This year, as ever, the date passed largely unobserved in Japan.
Few modern citizens consider it fit for celebration, coming as it does just weeks after the anniversaries of the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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Among the beliefs of Makoto Sakurai, founder and leader of right-wing group Zaitokukai, is that Japan should initiate military action to reclaim the Takeshima Islands from South Korea. Sovereignty has been disputed for centuries.
He also advocates the use of force against Australia to secure Japanese whaling rights in the Southern Ocean, although he recognises that such a move is unlikely. “The Japanese government will never do these things,” admitted Sakurai in a recent interview, “but if it had any courage, it would.”
Makoto Sakurai is actually a pseudonym. He is known to be a flamboyant 38-year-old tax accountant, who wears three-piece suits and bow ties in public, but he will not reveal his real name.
And Zaitokukai is a Japanese acronym for the full, unwieldy title of his organisation: Citizens Group That Will Not Forgive Special Privileges For Koreans In Japan. In its three years of existence, that group has grown to over 10,000 members, becoming largest and loudest in a new ultra-nationalist movement that marshals its forces online, and is known as the “Net Far Right”.
It’s no coincidence that those three years have seen a succession of ineffectual Japanese prime ministers come and go, while unemployment has risen to post-war highs, and China just last month overtook Japan as the second-biggest economy in the world.
Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Tokyo’s Sophia University, believes that the current spread of “anti-foreign feeling” is directly linked to the decline of Japanese power in Asia.
“It seems to me that these sentiments are most commonly expressed against the Chinese,” says Nakano, “and given that the economic circumstances are unlikely to be reversed in the near future, this xenophobic trend is here to stay.” Bigotry and bitter colonial history have long soured relations between Japan and its closest neighbours, and Makoto Sakurai is hardly the first hard-liner to refer to Chinese immigrant workers as “criminals”, or Koreans as “cockroaches”.
The pro-active approach of Zaitokukai, however, is a newer development. More traditional, and ostensibly more respectable right-wing groups have limited their activities to decrying the loss of the Japanese empire, and denying the wartime atrocities with which it has been associated for over 60 years.
Kunio Suzuki of Issuikai, the best known of such organisations, recently dismissed the so-called Net Far Right as “not patriots but attention-seekers”. Last year, Zaitokukai made headlines by calling for the deportation of the Filipino teenager Noriko Calderon – who was born in Japan and had never even visited the Philippines – when her parents overstayed their visa. This year, demonstrators from that group have repeatedly besieged a Korean elementary school in Kyoto, accusing the children themselves of being “spies”, along with other racial epithets. Observers within Japan seem unsure as to what extent Makoto Sakurai and his followers are speaking for the public.
Koichi Nakano worries that this seems to be a “grass-roots movement of ordinary citizens”, as opposed to “professional right-wingers of the old stock”. “Presumably, many people who are suffering from the same employment conditions do not cross the line and join the Zaitokukai,” he says, “but the message it is sending out may resonate some of with them.”
Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese studies at Tokyo’s Temple University, argues that nationalism is no more of a problem here than anywhere else.
“Given Japan’s isolation,” he says, “there are surely many Japanese who don’t want foreigners in their country. But we see the same thing in the USA and Europe. In fact, the recent wave of xenophobia and Islamophobia has been much stronger in the West.”
The Japanese government seems ambivalent in its global outlook. Prime minister Naoto Kan last month extended to South Korea a “heartfelt apology for the tremendous damage and suffering caused by [Japan’s] colonial rule”.
At almost the same time, Ichiro Ozawa, his rival for the leadership of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, made a point of telling the press that he finds British people “arrogant” and Americans “simple minded”.
The man in the street may yet have a more nuanced attitude. Asked his opinion on foreigners in Japan, Oshita Shinsuke, a merchant from Ishikawa, replied: “Depends on the foreigner.”