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26 February 2001

An unwelcome visit from the uyoku

David McNeill, on radio in Japan, dared to mention the 1937 Nanking massacre. The consequences, he s

By David McNeill

In a country teeming with exotica for the jaded westerner, there is little to beat Japan’s extreme right wing for weirdness. Countless bemused foreigners have been entertained for years by the sight of semi-militarised black vans, emblazoned with love poems to Nippon, noisily ferrying their shaven-headed cargo of ultra-patriots through the streets of central Tokyo.

Talk to people, and nine out of ten will dismiss it as harmless posturing, a fringe pantomime that adds colour to the city’s rich tapestry. But the uyoku, as they are known, take themselves seriously and, as I recently found out when they paid me a visit, we should take them seriously, too.

My wife and I host a weekly talk show on local radio in western Tokyo. My role is the exotic gaijin foil to her motormouth main personality, and the show tries to take a jaundiced, opinionated approach to the clash of east v west. In December, we talked briefly about a trip we had made a year earlier to Nanking in China, the site of a notorious massacre by the Japanese imperial army at the end of 1937. Walking through the museum in Nanking that commemorates the incident, reading the testimonies of hundreds of Chinese and non-Chinese survivors, looking at countless photographs of corpses – and indeed their bones, some of which lie beneath the museum site – it is impossible to deny what happened. And we said so.

Now, you might think this would pass as fair comment, part of the daily conversational hurly-burly of the media, the oxygen of democracy and all the rest of it. You would be wrong. Thirty minutes after the show was broadcast, three members of a local “political group” arrived at the studio and asked to see the management. One, clearly the leader, would not have looked out of place on a family shopping trip, with his khaki pants and neatly trimmed hair, but the other two were straight out of the yakuza textbook – designer tracksuits, punch perms and gimlet-eyed stares.

The station director, Oki-san, came rushing into the studio with a look of mild shock. After exchanging name cards, everyone sat down, and the leader, speaking softly and politely, explained his displeasure. The Nanking massacre had not been “officially announced” (koshiki happyo) by the government, so we shouldn’t have mentioned it, he said. If we were going to use the radio to talk about communist countries, why didn’t we tell our listeners that Japan had exported thousands of tonnes of rice to help famine-stricken North Korea, he asked. Was our radio station communist? Oki-san carefully noted these points on a writing pad before escorting the visitors to the elevator, bowing and thanking them for their visit. No voices had been raised; no names were called. The only thing they left behind was a faint air of menace.

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Two days later, the senior station manager called a meeting. He apologised for taking our time and explained that, from now on, he would be very grateful if we would not discuss political issues on the radio. He apologised again. If someone sent in a fax or an e-mail giving their opinions, it was fine to read it out over the air but not to give our own opinions. He said we would need to apologise on air for the Nanking comment. If we didn’t, the men and their friends would drive their gaisensha (trucks equipped with loudspeakers) outside our sponsors (two ramen restaurants, a bar and a couple of real-estate agents) and harass them until they withdrew their support. Violence was unlikely, but he couldn’t rule it out. He apologised again for asking us to apologise. He handed us a statement that the station had prepared for us to read on the next show. It said that we humbly apologised for the “inappropriate comments” we had made the previous week.

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We scooped up our jaws from the floor and headed home. The station’s management had gone along with the uyoku‘s suggestions and upped the ante, outcensoring the censors by requesting an end to all political discussion. While we argued over the next couple of days about whether to call the station’s bluff and commit broadcasting hara-kiri, about a dozen faxes arrived at the studio in response to our comments, all pleading with us to stick it out. We decided to read out some of the faxes – only one of which referred specifically to Nanking – and not to read the station’s apology.

Our storm in a small Japanese teacup died down soon enough, but it illustrated the role of extreme rightists in policing and setting limits on public discussion in this country.

I am not the first person to discover this, nor to point it out. Honda Katsuichi, one of the first Japanese journalists to investigate Nanking – and who still rarely ventures out in public without some disguise, for fear of reprisals – Masayuki Takagi, Karel van Wolferen and others have all said the same thing. But I may be one of the few gaijin to experience it directly, and I wanted to know: who are these people, what do they want, and what kinds of things get a dedicated Japanese ultra-rightist reaching for the keys to his gaisensha? Here is what I found.

The best estimates are that there are more than 100,000 members of far-right groups in Japan, belonging to almost 1,000 groups throughout the country, 800 of which are affiliated through an organisation called the Zen Nihon Aikokusha Dantai Kaigi, or the All-Japan Conference of Patriotic Associations. The exact number is clouded in controversy because there is overlap with yakuza gangsters. From the 1960s onward, after the Political Fund Regulation Law prohibited extortion, many yakuza groups transformed themselves into right-wing political organisations; political groups were allowed to raise money and claim preferential tax treatment as long as they presented income and expenditure statements to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Ideologically, both uyoku and yakuza see themselves to some extent as patriots and defenders of traditional codes of honour.

Besides Nanking, the current list of ultra-right taboos includes the so-called comfort women, or sex slaves, forced into prostitution by the army during the Second World War, and Unit 731, the army laboratory in wartime Manchuria that experimented with chemical weapons on live Chinese prisoners. Yoshihisa Yoshida, a physics professor at Sagami Women’s University and a national consultant on a Unit 731 exhibition held in 1998, was hounded for two weeks by a convoy of vans after his name was publicly linked to the issue. “They drove round and round my university screaming at me to come out,” he says. “I thought it would never end.” War veterans who come forward to tell their stories can also expect the attention of right-wingers. Shiro Azuma, who served for four years in China and kept a detailed diary that he subsequently published, tells stories of threats and intimidation. So does Yoshio Shinozuka, a member of Unit 731 who agreed to testify in the current lawsuit brought by 100 surviving Chinese victims.

The uyoku reserve their greatest firepower for any attempt to degrade the ultimate national symbol, the emperor, and, ultimately, they hope to restore his prewar authority. The mayor of Nagasaki, Hitoshi Motojima, a mild-mannered Christian, was threatened for months by right-wingers, egged on by academics and a handful of senior politicians, for suggesting that Emperor Hirohito bore some responsibility for the war. He was eventually shot in the back (he survived) in January 1990, but not before 3.8 million people had signed a petition supporting what he said.

Isolated cases of extreme political violence are a feature of life in many advanced countries, but the Japanese version has several distinct characteristics. First is the sheer number of attacks, thousands of them, from low-key intimidation of the type we experienced at the radio station to high-profile assassinations of political figures.

The second major difference is the relationship of the violence to people in power. The common view of the people who cause this mayhem, even among the “serious” nationalist right, is that they are low-life thugs, but the lowlifes can always take comfort from pronouncements by pillars of the establishment. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s recent slip, that Japan was a “divine nation centred on the emperor”, is only the latest example of how apparently extreme-rightist posturing, such as calls for the restoration of the emperor’s powers and denials of well-documented war crimes, finds echoes in the very furthest reaches of Japan’s dim political corridors.

There are well-documented ties between ultra-right figures and Japan’s most senior politicians, who have used them to harass and attack the left. The most famous of them all, Nobusuke Kishi, found time to be prime minister and mix with some of the most notorious right-wing and yakuza figures in Japan. Last year’s resignation by the chief cabinet secretary, Hidenao Nakagawa, after he was accused of consorting with the boss of an ultra-right organisation, is part of a long and venerable political tradition here.

The most important result of years of dedicated service by right-wingers in the establishment and on the fringe alike may have been, in the words of Ivan P Hall, the author of Cartels of the Mind: Japan’s intellectual closed shop, to have shifted the centre of debate, and of political consensus in this country, well to the right. One would have thought that as the uyoku survey the current Japanese political landscape, they would be quite happy with their lot. The Hinomaru, or rising-sun flag, once the dividing symbol of left and right, flutters across the nation’s schoolyards; and the Kimigayo, the national anthem, is belted out by lungs too young to remember the battles fought over it, both having been officially recognised in August 1999. The uyoku‘s arch-enemy, the Communist Party (whose chairman, Kenji Miyamoto, they attempted to assassinate in 1973), has swung to the right since the collapse of the USSR.

Four weeks after the uyoku‘s fateful visit to our studio, I showed Oki-san my research. I thought about Al Pacino’s line in the movie The Insider to his CBS boss who had crumbled under corporate pressure: “Are you a media man or a businessman?” But in the end, I simply asked him if his kids knew about Nanking. “They study it at school,” he said, “so I’m sure they do.” Later, at home, I had a look at a current Japanese history textbook: Nihonshi. The Nanking massacre is not mentioned. The Nanking “Incident” is, as a footnote on page 234 to a one-sentence report that the Japanese army captured Nanking after fierce resistance. The footnote reads: Konotoki, nihonhei wa hisentouin wo fukumu tasuu no chugokujin wo satsugai shi, haisengo, tokyosaibande ookiina mondai tonatta (Nanking Jiken). My translation of this: “During this time, the Japanese army killed many Chinese, including non- combatants, something that became an important issue at the Tokyo war crimes court after Japan’s defeat (the Nanking Incident).”

Not a denial, I’m sure we can all agree. But it doesn’t exactly brim over with tortured remorse either, does it?