Japan’s emerging nationalist movement has 611,000 reasons to be happy this week. That’s the number of votes an ultra-conservative candidate for Tokyo governor received in Sunday’s election.
And that’s enough for everyone else to worry.
Toshio Tamogami finished fourth of 16 candidates, gaining a surprising 12 percent of the vote. That’s nearly a third as many as the winning candidate, Yoichi Masuzoe, who was backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The rightist’s relatively strong showing is certain to embolden those pushing a whitewashed version of Japan’s wartime history and advocating a stronger and more assertive military.
“The election result is another indication that the rise of the right wing in Japan is real – it’s not just propaganda from China. It is a very worrisome trend,” says Yu Tiejun, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, at Peking University, in Beijing, and a guest lecturer at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
Tamogami was fired from the top air force post in 2008 for publishing an essay that denied Japanese aggression during World War II and claimed that Japan was tricked into war by the United States, China and an international communist conspiracy. The essay called on the Japanese to “take back the glorious history of Japan.”
Tamogami has since emerged as the poster boy for the restive nationalist movement. He founded an organization, Ganbare Nippon, that has pushed a raft of conservative and nationalist causes, including limiting immigration and denying voting rights in local elections for foreign residents. It has also sponsored regular demonstrations outside the national Diet building where foreigners and Japanese citizens of Korean and Chinese descent have been singled out for vilification and abuse.
“It is going to get worse,” predicts Michael Cucek, a Tokyo-based political analyst and research associate with the MIT Center for International Studies. “This election was a fundraising and membership drive for Tamogami. We should expect that his rallies, which were merely attracting thousands, will now attract tens of thousands.”
Tamogami ran a savvy campaign that relied heavily on the Internet and social media. At campaign appearances, he was often accompanied by celebrities and attractive young women clad in white. According to exit polls by the Asahi Shimbun, nearly one in four voters in their 20s voted for Tamogami; of those, nearly three out of four were men.
Tamogami may also have benefited from perceptions that he had the backing of Abe — another nationalist favorite — despite the LDP’s official endorsement of Masuzoe. He said repeatedly during stump speeches that accounts of Japanese atrocities, “comfort women” and other wartime excesses were fabrications by the victorious allies.
“Probably, my policies are the closest or have the highest affinity to the Abe administration’s,” Tamogami said at a press conference prior to the election. “In regard to how we view history, how we view the nation, I believe that fundamentally we share the same idea, which is that Japan is not such a terrible or demonic country compared to other nations of the world.”
Indeed, one of Tamogami’s most vocal supporters was noted writer Naoki Hyakuta, a close friend and supporter of Abe.
Hyakuta, who was recently appointed by Abe to the governing board of the national broadcaster, NHK, provoked a sharp rebuke from the U.S. embassy in Tokyo when he declared during campaign speeches on behalf of Tamogami that Americans fabricated war crimes charges against Japanese leaders during World War II in order to cover up American atrocities.
“These suggestions are preposterous. We hope that people in positions of responsibility in Japan and elsewhere would seek to avoid comments that inflame tensions in the region,” an embassy spokesman told TIME last week.
Although Abe is a strong supporter of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the Obama administration has grown increasingly frustrated with his revisionist agenda. In December, the State Department publicly criticized Abe’s decision to visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.
The Tokyo governorship is arguably the second-most important political post in Japan. Former Gov. Shintaro Ishihara – another hard-core nationalist – attempted to buy the disputed Senakaku Islands, which China claims as Diaoyu, from private owners in 2010. That forced the national government to step in, triggering a tense standoff at sea and driving Japan-China relations to their lowest point in years.
Ryosuke Nishida, an associate professor at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, who studied voting patterns in the Tokyo election, says Tamogami’s support may not translate nationwide. While “Netto Uyoku” supporters may be intensely engaged, their numbers are limited, he said.
“They use the Internet heavily, so the sympathy for Tamogami on the Internet stands out. They comment and re-tweet each other often. But they are not the majority,” Nishida said.
We may find out soon. Tamogami said after the election Sunday that he planned to start a new political party to spread the right-wing message nationwide.