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Nationalist Rhetoric High As Japanese Head To Polls

Dec 14, 2012
Originally published on December 17, 2012 8:27 am

As Japanese head to the polls Sunday, Shinzo Abe is expected to become Japan's prime minister for the second time.

The election takes place as nationalistic rhetoric is on the rise, and while the country remains locked in a bitter dispute with its chief rival, China, over islands both countries claim.

'Pride And Honor'

The battle over the islands heated up last summer.

In mid-August, boats filled with about 150 Japanese activists approached one of the islands, part of a chain that the Japanese call Senkaku; the Chinese, Diaoyu.

Satoru Mizushima, leader of a nationalist group called Ganbare Nippon! — Go For It, Japan! — wrapped a rope around his waist, slipped into the green waters and swam toward shore.

Battered by waves, Mizushima climbed up the coral shoreline and — in his eyes — reclaimed the island for Japan.

Mizushima says he planned the landing as a response to a group from Hong Kong that had earlier landed on the island and claimed it for China.

Back at his office in Tokyo this week, Mizushima says more is at stake than an empty rock in the East China Sea.

"This is not just about having a small island taken away," Mizushima says. "It means Japanese national sovereignty as well as pride and honor are taken away."

Few 'Friendly Feelings' Toward China

The dispute exploded in September after Japan's government bought several of the islands. Anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted across China, horrifying most Japanese.

But Mizushima was delighted. He saw it as a wake-up call for his countrymen to the threats Japan faces.

"Japanese people are too peace-oriented," Mizushima says. "I want China to take more actions, like invading the Senkaku Islands and organizing demonstrations in China and burning Japanese factories. So I want to thank China for doing it."

Mizushima's island landing was a political stunt, but many analysts say Japan's rightward tilt is real. A recent poll showed a record 81 percent of Japanese do not hold "friendly feelings" toward China.

Even some on the right worry about growing nationalism. Kunio Suzuki, an adviser with Issuikai, a far-right political group that honors Japan's imperial family and traditional culture, was against Mizushima's trip to the island.

"That's dangerous," Suzuki says. "I think the whole society is shifting to the right. The more right-wing people have a louder voice."

Years ago, he says, many people supported Japan's pacifist Constitution — which renounces the right to go to war. But these days, Suzuki continues, "there are many people who think the Constitution is bad, it should be changed and we should change from a self-defense force to conventional military."

Legislatively, that would be very hard to do in Japan. And it wouldn't go over well in East Asia, which still has terrible memories of Japanese aggression during World War II.

Domestic Disquiet

A number of factors seem to be driving rhetoric to the right in Japan. Japanese people are exhausted by the country's interminable economic problems. Suzuki says they're also tired of the country's revolving-door leadership.

"Japanese leaders don't even last a year in power. They have no capability to deal with foreign affairs," he says. "This trend increased after the Democratic Party of Japan came into power ... so people became frustrated and found the DPJ useless and weak."

Events in recent days have only compounded that sentiment, as the island nation's neighbors have appeared to taunt Japan. On Wednesday, North Korea fired a rocket over the Japanese island of Okinawa. And Thursday, Japan said a Chinese government plane flew near the disputed island chain, which Japan effectively controls.

But some analysts say much of the right-wing rhetoric is coming from Japanese politicians — and that most ordinary Japanese remain politically moderate.

"The nationalist reaction is mostly related to the elite here," says Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan Campus. "I think at the grass-roots level, there hasn't been much of a reaction. We haven't seen anti-Chinese demonstrations outside the embassy. We haven't seen Chinese businesses affected or smashed or boycotted."

On the streets of Tokyo this week, people were more interested in talking about domestic issues.

"I'm against increasing military power," says Nobutaka Hannuki, a 30-year-old who works in marketing. "What they should do now is restore the tsunami disaster area."

Nearly two years after the massive earthquake, much of Japan's northeast coast has yet to be rebuilt.

Hannuki, who spent six months in the country's self-defense forces, is worried his country could spark an arms race. If Japan builds up its military, he says, he expects other nations to do the same in what is becoming an increasingly dangerous neighborhood.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


We turn now to NPR's Jim Zarroli, who is in Newtown, Connecticut. Hello, Jim.


CORNISH: So, Jim, how is the town coping at this point? What are you seeing there?

ZARROLI: Well, I think, you know, of course, as you'd expect, people are pretty much in shock. They've never had anything remotely like this happen here. You know, I talked to a woman who's had three kids who went to the school. They're not there now. And she said she's just still trying to absorb it, and that was pretty much the response I got, you know, among the people I talked to.

CORNISH: What can you tell us about the school, Sandy Hook Elementary?

ZARROLI: Well, you know, it's got a very good reputation in town. People said it's a very good school, very good staff. I talked to a woman who actually worked there until about four years ago. She said that the teachers were terrific, the principal was terrific. It was also very safe. I mean, you had to press a buzzer to get in. And if they didn't know who you were, you didn't get in. And so I think no one ever expected that it would be the kind of place where something like this would happen.

CORNISH: And, similarly, Newtown itself in terms of whether or not it's considered a safe place or just what kind of community is it.

ZARROLI: You know, it's a nice close-knit, quiet town, and I would say it kind of looks like a New England village. But I would describe it more like kind of a white collar suburb. It's - this whole part of Connecticut has a lot of people who work, you know, in insurance and technology, things like that. I mean, it's a very comfortable place. It's far from the city. It just has its own sort of quiet rhythm to it. It's a nice town. And, again, just not the kind of place where - you don't feel in danger at all walking around. You know, you never would expect something like this to happen here. And it's, you know, it's left a lot of people here in shock.

CORNISH: So far, do you get any sense that there will be any community gathering in any fashion tonight?

ZARROLI: You know, I'm at a Methodist church right now. They've scheduled a prayer vigil for tonight. They also sort of opened the church, or the sanctuary, so that anyone who wants to come in can come in. I've seen some people go in - mainly a lot of reporters, though, are here. You know, I saw another church, I think a Catholic church, that had its doors open so people could come in and pray if they wanted to.

Beyond that, I haven't heard about any kind of, you know, big vigil. But it's not that kind of town. I mean, it's just kind of a sort of a low-key place. And, you know, what they do from now on, you know, I don't know. But it's not the kind of place where, you know, you're going to see any kind of, I don't know. It's not the kind of place where I think they would have something like that.

CORNISH: NPR's Jim Zarroli in Newtown, Connecticut. Jim, thank you.

ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.