a right-winger with a sword forcing his way into the Foreign Affairs Department in Tokyo, an arson attempt at an Okinawa newspaper which resulted in some burnt desks, and a man caught attempting to throw a firecracker into the grounds of the Prime Minister’s residence.

“There are still some idealists involved,” Ota says, “but in recent years many yakuza (gangsters) have disguised themselves as right-wingers to make money. We estimate that about a third of these groups are criminally motivated.” About 20 of the criminal charges brought last year involved extortion attempts.

That attracts the yakuza is the big money to be made by anyone with the goods on a crooked politician or businessman. The most famous case involved a pay-off of more than $1 million made to stop a loudspeaker campaign against Noboru Takeshita during his (ultimately successful) campaign to become Prime Minister in 1987.

Although such “donations” have shrunk by more than half since the bubble economy collapsed four years ago, declared fund-raising by those right-wing groups registered as political parties still came to more than $100 million last year.

It was 1990 that also marked the end of the Cold War as far as Japan was concerned, stripping the Right of much of its ideological justification. Last year came a further blow when 38 years of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party came to an end, and a coalition, including the hated Socialists, came to power.

“They have lost a lot of their energy,” says Takawo Sekiguchi, a journalist at Akahata, who keeps a close watch on the Right. “And they are confused about their direction … they are looking for a new cause, and there are signs that this may be a racist, anti-foreigner stance.” A few weeks after we spoke, Friday magazine published a chilling picture of a roomful of middle-aged men in suits, their right arms raised in a Sieg Heil salute to a swastika-draped dais. The leader of the newly formed Kokka Shakaishugi Domei (National Socialist Alliance) declared it had 300 to 400 members and was dedicated to ridding Japan of its one million foreigners and building a Third Reich.

But Wataru Tsurumi, the journalist who penetrated the group, says they are”nothing like the neo-Nazis in Europe – they are just play-acting”. For example, they used a silver dagger dipped in red wine instead of blood for their ritual indoctrination ceremony. Superintendent Ota, likewise, dismisses them as a “tiny, unrepresentative group”.

Mr Yano said he knew nothing of these neo-Nazis, and tried to make light of fears of a resurgence of militant nationalism: “We Japanese are traditionally a nation of peaceful rice farmers with large families. We are not aggressive -we get on with our neighbours.” But, in the next breath, he characterised the Right as “a philosophy, like the Freemasons or the three-K”. He meant Ku Klux Klan.

None of this is to make light of the Right. It provided the intellectual justification for Emperor Hirohito and his generals, and the officially-sanctioned bully-boys in the postwar years who kept the Left in check. But all this was a long time ago.

There are bound to be more attacks such as that on the Asahi – though most Japanese are relieved that, as in many such recent stunts, there was more printer’s ink than blood shed. “They should have killed themselves,” grunted one commentator, bemoaning the Right’s loss of the “samurai spirit”.

As a philosophy extolling what it sees as the virtues of Japan’s unique social, cultural and spiritual identity, many Japanese no doubt agree with at least some of the Right’s rhetoric. But as a political force, its significance these days seems to be in inverse proportion to the volume of its loudspeakers.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 16 April 1994
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 7
Word count: 227
Photography: Mayu Kanamori
1. Might of the right … members of Zen Nihon Aikokusha Dantai Kaigi pay their respects to the emperor and observe a prayer for the war dead before taking to the streets.
2. Signs of the times … a welcome banner for President Kim Young-sam, but from the trucks blares a different slogan.
3. Rallying cry … Tetsuo Yoshida leads right-wingers in an anti-South Korean demonstration.