While searching Craigslist Tokyo for a job a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a post about an anti-racism protest in the city's Ikebukuro district. Shouty far-right groups (or Uyoku) are an increasingly common sight in Japan – usually spotted outside train stations in black Toyota minivans, screaming at commuters about how great the Emperor is. But even among all the usual listings about Fukushima clean-up jobs and people hoping to buy human teeth, something about this event grabbed my attention.
The post was recruiting activists for a counter protest against a right-wing group called Zaitokukai, J-racism's hottest new upstarts. The group was founded by a man who calls himself Makoto Sakurai, and originally picked up support in internet forums like 2channel (the inspiration for 4chan), which has led to them being known as Netto-uyo, or "internet nationalists". Their official name, however – an abbreviation of the catchy Zainichi Tokken o Yurusanai Shimin no Kai – translates to: "Special Existence Club".
The group's main bugbear is the fact that Zainichi – long-term Korean residents of Japan – are given what they deem to be special privileges, such as the right to vote and claim benefits without taking on Japanese citizenship. They also claim that, because the Zainichi are allowed to register with either their Korean name or a Japanised version, these foreign nationals have two potential identities with which to claim their benefits.
However, their critics suggest that they're being pretty selective in their prejudices, arguing that while Zainichi Koreans might enjoy the rights that the Zaitokukai are pissed off about, so do many other foreign residents of Japan – and the ultra-nationalists seem remarkably OK with that in comparison.
Ikebukoro is an urban commuter hub in northwest Tokyo, known for Otome Road – a popular destination for anime fans – and Sunshine City, a hotel and shopping centre complex built on the site of a notorious wartime prison. I arrived at the district's town hall in the early afternoon and was met by the counter protesters – who'd been enlisted by a coalition of new antifascist groups – and a few hundred riot police.
After a speech, the Zaitokukai got marching, following a white van blaring nationalist Japanese rhetoric, while waving anti-Korean banners and imperialist Japanese flags. There were about 100 Zaitokukai in attendance, and police had formed a human wall along the street in a bid to both prevent any clashes and to direct the march down the route they were supposed to take. Meanwhile, the antifa had free run of the pavement and backstreets.
The two opposing sets of activists spent a lot of time giving each other the finger, which struck me as kind of weird, given the fact the Zaitokukai have previously been outspoken against any Western influence in Japan – once chasing a bunch of people in Halloween costumes while shouting: "This is not a white country!" So their decision to so furiously adopt what's become one of America's most significant cultural contributions to the world seemed a little misplaced.
There were roughly 200 antifascists in attendance, and they all seemed to be carrying megaphones, shouting inaudible insults over each other. The main chant, however, was "Kaere!", which translates to "Go home!" – an odd thing to hear from people who are supposedly the opposite of militant xenophobes.
While the antifascists were definitely trying to project a militant image, the protest never really descended into violence.
The police line broke a few times, leaving both sides a couple of metres from each other in an awkward, sweary stand-off. Among all that there were only a couple of instances where fists actually started flying, but each time the police would merely separate the groups, warn them to calm down and let them get on with it.
Considering the amount of stuff in the street that could have been used for barricades – and the missile-ready contents of the endless recycling bins along the route – the antifa were very well behaved. In fact, the most belligerent counter protester in attendance was the elderly lady in the photo above, who spent the majority of the afternoon trying to barge past the police line in an effort to get as close as possible to the Zaitokukai march.
The march itself was surprisingly short: one block with four left turns.
At the end of the demo, the police held back the counter protesters to let the Zaitokukai disperse, but forgot about the van containing their leader, Makoto Sakurai, and a few of his heavies. Before long, the vehicle was surrounded, and the kidotai (riot police) – backed up by plain clothes cops – were struggling to hold back the antifascist protesters.
Sakurai shouted insults at everyone, calling me a "pink pig" at one point, before accusing everyone else of being "kimchi-eating spies". Once his van escaped the crowds, he let out one more playground taunt: "We're off to Koreatown, and all you idiots will be stuck here!" I didn't know whether to be frustrated or just kind of baffled.
By the end of that brief little ruckus, four antifa and one Zaitokukai had been arrested.
Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Olympics, so a sense of national pride is already being drilled into Japan’s citizens – all while right-wing ideology is increasingly becoming part of the mainstream political discourse. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made one of his cronies governor of NHK (the quasi-public national broadcaster, kind of like Japan's BBC) and commented on the need to weed out the network's "left wing bias" on issues like history and territorial disputes.
Among citizens, that nationalism has begun to turn into overt racism. For example, last year a Nepalese resident was kicked to death in Osaka; last week in Saitama (Tokyo’s Croydon), ultras at the Urawa Red Diamonds football club held up a banner that read “Japanese only”; and, at the beginning of March, Tokyo police arrested a guy on suspicion of vandalising 305 copies of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl in a cross-town library rampage.
Of course, despite the fact more of these stories seem to be making the news, Japan's ultra-nationalist faction is definitely still a minority movement. And judging by the protest I went to – and the opposition both IRL and in the media – it's not one we need to worry too much about.